Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Parable Of The Block Tower

Marcus was working on a cardboard block tower. Lilyanna was helping.

They built it as high as they could, arriving at a point when they struggled to reach the top. It was really quite beautiful, these 2-year-olds spontaneously coming together in common cause like this, not talking, just doing. It takes a combination of concentration and speed to build something that tall, with another person, in a crowded classroom where everything is being continually jostled. But when they arrived at that point where their bodies were not tall enough to reach, their agenda's diverged. Marcus clearly wanted to pursue the challenge of continuing to make it even taller, while Lilyanna joyfully pretended to fall, intentionally pulling the building down with her, where she lay on the floor laughing as the blocks rained down on her.

Marcus reacted by lowering his eyebrows, appearing irritated and slightly aghast, I think not at Lilyanna, but rather, if I had to guess, at the lost opportunity. He'd perhaps been planning to find a chair or something else to stand on, to reach even higher. He then then went back to rebuilding, with Lilyanna once more pitching in. They went through this full cycle 6 times, each go around reaching that point where their agendas diverged and the walls came tumbling down.

The general ethic of the classroom is that if you build it, only you can knock it down, but we don't really have a way to deal with this, when they build it together toward different purposes. I suppose I could have, after a couple repetitions, suggested that each child build his or her own building, but I didn't, mainly because Marcus didn't seem particularly upset (in fact, he appeared rather philosophical) and usually when young children repeat a play pattern over and over, I interpret that as a sign that they are trying to learn something that is personally important.

It's impossible to have a judgement here, to side with one child or another. Each was pursuing his own perfectly legitimate, viable agenda. It was incredible when they merged, and that they merged for so long. Together, for a time, they built higher and faster than either could have alone. I even suspect that had Lilyanna been able to hold off just few minutes longer, those agendas would have again converged and they could have knocked it down together, because that has often in the past been the destiny of Marcus' towers, but that is the way life with the other people works.

All human problems and all human glories result from the great truth that we go about our individual lives working our own unique agendas. From our first cries, using our only tool for connecting with the other humans, we seek out sensations, connections, and even objects that in some way satisfy those agendas, and we pursue them relentlessly. We have our conscious agendas and our unconscious agendas, overt and covert, ones we announce proudly and those we shamefully leave unspoken. And these agendas shape how we engage with the world. There are so many agendas working at so many purposes at any given time, that it seems a miracle that we ever get together on anything at all.

This is a big part of why we're in preschool, to learn to work our agendas together; to learn how to find where they match, because together we can do things that we can't alone, but also to learn how to deal with those inevitable times when they diverge and the building comes crashing down around us. 

There are some hard, complicated lessons to learn about agendas. There are times, of course, when we must stand and fight, but we also must learn to pick our battles. There are times when we must step aside. Sometimes we must conclude, as Marcus finally did, that we will not be able to complete our agenda today, and learn when to walk away, hopefully to return another day. Most often we need to talk, to compromise, to find a way to alter our agendas in order for them to imperfectly merge in order to achieve a kind of "second best" result that leaves all parties both satisfied and dissatisfied. And, naturally, the more people, the more agendas that must be included, the more difficult it gets. This whole business of living with the other people is an emotional tangle, full of pointy parts to navigate, made even more challenging as we begin to understand that those other people are navigating too. But as difficult as it is, it's important because it's exactly the process of picking our way through this jumble of agendas that teaches us empathy, which is just another complication in this complicated business.

Some days I have no idea how any towers ever get built in the world. It all seems so impossible.

Yet we keep doing it, throughout our lives, re-engaging in this difficult business of other people.

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Lisa Sunbury said...

I love this. That is all. Just had to say that.

Aunt Annie said...

LIKE LIKE LIKE LIKE LIKE why isn't there a LIKE button?

This is the story of my life... :D