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More Resolve

Resolution: resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

This is my second round with this Franklinian virtue, and it’s more difficult than my first go at it thirteen weeks ago. The time of year makes it difficult: April and May are the months when my mistakes as a teacher are made plain. The end of the year looms, as do the high-stakes tests and the concerns about the future. Almost no one is present in the moment – there’s too much left to be done and not nearly enough time to do it. Students are most needy in the spring. Some are concerned with grades. Others are overwhelmed preparing to move to another city, country, and school. A few are learning that their psycho-social issues are not just phases and need to be dealt with directly. When plans are made for this time of year back in the fall, there’s rarely an accounting for how emotionally taut the school climate is in the spring.

Amidst this swirling and second-guessing that is typical in Semester 2, tragedy emerged. One of my colleagues lost a long battle with cancer last weekend. She’d been on leave since December. She was intensely private; she did not want people to see her suffer. I didn’t know her well, but she mattered to the students, parents, and other teachers in this community. She fought hard to live, and then let go when it was time. The empty space she left is noticeable, and my school officials made space in the school day to memorialize her on Monday, and again on Wednesday as they delayed the beginning of classes three hours so community members could attend her funeral ceremony. I have never been in a community that has made such clear gestures about what matters in a time such as this.

The Hindu image of the vessel has emerged several times this week. One of the beliefs handed down from the Bhagavad Gita, which perhaps the most important sacred Hindu text, is that the human body serves as a carrier of life force. My colleague, for example, literally carried life from her mother to her daughter. It was also apparent that she metaphorically carried life force to her students and the families she engaged with over the twelve years she worked at my school. She mattered to a lot people; she left her mark on others by filling them with knowledge, inspiration, and pride in their own work. Vessels are more fragile, though, than the contents they carry, and when she recognized that her body had become too ravaged from her illness to continue she finally accepted that with the grace with which she lived.

One of the silly things that we adults in the privileged world do to our young people is suggest – so often that we all start to believe it – that we can just decide what we will do with our lives. Implicit in our messaging is the fiction that if we have enough will power we can create the things we want, just as we want them. The reality, as I see it, is that this world view leaves no space for this thing called life, which can include suffering and setbacks that severely alter our priorities and our course. It doesn’t take into account the quality of our own vessel, nor the preciousness of the contents inside it. AP tests start next week, IB exams follow, and seniors have their final assessments the week after. Then come Finals for the rest of the students. All of this “matters” to the machines of college and the future. But none of it matters as much as making space to acknowledge that these things we are studying – arts and letters, sciences and mathematics – are only creations to help us make sense of both the vessel and the life force. It pains me, for example, that I feel pressure to use every moment of limited time in our last day together with my AP students to prep them for The Test, when what feels right is to read some of the wonderful pieces of literature devoted to understanding what happens when this all ends, and how death affects the living. The right thing to do is clear to me, but this is a data-driven world now, and months from now the scores for my students will stand on their own. Perhaps I’ll be judged by those scores, perhaps not. Perhaps my students will get to explain why they were so distracted during exam week, but I doubt it. It may take them years to realize that these tests are a fiction that don’t matter, at least not nearly as much as learning to live, which is what my departed colleague manifested better than anything else.

I didn’t know Indrani well, but I miss her.

So back to Resolution and performing “what I ought.” More time thinking about the vessel. Fewer assessments.

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More Virtues: Resolve, Frugality, Industry

In the past three weeks I’ve done three more of Franklin’s virtues: Resolve, Frugality, and Industry, but I didn’t post anything about any of them until now. What follows are some thoughts about each.

February 1, 2014. Last week’s theme was:

Resolve: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

It was a week of getting stuff done! I’ve noticed again and again how important the intention of these practices are. I regularly make to-do lists  — in fact, you could track a lot of my movements by the trail of crumpled up slips of paper with crossed out statements and scribbled notes that I leave behind. What’s different about the Resolve experience for me is I find myself consciously putting fewer items on those lists, because I know that if it goes on the list, I’m going to finish that task. Previously, my to-do lists were more like a catalogue of wishes, as in “I wish I could get all this stuff done today.” I’ve joked that sometimes I put things on my to-do list that I’ve already done just so I can cross stuff off in order to make myself feel productive.

