Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What If You Did Everything Expected …? (7 Dec. 2012)

            If you're reading this, you're a modern person, free from the anxiety of primitive life and its taboos, probably free even from the complexities of following the 613 mitzvot ("commandments" — sort of) of the Mosaic law or the straight, strait, and narrow path for Christian salvation. Okay fellow free, modern folk, I have a question for you: What would happened if your tried to do everything expected of you — if you'd try even in our state of liberation to get everything right?

            Let me get into this question with a couple of stories. (I'm an old fart; I get to tell stories.)

            First one is from about the mid-1970s, when I found myself on Miami University's Student Affairs Council looking at proposed rules and came upon the locution, "Students are expected to …." I asked, "By whom, and so what?" Who expects them to do what this rule says, and why should they care: "what happens if they don't?"

            I was told, "Oh, then we can throw them out of school."

            I pulled what rank I had as an English teacher and former parliamentarian and — let's say liaison (and not "lobbyist") — and as someone who had dealt with student-targeted laws in the Illinois General Assembly.

            "'Shall'," I said; "You need to say, 'Students shall.'"

            Part of my sensitivity to this usage came from near the end of my first academic year at Miami when I received a very nice letter — fancy letterhead, really good paper — from the President of the University telling me that full-time, tenure-track faculty members "are expected to attend commencement."

            I asked myself, "By whom and so what" and concluded that I could skip those questions and read the sentence, «Untenured assistant professors had better get their asses to commencement», which turns out to have been much of what it meant.

            Behind that was my experience as a sophomore undergraduate moving out of a biochemistry program and into the Microbiology Department with a growing knowledge that what I really liked was English and history. I got a note telling me to report to the office of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and declare a major; "You must declare a major." That was back when one talked to humans about such things, and I asked the woman at the desk, "Uh, what if I don't? Don't declare a major." And I was told, "You must" and asked again "But what if I don't" — and was answered, "I don't know; no one hasn't before." After a moment of secretarial consultation, they told me to just be sure to declare a major before too long into the semester I graduated — "But don't come in during the first week or so; we've got too much work then."

            So my last semester I declared an English major, and a sweet little old Credentials Analyst told me I could have a split minor of Microbiology/History, which she recommended because, "We've never had one of those before." Which is what I did, and I graduated as an English major with a split minor in Microbiology and History; and the whole process was very good for me. And it was good for rule-writing by Student Affairs Council (for a while, and uniquely in the school's governance) because they adopted a policy of trying to be clear when we were making suggestions or requests and when we were bloody well giving an order backed up with, say, expulsion.

            The experience was good for me because I had grown up doing what I was told, asked, and/or (often just) expected to do.

            In my family, I was The Good One.

            It was fair. My sister was clearly my father's favorite child, and I was my mother's — talk about living a cliché! — and she was The Smart One, and I was The Good One.

            My father took this judgment with him to the grave in spite of occasional evidence to the contrary.

            After my father had a stroke and my mother came down with Alzheimer's disease, my sister was more loyal and helpful than I was; but I was still The Good One. With my father's encouragement, I ran a charity at age 18, and I pretty much ran a fraternity chapter at 21; I made Phi Beta Kappa and got Wilson and Danforth Fellowships for graduate school, took an MA at Cornell and a PhD at Illinois; helped manage the student strike at the U of I at Urbana during the Troubles in May of 1970, and managed to get work in my field and eventually get promotion and tenure at a pretty good university.

            My sister was still The Smart One, and I was not. (Indeed, when my sister called our father to tell him her son had made Phi Beta Kappa, our father congratulated her, paused, and then said, "But Phi Beta Kappa can't be that big a deal; Rich made Phi Beta Kappa.")

            Returning to topic — responsible students stay "on task" — returning to the topic, we can allow that I had some experience questioning authority and resisting social pressure. "And yet the old schooling sticks," and I still get anxious whenever I stray from the Good-One role and try to ignore (or reject) social demands.

            And this means a lot of low-grade anxiety for me, and probably for you. One of the easily-resolved paradoxes of the 1960s was that most of the radicals and counter-cultural people in The Movement were the good kids from high school, so even at a time of a lot of apparent rebellion most of us, most of the time, conformed and complied; and nowadays it's possible that more of us, more of the time, conform and comply.

            Or we try to.

            Think about your life if you did all you were supposed to do — just socially "supposed to do," ignoring serious stuff like moral dilemmas when social pressures conflict with internal ideals; ignoring big issues and major life-choices. What would life be like if we complied in all things in just the small stuff of daily life?

            What if you kept all your receipts, performed routine maintenance on your car and appliances, ran your virus scans, read the labels when you shopped, read the manuals with your cell phone and computer and the GPS on your car; if you spent all the time with your spouse and kids that you're supposed to nowadays; if you "gave 110%" on the job or to a sports team or volunteer work?

            If you got your holiday shopping done early — don't forget Halloween! — and studied up before you made big purchases; if you carefully reviewed the releases and contracts and terms of use that you sign; if you seriously skimmed a significant portion of your electronic and hard-copy mail and carefully considered all the requests for your support of worthy causes.

            If you followed the campaigns of all the candidates you're entitled to vote for, and read the full texts of the propositions and initiatives.

            If you replaced those batteries, checked the wiring, checked the furnace and the vents and the ducts and got the right amount of the correct exercises and kept up with the latest research on proper nutrition and got checkups and early treatment when you were supposed to (which can get tricky: check the health websites for current views on checkups, and learn the symptoms you should just keep an eye on for a few days before seeing a physician).

            What if you kept careful track of your spending and the packages you send and put in the necessary time to get the best deals on insurance and shopping: if you were a totally responsible investor, consumer and producer, worker and parent?

            Etc., etc., etc.

            What would life be like if, in all your roles, you gave that "110%" — or up to 20% in each role — to respond just to all of the legitimate demands on your time and effort?

            And remember that anyone who asks for "a 110% commitment" is demanding a blank check, and that someone who seriously wants more than, say, a quarter of you is making an illegitimate demand.

            As Curtis Armstrong's character Miles says to Tom Cruise's significantly named Joel Goodsen — "good son" Get it? — in RISKY BUSINESS: "[…] you wanna know something? Every now and then say, 'What the f*ck.' 'What the f*ck' gives you freedom."

            Maybe more exactly "What the f*ck" or its equivalent is necessary for survival.

            "Students are expected to …"; "Good citizens will always …" "Warrantee is voided if …" — Yeah, most of this stuff we should do, and in some cases it's a real risk if we don't. But part of the low-key horror of modern life is that we just can't do it all or even most of it. Fairly often we must say, "What the f*ck," which guarantees that now and then we will fuck up.

            Every bit as much as "primitives," surrounded by innumerable taboos, every bit as much as more recent folk with 613-and-counting divine demands or the infinite obedience a devout Christian owes a God who became human and died for your sins — as much as most people, most of the time, we will fail to live up.

            Freedom and responsibility means trying to do what is right as much and as often as we can, but now and then saying "What the f*ck" to things in general — and to some people making demands on us and placing their expectations, to everyone who wants more than their legitimate 25% or less —just saying (now and then, with an asterisk), "F*ck off."

No comments:

Post a Comment