Archive for the 'rationalization' 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.

Phone call

April 10, 2014

I wrote a post here a few weeks ago about how someone had not listened to me and I eventually expressed my dissatisfaction and we had a falling out.

Well, they called me yesterday.  Their proposed solution is they will be less insistent on having their way in the future.

I told them I appreciated the call.

And that’s probably where I see any improvement in the matter, that they reached out.

Because it does me no great respect to just have me have my way next time (which is their proposal);  I like a collaborative effort, but I want that effort to take me and my wishes into account as much as the other person’s.  Saying we’ll just do it my way doesn’t address that.  It just suggests to me they want something else from me, my business.

Yesterday I had something similar with a family member’s lawyer.

The document the lawyer prepared contained a material mistake, I called it to their attention, they told me I was free to edit the document.  I wanted them to do the editing.

I didn’t find their position respectful, either.  They yelled at me for being persistent, gave me the “I’m wonderful and have done everything right” speech, and threatened to no longer provide service at all.  This is a law firm this family member has used for over 50 years, they’ve been there less than a year.  The net result is that the family member will have a sizable delay before they can receive their sizable refund from the IRS.  We said we would revisit the issue in about two weeks, when the lawyer will be back and I will be back, but there’s an accountant involved (because someone else in the law firm mistakenly told me to have an accountant prepare the tax form at issue, which is not the tax form with the refund, but the accountant is holding everything up until all the returns are finished), so who knows when this will get done.

What do I take from all this?  That people find new and clever ways to protect themselves and make themselves comfortable at other people’s expense, that the very thing you want from them is the very thing they don’t want to do — collaborate respectfully and with consideration.


Revealing the absence or presence of willingness

March 22, 2014

I was thinking through what purpose a behavioral pattern of mine could possibly serve, and this is what I came up with.

I interact with someone.  Yesterday it was someone making something for me.  We go back and forth on materials and price and design, and then they do something I am not okay with, I protest, I am not heard, we repeat this sequence, I go silent, and then eventually I make my dissatisfaction known more unmistakably.

And then I don’t get compromising even then, I get a speech about the person’s integrity, how they know themselves to be this, that, and the other thing, so their behavior can’t possibly be a contributing factor to my dissatisfaction.

Which explains to me why I went silent during that interval between, on the one hand, protesting, while still trying to work it out, and on the other hand, letting the person know it’s not okay with me, while giving them what they want in the moment and then leaving:  there was nothing I could do that would make the situation work out for both of us.

They turned out, as I think I was surmising, not have willingness to compromise, to work together without friction or excessive self-interest.

Seeing this makes it easier for me to choose whether I want to, as they say, throw good money after bad.

I usually get, in addition to the “It can’t be anything I did, I know myself to be more wonderful than that,” some version of, “It’s your job to rein me in.”

No, it’s not.  It is written nowhere that I know that I have to substitute my energy through feedback for their energy in policing themselves.  It may well be that my unwillingness to take up this cost means the relationship won’t work out, but that’s a separate issue.  It may well be that my expectations are unrealistic, but, again, that goes to whether there will be a relationship, whether there will be subsequent interactions, not whether I am required by some objective standard to behave with them the way they want.  They are free to say and do on their end as they wish, I am free to walk away, instead of pushing back, especially after attempts to gain traction to work things out bilaterally have had no effect.

Yesterday’s episode brought home to me that my sense that the other person is not open to adjustment at their end is not inaccurate, and how the story they tell themselves about themselves makes it so unlikely that that will change.

“Our primary spiritual aim”

February 24, 2013

There’s a tradition in twelve-step work about not introducing other causes into the work, “lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary spiritual aim”  (that’s from the way it’s expressed in Al-Anon’s traditions, Al-Anon being the organization for the family and friends of alcoholics).

And that’s how I see human beings in general — being diverted from our primary spiritual aim, by problems of money, property, and prestige.  When the two are in conflict, our spiritual lives and our appetitive wants, we should at least take notice before we assume we know how to resolve the conflict.

There’s a huge tradition of giving it all away to pursue spiritual concerns.  There are examples of doing this in part, such as Father Henri Nouwen’s turn to pastoral care at communities caring for disabled persons.  He left activities like teaching at Harvard and Yale to do something at least outwardly less prestigious.

I think there must be a real difficulty in abandoning a pulpit, including a bully pulpit or media pulpit.  “I can reach a lot of people from here and teach them, influence them, affect them,” I’m imagining people are thinking.

Two problems:  what are you teaching and how ready is your audience to hear?

That work requires both speaker and people to make their own individual progress.  And, mirabile dictu, when they do, the public teaching for money, property, and prestige becomes much less critical.

I woke up this morning thinking about a song by Ralph McTell called “Tous les animaux sont tristes.”  I’m not sure it’s on YouTube or I would link to it.  But it’s what led me to the thoughts above:  no one wants to hear that repetitive plain bird’s chant.

