Tuesday, June 28, 2022

"To Treat That Like A Problem Is To Treat Life Itself As A Problem"

My friend, fellow play blogger, author of Dirty Teaching, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter, Juliet Robertson, is not fighting cancer, and she corrects you when, invariably, you suggest it. And it's almost impossible to not to talk about "fighting" to someone dealing with a serious affliction. It's so commonplace, in fact, that it has become a cliché that falls from our tongues, but Juliet, the optimistic contrarian, is opting for what she calls "non-violent, direct action," an approach she draws from her Quaker upbringing. "I might have a sit-in with my cancer, although it's more often a lie-in," she joked with me recently. "I don't want to be fighting," she told me more earnestly. "I want to be living."

She's doing what her doctors recommend, but she's not wasting a lot of time worrying or fighting, which in today's world seems like a radical act.

Shortly after my last conversation with Juliet, I came across an essay called Uncertain Times by journalist and author Oliver Burkeman in which he writes, "We're all in the same boat, being carried forward on the river of time, unable to know what's around the next bend -- and to treat that like a problem is to treat life itself as a problem." I thought of Juliet. She got into education as a student because, as she told me, it was the easiest course of study at her university. She got into outdoor education because, as a young teacher, she started off with "the smallest classroom in the world" and really had no choice but to start taking the kids outside. She let her first school principal know that she would never send a child to her unless it was for something "really good." As a principal herself, she was in demand because she made "happy schools" and let the rest take care of itself.

It's not surprising that Juliet's approach to cancer is a radical act; her whole life has been a radical act. There is nothing more radical than to stop trying to control life and to instead live it.

As Burkeman writes, "It was becoming a father that finally drove this home to me. At first, I agonized about what I should be doing -- in terms of nutrition, or reading books, or sleep training, or screen time, or a thousand other variables endlessly dissected in the literature on parenting -- until it finally dawned on me that approaching fatherhood in this manner would mean missing out on fatherhood entirely, to my son's detriment and my own."

To say that we live in uncertain times is to assert another cliché. We cannot know the future, we can never know what's around the next bend in the river. Every one of us, and all of us, are a phone call or natural disaster or misunderstanding or injury or diagnosis away from being transported, as Juliet has been, into a life that is out of our control. "One way of defining worry," writes Burkeman, "might be as the experience of frustration encountered in repeatedly trying, yet failing, to achieve a sense of certainty about the future."

One of our most pernicious modern myths is the one about hard work and planning. Whenever a titan of industry or star athlete or acclaimed performing artist is interviewed about their success, part of the narrative is always about how they kept their eye on the prize as they fought and scratched and clawed their way to the top. I imagine it's a comforting story to those prone to worry. It tells them, contrary to all the evidence, that there is a way to achieve a sense of certainty about what's to come. "If you work hard," they say, "if you fight, nothing can stop you."

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. We don't interview the majority of people who find that all their worry and all their fighting went for nought. The future, as it always does, takes care of itself.

There is nothing wrong with choosing to not make life about fighting and worrying. Indeed, that is the radical approach. There is a power in opting for the easiest path. There is deep wisdom in embracing outside when the future turns out to be the smallest classroom in the world. There is peace to be found in focusing on the "very good" and happiness. And life itself is found, not in hard work and planning, but rather in our relationships that are happening right now. It's this, not fighting or worry, that is the rational approach to an unknowable and unpredictable future.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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