Sunday, January 13, 2013

FIELD NOTES: Of a different sort....

Shutting Out Joy Prolongs Despair 

     Singular snowflakes fell in playful flurry, red cardinals fluffed up at the feeder and the school hallways smelled cookie-sweet. It had happened to Scrooge and George Bailey and The Grinch. No matter how they tried to suppress, ignore or squelch goodwill, it still came back to the surface.
     Although I have always been able to find roses among thorns, it has been more challenging here, near Newtown, Connecticut, being a teacher of young children. Just before Christmas break, the Mayan calendar threatened and closed school a day too early. We were cheated further. And we continue to cheat ourselves.  
     I recently had to call a neighbor and because my number was unknown to their caller ID, the phone was answered with a relay of whispered “who-is-its?” It struck me. Is this a side effect of technology? Are we now conditioned to be suspicious of any ringing phone or doorbell because it must be pre-screened? I am not criticizing. I am in the mix. I am Pavlov’s dog. 
     It is no longer possible to walk into work and exchange pleasantries or selectively share information because thanks to social media, we all know what we’ve been doing on the weekend. It is deflating to regularly be answered with ‘yeah, I already know that’. Are we evolving into people with strong fingers, but weak voices? Do we constantly want the ‘next big thing’ because we cheat ourselves out of those small, daily discoveries? Do we have so much information about each other that we really don’t know ourselves at all? Have we turned into the ubiquitous car alarm that is so commonplace no one pays attention to it anymore?
     In fact, after Newtown, I can’t walk into my workplace any more. I arrived early for a staff security meeting with officials from the town police department to which I had been invited, but since I am employed by an outside education agency, I cannot be issued a key card. There is a buzzer and a security camera. I buzzed three times. I knocked. I watched other school employees proceed to the library for the meeting, but they weren’t authorized to let me in even though I have been affiliated with the school in some manner since 1993. I understood, but it also struck me that if I had anger issues…or an undetected mental condition…or a sledge hammer or…a gun…on that day…I still could have gotten in quicker.
    I’ll absorb as much technology as my aging brain can handle. I wouldn’t go back to my days of pounding a Smith-Corona, toting around a hefty dictionary and getting paper cuts in the library card catalogs. That was the ‘old normal’. But the ‘new normal’ needs more than the random acts of kindness that most editors and commentators have been wishing us for the New Year. I am not a fan of that catchphrase, though I appreciate its sentiment, because I should like to see it refined. As most people around here, I have been asking myself why. Not only why do bad things happen, but why do good things happen, too. What motivates my kindness?
     It has been acknowledged that giving makes us feel good about ourselves. Nothing wrong with that. They need. We give. They get. We glow. A happy cycle revolves. But I have been wondering about more. It’s almost time for Turbo Tax. What happens when I check off that I donated to NPR, the local emergency services, the library and Goodwill, among others? Should acts of kindness be random? I won’t take up space with a recitation from on the many uses of the word random, but the Slang section is food for thought if you’re interested. My wish for the New Year and beyond, are the dictionary antonyms for random: constant and conscious.
     By profession, I am a teacher, but I write more as a student than as an educator because I am grateful for what I have learned from those I have met along the way. In one of my early office jobs, I thought one woman aggressive, overtly ambitious and curt. When I learned she had a non-life-threatening medical condition that was inconvenient and sometimes painful, it improved my demeanor and hers as well. I never pre-judged again. As a young working wife and mother, I did a lot of housekeeping and anticipated compliments. You can guess that did not happen, but when I looked at it differently, my satisfaction improved. I take my shoes off when I walk in the door and enjoy clean floors for yoga and large art projects, so I reasoned to take pleasure in cleaning the floor for me. If there were residual benefits for my family, then all the better. I was no longer doing it for them, I was doing it for us. My mood lightened, as it does to this day, when I mop.
    Yes, conscious acts of kindness. Conscious that I am doing it for the greater good and for unanticipated return. And I do mean unanticipated, from me to you to the guy next door to the cable company to Congress. No tax deduction, no cup of coffee, no name in the church bulletin or on a plaque, no brownie points, no votes, no pork, no dividends or personal profits, not even so much as a thank you from my spouse. I may in fact get all these things – they are pretty little trimmings that do make life more pleasant - but do not let that be my unconscious motivation or cause for my disappointment or my deposit of guilt. And the nastier someone is to me, I will be all the kinder back. Maybe they are having a bad day. Maybe they will pay it forward. Maybe they have a gun.