Friday, September 18, 2009

The best of all possible worlds

When I was in high school, I had an extraordinary French teacher. His name was Mr. Timms, and instead of having the class painfully memorize lists of vocabulary words and conversational responses, he had us reading and analyzing French literature. Some of these classics would have been dry enough in English, but in French, many students would have been willing to forgo their Foreign language requirements just to get out of reading them. Mr. Timms, however, was undeterred: he instilled an interest in the subject matter that went far beyond translation and recitation for an exam. Mr. Timms found that by acting out many of these works by Voltaire, Hugo, Balzac, de Maupassant and others, his students would better remember the stories, and therefore, the lessons. As with most wonderful teachers, his method of student involvement and empowerment was key. I still remember the books I read in his class, in French, far better than others I read in a somewhat duller English course.

The story that most resonated with me at 16, and now again in my early 40's, is Voltaire's "Candide". Mr. Timms acted out the entire book for us. He alone portrayed all the characters, including one memorable incident in which one character threw a shoe at another, and Mr. Timms magically appeared to have been in two places at once, as both "throwee' and recipient. The amazing satire of Voltaire, like that of Oscar Wilde, and others, brings together great story telling with a philosophical, political and "opposing norms" point of view. Authors were able to push the envelope of accepted literature by poking fun at contemporary society in a make believe world. In Candide, the simple nephew of a nobleman, takes a heroic quest journey, and brings with him the tutelage of his mentor, Dr. Pangloss. Pangloss is a firm believer in optimism at all costs. Despite being evicted from the Eden like paradise of his home, Candide attempts to maintain Pangloss' unfailing, unaltered and unbridled passion for life as being "all for the best in the best of all possible worlds". Even when he becomes disfigured, tortured, abandoned and suffers misfortune, the character of Pangloss continues with his mantra of optimism, regardless of circumstances.

Although Pangloss is meant to be a satirical character, and to be poked fun at literally, I have never forgotten his words of impassioned optimism about life, regardless of the dreadful twists of fate his own life took. There are days in which everything seems to just go wrong. It's as if circumstances beyond any one's control wreak havoc on our orderly lives. The car breaks down and needs thousands of dollars in repair. The computer crashes, with a clunking sound that makes me anticipate an explosion. The dishwasher overflows moments before guests arrive or the furnace conks out on the coldest day of winter. There are traffic problems when I'm already behind schedule. None of these things are life threatening, and I don't find myself crippled in the way that Pangloss suffered, and yet, I find my anger coming out by smacking the steering wheel of the car or kicking the broken dryer. At moments when my orderly, well intentioned existence goes haywire, I am not thinking that "all is for the best and that I'm living in the best of all possible worlds". I'm thinking that I'm cursed and being tormented by gremlins.

I've recently been accepted into, and have begun, a theology course. It's a four year program designed to help me delve deeper into faith, into intellect and into knowledge. The first assignment (along with reading the first five books of the Bible, and two commentaries on them) is to write my spiritual autobiography. What are the touch points of my beliefs? Why does my faith become stronger or weaker? When did I feel the call to deepen my awareness of the world around me? How do I see my faith alive in the world? Who helped me along the way with my journey? These are all questions I need to ask myself before I begin to write this paper. As I began thinking about this assignment, and writing down preliminary notes for the presentation, I immediately was brought back to my 11th grade French class and Mr. Timms. Although I hadn't remembered that course vividly for two decades, his passion for this subject was quite similar to faith. In addition, the fun poked at Pangloss, in "Candide", really has become my own thought of the faith journey I would like to take. Despite the setbacks, despite hardships, despite illness or angst or grief, I would truly like to believe that I do live in the best of all possible worlds. I would like to understand that no matter what happens, I am richly being alive at this very moment, in this very instant in time. I hope that, in time, I can look at the world with eyes filled with joy and feel the same contentment on a good day, as on a bad one. I also hope that I will be able to remove my own distinctions between "good" and "bad" days completely, and to be completely solidly, and immovably, optimistic in that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."

While I am certain that this sounds hopelessly sentimental, it truly is not. I believe that, when looking at the world as a big, bad place that is constantly out to get us, we will bring negative emotions into our lives. These tend to feed on each other and ruin our outlook. When we foster positive feelings, and radiate an inner joy, good things will come to us. We will attract good people to our lives, and the negative ones will get fed up with our unadulterated happiness and move on. The world we live *can* be the best of all possible worlds, but only if we choose to view it in that way.

Now, I just have to learn not to scream out the window when an idiot cuts me off in traffic.

