Archive for the 'power' Category

Who built what

September 7, 2014

I am thinking about President Obama’s line about “You didn’t build that,” and how some people are happy to believe in their exceptionalism.

I wrote a comment somewhere on the PBS NewsHour website recently about my (public) high school’s record of sending students on to college; most of our graduating class did not go on to college, of those who did, most went to community college, of those who went to four-year colleges, most went to state schools … a handful of us went out of state to private four-year schools.

My high school did not have a great reputation, apparently.  My point in my comment was that I discovered, when I attended Yale College, Harvard Law School, and Yale Graduate School, that I had actually gotten a pretty good education at Dumont High School.

And I wasn’t the only one.  I had competition for graduating as valedictorian, and there were also students who were smart and learned a lot but didn’t bother dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s when it came to following teacher directions (such as underlining the questions  —  or was it the answers?  —  we were supposed to copy out in our science lab reports), so maybe didn’t get great grades but were plenty well-educated.  I hope they got good college educations, too, wherever they ended up, if indeed they went on to college, regardless of the reputation of those institutions, as well.

After I got into Yale and decided to go there, I called the local alumna who had interviewed me (I think she must have been an alum of a graduate program) to let her know.  And she said, “Oh, they weren’t going to take you, they didn’t like your high school, but I told them you were different.”

Which was disconcerting to hear, and gave me something of a concern about how well I was prepared and how well I would do at Yale.

As my residential college dean at Yale told me when a bunch of us were discussing who joins Phi Beta Kappa as a junior, students who feel they have something to prove often end up with the external indicia of success at college.  That would probably include me.

But I never internalized the experience of getting into Yale as the result of an interview as being that I was somehow special.  I found that my high school preparation was fine, in some ways better than those who had gone to private schools or to public schools with better reputations.  I took the interviewer’s remarks to mean that Yale would have rejected me for specious reasons and that she had redressed their bias, not that I really was different.  Because, as I said, I didn’t think I stuck out in my high school (except for the hair, maybe).

What I did come away with was less tolerance for the inadequacies of people in positions of power and influence  —  I suspect our system(s) for promotion to such positions are as flawed as the one I was told about concerning college admissions, and if the people who attain their positions think their success reflects their exceptionalness, let them demonstrate such exceptionalness in their discharge of their duties.  I am working on finding another attitude, but at the moment I still have trouble believing the systems work as advertized and that the people selected are better than many others who are not.  I am perfectly willing to believe that they possess other skills that contributed to their success, just not the ones they are claiming.

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The power of money and corporations

July 18, 2014

I had to send three tax waiver certificates from the New Jersey Division of Taxation to a brokerage firm office in N.J.  I’m up in Massachusetts.  I sent them by overnight express mail from the Post Office (and I used the street address for the firm, not a Post Office Box).  That service claims it guarantees delivery the next day by noon.

I didn’t need the speed of express mail as much as I wanted the tracking, and I also wanted the documents to spend as little time in transit as possible, to minimize the opportunity for their getting lost.

So I expected the item to show up on the tracking as having been delivered by noon the next day.

Well, it didn’t and it wasn’t.  But what really surprised (and frustrated) me was that the USPS thinks this is okay.  Their claim is that it’s all up to the brokerage firm;  the firm has paid the Post Office a handsome fee to pick up its mail at the Post Office at will, as many times a day as it wishes to send a runner.  Apparently this means that the USPS does not deliver to the firm’s door, even overnight express mail.

So my piece of mail arrived at the Post Office on the day following my mailing of it, at 10:44 a.m.  It was “available for pick up” at that time, and, apparently, that fulfilled the Post Office’s duty on this delivery, from their point of view.  Didn’t matter that that wasn’t my arrangement with them, they allow this corporate arrangement to mean that the firm can decline to pick up the mail until they decide they want to.  Of course, the particular recipient of the mail could probably have requisitioned a pick-up by noon if they had wanted to — they did receive a call that the item was there at the Post Office, although I am not sure exactly when — certainly by early afternoon.  As it turned out, the item was picked up the day after the guaranteed-by-noon day, at 8:00 a.m., and this wasn’t posted on the tracking until the day after that.