Resolve is moving me in a different direction. The week is over and as I look back on it, I see that there were some missed opportunities to take effective action, and I am aware the extent to which this new, intentional energy came in conflict with old patterns of waiting to see what happens. I’m grateful to be able to see this point of conflict — it gives me something to be really conscious of in the next round of Resolve thirteen weeks from now.

February 2, 2014. This week’s virtue is:

Frugality: make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

(My good friend, Walter, absolutely loves this one — here’s to you WTM!) As I see it, I have a tendency to covet and even hoard the things I that I feel are in short supply. It’s easier to see this dynamic in other people than it is to see it in myself, and there’s no greater place to see the long-term impact of scarcity than India. One of the theories about why no one waits in line and everyone insists on being next is that there is a very long history of too many people for the resources that exist here. So, if you don’t go get yours, there won’t be any left. I know a lot of expats have a hard time with this cultural difference from their home countries,, and I think if you fail to recognize the genesis it, you’ll never be able to really get comfortable here.

This scarcity reaction, as I think about it, also offers me a chance to compare my own motivation against this backdrop. Do I ever act like something I want is in scant supply? – are you kidding — that happens often. It’s been sobering to compare myself — one of the winners of the world-wide lottery because I was born into a time and place where safety, health,  and education are common expectations — to most of the people I live around, who appear to be scraping to survive a lot of time, and who don’t think about safety, health, and education in a way that I do. Looking outward whether I’m in India or in North America, I recognize that whatever it is that we want more of — food, money, love, travel, professional opportunity, clothes and shoes, nice furniture, praise, etc. — we can’t get enough of, and despite what’s in front of us, we think it’s scarce and we fear it will be gone soon. Turing the focus inward, I see my own patterns fairly clearly. So, I’m imagining a shift, and although I’m not sure what it will look like, I’m excited to move into this space.

It’s been my intention write about the week after it happens, but in this case, I’m going to put a question out there because I know it will be a challenge, and I think stating it this way will make me more likely to rise to meet it. The question is this: How would I behave differently if I told myself that I have enough?

Post- Frugality Week, February 7, 2014 – looking back on the week, I wish I had more time with Frugality. It turns out that my question about behaving differently if I told myself I have enough was really tough to process in some situations. For example, it was easy to not waste money or food, but I found that I wanted to spend my limited time — my most precious resource — with people. It was very hard to walk away from the chance to talk with someone and go do something else like work. There’s always more work to do, so given a choice, I’d much rather talk with someone I don’t have that much opportunity to see, or engage with someone I know well about new ideas or revisit old conversations. Whether just catching up or talking about the complexities of shifting a school curriculum to be completely focused on student inquiry or working through the emotional territory of being far from the familiar, I like the conversations; I want more. My superintendant here often tells us that “learning is social.” I might be using that idea to justify more socializing — seemingly, I can’t get enough of that.

February 15, 2014.  So it’s fitting that the next virtue, Industry, follows my experience with Frugality. Franklin says:

Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

This was the hardest of the virtues for me to practice, for as I wrote earlier, I like socializing. In my defense, I process my work that way, and often my best ideas for my classes come through conversation about students, books, and curriculum. So there’s a tension here for me that I’ve felt for the past two weeks because it sometimes is difficult to separate hanging out from laying the groundwork for something great. Learning is social, afterall.

I was able to make some easy decisions about being industrious — I limited my Facebook and online news reading dramatically. This created time for me especially in the morning to accomplish more than I’d be able to recently because I’d previously been lying in bed reading. Being aware of how much time I spent online made me see how important it is for me to maintain a connection back to the U.S. I’ve followed several stories back home ranging from the snow on the East Coast to the social and political dynamics of sports and entertainment industries. Perhaps I wouldn’t miss these things if I didn’t have access to the Internet, and I’m aware of the comparative experience of my dad and his Peace Corps friends in Nepal in the mid-60s who all wrote home regularly despite having to wait weeks and weeks for responses. Interesting comparative statistic: I’ve received exactly one piece of mail here in nearly seven months.

