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Doing it Right or Doing it Real

One of my favorite minimalist bloggers gave me something to think about last weekend with this piece. In it, she proposes we work on doing things real rather than doing them right.
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As a reforming perfectionist, she got my attention. When I imagined approaching my life with the ultimate goal of authenticity, the relief was stunning. On the heels of the relief, though, I felt appalled. How can doing things real ever be good enough? As I’ve thought about this the last couple of days, I’ve realized this doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing choice. Maybe the most effective goal in most cases is to be authentic and do things right, whatever that means. Surely balance between the two is possible? The difficulty lies in defining the word “right.” Who decides what’s right? How do I know when I’ve done things “right?” I hate the answer. The answer is I know I’ve done things right if people are pleased. Back on that cursed slippery slope! A dear married friend said to me recently, “My life would look very different if I was on my own.” My friend’s honesty and the quiet sadness with which the words were spoken touched me to the heart. How do we recognize ourselves, our real selves, in the confusion of our lives and relationships? How do we balance authenticity and cooperation? How do we mitigate the damage to our connections when we choose to be right (what the other wants) rather than real for the sake of those same connections? It hurts me to ask these questions. I can’t begin to answer them. I admire authenticity when it doesn’t trample over the needs of others, but what about when it does? What about people who appear to have no regard for those around them, who are unwilling to hold space for any authenticity but their own? I don’t want to be one of those people.
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Doing it right, which is to say making choices based on what others view as appropriate, seems at first glance to be an excellent way to stay safe. The truth is, such a practice tears one apart in very short order, because there are too many onlookers and we can’t please every one of them. Here’s an example. When I’m teaching a private swim lesson, do I work effectively and appropriately with the student; please the onlooking parent or adult (in the case of a child); please my coworkers and colleagues, all of whom are very fine teachers and at least one of whom watches from the lifeguard stand; please other staff, patients and patrons who might be present; or do I forget everything but the connection between the student and myself for those 30 minutes in the pool and just be real and please myself? Teaching, for me, is like swimming or writing or dancing. It’s a place where I don’t try to do it right. I do it real. Real is a long way from perfect. Right seems closer to perfect than real. Real is intuitive, experimental, frequently messy, uninhibited. When I choose to be real, I choose joy. I try not to think about what that looks like to others. I try not to care. I rest in it and feed myself with it and feel fully present and alive when I’m being real.
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But then, so often, out of nothing and nowhere, comes the message: “You didn’t do that right.” No. Of course not. I almost never do. But I did it real, and for a few minutes I was happy there. This is not about an inability to accept feedback or instruction. People close to me will tell you I frequently ask for feedback, for someone to teach me a new skill, for someone to help me improve. Feedback is not the same as being told I’m doing it wrong. I’m always interested in doing it better. What’s curious about right vs. real is so often I run into this with trivial things, things like ironing, or washing dishes, or opening a can. They way I organize my stuff. The way I store my clothes. The way I live in my space. As I live my life, when someone tells me I keep the broom in the wrong place, what I hear is I’m wrong. I’m broken. I’m Failing To Please (again. Yawn.) Why can’t I store the broom in the right place? Usually, I acquiesce. For the sake of peace. For the sake of the relationship. Because it doesn’t really matter, after all. I can be flexible and adaptive. The difficulty is living inauthentically is an unbelievable amount of work. Everything is effortful, because I don’t do anything naturally. I repress my authentic impulses and desires. I feel numb, apathetic, and cut off from myself. It’s entirely disempowering. But it keeps things peaceful. It pleases others. It’s cooperative. I comfort myself with the fact that my willingness to do it right (according to them) makes others happy. I don’t believe my realness will ever make anyone happy, except me. I’m willing to hope for a balance, though. I have no idea how to find it, or even if I can find it. Maybe my real is too wrong to ever balance out? Doing it right or doing it real? My daily crime.
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Adult Learners

When inspiration struck and I set out to build a new website for my blog and other writing, I assumed the process would move quickly. I could hardly wait to see the vision in my head become reality. I’m a happy and motivated independent learner and felt certain I could fumble with the design software and master it without much trouble, the way I did when I created Our Daily Crime.

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The software for Our Daily Crime is nearly ten years old now, a tech dinosaur. The new software requires a whole new level of skill.

