11 July 2013

We Will Not Back Down

I was thinking to title this post "We Will Not Back Down" so I Googled those words. Among the Top Ten hits were reports on Texas Senator Wendy Davis' recent stand in the state legislature and a Canadian aboriginal group protesting a corporate invasion of their lands. (Noteworthy that there are lots of pictures accompanying reports of Ms. Davis' recent courageous stand but I'm still searching for pictures of the Canadian aborigines in other than ethnic festival shots.)

There are a few social trends that cycle through my life. (How about you?) One of them is hearing from multiple sources that what I consider to be a "best" personality feature is actually one of my least attractive features.

Thinking about the phenomenon today, it first seemed that it began when I left my childhood home, as though I entered some unyielding hallucination once outside the guidance and oversight of my family of origin. As though I came to view myself through a faulty, unreliable lens in the absence of frank feedback from the people who arguably knew me best. I lost the ability to see myself clearly and make accurate assessments of the appropriateness of my behavior.

But on deeper consideration, I remembered being perplexed even as a child by how often personal experiences of insight or freedom or joy provoked my parents to likely well-intention-ed criticism or punishment. As a bright child, I understood that survival required learning certain lessons from their interventions but I never grasped the fundamental error of my behavior. I understood, for example, that
social etiquette required discernment of when to tell the truth and when to tell a lie; but I did not understand, not really, why lies were ever an appropriate response.

I appreciated truth-speaking as one of my "good" traits, not in the least because it felt so good and simple inside.

This many years later, after a lifetime of rehearsals in the long-running, SRO production "How to Get Along with Folks", I "get it":  changing your ways is often more about maintaining other people's comfort zone than it is about feeling good in yourself or becoming a "better" person. And the value of maintaining other people's comfort zones lies in the resulting reduction of drama, obstacle and injury in your own life.

It has been a useful realization, even though I continue to regularly lose sight of it. In a given situation, I forget to go through the Checklist:  What's my objective here? What's the best approach for successfully achieving my goal? Which do I want more -- to reach the goal or to speak my mind?  Neither end is more noble. It is a matter of desire:  which do I want more in a given set of circumstances?

Sometimes the choice is simple. Sometimes my speech or action is a matter of taking a stand for something I believe in. I seek nothing from the other person; I am simply "being the change" I want to see in the World. Fully aware of the risks -- offending someone, being yelled at or arrested or killed -- the shining priority retains its primacy as a motivating principle.

These days, in the main, I'm not taking a stand. I'm just "being myself" and discovering the striking variability of response to that construct depending on geographic locale. The "enthusiasm", "imagination", and "improvisational orientation" of "myself" were applauded and courted in CA. In Holly Springs, MS they are frequently viewed in a more negative light. To the extent that I am in pursuit of some objective here -- e.g., making friends, collaborating on local "revitalization" efforts -- there is a choice to be made between abandoning or tempering these qualities OR maintaining the comfort zones of the people here.

In a recent conversation with the principal and vice-principal of the local high school I was told that my affection for the phrase "the sky's the limit" is "backward". "You want to start with something small, something you know you can achieve. Not something far away as the sky" I was told.

I didn't argue with him. I don't agree but he's entitled to his opinion and the approach he outlined may be working famously for him. Although I did not defend my position, my heart broke as I imagined him greeting new ideas from students with "That's backward thinking."

In terms of making my way in this new place and regarding the topic under consideration in this post, I view my "sky orientation" as a positive feature of my personality. I remain reluctant to trade it in in the interest of getting along here and maintaining someone else's comfort zone. Maybe I am taking a stand. Or maybe I am a fool, stubbornly choosing to shoot myself in the foot. Or maybe, like Wendy Davis and the Canadian indigenous people, I simply believe what I believe at this juncture. I am what I am.

I accept that as long as I persist in this perspective, I limit my possibilities. For now, with my head to the sky, I'll take my chances and live with the consequences.