Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Consistency, Connections and Choices

After yesterday’s post was complete, I continued to think about its questions and so did some of you. With interesting observations fueling my thinking as I traveled between appointments, and in the back of my head as I taught my freshmen, here’s what I think today: providing the stamps and envelopes is one of those small acts that expresses love and home, and that’s why we did it, even though it seems out of line with many of our other choices about autonomy and independence. There are things that we do for each other, even though we’re perfectly capable of doing them on our own. Doing them for each other, like the cup of tea or hot chocolate Michael makes for me each morning, is a way of saying “I love you,” and we accept it with a feeling of comfort, security and warmth. I think of the times I cuddled someone on my lap even though of course she could perfectly well sit on her own. I think of the times I would have liked to crawl into my mother’s lap, even metaphorically, long after the expiration of the typical age zone for that activity.

Continuing some of the little acts of caring, especially within in a larger context of emerging personal responsibility, is a way to stay connected--on both sides. So, for Shea to ask and for us to respond on something we’ve always done for her, something that’s almost-but-not-quite a ritual, is a way to stay connected as a family. The rituals are different and another way of expressing the same connections: the easter egg hunt with a basket at the end long past childhood, the christmas stocking stuffers we continue to this day. Rituals are so often tied to holidays, and some of daily life’s almost-rituals feed that same sense of family, love and connection.

Framing it this way resolves, at least for me and at least for now, the questions I raised about consistency and highlight its importance in other settings. I had an interesting exchange with a friend who is struggling in a new administrative position to bring principled consistency across a set of units in terms of spending patterns and practices. In that setting, it’s essential to articulate and follow a set of principles that apply to all regardless of personal feelings about or connections to various individuals. When we occupy professional roles with a responsibility to the mission, the institution, the constituencies served, inconsistent expressions of esteem (love) and connection are neither appropriate nor healthy.

A department head I worked with long ago said it best. “Of course I like some of the members of my unit better than others”, he said. “My goal is that no one can ever tell who falls into which category by the decisions I make as head.” To do otherwise breeds a sense of favoritism, arbitrary choices, cronyism and cynicism. That’s corrosive, the exact opposite (I hope) of little acts of devotion among members of a family. Even in the family, it’s important to have a set of articulated principles that apply as a general guideline for direction: your job is to become an independent, successful, happy, productive adult, and ours is to apply a set of rules and decisions to help you get there. Within that context, the envelopes and stamps aren’t sending a mixed message, they’re reinforcing the bigger message: we’re here for you, we love you, and you’ll always have a home with us. All of this is different from the small courtesies and kindnesses of every day life that happen across human interactions: holding a door for someone, remembering days that are important to others, expressing condolences, offering a pleasant greeting. Those are the lubrication that keeps the social gears from freezing, and are separate from the substantive and principled decisions required of authority figures.

With this resolution to the question that was leaving me uneasy, I sally forth into another day of learning to be who I am as my brain rewires.

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