I needed help. Scheduling a meeting with a professional took time. Then we had to reschedule due to a conflict. More time. I turned my attention to other things and practiced patience (not very successfully!).

In the meantime, we’ve hired a new team member at work to join us in lifeguarding, teaching, and working with patrons and patients in the pools. He’s older than I am, and he’s working hard on refining his swimming skills and learning new techniques. We’re giving him all the support and practice we can.

I admire adults who want to learn new skills. We’ve just begun to teach private swim lessons again after the pandemic, and I have two adult students. When I asked one of them what her goals were for her lessons, she said, “Not to drown,” which made me laugh.

I did eventually meet with my web designer using Zoom, and I spent an intense hour and a half taking notes, asking questions, and watching her use the design software. Since then, I’ve spent several hours working with it, and gradually I’m gaining mastery and shaping the website I dreamed of. I’m elated. Can’t wait to share it with you!

As a lifelong learner and teacher, I notice how varied our learning experience can be.

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Context matters. I was wretched during my public school years. My goals were to achieve good grades to meet the expectations of my family and graduate. Any pleasure in the learning itself, for its own sake, suffocated under the long nightmare of those years. Graduation meant nothing to me, and I would have ignored it if I’d been allowed. My reward was surviving.

College was no better. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t belong there. Once again, I went through the motions of pleasing others and living up to expectations, two hellish years of depression, social isolation, and suicidal ideation before I dropped out.

I still wince when I think of the money wasted.

Somehow the joy of learning has been distorted into competition, capitalism, and perfectionism. Everyone doesn’t have equal access to education and educational tools. Many people don’t complete high school, let alone higher education. We don’t talk about education in terms of enhancing our lives and making us bigger. We talk about getting a good job, making a lot of money (or not), and school loans. Capitalism defines success.

Worst of all, if we happen to be interested in literature, writing, religion, music, theater, philosophy – liberal arts, in other words – we’re steered away from those interests because “they” say we can’t earn a living pursuing them. I’ve got news for you. You can’t make a living as a librarian or medical transcriptionist, either.

Apparently, education is not valuable unless it leads to making a certain amount of money.

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On the other hand, many learners in our communities are in it for the fun of learning something new. Their goals are about real life, as opposed to the construct of consumerism. They don’t want to drown. They want to do a job they’ve never done before and so learn new skills. They want to use technology as a tool to support their passion. Adult learners know learning enhances life. They’re not coerced into learning; they seek it out.

It’s a lot easier and more fun to teach someone who wants to learn than it is someone who’s having learning thrust upon them.

Adult learners have lived long enough to know how to learn. Not how to compete, how to cheat, how to work the system, how to manipulate good grades and references, and how to create their own personal perfectionistic demons, but how to learn. Adult learners also know something about how they best learn, and are able to communicate their needs and goals.

Learning requires time, patience and practice. It takes courage to seek new skills. It’s messy. We make mistakes, flounder, and fail. Good adult learners persist anyway, pursuing their creativity or passion, satisfying their curiosity and desire for mastery.

I’ve had the good fortune to know and work with wonderful teachers who have inspired, encouraged, and challenged me. I’ve also known destructive teachers who permanently damaged my trust, confidence, and sense of self-worth. The difference between them, I’m convinced, has nothing to do with their level of education or training, but rather with their power management. Good teachers seek to empower their students. Destructive teachers not only refuse to share their power, they actively disempower their students.

Healthy communities support learning and teaching, not necessarily as a formal process, but as a natural one. As a teacher, I know my students give me at least as much as I give them. Teaching and learning are collaborative, a sharing of power. To teach is to learn. To learn is to teach. Passing on my love of swimming doesn’t change the world, but it’s a contribution I can make joyfully.

Everyone succeeds when we teach and learn together. My daily crime.

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Confidence

I’ve been considering confidence for some time through the lens of minimalism. As I transition from clearing unneeded objects from my life (relatively easy) to clearing unwanted behavior patterns, habits and beliefs from my life (hard!), I follow the same basic tenets: How can I replace two or more similar but limited internal tools with one multi-purpose tool?

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I’ve always had a messy relationship with confidence. At this point in my life, I’m confident of my own worth, but have no confidence anyone else will view me as worthy. Truthfully, this doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Aside from a few close and longstanding relationships, I don’t much care what most of the world thinks of me. I realize now most people aren’t spending a minute thinking about me at all. Most of us are primarily preoccupied with ourselves!

