Think of starting out from early childhood to grow in ways that are well-developed and well-balanced. Some people do this, others don’t, but we can all build on strengths and overcome deficiencies.
I propose an informal philosopher’s experiment, and I invite you to join in, if you would like to do so. You can briefly answer one or more of the following questions by commenting on this blog post, thereby sharing with other participants in an experiment in growth. While each person is expected to maintain a supportive attitude toward other participants, we will not give advice unless it is asked for, so if you would like to receive advice, please ask me or the group or particular group members. Or ask God.
Questions for your consideration.
Why are the years of early childhood (through, say, age seven or eight) so important? What aspects of development occur during those years in a well-balanced child?
What capacities of mind are involved in those developments?
What kinds of activities help the child to actualize those potentials?
Share an aspect from your childhood that grew normally and describe something of your experience that enabled you to progress?
Finally, think of some area that you would like to strengthen, an area of development that normally begins in early childhood. Come up with ideas of balanced and healthy activities that would help you gain the growth you desire. If you choose, create and commit to a project that could help you grow in that area. Ideas may come immediately, then insights, then breakthroughs, but building new character habits takes longer. If you would like to do so, you are invited to share your project decision and, later, your project experience, with the readers of this weblog through comments on this blog post.
My own project thus far
I will lead off by sharing my own growth project to address a deficiency that goes back to my early childhood: socialization. There is so much that children can and do accomplish through socialization: they orient to family life by relating with parents and siblings, they play and have fun, get to know one another, form close friendships, and learn from mingling with all kinds of people.
I will not go back to describe, let alone analyze, my socialization deficit from my early childhood; rather I will share something of my present deficiency that I am beginning to overcome by the grace of God.
But a couple comments before getting into details. I went back two weeks in my journal to select the relevant–though disconnected–stories for this portion of the blog post. There is a lot here; and no one needs to read any of what follows before jumping in with comments. In fact, there are advantages to not reading it, at least until you do your own project. If I share some of my discoveries, I run the risk of compromising some of the freshness of the discoveries that you need to make.
One of my particular challenges in socializing is to integrate an easy and flowing sense of equality with others with my cultivated awareness of superior and subordinate relationships. In some types of situation I can be a good subordinate or team member; in some types of situation I have been a good superior or teacher or leader. But apart from times with some good friends and time when I meet someone and the conversation sparks immediately, I need to develop the relaxed, easygoing way of meeting and mingling. Over the years, I have accumulated piles of culture that enable me to engage in intellectual conversation on various topics; but this cultured conversation can also function as a defense mechanism which makes others feel uncomfortable. My positive attitude toward people is sometimes upstaged by my perception of some minor conflict with another person. Although I believe in the brotherhood of man—that we are all family, that we should love one another and treat each other the way we want others to treat us, I do not consistently live that truth and those ideals.
So a few weeks ago, I decided to develop myself in socializing. For other reasons, I had decided to develop myself in public speaking and so joined Toastmasters International; naturally I recognized that my club would be an arena for me to grow in socializing my personality. At my first meeting, I was asked whether I would be willing to help out with public relations (alerting local media to club events). At first I said that it was too early for me to respond, but the next morning I awoke with a strong sense that this was something I should do; so I made a big decision and communicated it to the person who had asked me. The delights of reflection and prayer are hardly sufficient for progress. Acting on a decision, getting involved, is essential.
Another project I worked on for a few days was to select from my current contacts addresses to use in creating a new mailing list that I could use in my new MailChimp account. The purpose is to send bulk e-mail notifications of (for example) the publication of my book, the launch of my podcast, the start of projected online classes, presentations, and other events related to my emerging work on the philosophy of living in truth, beauty, and goodness. The MailChimp team provide repeated, strong, clear messages about not spamming people, and I got the idea of developing a list of people who had already signed up to receive email from me or who would genuinely welcome who had given me their email addresses on a sign-up sheet or had in other ways communicated to me their readiness to receive at least an initial email from me. My first email message will be to find out who wants what notifications.
Working to create that MailChimp list was a wonderful experience in socialization, as I went through my contact list, culling 507 names. In some cases I e-mailed people to ask whether they would like to be on my new list. In some cases my e-mail address no longer worked, so I used Facebook, LinkedIn, and the Internet to try to locate the people. One by one, I lovingly brought the person to mind and selected them for this list. My relationships with these people were quite diverse; some were colleagues, some people with whom I have connected powerfully though briefly at the Kent State Student Recreation and Wellness Center, some were students whom I knew years ago; some gave contact information on a sign-up sheet that I circulated during my talk at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. (By the way: if you read this blogpost and want to be added to this list, just let me know!) In other words, creating the MailChimp list was a little like socializing with those individuals again.
One day I got frustrated that some people that I had been communicating with were not responding as I had hoped. Then I realized that my frustration was based, at least partly, on my own deficient leadership. I should not try to drive people by exhortation, but rather whet appetites. Thinking back, I remembered a very successful leader with whom I had worked, a man who was consistently positive in his message. Another major lesson in social relations.
The next lesson came when I was listening to a sermon that was initially unappetizing. After my initial disappointment, I went into a certain kind of listening mode, lovingly appreciating and supporting the speaker for the qualities in him that I believe come straight from God: his unique personality, mysterious, and constant through change; and the spirit of God within him. But then I realized that I was no longer paying attention to what he was saying. So finally I decided to listen to what he was saying while putting my intellectual understanding of the meaning of his words back into the personal context of my loving regard for this divinely created, infinitely loved, child of God. That was a major discovery on socialization.
