Monday, September 21, 2020

In Search of Something Good and True

"Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don't be afraid of life. How good life is when one does something good and true!" ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Here in the US, we are in the run up to what many of us consider to be the most pivotal political moment of our lifetimes. Of course, only future generations will be able to tell us whether that's true or not. It could be that the last Presidential election was the most consequential or perhaps we'll find that it's one to come, but nevertheless it feels like more Americans than ever are taking the democratic process more seriously than ever before. We are reading and thinking and arguing. The election dominates the news and dinner table conversations. 

Looked at one way, this is how our democracy is designed to work. It is designed for two political parties. It is designed for average people talking among themselves. It is a system of self-governance that relies upon all of us engaging with one another in the project of self-governance. Looked at another way, of course, it's not working at all. The idea is that an educated populace would, through its collective voice, create the best possible governance through a process of civilized public debate and compromise, but when we look around we see little but anger, enmity, and strife.

Like most human "systems" it looks better on paper. One of the characteristics of any of our systems is that our human brain, for better or worse, has evolved to believe itself. It turns beliefs, prejudices, and opinions into "facts." We all think we're adherents of truth, the purveyors of common sense, and the champions of logic, and political ideologies, but the structure of our brains is such that we are all convinced of "truths" that cannot be proven. Even this, what I'm writing right now, is plagued by my own beliefs, prejudices, and opinions. 

It's enough to make one despair. Indeed, many of us have thrown up our hands and retreated into our smaller worlds, abandoning the rest of us to bicker amongst ourselves. Others opt for partisanship over thinking, choosing one of the pretty-on-paper ideologies, championing it on Wednesday, the same as Monday, no matter what happens on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the rhetoric grows nasty, the systems become corrupted, and in the words of Shakespeare, and we are left to contemplate the "tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing."

Of course, this too is a prejudice, one that holds life to be a "walking shadow," and maybe it is, but at the same time, it is perhaps the only thing that we all know is true: life itself. We are alive right now and the thing we must do is care for the children who are no less prone to turning belief, prejudice, and opinion into fact. To do that is to be human, after all, but it is also human to alter our beliefs, pull back the veil of our prejudices, and change our opinions, and that is where young children have the advantage over the rest of us. They live closer to the idea that reality is not out there waiting to be witnessed, but rather that it is made by the mind. We take it as natural that they do this. After all, they are growing, maturing, and gaining experience, so of course the "facts" of their world are changeable.

There is a common assertion that children don't listen to their adults, but I've found this to be a prejudice not grounded in fact. Perhaps they don't obey or heed us, but I have witnessed that young children listen much more attentively and with more open minds than most adults. Indeed, they might be adept at tuning out our lectures, but for the most part, they listen to everything we say and watch everything we do. From where I sit, this is what it missing from adult life, especially when it comes to things like self-governance. As Bob Dylan once remarked, "He not busy being born is busy dying" and too many of us are simply dying rather than living. We cling to our world of faulty "facts," refusing to deviate, demanding that others listen to us and growing angry, frustrated, or dismissive when they simply "won't listen to reason." Meanwhile, we don't listen either.

But, it's only through listening that we continue to stay busy being born.

Our schools tend to embody this prejudice as well. We have lessons in writing and speaking, but the only listening we encourage is to pay attention to the adult at the front of the room. That's not listening, that's obeying. When children are free to play, however, we see real listening, deep listening, the kind of listening that is necessary for engaging in projects of great importance. It's listening that sometimes must go through conflict, but unlike with adult conflict, it usually, ultimately leads to some kind of understanding, compromise, and agreement. Truth and facts have little to do with it. Or rather the higher fact, the higher truth, is listening. 

I believe in self-governance, not because it is unflawed, but because it acknowledges that we might all have our own set of facts, and also that we must find a way to make those facts work together. We do that by listening the way children do, deeply, with a commitment to understanding. Only then can we hope to do things that are good and true.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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