In the long run the pessimist may be proved right, but the optimist has a better time on the trip. ~Daniel L. Reardon

Monday, September 14, 2009


"I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that you what you heard is not what I meant." Robert McCloskey

The quote above was written by one of my favorite children's book authors, Robert McCloskey. Mr. McCloskey was born in 1914, and spent much of his life not far from where I currently live on the Maine coast. He won numerous Caldecott Awards for his work, and was celebrated in both the Midwest, and his adopted home of New England."One Morning in Maine", "Blueberries for Sal", "Time of Wonder", and of course, "Make Way for Ducklings" were books that I treasured in my childhood. I was even more excited to share these books with my children. Yet, it's the quote above, that Mr. McCloskey said in the late 1970's, that has resonated with me in my adult life. Despite my memories of happy, peaceful scenes, and my beloved rocky shore, the sad fact is that every day I seem to find more and more miscommunication. People with whom I speak seem to have a completely different understanding than my own. My children believe I've said one thing, when I'm quite sure I've said another. My husband and I completely miss each other's points on serious issues. My friends and I find ourselves wondering if our feelings should be hurt, or if we have simply misread a situation or a particular comment. In short, Robert McCloskey's humorous take on miscommunication appears to be entirely appropriate for most of us, much of the time.

There are two sides to any misunderstanding: the misunderstood and the "misunderstander". As a constant talker, I find myself on both sides of this dilemma far too often. When my comments are misconstrued, I feel frustrated. I try to remember if I made my point with validity and clarity. I gauge if the receiver was simply not paying attention to my point, or if she had her own agenda. Finally, I simply retrace the steps of the conversation, word by word, as best as I can, to figure out where my own words were unclear. If I firmly believe that my intent was effectively communicated, I have to wonder where my listener could have gone astray. Was it my fault? Should I have asked if she 'got it' or is that condescending? It's a tough call, because as we communicate with another person, we want to respect their intelligence and abilities. We certainly don't want to treat our contemporaries like kindergartners of whom we require a detailed recitation of the directions.

In the same way, I have greatly misunderstood the comments, context, insinuations and ideas of others. Just as I cannot expect everyone to fully grasp my ideas, I have learned that I have much progress that needs to be made in my own understanding. Too often, I take a remark personally, that isn't meant to be hurtful. Or, I will believe a project is of lesser (or greater) importance on a team, misunderstanding the
urgency of it, or lack thereof. Without truly comprehending the point, I will make my own conclusions, which, inevitably, are wrong. This can be incredibly embarrassing. I would like to be seen by others as trustworthy, helpful, insightful and cooperative. But, when I am clearly not comprehending a situation, I can appear disorganized, lazy, unobservant and useless...simply by not clarifying a task, a comment or a goal.

What can we do to ensure better communication? I believe this question is the best beginning: by acknowledging any uncertainty and by asking questions. I would rather be asked a dozen questions, than to have my words taken out of context, or have a project veer off in the wrong direction. I would rather risk embarrassment of seeming uncertain than follow instructions that are incorrect. It's sometimes difficult to know when we're on the wrong path...on the wrong train of thought or following a misguided lead. If my instinct is starting to tickle my conscience, I make sure to slow down, try to ask myself if my own priorities are interfering with a solution, and then retrace back to the core of the problem. Better communication can also come with increased communication. Keeping team members abreast of developments, double checking facts before using them and keeping all parties informed can save a great deal of time (and trouble).

Of course, there are times in which we wish we misunderstood a person. Having had a remark directed at me, recently, that was incredibly rude and unkind, I know that there are instances in which better communication, or level of understanding, will do little to alleviate the sting. Yet, by asking a question to the ill mannered person, you also have the advantage and requiring her to explain herself. "What makes you feel that way?", "How did you draw that conclusion?", or even just "Really?", said with a big smile, can throw your opponent completely off balance. Rephrasing their question to you, or their comment to you, in the same words they used can be another way to insist upon clarification, rather than just allowing the rudeness to remain unchecked. This way, you are not standing for the nonconstructive drivel, but are placing the onus on the speaker to explain themselves...and all in the name of better communication.

I am only a novice on the path of good communication. I have put my foot in my mouth up to my ankle. I have gone running with a work project in completely the wrong direction. I have gone to meetings on the wrong day, but the correct time. I have missed appointments. I have shown up when I was not expected. In truth, my own journey towards better communication will be a lifelong one. I hope by asking better questions, by listening carefully the answers, by considering all sides to a disagreement, and by basing my own answers on thoughtful facts, I can improve the way that I understand well as saving myself from the painful foot from mouth extraction in the future.