Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nonsense of That Sort

There's a beautiful line in George Eliot's Middlemarch where Caleb Garth is responding to the notion that people in town will criticize him if he makes a certain decision--not because of the quality of the decision, but because of how it will seem to others. And Caleb says in beautifully potent words: "Life is a sad tale if it is to be decided by nonsense of that sort."

It strikes me how important these words are when we consider the choices we make: what hopes do we have for our decisions? So much of our culture has become entrenched in results-oriented, data-driven decision making. Nowhere is this seen as clearly as in the consistent battles over school reform. With major foundations and corporations sponsoring bottom-line oriented reforms, teachers are becoming more and more like stock brokers: here's the raw material; make us a return. And the returns are so often tied exclusively to standardized test score results. 

As adults, our lives are consistent with this ethos. The standardized tests are still plentiful, though we call them by other names. We talk of how much money we make, achievements we garner, resume-builders we can claim, honors we've been awarded. These things are all helpful and can be such beautiful gifts, but when we value them first and foremost we set a dangerous precedent: we start making decisions based on the chances that these kinds of results can be achieved. 

The question is: what if they can't or aren't?

Are actions in our lives any less courageous or important or beautiful or inspiring or true if they are not results-oriented?

Parker Palmer talks about the need for faithfulness over effectiveness in this recent interview in The Sun. He says: 

"We need to change our calculus about what makes an action worth taking and get past our obsession with results. Being effective is important, of course. I write books because I want to have an impact. But if the only way we judge an action is by its effectiveness, we will take on smaller and smaller tasks, because they're the only kind with which we are sure we can get results. I'm not giving up on effectiveness, but it has to be secondary to faithfulness...And when people are faithful to a task, they often become more effective as it as well." 

The values we want to live by aren't corroborated by results. They are corroborated by the faithfulness with which we continue to live by them. Courage, kindness, grace, boldness, hope, and love aren't data-driven and they aren't dependent on results. They are values that can guide the way we teach, parent, write, and interact with others. The more we get used to thriving on value-rich interactions and pursuits, the more we can say with Caleb Garth that we don't care about what other people think--we don't care about "nonsense of that sort." 

When I was still in elementary school at John F. Kennedy in Windsor, CT, my oldest brother Christopher worked at the local grocery store, Geissler's. Chris was in high school, and this was his first job. My mom would often bring me and my brother Michael into the store to buy groceries just so we could go through Christopher's line and visit him. I loved doing this. Often, another man who worked at Geissler's was near Chris. His name was John, and he had emigrated from China with his wife, Elizabeth. 

In China, John has been a professor of Mathematics. But in America, he bagged groceries. 

One evening, after Chris had worked at Geissler's for a few months, he told us that John and his wife were coming over to the house for dinner, as they wanted to cook an authentically Chinese meal for us. That night ended up being one of the all-time highlights of my elementary school years. Seriously. John and his wife glowed with fun and excitement as they explained to us what they were doing in the kitchen. My whole family watched them, laughed with them, and just loved being around them and hearing stories of their lives.

Over two decades later, John's face is so clearly in my mind. The man's smile could power Manhattan. His exuberance  knew no boundaries, and his kindness as a man and joy as a teacher was so beautifully on display. I've been thinking of John an awful lot in light of this journey. As an elementary school kid I saw John as one of the happiest people I had ever met in my young life.

Now, as a man, I am sure that John went through great doubts--and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he and Elizabeth struggled to make ends meet, or that John perhaps mourned the loss of his vocation and status as a Professor when eh came to America and exchanged it to be a grocery bagger. And yet John's life is no less beautiful or inspiring to me now than it was when I was a kid. John's smile is no less real or poignant because I have grown and seen some of the hard truths life so generously gives us. 

Instead, John's work in the world strikes me as even more profound. The impact he had on me as a young kid was to plant a seed which grew up inside my heart to say, essentially, who we are isn't tied to the results we achieve or the amount of money we make. Who we are is tied to the way we care for others--the love we give and receive

Sometimes I fight with this seed and its growth. Sometimes, I dang well want to take clippers and prune the thing way, WAY back. Sometimes--YES!--I want to chop the whole thing down.

But then it flowers. Little buds appear on the growth of what was once a seed, and when these buds open up they confirm what John first showed me long ago, what Parker Palmer talks about above, and what Caleb Garth scoffs about. What keeps us warm on cold nights aren't the results we've accomplished or the test scores we've garnered. It's the love we share.