Sunday, June 20, 2010

What's the measure of the life of a woman or a man?

Those who work with me know that among other things, I am prone to having some rather zany loose associations. I've talked with people about what the Broadway version of their life would be; ask why they think particular songs, movies, or television shows are stuck in my mind; and otherwise find ways to let our creative minds roam free to find ways to connect powerful metaphors with the very real and serious process of therapeutic growth and change.

With that said I've spent the last several weeks distracted by a particular song from a Broadway musical. I've randomly been humming along to Seasons of Love from the musical Rent. It's led me to spend an awful lot of time thinking about how we go about valuing (or not valuing) ourselves. I've also gotten more than a few strange looks from people when I randomly start humming on the street or in the gym.

I'm no stranger to thinking about this. In various contexts, I've thought about how we value ourselves for more than a quarter century. Years ago I learned something about value from a band director. This one time at summer band camp we were playing a John Phillip Sousa march. The director of the band just happened to have been in John Philip Sousa's band. The director stopped rehearsal one day when I had played a wrong note. "You, Horn," he bellowed. "When you play that note incorrectly it as if you have walked up to the Mona Lisa and poked your finger through her eye."


I was no stranger to being pointed at by directors when I played a wrong note. My high school orchestra directly repeatedly made me play a note over and over again when we were playing Bedrich Smenta's overture from The Bartered Bride. In a fit, the director threw his baton at me and came storming through the orchestra knocking over stands. This time I wasn't poking my finger through the eye's of the Mona Lisa on purpose. The score I was playing off of had the wrong note. Another director, with exceedingly long fingers, tapped his baton on his music stand and pointed at me (I was sure that his finger was going to make it all the way into the back of the orchestra and poke me). "You," he said. "You have no passion. You young people today know no passion." This one concerned me to no end. A note I could figure out how to play correctly (even on a horn that is notorious for being impossibly difficult to play in tune). But passion? How on Earth am I supposed to figure that one out?

Had Dwight only explained himself I might have learned something very important--the goal here wasn't spending hours in a practice room learning to perfect every note and phrase. The goal was to bring the music alive and create an experience. Music as a process, not a goal.

Anyway, I found innumerable ways to scurry about trying to be perfect. Years later in my second masters program I had a complete melt down at the copy shop. I was having my thesis printed out and it was printed out incorrectly. You see, the paper I used had a watermark on it. I was very specific with the copy shop people that I wanted the watermark positioned so it was forward on the paper, not backward. I got my thesis back with the watermark backward. No holes through Mona Lisa for me. I made them reprint the whole thing. Twice.

After telling my advisor this he asked me if I knew much about the quilts that Amish women make. Among the things they are known for is their quality. Yet, as my advisor said, the last stitch that is made is always made incorrectly because only God can make things perfect. He then pointed out a typo in my bound thesis.

Of course I'd have none of this and later snuck into the library to correct my error.

Once I finally got over that bout of crazy perfectionism I thought it was a good time to go for a doctorate. When I was first accepted into my program at Antioch University New England I was provided with a bookmark (this was a step up from the pencil they sent me home with when I interviewed at the program). The bookmark haunted me for a long time. Written on it was one motto the school frequently used:

Be afraid to die until you have won some small victory for humanity -- Horace Mann

"Oh great," I thought. I was already neurotic enough about trying to do things perfectly. Now not only did I have to make sure I didn't poke my fingers through the eyes of Mona Lisa: I needed to make sure I won a victory for humanity. Was one enough? Would two or three be better? How about four?

No sleep for Jason. I'll spare you the tales of being taught the finer points of the use of dashes (did you know there are three different kinds, the hyphen, the em dash, and the en dash?). This was a particularly crazed chapter of crazy dissertation writing.

My error here has been in interpretation. I spent a long time (and at times, still do) conflating the process achieving with the end result of achievement. I measured the value of my live (sorry about the eye Mona, that should have been life) by a result rather than a process. It's ironic, because had I paid attention to a different motto from my education (Goddard College often talks about learning being about the journey, not the destination) I might have saved myself from some needless stress.