Next it was time for an upgrade in my relation with my wife, who is distinctly superior to me in a number of ways. I realized that I needed to pray for general illumination regarding this kind of asymmetry, lower-to-higher. Sometimes I find myself in a position of subordination or even take a position of subordination instinctively and subconsciously in order to ingratiate myself with another person. My conviction is that, when our spiritual equality in the family of God is strongly lived, we can graciously deal with the asymmetries that are also a part of life. I can report that prayer has indeed helped, but I need to keep refreshing that prayer if I am to establish a habit of the new and better way as I relate with my wife.
One helpful insight came as I recalled a familiar thought about the sovereignty of the individual person. Each person has dignity, respected in the framework of the justice of Deity, and upheld by divine power (however remote this may appear in the outworking of evolution in our world). I began to stand taller, and now I have a new conceptual resource to bolster low self-esteem whenever that might surface in myself or in another person.
Along the way I realized that alert socialization leads to learning about persons and about different groups. Though I have hardly begun to act on this insight, I am at least aware of the potentials in a new way, which helps my attitude to become more open to difference, and expect less of others.
Next I faced my workaholic tendency, and interpreted it as in part a failure to realize the pervasively social character of work (even if one is working “alone”). The more social my experience of work becomes, the easier it is to work in a way that is free of drivenness and more open to balancing my schedule with socializing. (I have barely begun to work on this insight.)
Then I discovered humor in what I now call my tendency firmly to grasp a number of third-rail positions. When I say “third rail” I am using a somewhat common metaphor based on the dangerous third rail in metro train systems: touch it and you die. Google gives the following definition: “The third rail of a nation’s politics is a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is ‘charged’ and ‘untouchable’ to the extent that any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically.” In other words, I express a number of non-mainstream views that risk turning off large proportions of people who might otherwise enjoy my philosophy of living (for example, by speaking of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man to express the throbbing spiritual heart of that philosophy, the concept and experience of what I more often refer to diplomatically as “the universal family”). Seeing a humorous aspect to my idiosyncratic tenacity helps me avoid tension and also helps me be open to learn new ways of thinking and speaking in conversation with others who think or speak differently.
On December 10, my word of the day was “Let’s do it together.” That word arose during communion, and its primary meaning for me was spiritual–the other key dimension of social life. Later that day, I decided to socialize by going out to a gathering to which a friend had invited me. From his email, I received the mistaken impression that this would be an interreligious gathering to respond to the San Bernardino massacre. Instead it turned out to be a regular weekly gathering of Baha’is and their guests. There was the host family including two young children, another Baha’i, and myself. I had an enormously good time relating with the family; and I was glad to meet the other gentleman. Toward the end of the evening, however, I subtly failed to sustain the spiritual quality of my relating. It turns out that the host of the event knew of me already, had seen something of my book, The Golden Rule, and our mutual friend had told him about me and my teaching. So I was asked about these achievements . . . and fell into the trap of getting involved answering questions on a cultural level in a way that let go of the spiritual depth of divine and human socialization that we had experienced earlier in the evening in prayer, music, and our earlier conversation.
A couple days later, my word of the day was, “Be you wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” At the gym, I realized the art of living (and teaching) as arising from the simultaneous embrace of two levels of attitude: (1) a trust in the universe as friendly; and (2) the wise and serpents and harmless as doves response to factual realism: there are opponents out there, and if I descend to impatience-anger-contempt I stir up trouble for others and for myself, not to mention extra difficulties the God whom I aim to serve and who desires to help, not provoke, those whom I am affecting. I now regard spiritual-and-intellectual maturity as the ability to embrace two levels simultaneously: spiritual-cosmic and factual-practical. I know from experience that it is possible to do this, and I know that I will in time master the habit of living in that mature and integrated way.
Last Sunday my word of the day was “Trust us.” And in the evening I engaged in blessed social rejoicing in my relationship with God.
Last Monday I realized that I cannot perform my function as a philosopher unless I also mobilize the Spirit-given power of an evangelist as I give voice to the throbbing spirit-value heart of that philosophy. That afternoon I conversed with a person and cleared up my misunderstanding of him; learning about him enabled me to establish my relationship with him on an entirely new level. After the conversation I was flooded with an attitude of divine mercy towards people, realized that this attitude of merciful love is the secret of whetting appetites: not by challenging my listeners but by patiently and lovingly expressing the way that I am finding, totally and patiently accepting the fact of where the other person person is and how he may express himself. That gift from God made the day feel like a watershed in my life. I knew that I would need to work repeatedly to sustain the vision of that divinely given attitude; but I also felt that I had been given an insight that would eventually transform my teaching and my life. I had been given a taste of how Jesus lived, the key to my realization and practice of brotherhood.
Tuesday evening it was back to Toastmasters, but I hadn’t sufficiently prepared myself spiritually and did not relate up to my own standards. The lesson: Un-centered socializing blesses no one.
This evening, Wednesday, I find that I have written more than enough, so I’m going to go ahead and schedule this post for Saturday. Beginning next week, I will be responding to comments to this blog post, but will otherwise be on vacation until Saturday, January 9.
The photo is of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.