Though longer than normal, I hope this post is worthy of your time, thoughtful consideration, and comments.
Today I saw an article in the Huffington Post about a woman, Tanya Ditty, testifying before the GA state legislature. The article even includes a link to a YouTube video of her speaking. She is speaking against a proposed bill that would ban discrimination against state workers based on sexual orientation.
I was shocked, not because she was testifying against a workplace non-discrimination bill, but because I actually know Tanya, and she’s appearing in the Huffington Post. We worked for the same school district in the mid-1990s when I first met her. She was always very pleasant and always tried to be very helpful to everyone. Her job, at the time, was to teach staff members about technology. But I (and others) often found her to be frustrating.
I called her one day and asked if she would come to my office to teach me about Microsoft Excel. She was delighted to do so. When she arrived she began with the very basics of the program. I politely interrupted her early on and said, “Tonya, I’ve already taught myself all the basic stuff. What I really need to learn and want you to teach me is: 1) How can I… 2) How can I…”
My request was then not very well received. This wasn’t what she expected, and, unknown to me, wasn’t the way things were “supposed” to be done. I guess, back then, adult learners were not expected to want to direct their own learning. At the time she seemed incapable of digressing from a prescribed path of linear thought. No doubt she had been told by her supervisor that she was to do X, Y, and then Z to make sure her adult learners met specific criteria for “mastery.” She took her job very seriously, wanted to do it well, and was going to be very diligent in accomplishing the task she was assigned. I’ve seen this many, many times before.
As a child attending a Christian school, many of the teachers I had were the same way. They were even incapable of thinking for themselves. (I am not saying that Tanya is.) Even as a child I perceived that some of them actually needed someone to tell them what to think, what do to, how to make sense of and behave in this world. They were very literal in their approach to the world in which they lived. They actually needed the world around them to be small, carefully defined, knowable, predictable, safe and secure, based in definable cause and effect. The Beka Book curriculum they taught was completely prescribed. These people wanted to know what was right and took comfort in believing that if they did the right things, then good things would happen to them. They would always choose to do the right things.
I was not really wired this way as a child. I always wanted to know, “What if…” I wanted to build and create new things. I had some sort of internal need to explore possibilities, to define the parameters that would make something work, change the way it worked, make it work even better. Initially, I don’t think that even my parents understood this about me.
I recall telling my mother one day that I was going out into the garage to build a boat. She told me that I needed to stop living in a fantasy world. Living on the Gulf Coast, I guess she thought I intended to build a regular boat since I had already made a wooden go cart which I rode in at high speed down the street until the steering mechanism collapsed, throwing me out of the “vehicle” while I was flying downhill. (Perhaps my mother’s advice was good advice. I don’t think she ever knew that I tried to make a parachute and jumped off our 2 story house with it. Needless to say it didn’t work. One jump was sufficient to abandon that endeavor.)
Indeed, I built a boat that day. It was a simple piece of wood with a copper tube coiled around a candle. The ends of the copper coil went into the water. My theory was that the candle would heat the air in the copper coil and create bubbles that would propel the boat. My boat was more successful than my parachute, but less successful than my go cart.
But most of my experimentation was done with music. Could I take a traditional melody and improve it or add something harmonic, rhythmic, or even melodic to enhance the meaning or emotive context of the melody? Could I even create a new, never-before-heard melody that people genuinely liked? These were among the “great,” self-assigned challenges of my youth. I began having success with my musical explorations and loved arranging and composing!
For whatever reason, I always wanted to expand the world around me. Many of the teachers who taught me through the years (most of the creative ones seemed to be the exception) wanted, no, they needed the security of a predictable world. These are two entirely different ways of thinking. One way of thinking strives to know and conserve the world as it is. The other way of thinking wants to extend, improve, and create a new or better world.
The way we think: is it basically hard wired into our brains at birth or can we choose it, can we change it, can we transform it? If we can, to what extent?
Must those among us with an affinity to do so always look at the world around us in simple binary terms: on or off, right or left, good or bad, black or white? Or can we choose to see degrees of possibility, degrees of exploration between polar opposites? Can we explore possibility, explore “better” and “best” and even “better than best” and even…
Now to be sure, I understand the frustrations of people who prefer a simple, small, binary world. Shortly after my grandfather died, my grandmother moved. At the same time, Ma Bell was split up, and my then seventy-three year old grandmother now had numerous decisions to make about her new phone service. She hated it. She didn’t understand “call waiting” and the numerous other possibilities now available to her. She longed for what was once a simpler world when you just told AT&T you wanted a phone–end of setup process. Goodness knows, don’t we all, to some extent, long for a simpler world?! The concept of a simpler world seems easier to understand and navigate, seems to require less of us.
