Thursday, January 1, 2009

Resolved: I will submit.

Two days before the holiday break, I sat in on an E-Period class at our school. E Period is our high school's "extra" class, held an hour before regular school starts at 7:55. E Period is for students who rise early so they can finish early or who are taking an extra class in their schedules. Or it's for students who will do whatever it takes to experience our legendary Theory of Knowledge class, only offered first thing in the morning.

I took this very same class with the very same teacher at this very same high school when I was a student (and not Vice Principal). And though I've heard many of the lectures and pondered the deep philosophical questions before, there isn't a single session of Theory of Knowledge that doesn't make me feel like my brain is exploding. Or like I've just had therapy.

The topic that Thursday morning was Submission. As an example, the teacher (an inadequate term for our resident sage) suggested that the title character of Hesse's novel Siddhartha finds his nirvana when he submits.

"Is there power in submission?" queried our Socrates.

I listened as students puzzled through this idea. They couldn't help but think of submission in terms of relationships, deciding that it could be particularly powerful in interpersonal conflicts...if one is employing the strategy of passive aggression. Which is not really submission.

Taking the notion of submission to a more general level, one wise student raised her hand and shared that she has learned, in effect, to submit to her life. The more she accepts events and circumstances, reminding herself that this is all likely how it's meant to be, the more satisfied and content she generally feels.

That sort of conscious equanimity is a little un-American. We noted that Western culture can be characterized by a certain amount of impatience, competitiveness, and desire to be in control. Submission has a negative connotation in this context as it suggests being dominated, losing, surrendering.

The teacher mentioned Gandhi, and another student alluded to Thoreau, which made me think of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, who endured lengthy confinements by submitting to their circumstances. These men challenged widely perceived notions of what constitutes resistance. And what is ultimately effective and changes the world.

And then a student alluded to Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea, in which the protagonist declares that "a man can be destroyed but not defeated." Defeat is a state of mind; the most powerful form of submission, we concluded, was internal.

I offered the example of traffic. Being stuck in traffic is most often a circumstance beyond our control, but we nevertheless rage, stress, and complain about it. Our hectic, crowded lives offer us many opportunities to just submit instead of stress out. So I vow to do that a little more often.

I remember living in Kenya and marveling at the remarkable patience of people I encountered. The easiest way to get from one town to the next was the matatu, a kind of share-taxi in the form of Peugeot station wagon, Nissan van, or pick-up truck. At the matatu stage, I would find the vehicle going where I wanted to go, get in, and wait for it to fill up with passengers. This could take anywhere from ten minutes to an hour and a half, depending on demand and whether I was the first or last passenger to hop in the vehicle. Hence the notion of "Africa time," which means nothing happens on schedule. Or there is no schedule at all, which is most of the time. Something wonderful happens when you submit to this kind of low expectations for timeliness. You just go with the flow. And you end up having more time, miraculously.

In Africa I also noticed how quietly and patiently people waited in long slow lines--people under the age of six, too! There's something cultural at work there too--I'm not sure what--but children don't whine and sigh and hang on their mothers or generally misbehave. How is it that we train our own youngsters from early on to hate to wait? To need it NOW? To expect immediate gratification at every turn?

I'm not going to have lofty ideals for my own kids, but I am going to work on my own patience and go-with-the-flow-ishness. I'm going to simply breathe a little more deeply, drop my shoulders more often, and stop, look, and listen. And submit to some of my realities, changing the things I can and need to, and letting other things just be.

On Siddhartha's search for self he struggled, but ultimately, he learns that "all this had always been and he had never seen it; he was never present. Now he was present and belonged to it."

Happy New Year!

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