Focusing on the end result of achievement rather than the process of achievement creates a rather horrific hall of mirrors. It's not very pretty. The end goal is never achieved, thus value can never really be attained. There is always another paper to write, task to do, or goal to achieve. Life can quickly pass by, unvalued, unappreciated, and filled with long days of neurotic achievement (think about the watermark and dashes, people).

It is easy (and it many ways natural) to value our children and our friends for their achievement. We marvel in a child's first steps and are proud. We hang report cards on the refrigerator and give rewards when our children get all As. We celebrate graduations form grade school, high school, and beyond with parties, gifts and accolades.

These are all valuable accomplishments. They deserve recognition and accolades. However, is this how we measure the value of a woman or a man? We do measure value in accomplishments? That makes value something conditional. We have to accomplish something in order to be valuable--and if we don't accumulate accomplishments we have less value.

In-and-of-itself, valuing achievement is a good thing. As a society we value movement toward something. An investment in education represents movement toward a better life. Investment in a job represents movement toward increased wealth (and hopefully the idea of shared wealth, too), productivity, and the betterment of humanity. I don't really take issue with any of this at a very basic level. Yet, I also take great issue with it.

When we transform valuing achievement into valuing people for their achievement, we start to lose little bits of our souls. When we base the total value of a person on the end result of what they have achieved rather than the process of achievement we poison a person and begin a life long process of killing off their essential intrinsic value of the process of being alive.

What do you think?


  1. My Dear Jason,
    Here is what I think . . .
    I think you are an amazing man & an amazing therapist. Of course, you always were amazing from the time you were a little boy & even a baby. (This is Jason's mother speaking!) I truly love reading your blog & what I love best about it is finding out about things I never knew. I remember your band directors well so your stories really came alive for me. Reading about your experiences makes me realize how much of life--even your children's lives--is a highly personal & internal process.

    While there is much I can say about what you've written, time & space does not permit. However I do want to share this with you & your audience because I think it captures the essence of something very important that you have touched upon. When I read what your advisor said about Amish quilts, I immediately remembered something I heard about Navajo weavings. I did a little search & this fits perfectly with what you have conveyed so beautifully . . .

    The Native American Navajo tribe is known for its exquisite rugs; bold geometric creations. They were naturals at absorbing the essence of other cultures and adopting what best suited them. They were never finished with this sociological process, and in fact, they hated to finish anything. Completion was anathema to them, whether in story, song, or craft. They believed that anything that was complete, or too perfect, resulted in theft of the spirit of its creator, imprisoning it in the metaphysical equivalent of the creation itself. This applies to their beautiful rugs, which are still woven with a slight imperfection Ğ a thin line starting at the center and running to an edge, left as a dangling thread. The Navajo refer to this intentional flaw as a "spirit outlet". Whether it was in warfare or social interaction, literally or figuratively, the Navajos always left themselves an "out".

    I love the concept of thinking about all our human frailties & imperfections (and neuroses!) along those lines. I also like thinking about all of this in terms of a spirit "inlet" that allows us to grow & change & accept & love ourselves & others, & most importantly, to love the process. And not to get attached to our accomplishments or any "results" because you are so right, Jason, it's not the product that's important, it's the process.

  2. I think you are amazing, and I love your writing!
    I don't know what life would be like if someone told me I couldn't hum! Actually I don't even know that I am usually. I worked in a hospital emergency room for many years, and often caught myself singing at inappropriate times! LOL Then for 10 years I owned a craft store, and followed suit there. My customers would come in and ask me if I wasn't feeling good, if they didn't hear me humming. LOL Now that I am at home with just my Maggie, don't you know that she follows me to the bathroom, cause I make up songs about her.:-)
    I sang "You Are My Sunshine" to my husband while he was in nursing home, and again at his service.
    Do you sing to Magnoia? My last big poodle, Whitney loved my songs, too. I think that music makes the world go around!! Bless you, Jason!

  3. Thanks for both of your comments to this blog post.

    I indeed do often sing to Maggie (and the two cats and bird). Everyone is particularly fond of the mealtime songs. It's a sure fire way to get the cats to come meowing and the dog to come running with a very quiet "woof."

    A beautiful imagine, indeed, singing "You Are My Sunshine" to your husband while he was in the nursing home and at his service. That put a smile on my face this morning.

  4. Did someone sing the breakfast song again?