Having more possibilities demands more of us, requires that we know and understand more things. Ambiguity requires personal effort and can be uncomfortable and even taxing. Allowing something that we don’t yet understand to just be suspended in an “I’ll grapple with this later” file can be disconcerting, especially if that file grows larger and larger with more things we don’t yet understand. And when the pace in which that file grows larger continues to increase… well, it just can be overwhelming.
At a seemingly ever increasing pace, we have to let go of the old and make room for the new. This endless process moves forward in time. I had to let go of the 45 single and learn about the 8 track tape. I had to let go of the 8 track tape and learn about the cassette. I had to let go of the cassette and learn about the CD. And today I’m letting go of the CD and learning about audio file compression formats, bit rate, mp3 players, embed options, streaming from cloud servers…
Letting go of the old can also create a sense of loss. After all, I was emotionally attached to my first car music player, the 8 track tape deck that I saved up to buy and then installed myself. It wasn’t just a car stereo, it was freedom! And who wouldn’t miss the simpler life of their teenage years when freedom from everything was just a car ride away (back when gasoline was 15 cents a gallon) listening to a favorite 8 track.
I don’t really know, but when I see people that have a profound need for safety, security and a world without the fearful ambiguity of numerous possibilities requiring more and more of them, I wonder why people like me are not as bound by similar constraints. What is different about us? Are we able to more easily tolerate abstraction? Is the difference in some way related to a greater capacity for malleable perspective–seeing things from a variety of perspectives simultaneously? Is this rooted in a capacity to delay defining a thing or experience in those easy binary “either/or” terms, an ability to delay definition or judgement and even perceive comfort in ambiguity? Is this related to a time tolerance for dealing with uncertainty–in other words, do some people find so much discomfort in not knowing or not understanding and therefore need a sense of understanding much sooner than others so they can define, label, and then dismiss? Is this related to one’s willingness or even ability to invest the personal effort required to explore and understand possibility? Is this related to a capacity for imagination?
I’m confident I’ve missed many other possible explanations for why some people can tolerate living in a more complex world comprised of numerous possibilities while others feel a need for the simpler world comprised of easily understood binary choices of good/bad, yes/no, if “x” then “y,” etc. And I suspect that all of the possible explanations are in fact scales of degree themselves. In other words, people most likely don’t find one explanation defines their tolerance for ambiguity and no other, but probably find that various possibilities resonate with them to some degree or another.
As I write, I’ve found that a single word keeps reoccurring as I try to more precisely express the ideas rambling around in my head: tolerate. What is my tolerance level for things I don’t yet, or may never, understand. To what extent can I tolerate ambiguity, the unexpected, more being required of me? How well do I tolerate not knowing in what box to neatly place an experience, a person, a place, a feeling? Extending the idea of tolerance even further: When I find something to be intolerable to me, should I try to make it go away, make it cease to exist at all, deny that it exists? And this brings me back full circle.
Tanya finds a bill that was designed to prevent discrimination in the work place to be more than she can tolerate. She reports having encountered a transgendered person in a ladies’ bathroom. She was offended. Seeing this person there required too much tolerance from her. Perhaps Tanya thinks transgendered people shouldn’t be allowed to use the women’s restroom.
Several years ago now, in the same state not far from where Tanya spoke to legislators, I attended a Billy Joel and Elton John joint concert. It was totally awesome! At intermission, I went to the men’s room and was astonished and, admittedly, uncomfortable to see women in line to use the men’s room with all of the men. Inside the bathroom, even as men were lined up using the urinals against one wall, against the opposite wall were women lined up with the waiting men. The women actually stood there watching all of the men urinating. And since the women couldn’t use a urinal, when their turn came, they had to continue to wait in line to use the one stall in the men’s room if it was not yet available. Not a single man, next in line when the stall came available, gave any woman his place, and it seemed that numerous men appeared to have deliberately urinated all over the toilet seat in the stall–all that passive-aggressive behavior. I was later told that women had secured access to use the men’s room through some successful lawsuit.
Unlike Tanya, despite my encounter with women in the men’s room, I never found myself lobbying state lawmakers over the sanctity of the toilet. But maybe she’s on to something. Maybe we need a new law: DOTTA (the Defense of The Toilet Act). It could require every citizen have his or her chip-embedded gender identity card (sort of like a passport) to access the appropriate toilet–another binary choice: male/female. Or is life just a bit more complicated than that?