Next time I may try UPS.

I am surprised that the arrangement with this corporation was allowed to trump my control over how I wanted the mailed item delivered.  I thought that in many situations, people and institutions depend on the delivery mechanism, and timing, being as advertized at the point of purchase.  Instead, it looks as if the Post Office has outsourced this decision to the recipient corporation, if they are willing to pay.  With all this technology, I might have thought the clerk at the counter where I mailed the item could have been alerted to the fact that this service would not be implemented as advertized, for this recipient.  In any event, there needs to be better communication.  (There also needs to be better handling — one of the clerks at the receiving Post Office told me that the item had been flung onto the counter and no one could figure out what to do with it for some time.)

I’m glad the tax waiver certificates arrived, and I hope to be able to distribute the remainder of the account to my mother today, to close the account for my father’s Estate, and to, for all intents and purposes, have finished administering my dad’s Estate.

Horace Mann

April 2, 2013

I read the article by Marc Fisher in a recent issue of The New Yorker about a teacher named Robert Berman who taught at Horace Mann, and the issues of teacher-student sexual relations in the context of high school.

To me it was more illuminating about a whole dynamic than being about “he said/he said” controversies about sexual abuse.

Here’s a quotation from near the end of the article that sums up what I found so interesting:  “According to the studies, abusers are disproportionately teachers who have won awards for excellence; they groom their targets, often selecting students who are estranged from their parents and unsure of themselves, then inviting them to get extra help in private sessions. This means, of course, that it can be very difficult to distinguish a superlative teacher from an abuser. ”

I wondered how often the pattern occurs in slightly different contexts, with or without overt sexual behavior, including those involving mentors and their young adult protégés, and whether it could explain some of the seemingly blind loyalty of acolytes to charismatic leaders in their field, even after the younger partners move out into careers of their own.

I guess my assumption had been that even with participating in this sort of incubation period, a person will eventually burst out of the cocoon and become an independent thinker and their own person.  But maybe some people can’t and never do.

Two strands?

February 13, 2013

I was just now reading the Daily Meditation about intimacy.  I was trying to relate it to my own conceptualizations, and what I came up with was two strands of reaction during my experience of intimacy.

The first is the love itself that I give even if it is inadequate to resolve the other person’s situation.  The second comes from my witnessing of the other person’s vulnerability; there my experience is to be aware of my own lack of power but also the possibility that I can help (sometimes) by getting the other person in touch with effective help from other sources in the universe — I can sometimes be a coach or a guide or a signpost, and direct the other person towards help, or I can simply on my own let the universe know of their situation and ask for help for them, if that serves and if they’re open to it.

I don’t think I feel more than a passing sense that maybe I should “carry” more than I as a human being can.  I see that what I can do as a human being is to love with as little baggage as I can.  Maybe I should note that I did not come to this sense of things spontaneously, but through the experience of loving people who need more than I can do and who need more than just the love that I can give.

So I don’t think I feel loneliness during intimate moments.  Maybe I feel sadness at the poignancy of our separateness, or inadequacy or frustration that I can’t help more than love the other person and try to put them together with better help, but I think I still feel very much a part of a community, I am aware of the other sources of help, and so I don’t feel loneliness, if I am understanding what’s being meant by that term.  I kind of feel part of a team.

Two reactions

January 27, 2013

I’ve kept two Richard Rohr Daily Meditations open in my browser since I got back from New Jersey, with a view to processing them by writing a post in reaction to them.

One is about power and whether it can have a “good meaning.”