Unfortunately, I haven’t written much these past few weeks. Franklin would likely frown at my for this. Partly I was away from my writing because I was trying to be more industrious at first, but it got away from me a little and soon I was not writing because I thought I needed to do other things more in line with getting stuff done. Balance is key and perhaps the whole point of these virtues.  It’s early — I’ll get several more shots at this theme and this balance thing in 2014.

13 Virtues

256px-Franklin-Benjamin-LOC-head

I have brunch on Saturdays with a new but close friend of mine here in Chennai. I’ll call him J here.  J and I connect about a variety of things when we hang out, but there’s a constant theme that emerges each Saturday of the desire for personal improvement. For each of us, the move to Chennai was about inviting change into our lives and fully embracing that new energy. Both of us thinks it is important to establish here regular practices that invite more richness and opportunities for reflection into our lives. So, in partnership with J,  we’ve borrowed several pages from Ben Franklin’s guide to life and are setting off in 2014 to live according to his 13 virtues.

 

Franklin established his thirteen virtues as a way to shape his life in pursuit of excellence while achieving balance and moderation.  While he practiced all of them concurrently, J  and I will focus on practicing one per week for the next year. It starts with Temperance: eat not to dullness and drink not to elevation. The next one was Silence: speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. For me, these weeks were amazing.

 

During the Temperance week I was quickly aware of the challenge I faced: food. Despite not missing more than perhaps a dozen or so meals in my life, and never more than one in a row, I grew up thinking I had to eat as much as possible because I didn’t know when the next round of food would turn up. Not drinking is easy for me because I can think about alcohol as a special occasion sort of thing, but I eat at least three times a day. I was concerned at first, but I was doing great. I even recognized quickly how eating less at certain points in the day resulted in more energy at other times. “Hey, I like this,” I thought.

Then came Wednesday.

On Wednesday I decided that I needed to let go of something that I’d been holding onto tightly for a long time, and it was hindering me in a couple of noticeable ways that I couldn’t avoid any longer. I decided it was time to let it go, and I figured I needed to be somewhat ritualistic about it: I wrote a letter, reworked it a few times to get it just right, and symbolically put it out there. Although I didn’t like it one bit, I noticed a release. That night, I wanted to eat the world. Hello Temperance!

I was feeling lots of emotions, and I wanted to cover them up with delicious little (and big) bits of something that would make me feel better. Yikes. I don’t know if I’d have recognized all this if I hadn’t been following Franklin’s lead. Upon further reflection, it turns out that food is a crutch I’ve used more than I realized. This was an keen awareness to notice and feel in real time and to see in retrospect.

The weekend came, and the next up on the virtue list was Silence. I was slightly uneasy on the onset of this virtue of the week because I already knew that one of the few things I do more than eat is talk. The week was indeed a struggle — I constantly second-guessed myself about what I was saying. One example comes from a meeting I was in late in the week where I was evaluating a process at my school that involves both teachers and students, and I felt challenged in a moment I wouldn’t have even thought about previously. Normally, I’d strike like a lightning bolt at the main issues; this time I had to evaluate carefully what I wanted to say and whether it was going to benefit myself or others. I paused a long time — enough for the storm of thoughts to smooth out a bit in my mind. I’m still not sure if I got on the right side of Silence in that conversation, but a new pathway was formed, at least partially, last week.

I’m just over two weeks into this, but here’s what comes to mind right now: Franklin’s virtues were about striving for moderation. While I knew moderation was his goal coming into this practice, what I’m now feeling quite acutely is that moderation requires a level of mindfulness — constant mindfulness, in fact — that I’d completely underestimated. I’m someone who meditates a lot, I’ve been on a couple of lengthy silent retreats, and I even once traveled to other countries seeking meditation practices. I thought I was dialed into mindfulness. Following Franklin has invited a “walking consciousness” that I hadn’t expected when I started with this experience. One virtue a week has seemed to sharpen my awareness to little moments in real time where the shifting is occurring. Little moments, but the impact is anything but small. And as an added benefit, at the end of the week, I don’t want to let go of the previous week’s virtue. They naturally build on each other and stick around. That Franklin was onto something.