Satia’s powerful comment on yesterday’s post speaks to a struggle I’ve often experienced. If there’s a difficult situation, or a potential problem ahead for someone I care about, is it better to say something or to stay silent? The obvious answer is that “it depends,” of course. But until I read Satia’s story of how she deals with her particularly challenging friend, I hadn’t really thought about how much it depends on questions of why and who. Taking ownership of a situation, or of your role in a situation, can lead you in different directions. In the end, is it mine, or is it not mine?
You probably have That Friend, too, the one who sometimes says things that, as Satia put it, “make me die inside a little.” Or maybe it’s That Coworker or That Neighbor … or That Situation, and not a person at all. A couple of years ago, for me, it was Young Ms. X and Young Ms. X, both of whom, new to the area, the school, and the profession of teaching, were sure they knew everything about why “those kids” were so “bad and lazy” and “those parents” were so “awful and irresponsible.”
It got to the point where I’d eat lunch in my classroom to avoid the dying inside. I felt guilty about that at the time, guilty for avoiding them and guilty for not confronting them. One time, when Young Ms. X “just knew” that all of her students could “easily” get to the public library to do research for “her” project, could “easily” print things out at home, I did say something. “You know,” I said, “we actually have some students who don’t have reliable transportation and don’t have Internet access or printers at home.”
I don’t remember how she responded to that. I think she felt strongly that they “should,” whether they did or not. I don’t think she quite understood the economic realities involved, and I don’t think she’d ever seen or experienced poverty up close.
But looking back, I’m less displeased with myself than I was at the time. Back then, I “just assumed” I should have said something … but I didn’t stop to ask myself why, or whether saying something was mine or not mine in that situation. My gut, to use Simon Sinek’s terminology, was ahead of my brain; it knew not to say something, not to confuse poor Young Ms. X with ideas she couldn’t possibly be ready for. But as Sinek points out, the gut has trouble articulating its why.
I wish I’d been able to read Satia’s words back then:
Do I bite my tongue because I don’t care enough about who I am to speak up? Goodness, I hope not. Do I say nothing because I don’t trust her to hear me without her becoming defensive? Possibly….
But I care about this friend, very much, and when she says things that make her sound ignorant or are outright offensive, is my saying nothing a denial of who I am and my feelings?
I had to make the time to reflect on these conversations and consider my “why”–why do I talk with her and why do I not say anything when I feel offended or even shocked by something she says? Once I knew my “why” I realized that I am not betraying “who” I am with my silence, that I can “choose my battles,” as it were, and my discomfort is my choice, a response to her words I can choose to change.
As it turned out, both Young Ms. X and Young Ms. X were gone within a year, like so many young teachers who are married to the military in These Parts. I knew they wouldn’t be around for more than a few years at most … and I knew that if they did stay, they’d have abundant opportunities to learn the differences between their should and the is that many of their students lived every day. I also remembered a Much Younger Me who had strong opinions about what Those Students should do; that Much Younger Me had to learn, too. The job of learning was mine; the job of “making” Ms. X learn was not mine. The decision to sit in a place where dying inside over a sandwich or leftovers was a real possibility? Mine. The responsibility if I let that affect me later in the day? All mine, too.
I’ve made a lot of big, important decisions in the past few days, and they got easier when I realized what was mine (the decisions themselves, their implications for me and my family) and what was not mine (responses that others might have). I’ll have more to say about those decisions soon, but today I’m grateful for the new understanding, the peace that comes from being clear about mine and not mine. When you’re working to build joyful learning communities of so many kinds, it’s easy to take on too much responsibility, to try to make things mine when they’re actually not mine at all. On a busy Tuesday, I’ll try not just to remember that, but to act on it with purpose and ownership and joy.
I wonder what other insights and discoveries await!