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On the subject of meaningful goals 03/09/2012

Posted by ALT in Children's Mental Health, Philosophy/Spirituality.
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1 comment so far

Exhibit A:

WordPress is “modernizing” itself, as fellow users can testify to.  One of the biggest changes to the interface is a feel-good sidebar that pops up every time I publish a post.  It looks like this:

Yippee!  Only 1 post away from my “goal” of 90 posts?  What an accomplishment!

Never mind that I didn’t set this goal – WordPress did.  In fact, WordPress resets my “goal” by increments of 5 or 10 every time I come this close to elevating my lime green levels to that little star at the end.  Truth be told, readers, I have never reached the gold star, and I never will.

If I did, I hope it would look something like this…

(but with golden stars, of course)

But what if my goal were quality of writing, not quantity?  Or perhaps something even more nebulous and difficult to measure, such as raising awareness of the issues herein discussed; processing my own thoughts about the treatment of the so-called “mentally ill” as it reflects our society’s values or lack thereof; or offering information, comfort, or hope to folks dealing with emotional distress?

These goals simply don’t fit into the computer-generated, lime green paradigm.

Which brings me to my first point:

A goal set for you by an outside entity is about as useful as a bicycle in the middle of an ocean.

It doesn’t fit the context.  It can’t get you where you’re going.  And by distracting you from the conditions at hand, by challenging your very experience of reality (are we on land or at sea?), it may very well sink you entirely into someone else’s view of your trajectory and existence.

Exhibit B:

I think I might’ve mentioned that I teach music lessons.

About a month ago, I started a new student (let’s call her “Liz.”)  She’s a freshman in high school with no less than EIGHT extracurricular activities!  Three private lessons per week with different music instructors, numerous choir and band rehearsals, physical therapy, music contests and performances to attend on the weekends.  Her mother proudly told me that Sunday is the only day she has any free time at all!  (Liz quickly added that she has to do homework on Sundays).

This mother believes that her child needs to be kept BUSY in a very structured, institutionalized sort of way.  It is safest, wisest, if her daughter’s time, decision-making, and activity are all managed by, completely filled up by, the expertise of professionals.

This doesn’t leave much time for self-discovery.  Quietude.  Mindfulness.

And with EIGHT extracurricular activities going at once, it doesn’t leave much time to develop real skill in any of them.  Liz is being taught the art of dabbling.

Learning to play a musical instrument takes time.  Daily time alone, actively cultivating the skills and the ears necessary to produce a sound, and then refine that sound until it truly sounds good (we call this “practice,” and it is a practice – a meditation).

It is a discipline, a pursuit.  But it is something to relish!  During this alone time you are invited to continually reflect on the sounds you are producing and how to make them more harmonious, more resonant, more beautiful.  You are wrapped up in the magic of the music you are creating, and you are creating that music – not for pay or reward, not because you are forced to – but simply for your own pleasure and betterment.

If we are too busy to take the time to do this for ourselves – in any capacity; not necessarily music – can we achieve anything truly satisfying?  What are we really teaching our children when we enroll them in far more activities than they could ever really complete satisfactorily?  Again, here is this issue of quantity vs. quality.  My student Liz probably has more participation medals, trophies, and certificates than she knows what to do with.  Her college application materials will list a truly impressive array of extracurricular activities, a veritable cascade of golden stars!

But moving once again beyond the lime green paradigm, what has she accomplished?  Is she satisfied with the level of skill she has obtained in any of her areas of study?  Does she know what true competence in any field is like?  Will she ever?

Liz’s mom contacted me the other day.  The high school band has been selected to march in a parade at Disney World!  Liz really wants to go.  Unfortunately, she plays piano and sings – no place for these instruments in the marching band.

The solution? I am to teach Liz to play the music on a saxophone.  An instrument she has never touched before.  We’ve got 3 weeks to do it, and judging by Liz’s incredibly busy schedule, she won’t have any time to practice outside of our lessons, so that makes three hours to do it.

As her mom explained it: “if she doesn’t learn to play the sax, she’ll have to just hold a flag or some cymbals, and that would be embarrassing.”

Maybe her mom doesn’t realize it, but she’s going to be marching around pretending to play the saxophone (that’s all I’ll have time to teach her) – what could be more embarrassing than that?  Finding yourself onstage, ready to perform, and realizing that you don’t know how to play the instrument… it is the stuff of nightmares!

The band’s invitation to march in the Disney World parade is seen as a great achievement – all the students, Liz included, are going to be congratulated for their “hard work,” their “effort.”  There will probably be a trophy to display with all the others in the glass case at the front of the band room, they will be told that they have accomplished something.

But who among those students has ever known, independent of any medal or rubric or congratulatory figure, that he has accomplished something?  That it is an accomplishment by his standards, and no one else’s.  Who among them has ever privately or publicly rejoiced in reaching the end of a journey that was plotted, from beginning to end, by him and him alone?

If our children were permitted to do this — set goals that are meaningful to them and pursue them in their own fashion with the loving support and guidance (when called upon!) of their communities, their families – our society would look dramatically different.

I’d LOVE to see the looks of it.

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