I see confidence as a choice. The Latin root of the word means “have full trust” (Oxford Online Dictionary), and trust is certainly a choice. Confidence, like success, can be tried on like a hat. What I discover is choosing confidence for a day or even an hour significantly diminishes my internal clutter.

If I choose to be confident, perfectionism is no longer relevant. Neither are shame or anyone else’s expectations, judgements or criticisms. Defenses and pseudo self are no longer needed. Outcomes cease to feel like a matter of life or death. I don’t need to win, be right or exercise my outrage. I don’t need to explain, justify, or make sure everyone understands what I’m up to. Choosing confidence means letting go of all that, which means reducing my mental and emotional clutter, which means more peace, more time and more energy.

As I’ve been thinking about confidence, I’ve also been teaching swim lessons at work to children from infancy to nine or ten. I discovered as a teenager working with children teaches me as much as it does them. That was true when I was a teenager in the pool, in hospitals, in schools, as I parented, and now, again, in the pool.

I suspect confidence is built from a combination of nature and nurture. Some people seem to be inherently more confident than others. On the other hand, it’s not hard to mutilate a child’s confidence. Sustained criticism will do it. Careless language will do it. Refusing to acknowledge a child’s wants, needs and feelings will do it. Mockery and teasing will do it. Rigid and unrealistic expectations will do it.

I can tell within five minutes if I’m dealing with a confident or mistrustful child. Confident kids may be shy, hesitant, or wary of a new environment and a new person, but they’re willing to trust, explore and try. Mistrustful kids cry, act out, refuse to engage, or (most heartbreaking of all) stoically endure, rigid with tension and terror. A child who shrinks from my touch and cowers in fear of being dragged bodily into deep water and left to drown has certainly been forced by someone they trusted to do things he or she was not ready to do.

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As a swim teacher, I notice how much effort and energy mistrust costs us, not only the one lacking confidence, but everyone around them. A mistrustful, frightened child requires constant reassurance and encouragement. Their fear makes them more at risk in the water (and elsewhere) than their lack of skill. A confident child may frequently need to be hauled up from water over their heads by the scruff of the neck, spluttering and coughing, but as soon as they’ve snorted the water out of their nose, they’re ready to try again.

At the end of the lesson, all the kids are tired, but some are tired because they wriggled and flopped and kicked and bubbled with such enthusiasm and willingness they wore themselves out, while others are exhausted from lack of confidence and the firm belief they can’t. Carlos Castanada said, “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”

Confidence, I’m pleased to report, can certainly be repaired, and not only in those of us who are nicely mature! Confidence is contagious. I have a four-year-old in one lesson who spends a great deal of time comforting and reassuring another child who lacks confidence. The confident child encourages the mistrustful one, demonstrating skills first to show they’re fun and easy, and promising “Miss Jen will keep us safe.”

From the lofty eminence of adulthood, I can reassure a child I will not break trust with him or her in the water, but a peer is in a much more powerful position with such reassurance, particularly a peer who is willing to go first. A child whose confidence has been injured is at a distinct disadvantage in all areas of life and learning. Building confidence is possible, but it takes time, consistency, and patience with kids whose trust has been violated in the past.

We can’t learn if we believe we can’t. Being willing to try or to learn requires a teacher who never sees failure and only focuses on progress and effort, no matter how small. A child who is afraid to blow bubbles in the water gets praised to the skies if he or she can be coaxed to dip their chin in the water. Even if that’s the only progress they make in a lesson, it’s a huge step for a frightened child who lacks confidence. Blowing bubbles will come when the child is ready. I’m confident of that, I repeat it aloud with confidence in front of the child and his or her parents, and invariably, a lesson or two later, that same child is blowing bubbles with great glee, in between accidental inhalations of pool water. Buoyed by praise, celebration and high fives, the child develops some confidence, but it took the other kids in the lesson, the swim teachers, and watching staff and parents to do it.

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Lack of confidence is very expensive, and very cluttered. Confidence, the single quality of the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something (Oxford Online Dictionary) can replace a whole host of ineffective and energy-consuming thoughts and beliefs.

