Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Damage That Scars Do

Accidents happen. Sometimes we get hurt in an accident. We take precaution to prevent accidents. That, in itself, is good. But after an accident has occurred, it may be that the type of precaution we take is different. We hypothesize of lightning striking twice in the same place. Armed with that improbability, our behavior becomes inhibited, our growth stunted. We become angry with ourselves for our lack of success. We accept inertia as the norm. We lose the sense of the possible. We stop fighting. This is surrender.

I’ve told this story before but it is relevant here, so I’ll repeat it. When I was 9 or 10 at summer sleep-away camp, I was getting ready to be tested to swim in the deep water. I had been swimming over my head for at least a couple of years, so this should have been no big deal. But the swimming instructor pushed me in when I wasn’t ready. I choked and gagged when I got into the water. For a brief moment, I experienced the sensation of drowning. When I got out of the water I was terrified. I stayed in the shallow water that entire summer and perhaps the summer after that. My sense of self-protection was stronger than my need to expand beyond my current capabilities. I went backwards. I was an under achiever. How could I not feel self-contempt?

Last week, I think it was Tuesday night, I watched the Horse Whisperer on one of the Starz channels. I had seen it before, maybe two or three times. I thought it was an ok but not great picture. Sometimes a movie or something you read happens to fit in with your current frame of mind and when that occurs the material takes on an exalted state.

The Horse Whisperer is about people who’ve been scarred. Certainly the daughter, who had been in a horrific accident where she lost her leg and her horse, Pilgrim, who had terribly hurt and frightened are the obvious ones. But so was the mother. She had been pre-occupied playing the dominant executive, an editor of a big time magazine; impatience was her badge, with a foot that waved up and down to signify the churn within. She was out of touch with her daughter and her husband, ignoring the human side of her life for immersion in her work, letting the sense of being in charge substitute for being close to those she cared about. Even the Horse Whisperer himself, the Robert Redford character with the gentle nature, in tune with the rhythms of hurt animals and people alike, had been scarred by the feeling of love lost for his departed wife.

Sometimes we heal. The Horse Whisperer is a story about healing. Healing takes determination and persistence. It also takes gentleness. We who are scarred need to be cajoled into trying things again. We need to endure periods of awkwardness, an odd existence between the inert and the vital. We need to confront our own demons and then push them aside. We need to feel that joy is possible, even normal. The Horse Whisperer had a gift of understanding these things and helping others along. There is a big lesson to take from that movie.

When I worked in the campus IT organization, I had a sense that the organization as a whole was scarred and that many of the long timers had been scarred as individuals, the current behavior more a consequence of the need for self-preservation and feeling some sense of control than about anything regarding possibilities for the campus. There is a great deal of irony in this. The scarring occurred in the late 90s when the IT organization did a huge amount of good for the campus and had a lot of creative elements in it. But growth completely outstripped the service provision and in spite of the creativity the organization was accused of being unfriendly to users, especially to the non-geeks who soon constituted the majority. That scarring occurs during periods of play and creativity is an important observation. This is when we are most vulnerable. Play and self-preservation are like oil and vinegar. A healthy response to an accident will allow play to continue. A grim response will discard play as an unnecessary sidebar.

There is a flip to this too. With healing there should be understanding. Some play is orthogonal to purpose, pure time dissipation, nothing more. Other play is a critical part of creativity, of providing for growth, of seeing the possible, the essence of learning by doing. At the start, we can’t know which we are engaged in. As we play either new possibilities open up or dead ends appear. Continuing to play when having seen the dead end is pure time dissipation. Opening up new possibilities is learning and enables growth. There can be organizational stunting of growth when new possibilities that are the consequence of individual learning are not tried, because they are outside the domain of the current mission, as if that is sacred and future possibilities are less important. A scarred organization can scar even its healthy members by imposing constraints on their own growth. This can be a contagion. It may be difficult if not impossible to heal from within. The response from within is likely to be angry, while what’s needed is a Horse Whisperer.

However, recall that in the movie the Horse Whisperer required the daughter, Grace, to make a commitment to try at the outset and he offered a warning that even with a fair effort it might not work. Pilgrim might never recover emotionally. That possibility of failure even with effort can be an excuse for no effort, in which case the possibility becomes a certainty and a self-fulfilling prophecy, justifying the self-protecting behavior. Healing is hard to accomplish. And it is even harder in organizations than it is in individuals, because some may be ready to heal while others are not yet so. Leadership requires getting everyone ready. We all are impatient and want quick success, like the mom in the movie. So we may very well go forward when there are a few who are ready to do so. But then we are not healers. And our impatience may lead to more damage, not less.

