Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Some Random Wednesday Thoughts

The sun has been shining bright here in Versailles and in between looking for a job, doing research and writing I often go out and sit on my patio with my coffee and just let my thoughts wander.  Based on some things I've been reading lately I came up with some ideas that I've been toying with and trying on for size.  I'm sure that they are not original but I thought it would be fun to post them:

Everyone is just fine the way they are:  As I read, once again, the comments on various Internet sites or peruse my mail, the message I hear is that, "Hell is other people." It's pretty consistent and is applied to both personal and political problems. It is the source of most complaints I've heard against immigrants and it's the number one angst of migrants in their host countries.  "If those people would simply behave better, we would treat them better."  Or "If those people would stop treating us like second-class citizens, perhaps we might consider integrating."  Or "If they weren't so snobbish and cold, we might learn English/French/German/Chinese faster."  Or even, "France would be perfect if it weren't for the French."

It's an endless cycle of resentment which is doomed to go absolutely nowhere because it starts from the presumption that there is something wrong with "those people" that needs to be fixed in order for others to be happy.  Think about that for a moment - resolution of a problem is predicated on one side realizing that they are deficient and humbly submitting to the medicine prescribed by someone else.

So why don't we turn this thing on its head and stop perceiving people as problems to be solved, projects for improvement, or things to be made over in our image?  What if we just started from the premise that everyone is just fine the way they are?  That there is nothing to be fixed or changed in the person standing before us.  What if we just said instead:  No one is too fat/too thin, too rich/too poor, too educated or uneducated, too polite or too rude, too American/Algerian/English/French.  Nobody needs to lose weight, take care of the pimple on the nose, change his hair color, change his politics, get into therapy, divorce his wife, stop/start talking to his parents, learn a third language, go back to school or any one of a million prescriptions that each and every one of us write for someone in our lives every day, every hour. every minute.  What if we just relaxed and gave each other a break?  After all, my friends, the sun is shining and surely we have better things to do.

Control is impossible:  The most important lesson I ever learned as a manager was this:   In spite of my job title, the pretty badge that said "Executive," the first class seat on the Air France flight and the club they handed me to decide peoples' salaries and career paths,  I ultimately had no power to make my staff do what I wanted.  I had the illusion of power:  I could cajole, threaten, manipulate and reward but, at the end of the day, the only way they were going to do what I said was if they decided to do it. That sure took all the air out of my balloon.   I was even more deflated when I realized that this was not only true at work, it was and remains true of all the people in my life:  spouse. children, mother-in-law, the fonctionnaire at the social security office, the bus driver and my temporary housekeeper.  No, I do not possess the universal remote which allows me to press a button and turn a disagreeable, uncooperative human being into a pleasant helpful person who gives me exactly what I want when I want it.  The realization that nobody has to do what I say or give me what I want was something I initially found horrifying but I am convinced that it is fundamentally true.

Furthermore this is not only true for me, it is universally true.  Governments can pass laws, societies can establish norms, religions and ethicists can propose rules and commandments but the reality is that no one has to obey any of it. Of course there are consequences, but they don't ever stop a very determined individual.   For all sorts of reasons people submit to discomfort, penalties, jail, or even risk death as they exercise their free will.  Migrants do it all the time - it is deadly dangerous to cross a border illegally or overstay a visa in many places but they still do it.  Or, for an example close to home, every person I've ever seen at the Invalides RER station brazenly smoking under the No Smoking signs while ignoring the shrill announcements (in multiple languages no less) that smoking is absolutely forbidden on the platform.

The above is not an argument for anarchy - it is an argument for humility.  We spend an enormous amount of time and money, and we generate incredible stress for ourselves, trying to control other people and what they do.  It is so frustrating to watch people do (from our point of view) terrible things to themselves or to us and our reaction tends to be to pursue ever more draconian methods of bending them to our will.  It very rarely works.  Whether we rage at a disobedient adolescent or shake our fists at those people "taking our jobs" at the end of the day we are not the boss of them.

Try not to get too comfortable:  I also call this, "Choosing to go over the cliff."   Basically, we are cowards.  We all have our comfort zones and we will do darn near anything to stay in them.  We very rarely put ourselves in situations that frighten or de-stabilize us.  That's what makes migrants so interesting since casting yourself upon a distant shore is probably the most radical way to pull the rug out from under yourself.   Everything changes.  It challenges your assumptions in life-changing ways. The first few years are wild - terror and wonder all wrapped up in one glorious ride.  But even migrants eventually settle in and become residents.  They find their center and stay in it.  That is what happened to me.  What was new and strange twenty years ago is now my "normal." Metro, boulot, dodo. Point.

I was very proud of this accomplishment.  I integrated and believed that this made me a very good girl indeed.  These days I'm not so sure.  Did I really integrate or did I learn enough to get along and arrange my life in such a way that I would rarely encounter any sharp edges?  More of the latter then the former I must admit after taking a cold hard look at it.  These days, in spite of all my efforts, the sharp edges are coming fast and furious which are pushing me to re-evaluate.  Perhaps there is a better way and it just might look something like this:

What if, instead of staying in the safe zone where all is comforting and familiar, we moved toward the boundaries of our experience to a place that is not comfortable.  Frontiers are, after all, where the interesting stuff happens.  Move toward the unknown.  Take the risk once again of having assumptions challenged and life turned upside down.  Another migration is not necessary to start this process - there are plenty of opportunities right here, right now.  It could be as simple as seeking out someone whose political beliefs you abhor and asking him to explain why he holds this belief while keeping your mouth firmly shut.  Another might be finding a practitioner of a religion that you have a strong bias against and going to their services to find out what they really are all about.  Or here's one I like:  try doing a familiar or habitual thing as if it were the very first time.  Drop all your assumptions that this or that will happen based on previous experience.  Let go of the, "Last time they were rude and asked for a mountain of pay slips so this time I need to bring my pay slips and steel myself against the inevitable rudeness."  Instead, put yourself in a position to be surprised. Accept that anything might happen.  

The above things take courage because we are risking something we hold very dear, our pride.  We could be insulted, embarrassed, or treated like a 5-year old.  We might find that certain political or social views literally make our stomachs hurt.  Or, we just might find out that people are better then we think, that our political enemies actually have a few good ideas, that there is a lot more to a religion then we ever dreamed.  Sometimes I think we are more fearful of a positive outcome when we take these kinds of risks.  It can be devastating to realize that when we ran the film in our heads, we heavily edited the story line to keep ourselves safe.  Perhaps, one day, we might even be able to move beyond our investment in right and wrong, in for and against and in friend and foe.  As a friend of mine told me recently, "Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?"  

Still sunny and warm here in Versailles.  Have a great day, everyone.

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