I am wary of power.  I have had the experience of getting enough of myself out of the way so that another person’s power goes through me or boomerangs back elsewhere, but that’s not my power.  I do occasionally gather myself up internally and assert myself pretty firmly, and with results, but again, it never feels as if the power originates with me — most of the time it seems to me to be a reflection back of somebody else’s willfulness.  So I think for me power with a “good meaning” would be power directed appropriately.

The second is about the Eucharist, including its dynamic of feeding.

I kind of hold with something Gita once told me, about how ultimately we recognize that we are the sugar, implying (my gloss) that when we have located the divinity within ourselves, we in a sense become capable of feeding ourselves with that infinite part of ourselves.

I actually take the cannibalism aspect that Father Rohr notes as a reflection of a difficulty in our local spiritual world that Jesus may have been trying to express:  that some of us allow ourselves to be cannibalized spiritually.  I think this especially happens when we are vulnerable while going through a process of spiritual rebirth.  How we repair this part of our world I think involves teaching people self-awareness, relegating enmeshment with others to others who don’t have consuming needs, and teaching people about the spiritual world and healthful practices in a way similar to how the medical profession has taught us about germs and hand-washing.  This last aspect I want to note is not about avoiding “evil” stuff or people but about healthful and helpful spiritual hygiene.

Okay, I can close those web pages now.  I may be heading back to NJ soon.  My dad has died.  Today would have been his birthday.

Power codes

June 3, 2012

Fathers in ancient Rome who had patria potestas (a legal category for power of a father) had in theory the right of life and death over their children.  Even though we in this culture don’t include such power, parents do have power and children are vulnerable.  Most parents try to exercise their power responsibly, meet the physical and emotional needs of their children.

So far, so good.  What about power over people who are more remote from us?  What about politicians, CEOs, bosses, and teachers?  (I’ll leave out groups like doctors and law enforcement officers and judges who take an oath, I think, to use their power wisely.)  How well do we exercise our power then?

There’s clearly a lot of room for abuse, whether intentional, through negligence, or unwitting.  What interests me here are people who rely on themselves to follow rules, as if in a code, for exercising power over others.  How do they know when they’re not?  Where’s the feedback?

Feedback is only as good as the perception of the person at whom it is directed, who might not even receive it as addressed to them.  People don’t see themselves accurately through their ego structures, their need to see themselves as a certain kind of person, for example, allows them to distort or reject the feedback.  And they can have no idea that this is even going on; they can still be thinking they are behaving well and adhering to the code.

A parent may think, “Oh, I am following the rules and have put a sweater on my baby because it’s chilly.”  But if the baby is still shivering, we wrap the baby in a blanket, too.  If necessary, we call the doctor, we phone a relative, we look it up in Dr. Spock (at least, my generation did).  But we are concerned to make sure that baby is warm, and if the code of Dr. Spock or our own parents’ wisdom or the doctor’s professional expertise fail, we keep going.

This second piece of exercising power is lost when the connection to the people over whom the power is exercised is too distant and we are also relying on codes.  We can be insulated from the feedback.  That’s where empathy is important: can we put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and can we actually see ourselves from outside our ego structures?  No code or adherence to it is going to substitute for these abilities.  And without them, people using power over others cause damage, no matter what stories their egos are telling them.

I have people in my own life who, I can see, have no clue how their stories to themselves keep them damaging people they think they are behaving well towards, even loving.

How do we learn to put ourselves into the shoes of others and also to view ourselves more accurately?  The first step, I think is willingness, and some people with power just aren’t; the system as they use it is working just fine for them, and they even have ways of justifying this use.

This is actually where I am finding my own challenge: how to deal with people who lack willingness but with whom I seem to be trying to find a way to interact, a modus vivendi.  I can walk away (and in the past I have), just as I could lead a much more contemplative life and be even less involved in this world, I think.  But my sense, especially from the repetition of this pattern in my life, is that my own challenge is to figure out a different resolution.  It probably involves getting my own ego out of the way, letting go, and allowing the forces in the universe greater than myself to have more space to work.