* * * * *

Recently I’ve been engaged in a conversation with Susan Curtis, who is leading up our effort on the new Business 101 offering, about phases of student development – going from a world of black and white where their job is to accept the truth that the faculty dole out and absorb it to the extent they can, to a different world where everything is gray and all judgment appears relativistic, to still yet a different world, the world of the adult with nuance, conflicting points of view, and a sense of taste to guide us when making judgments. The operating assumption is that the vast majority of entering freshmen are in the first stage. Then one can frame the work we do as moving the students along to the next stages and to do that as efficiently as possible. We can chide our colleagues who eschew these development goals and define their teaching job too narrowly, adopting a pour-it-into-their-heads style of instruction to cover the subject matter to which they are assigned, which unfortunately confirms the more simplistic view of learning that our younger students maintain.

But suppose we ourselves are wrong in this view of development. Suppose this vast majority of entering students are not at a normal phase but are themselves scarred from years of schooling that have been stunting, that have blocked their own abilities to direct their personal growth and have instead encouraged a form of self-protection that leads to little new understanding yet with passable grades earned by hook or by crook, making for a nihilism and sense of malaise that requires a feeling of aloofness to maintain, and with a different type of blocking coming from their life outside of school, the multiprocessing in the always connected word in which they live belying the need for depth of experience and the type of play that produces greater understanding.

What if unscarred children go through these development milestones much earlier in their lives, perhaps during the first year or two of high school? Then there may be a few of these students among our freshmen who are more secure in their learning and without the need to be healed. But the vast majority will be in need of healing, who are figuratively still in the shallow water and not willing to challenge themselves. Doesn’t the lack of engagement, the excessive drinking, the widespread cheating, all the ills that we think of that plague undergraduate education make more sense if we envision our students as horribly scarred?

If so, where is the nurture in what we do? Our expenditure per student is much higher when they are seniors than when they are freshmen. The classes they take are larger early on and they are much less likely to have direct contact with a professor. Can a single course aimed to reverse these consequences actually succeed?

And if this is a right way of thinking about the issues at the large brushstroke level, what might we do that is different and that would change things? I wish I knew the answer to this. This past week at a meeting of the pilot group for the campus’ WebCT Vista 4 implementation, I was talking with one of our best instructors on campus, somebody who has innovated a lot in her teaching and who in focus groups I’ve conducted gets high marks from the students on using technology in an interesting way in the classroom. She was railing (in a gentle way) about the fact that the students won’t lift a finger in the general education course she teaches unless they are required to do so. Curiosity doesn’t appear to be part of the equation. That is the rule, not the exception.

One goes to revival tents to witness mass healings. Otherwise, I’m afraid the truth is that healing has to occur on an individual basis, with much attention to need and to the readiness of the individual to make the necessary commitment.

* * * * *

Regular readers of this blog know that I experienced a rather bad accident last fall and now, visiting my mother in Boca Raton to do her taxes and hold her hand, before heading north to Orlando for the NCAT conference that starts tomorrow, and wearing shorts without a brace on my leg for the first time since the accident, I can stare at the scar from the surgery and find myself rubbing it repeatedly, looking for assurance that all will be ok with it and with me.

Things are not ok with my mom. She doesn’t know me any more. Her dementia is pretty far along and when she does awake from her sleep she makes utterances in German that are unintelligible to me. There must be memories from childhood for her that stoke the fires in her mind. She grew up in Nazi Germany and that must have traumatized her. If I relive some of the painful memories of my youth, then it seems to make sense that she do likewise, and hers must have been far worse, all the more consuming for that reason. If that becomes a pre-occupation for her due to senility or Alzheimer’s or whatever else we call it, then so be it. There will be no healing for her.

But what about for me? I’ve numbed myself somewhat to my mother’s circumstance. Her existence lies outside my sense of morality and ethics. I was a caring son until my father died, even for years after that, but that has waned. I can’t totally anesthetize myself, but I don’t come down here so often now and don’t feel a need to do otherwise. I used to visit here and entirely suspend my sense of self to make myself useful to my parents and to adopt their sense of morality. Now, I find myself thinking about me rather than about her.

When I look inward, I know that my lifestyle has been too sedentary and that I’ve become more withdrawn. I’m impatient about work, both with colleagues and in terms of the mission I’m supposed to accomplish. It’s no different at home. Too much of my recreation is of the repetitive nihilistic type. Vegging out from time to time is ok as a release, but it is not an avocation. And the lack of sleep, partly a direct consequence of the accident and partly a habit developed from that, makes all of this seem like self-protection, a set of behaviors that can be rationalized if not defended.

Outwardly, I’m healing. Inwardly, I need to do more to help the process along. One step at a time. I’m going for a walk now.

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