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?