January 7

The Power of Awareness

January 7, 2015

Personal Growth

Sheila has a powerful soul—a strong sense of purpose, a keen mind, and rare abilities to sense and fill the needs of others. And yet she has alienated a great number of people in her life. When she taught at a fine arts college, for example, she failed to obtain tenure and was released from her contract with the explanation that the dean had received too many complaints from students and parents. They complained that Sheila was too harsh with the students, that she required too much of them.

I happen to know that Sheila is a gifted teacher, and that her students’ complaints really boiled down to this:
She didn’t allow behavioral distractions during class. She actually required that they listen.
She didn’t allow the excuses students offered when they failed to turn in homework, or missed a test.

The administration specifically told her to ignore the misbehavior of certain students, because their parents were generous donors to the college. She chose to disregard this instruction, because allowing one student to break the rules created an atmosphere of jealousy and chaos in the class.

She was hired by another college, but within a year she was encountering some of the same problems. “Is there just something wrong with me?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “there’s nothing wrong with who you are. But you’re blind to one of your behaviors. You are motivated by a genuine thirst for knowledge, and to share that with others. That’s wonderful. I find it charming beyond speech, but you also have a kind of wide-eyed, innocent belief that other people should be as devoted to—and excited by—the pure love of learning as you are. You find it unbelievable that so many students, parents, and teachers do not share your attitude. You are baffled that people could be as small-minded as they often are, and your disbelief sometimes comes across as arrogant or superior.”

“But you’re not saying that I have to become like these people, are you? Or that I have to earn their approval?”

“No, not at all. Sometime, however, you need to simply be AWARE that your perspective of the world is not shared by everyone, and that some people can actually be offended when you insist that they reconsider their attitudes.”

“So, I can still be myself.”

“Oh yes. The world needs you just as you are. And if you tried to be different, that wouldn’t work anyway.”

“So, if people don’t like who I am, too bad. If I lose my job because they don’t like me, too bad again. So now I don’t have to run from the consequences of who I am—just let them come. I think I could do that.”

I sighed deeply. “How free you will feel as you live like this.”

“But you're also saying that I need to be more realistic about how much people are in pain and fear, and in that condition how hurtful they can be to others, including myself.”

“Yep. It’s sad that the world tends to run on fear, but you do NOT need to become cynical or skeptical. Not at all. Just be more AWARE. Just be aware that most people are driven by pain and fear. Need proof? Read a newspaper on any given day.”

“I don't have to take their attacks personally,” Sheila said, “but I could be more aware of how people are, rather than behaving as if everyone is motivated by Real Love. So, on the one hand, you’re recommending that I just be myself as a teacher, never mind the arrows. On the other hand, though, in doing so I'm coming off as superior. Where is the balance?”

“Again the key word again is AWARE. Let me use myself as an example. I choose to trust everyone. I choose to be myself with everyone. And then I'm just AWARE of those occasions when I can slightly modify my EXPRESSION of who I am so as not to cause offense or conflict UNNECESSARILY. This might seem tricky, but with time and practice you can get very good at it. Am I the same person with everyone? YES, practically speaking. Do I APPEAR to be the same person with everyone? NO.”

“Let me explain,” I continued. “Suppose that my true qualities are ABCDEFG. That's ME, the real deal. Then, in a given interaction with someone, Fred, I become aware that my C quality, to just randomly pick one, would likely frighten Fred. So I just tone down C a bit. I do not fake a quality. I don't manipulate Fred to get something for myself. I'm just aware that I can easily dial down a trait in my personality and thereby avoid frightening or offending someone.”

Because this was so important, I continued my monologue: “There is a metaphor to be found in genetics. We all have a defined DNA structure, but we also have an epigenome, a coating of proteins around the DNA that can control whether a given gene is EXPRESSED. So let’s suppose that we have a given genetic trait, but we might not see it because of the surrounding protein coat, which is determined in great part by ENVIRONMENTAL factors. It might seem far-fetched, but if a child is not loved, for example, his natural genetic tendency to connect to people may be suppressed by the change in the epigenome caused by neglect or abuse, and that child could grow up to be aggressive or perhaps secluded—his natural ability to connect having been suppressed.

“Just as environmental factors can suppress our genes—who we chemically “are”—so can we be aware of people and circumstances, and then CHOOSE to suppress certain character traits that we naturally possess.

“Now, back to you. I believe there is no higher professional calling than your job—teaching. As you become more aware in the way I just discussed, you can on occasion dial down a particular trait—or dial one up—so that you might be able to successfully teach in the way you wish but still survive the politics of empty and frightened people. Some people might call this “finding a balance,” but I don't see it that way. Balances are precarious and require so much thought and effort (picture juggling or holding a cheerleader up in the air with one hand, as one of my sons used to do in college). Awareness is easier and more effective.”

We can all learn to be more aware of our own true character—in the absence of fear—and of the feelings and behaviors of other people. As we do this, more often we can be true to ourselves and still avoid unnecessary offenses to others.

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