The Light Rain Showers
October 28 — November 1, Amherst, MA
Seasonal Memoir Entry #35
to push back against the status quo in search of progress or solutions
You learn a lot about yourself as you age (if you’re paying attention, of course). Ironically, this awakening goes hand in hand with forgetting details of your past.
From an early age, I’ve pushed back on conventional wisdom, norms, or entrenched rules and behaviors. I guess it’s a personality trait, rather than something done as a means to an end. A few examples:
- Wearing Nanjing University t-shirts and talking about world hunger in parochial New England high school
- Eating cereal for lunch with the science department, and getting the other teachers to do the same
- Giving a day off incentive to students if they could avoid being absent or late to a class for an entire semester (it worked!)
- Taking the honor roll out of the local newspaper (and being skewered by Rush Limbaugh and Jay Leno)
- Teaching critical race theory for the past ten years — adding it myself to the course offerings at the school
- Ditching email at work
- Bringing mindfulness into the school community
While I prefer to deflect attention away from me, I have noticed that I can become a little preachy with these ideas and innovations, and I’ve been accused by some (the stress work in Needham) of seeking attention. I’d like to think that those who truly know me would not describe me as narcissistic, but it is nevertheless a reflection point for me, perhaps even a koan.
The Transcendentalists and Their World, a new book by historian Robert A. Gross, has me thinking about all of this. The Transcendentalists of Concord (MA), most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, pushed back beginning in the 1830s against old world conventions such as piety and sacrifice to the common good. They promoted individualism, piety with nature, and the goodness of humanity. Gross demonstrates that the movement fed off of the changing nature of the times (economic, technological, and social shifts), so one might posit that Emerson’s genius greatly benefited from speaking up at the right time and the right place (with the strong influence of Harvard College). Regardless, the Transcendentalists’ ideas still resonate two centuries later.
So what is the historical context for the provocations I am having fun providing? Will pushing against the rat race (at work, at school) in the West, because I firmly believe we won’t find happiness (or health) through striving for material success, cause people to shift their mindsets (and behaviors) on what is most important in life? Will teaching critical race theory (or at least social justice) to young people move us closer to an equitable society? These are questions that drive my efforts, as I have to believe in a modicum of self-efficacy, or there would be no point.
I used to think I was a radical. I am clearly not. I often feel inadequate. I tend to read things that reinforce what I believe, rather than information which will challenge my worldview. I don’t push myself outside of my social comfort zone. I’m nest egging for retirement. The great Margaret Fuller once accused Emerson of “settling for a placid suburban existence”. Perhaps unfair, as all revolutionaries need not die by the sword in order to change the world.
I’ll never be in the same league as Emerson and Thoreau, or Ibram X. Kendi and Jon Kabat-Zinn, or other idols of mine, nor am I looking to be. Instead of looking for a following, I would be content with empathetic joy in watching those who may have been galvanized by my example make the world, or their corner of it, a better place.