Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Sarah's Frame of Reference: Draft I

The following is a draft of a paper I wrote for my Whole Systems Thinking class, Spring 2004.  The assignment was to explain my frame of reference, or a description of the way I view the world and what has formed that way. 
I thought including this draft would be a good idea because (a) I've never shown people two of my drafts, side by side, and (b) it includes information, I think, that was left out of the final draft.  (And it includes some beautiful/true paragraphs about my parents and grandparents.  Some first attempts at codifying the people who made me.)
The draftiness may explain its lack of a satisfying conclusion.  We hope.
I was raised by parents who were raised by parents who were, in turn, raised by parents.  Each of us makes decisions about the world, ourselves, God, and each other, and consequently raise children from a particular viewpoint.  Thus, I think it would be helpful to meet my parents and, briefly, their parents, in order that my own thinking might be contextualized and clarified. 
My parents change the world everyday.  My mother believes in doing things, in getting things done.  If she sees a need, she fills it.  If a bathroom needs to be cleaned, she’ll clean it.  If someone needs an accompanist, she’ll play.  If the community needs a library, she’ll contact her congressman, engage my family in a door-to-door grass roots campaign, and convince the neighborhood to approve higher taxes and the formation of a library board.  If she passes an ugly, weedy, trashy street corner on her way to Costco, she’ll call the Queens Borough offices and find out what she needs to do in order to get it cleaned up.  Then she’ll round up youth volunteers, spend five hours on a July afternoon in New York picking up rusty beer cans and disintegrating cardboard boxes, and then cheer when the town sends a machine in to mow the newly de-littered corner.  If I tell her wistfully that I want, more than anything, to take harp lessons, she’ll work out the budget, find me a harp, find me a teacher, and wait to hear me play.  She’s a doer.  But she doesn’t bowl people over; they fall in love with her, think she’s wonderful, think she’s an angel, think she’s a godsend, and say yes to whatever help she needs.  “Do good in the world,” she writes in her weekly family emails.  “Do good, love God, and love each other.”

My father is an unfailingly gentle man, though when we moved the summer before my senior year and he was, after a few months, introduced to my new school friends, this gentleness was apparently a surprise.  “We thought he’d be strict, severe!” they said.  “But he’s so gentle!”  I wondered how my stories about him could have not communicated that.  He earned both a JD and a PhD, which he uses as a university administrator-professor, though he wishes he could spend more time doing genealogy.  He’s always had leadership roles in my church and has, consequently, never had spare time, though he has always tried to attend the family’s concerts, parent-teacher meetings, track meets, etc.  He belies most stereotypes of men and fathers.  I’ve never seen him angry.  I have heard him apologize.  He tells me loves me every time we talk.  He’s recently taken sole control over the family’s laundry.

My grandparents were the children of sheepherders, out-of-work handymen, and out-of-work food service men.  But my grandfathers went to college on the GI bill, one earning a PhD in Metallurgical Engineering and the other, an MBA and a degree in electrical engineering.  My mother’s mother was an RN (trained during WWII).  I attended my father’s mother’s graduation in the mid-80s—she finished her degree in History with a minor in Latin when she was in her 60s. 
I’ve been realizing recently that this is more than merely biographical information.  I am the children of my parents, who were the children of their parents, who learned, for themselves, that education and hard work can fundamentally change lives.  This wasn’t merely a post-War playing out of the American dream.  My grandparents each built lives, families, and careers because they believed that it was what God wanted them to do, what God intends for people to do. 
My parents do and are good for the same reason.  They are not gentle, warm, hardworking, and godly because it’s easy and part of their natures; they cultivate charity, patience, and habits of doing because they believe that’s what they need to do in order to improve lives around them and fulfill the measure of their creation, that is, to become the people they believe they are meant to be.
The question is, then, how this intentionality of purpose has transferred to me and to my thinking.  I operate everyday on the assumption that I have the ability—the freedom, the agency, the talents, etc.—to improve things here.  This assumption is fixed upon my belief that the world is shaped by what we do and, furthermore, that the world would be better off shaped in some ways than in others.  Thus, we need to be careful and conscious about how we (inevitably) use our influences.
My thinking extends further, deeper, and more elaborately than is explicated above, but I don’t want to rush ahead.  It’s important that I note that the clarity represented here is not, I don’t think, due to the prescriptive nature of this thinking.  I have, of course, been the victim of my own sloppy philosophizing (or sheer lack thereof).  I began life by blindsiding it, pushing ahead without consciously considering the people around me.  As a little girl, I indiscriminately lectured people, including my friends, my siblings, and, I’m sure, adults.  I’ve learned over the years, slowly and painfully, that I don’t know everything and that I’m not always right. 
But the growth in my thinking has been marked by an increase in sentience.  The last ten years or so has been a series of rolling-up-the-shades moments, each instance denoting a new inroad possibly bringing me closer to a life propelled by vision like my parents’.
The first such moment was in Mrs. Sinclair’s sixth grade math class.  Mrs. Sinclair came around, clipboard in hand, to see if we’d done our homework.  I hadn’t, though I don’t know why.  I wanted her still to think that I was an exemplary student, with impeccable studently performance.  So, before she came to my desk, I pulled out a piece of paper and composed a list of random numbers, including a scattering of mixed numbers and fractions (to make it look more plausible).  Mrs. Sinclair passed my desk, looked down at my paper, nodded, made a checkmark on her clipboard, and moved on.  As she continued zigging through the desks, I sat back and considered my actions.  I had the distinct feeling that what I had done wasn’t right.  I hadn’t lied, according to what I knew about lying.  I reasoned that there existed a possibility that I might actually have come to each of those specific answers if I had done my work (though I knew it was a very slim possibility, like stumbling upon my homework in Borges’ infinite library).  But I knew that reasoning wasn’t fair.  And though I’d never been taught in church or at home about the morality of this particular situation, I knew that what I had done was dishonest.  I resolved, age 12, to never do it again, to never fake answers again.  This was the first time that I made a moral standard for myself.
In retrospect, that sixth grade moment was the beginning of my sentience.  I became aware (finally, finally!) that I was independent and was, consequently, independently responsible to whatever higher powers or laws or forces are at work.  Thus I began to individually negotiate my existence.
This negotiation occupies the forefront of my thinking.  How do I love the people around me?  How do I show that love without making others feel uncomfortable?  How do I show that love without becoming treacly or artificial about it?  How do I keep my eyes open enough to see the world and others in ways that are healthy and contributing?  How do I gain clarity while maintaining perspective?  How do I know that I’m not deluding myself?  How can I know?
In the years succeeding the sixth-grade-math moment, I tightened my moral code, attempting to negotiate specific and tricky situations with greater conscience and consciousness.  I didn’t raise the bar indiscriminately.  I believe that though we are each obligated (morality) to choose our codes of conduct (agency), we should do so in conjunction with the wisdom of people we trust, preferably our parents and our spiritual leaders.

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