In the song, the man shoots the bird through her heart.  She hadn’t flown away because he had fed her.  I don’t know whether the bird needed to have faith that she could find food elsewhere.  Maybe she was supposed to stay.  But when I feel tempted to stay when I am being fed but it’s not in my best interests, the lesson for me is often not capitulating to enabling the other person not to do something difficult by taking up the slack in the situation myself.  Growing up I was groomed to pick up the slack for other people, and it’s a habit I’m trying to put aside.  The hardest version of this for me is when I think the other person will feel abandoned if I go.  That probably comes from having felt (and been) abandoned myself.

The chant, for me, is self-awareness.  If the teaching is not rooted in self-awareness, I don’t think it will suffice.  And you can’t teach self-awareness without having enough yourself.

Post script:  I write with multiple audiences in mind.  Please “take what you like and leave the rest,” as they say.

Variations on “No”

January 10, 2013

I was thinking of that Paul Simon song about “fifty ways to leave your lover.”  My thoughts were probably not about the concept as it was intended to be understood by the songwriter, because in my case the person wants to pretend he is not saying no.

I was thinking about how a person can say no, not like the consequences of saying no, and then try multiple times to try to dress that “no” up so that it doesn’t look like a no.

I was also reminded of the song about Tam Lin and how Janet is warned that he will transform into a series of monsters but she should not to pay them any mind and to just hold on to him.  This series of no’s feels like a series of monsters.

I could try pointing out to my interlocutor this perception of mine that he is just saying no in a variety of ways, and that to the extent that that is a problem for anybody, that problem still remains.  I could explain that I don’t have to pretend that his rationalizations somehow go to the core of his declining, but he can so decline if he wants to — I have no power over that (or, for that matter, over its consequences).  I could point out that the consequences of a “no” will still remain, regardless of how he dresses it up, that what he is really looking for is that I accept his version of what has happened between us, which I don’t.  And I could reiterate that I heard his “no” the first time, that I accepted it then, and remind him that I even wished him well.  That, to me, is enough for my part.

I haven’t heard anything different since.

If he wanted to withdraw the no and substitute a positive response, that would be a horse of a different color.  I would hear the difference, but even more important, I would be hearing from him without the current smokescreen of ambiguity.  Ambiguity, or a disjunction between words and deeds, is not the same thing as a third path or finding middle ground acceptable to both parties.  It strikes me, actually, as a mistaken attempt to resolve dualism through the ego (and an ego that does not put itself in other people’s shoes) instead of through a higher form of apprehension.


December 5, 2012

I wrote a comment just a little while ago about how many people seem disposed to help only those to whom they already feel some connection, and how factors other than need seem to be involved in the decision about whether or not (or how much) to help.

I thought I’d give an example here that sticks in my head about such issues.

I knew a woman who had moved to Arlington (the town where I live), with her husband and son, in the early 1960s.  They had a hard time arranging to buy a house in the town, they may even have ended up using a broker of some sort in order to complete a deal, after many deals had fallen through.  They were African American, and it was clear that sellers and real estate agents were impeding their purchasing on that, discriminatory, basis.  They were educated, well-spoken, soft-spoken, charming and friendly, funny, gainfully and professionally employed, etc.

She was a school teacher, her husband might have been one, too, I don’t remember.  They were also very wise and insightful people.  I knew them when they were elderly, and they were the sort of elderly people who inspire respect and admiration.  I remember Costella sat with Willy, not long before he died, so I could go run some errands.

Anyway, Costella told the story of how, not so long after they had managed to buy their home in town, there was a meeting in the church nearby about civil rights issues in the South.  One by one, local townspeople got up and made impassioned speeches on behalf of civil rights, and many wondered out loud in their speeches about what they could do to help.  Costella told of how she finally got up and told the group of how difficult it had been for her family to buy their home in town and how there was work to be done locally on civil rights issues.  She said, as she recounted what had happened, that her words were followed by complete silence.  She said, “You could have heard a pin drop.”

And she learned, people didn’t want to do what they actually could do, that there were other issues involved, including their wanting to feel good, look down on other people, etc.

Why people help others and under what circumstances is more complicated than the stories we tell ourselves.


May 1, 2012

My father used to accuse me of rationalizing, and it got me thinking recently about the relationship between rationalizing a situation and what I call re-framing it.  Both involve looking at the situation anew from a slightly different perspective, usually in order to put it into a more positive, or, at least, neutral, light.  One is pejorative, one is encouraged by all kinds of people known for advocating healthy ways of living.  I guess a rationalization is self-serving, while a re-framing sees the thing in a new way without creating damage to others.  But I am wondering whether as a child I was searching in a way for the technique of re-framing without realizing it.