It’s obvious to me that consciously choosing confidence is the simplest thing to do. As has frequently happened in the past, children show me the way, and I do my best to return the favor, not only as a teacher, but also as a parent, friend and coworker. When others believe and trust in us, we are empowered. When we believe and trust in ourselves, we are empowered.

Broken confidence can be repaired. In fact, it must be repaired if we are to thrive. Not everyone in our lives deserves or earns our trust, of course, but if we are unwilling to trust ourselves, we are truly lost in the darkness without a guiding light.

“Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat and taking the tartar sauce with you.”
Zig Ziglar

 

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

As an oral storyteller, I’m committed to gathering old tales from all over the world and retelling them because they contain blueprints for life. Each story is a teacher, a small piece of code, a seed, a fragment of wisdom, a snippet of DNA. Stories speak to us about who we are, who we have been and who we might yet be. They speak in the voices of place, people, history and culture.

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Story does not exist without storytellers. Literacy is not necessary, as long as people remain connected enough to pass story on orally. A culture which unravels and frays in its ability to form healthy connections and bonds and at the same time stifles the acquisition and sharing of knowledge is in grave danger of losing stories, and when old stories are lost much of the collective wisdom of our ancestors is lost with them. We become crippled and impoverished. We lose our way in the world and we have to spend time and energy reinventing wheels we learned how to make hundreds of years ago.

As a storyteller, then, I come to you this fine spring week when the snow is ebbing in Maine, leaving behind rich, greasy mud, with the old story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Every old story is in fact many stories. A piece of oral tradition is like a many-limbed tree. As it grows and matures it branches out over and over. Every teller who passes on the tale adds or takes away a piece of it, reshaping it according to the teller’s context in history and place. Still, the skeleton of the story remains recognizable, because the bones contain the wisdom, the old truth, the regenerative pieces reanimated over and over by those of us who share them.

The essential truth contained in the idiom “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” has appeared in many times and places. According to my research, the first time was in the Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, as a warning against false prophets. The sermon goes on to suggest actions speak louder than words. Thereafter, the phrase was repeated in other Christian religious writing and from there entered into European vernacular. A Latin proverb arose: “Under a sheep’s skin often hides a wolfish mind.”

A 12th century Greek wrote a fable about a wolf who changed his appearance in order to get access to ample food. He put on a sheepskin and mingled with a flock of sheep, fooling the shepherd. The disguised wolf was shut up with the sheep for the night. The shepherd decided he wanted mutton for his supper, so he took his knife and killed the deceitful wolf, mistaking it for a sheep. Here is a branch in the story tree. The Gospel reference warns against deceitful teachers. The Greek fable warns evil-doing carries a penalty. The bones of the story — the consequences of a wolf disguising itself as a sheep — are the same. The story is now two-dimensional. Such pretense is dangerous for both wolf and sheep.

Another iteration occurs three centuries later in the writing of a 15th century Italian professor. A wolf dresses himself in a sheepskin and every day kills one of the flock. The shepherd catches on and hangs the wolf, still wearing the sheepskin, from a tree. When the other shepherds ask why he hung a sheep in a tree, the shepherd replies that the skin was of a sheep, but the actions were of a wolf. There it is again: Actions speak louder than words.

Aesop wrote two fables having to do with wolves gaining the trust of a shepherd and killing sheep, but the wolf is undisguised in these cases. Even so, the common theme is clear. A wolf is a wolf, and cannot be trusted with sheep.

In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Italian, French and English writers adopted versions similar to the early 15th century Italian tale, in which the wolf pretends he is not a threat to the sheep.

Most of us know the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, whose origins can be traced back to 10th century European folk and fairy tales. In the familiar modern version, a wolf disguises itself as Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and the innocent too-sweet maiden is fooled and subsequently eaten.

My favorite story of wolves and, in this case, goats, comes from my own childhood, the tale of the wolf and the seven kids (young goats). The mother goat must leave the house and warns her seven children about the wily wolf who might try to gobble them up. She says they will recognize her by her sweet voice and white feet, and they mustn’t open the door to anyone else. I was mightily amused by the wolf’s machinations in trying to fool the kids: Swallowing honey to make his rough voice sweet, whitening his black feet with flour. Of course, he does fool the kids and they are eaten, but, much like Little Red Riding Hood, the kids are saved from the wolf’s stomach in the end.

As an adult, this tale doesn’t seem nearly so amusing.

Lastly, modern zoology makes use of the term “aggressive mimicry,” which describes a method of deception by an animal so it appears to either predator or prey as something else.

I’m deeply troubled by what I see going on around me in the world. It appears many millions of people are no longer able to discern the difference between wolves and sheep, and this is creating dire consequences for all life on Planet Earth.

How did this happen? Why did this happen? When did this happen? How are we producing college graduates who don’t recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing? What kind of a so-called educational system, public or private, produces such myopia? For two thousand years we’ve understood the dangers of failing to clearly see the difference between sheep and wolves. Such a failure of judgement is bad for the wolves as well as the sheep. Tracing this old tale through time (when most of the world’s population was largely illiterate and uneducated), clearly shows us this is a learned skill. Little Red Riding Hood, the seven kids and several confused shepherds, all innocent, naïve, and inexperienced, had to learn to recognize a wolf when they saw one, or starve or be eaten. Critical thinking is not an innate skill. Parents, teachers and leaders must actively teach it.

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Here is a wolf. It’s an apex predator; intelligent, flexible and canny. The wolf is evolved to survive and pass on its DNA. It’s not confused about what it eats or the meaning of its life. Its job is to do whatever is necessary to survive and successfully reproduce. As a predator, wolves are an essential part of the complex system we call life. A healthy population of wolves benefits both the land and prey animals.

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Here is a sheep. It’s an herbivore, a prey animal. It’s evolved to produce milk, meat and wool, survive and pass on its DNA. It eats grass. It too is an essential part of the web of predator (including humans), prey and plants. Its presence, properly managed, benefits the land and predators.

One can certainly throw a wolfskin over a sheep and say it’s a wolf, but that doesn’t make it so. Now we have a sheep in the throes of a nervous breakdown, but the animal is still a sheep. It still needs to eat grass. We cannot change a sheep into a wolf.

Likewise, a wolf wearing a sheepskin does not begin to crop grass. Wolves eat meat, no matter what kind of a skin they’re wearing. A simple shepherd might be fooled by a single glance in the dusk if the disguised wolf mills among the sheep, but five minutes of observation will quickly reveal the truth. Sheep do not tear out one another’s throats. A wolf cannot be changed into a sheep.

The wolves of the world, those who prey on others, naturally have a large inventory of successful speeches and manipulations. They study their prey and learn quickly how to take advantage of it. They are everywhere, in politics, religious organizations, schools and cults. They’re athletic coaches and businessmen, people of influence and power. They’re shadows behind conspiracy theories and cults like QAnon. They disguise themselves with projection and gaslighting, mingle freely with their prey and pick them off, one by one.

In the natural world, an overpopulation of wolves eventually runs out of prey animals. At that point, the wolf population goes down dramatically while prey animal populations recover. Nature seeks a balance of life, and if we create endless flocks of fat, stupid, blindfolded sheep, the grass will run out, wolves will increase, and slaughter will commence as the sheep begin to starve for want of food.

That’s a lot of destroyed land, dead sheep, fat and happy wolves and then, in the next generation, a lot of young wolves starving to death and, (one hopes) a few smarter and wiser sheep and shepherds.

People say we’re a superior species to wolves and sheep. I don’t see much evidence of that recently. We can’t seem to remember what we once knew well. We teach our children how to press buttons, look at a screen, and pass a standardized state test, but they can’t tell a wolf from a sheep, and neither can we. The wolves are not confused, but the sheep are milling around aimlessly like … well, like sheep, ripe and ready for slaughter. We’ve allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into believing our true nature is expressed by appearance, words and socioeconomics. Actions don’t count, and neither does DNA. Off we skip to the slaughterhouse, following honey-tongued wolves dusted with flour, who praise us for our compassion, compliance, inclusivity and political correctness while drooling at the prospect of all that food. Meanwhile, our planet degrades so no one else is properly fed and natural checks and balances are destroyed. Even the noncompliant, troublemaking sheep who manage to escape slaughter will starve. So will the wolves, eventually, after they’ve devoured everyone else.

Maybe then the complex system of life can begin to heal. I hope so.

In the meantime, I’ll be separating wolves from sheep and telling stories.

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Jennifer Rose
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