Following a Thread: Empathy and Jealousy
Personal Challenge 14 of 20
Side Note: In my previous post I'd mentioned the possibility of writing a post to dissect and discuss the the critic within my own head while I was writing. I was thinking I could preemptively protect myself against certain arguments. I'm not going to do that. For one thing no one is attacking me, so why am I trying to fight? For another, there is enough division in the world without me projecting my fears into the form of an argument needlessly. If I do receive feedback and am asked for a response I'll be happy to respond then (this is an invitation for anyone who wants to, to give me their thoughts). If not I'm just going to move on. I have a new thought I'd like to share with you today.
Start of Today's Post:
Yesterday was movie day with my BFF. We watched the movie Freedom Writers. I don't need to add to the list of accolades for that movie. I love it. I'm sure that many of you have already seen it or at least heard of it and have your own opinions and views. I wanted to talk about something that came up for me after watching the movie. It started as a random thought (fits this page I guess) and has begun to weave into something. It's not fully fleshed out yet, but I hope you will accept my invitation and come on this journey with me as I follow it. Maybe the conclusion will surprise us both.
Here's the thought I had: I would hate to be the husband or one of those elitist teachers in real life. I wonder what they think about how they are portrayed.
My initial response was: Well they deserved it. They were being A**holes.
Then my less impulsive, sarcastic response kicked in to add: First, you don't know how they are in real life. Second, that doesn't actually answer the question. Saying they deserved something because of who they are doesn't say anything about how they feel about their portrayal.
ince there isn't much more that can be added to my first reaction, lets follow this second response and see where it goes.
I started my dissection by thinking about the other teachers. They weren't bad people per-se, but they had an ideological view that clashed with the hero and the message of the overall movie.
Their belief was that education was a privilege and that being forced to educate students who didn't want to learn took away from students who did want to learn. They felt that the original students had been harmed by the integration program and their dissent and lack of empathy was partially a response to what they saw as injustice from within the education system. In their mind the world is mostly fair and individuals have the ability to make themselves better. If they choose not to, then their problems are their problems and not the responsibility of anyone else.
Actually this ideology isn't that different from the hero's ideology if stated in general enough terms; but it was specifics of application that caused the disagreement. These "more experienced" teachers applied their perspective in a way that favored the students they perceived as "wanting and education" and the families that were "supportive" of the educational system. What they lacked was an understanding that people can "want" something but give up on it if they are discouraged enough, and they failed to see that sometimes steps needed to be taken to help others feel like they have any say in the direction of their own life. If you don't believe what you do matters, then why try? They failed to see that sometimes people (all people) need someone to come in and give them a hand and say "Hey, you might not feel like it but there is still hope. You can do this".
I was thinking about the part in the movie where the "experienced" teachers were arguing with the school board people about what was fair and also what was reasonable and why systems existed and shouldn't be thrown out. There definitely seemed to be a current of jealously carrying through the conversation, but within the jealousy there was something else that I wanted to explore.
One of the continuous arguments that the older teachers brought up was how unfair it was for the original students to have their school fall apart because they were forced to bring in new students who didn't want to be there (integration program). This is an argument I've heard before in my real-life experiences. Before I do what I normally do and write it off as a sentiment by "whiners who have no idea what its like to live in an unjust society" let me take a second and see if I can understand their perspective.
Some time between junior high and high school I was introduced to the idea of affirmative action. I remember a conversation with my mom about it and she was upset by the whole concept. How was it fair?, She argued, that people were changing standards based on race? Now before I open up this can of worms I'd like to say I'm not going into a discussion on affirmative action. That's a very hot topic with good arguments on both sides and not at all the point of this post. The reason I even mention it is because it is the first time I remember really being aware of this ongoing dilemma within society of creating a "fair" structure that can some how balance both individual merit and understanding of entrenched obstacles.
Regardless of your (or my) position on Affirmative Action, I feel like this is the underlying conflict in the movie. The hero, Ms. G, was trying to balance on a line that involved recognizing that life is inherently unfair and that some students have had more (or maybe a better choice of words would be different kinds of) obstacles to over-come than others and therefore needed extra (or just different form of) encouragement/ help/ support or justice to get started; while at the same time, not victimizing anyone by saying they should get "special treatment" (in a patronizing way) or taking away from anyone who was functioning well within the current system.
I think that most people agree that life isn't fair, but that our social structure should be "as fair as possible" for "as many people as possible." The problem is that no one seems to know (or agree) on exactly what it means to "be fair" or make a "fair system" in an "unfair" world.
So now, lets go back to these other teachers with the idea that they aren't horrible people. Instead, lets recognize that they have one perspective and it is different from the hero's perspective in the movie.
ssuming that these other characters acted as they did because they believed that they were right (and ignoring all the complications that make words like "believed" and "right" meaningless), I wanted to go back and look at their perspective with empathy.
Without taking on any of their specific beliefs I'm going to put myself in this situation: I'm going to ask how would I feel if I had a set of beliefs that I felt were correct and justified and then I met a new person with a completely different set of beliefs-- ones that sounded good but I felt were simplistic and unrealistic.
I would probably start off feeling a kind of twisted compassion at the sense that this poor "idealistic" person was going to have their beliefs destroyed and prepare myself to help them get through that destructive process.
Then lets say that same person rejects my compassion and goes around my belief system to implement what I see as "unfair" and ultimately "unrealistic" policies, even though I tried to warn them against it.
I would probably be irritated and maybe-- if I were truly honest with myself-- feel a little hopeful that they would fail because then it would justify me. They would eventually realize they were wrong and I was right all along. I would then be validated as only trying to help them (thus I'd be restored to the position of 'wise hero') and could go back to showing them how to restore their sense of self when the world had torn it apart.
Now, lets say the unthinkable happened-- they succeeded. What would that mean for me as the person who told them they were wrong and then blocked them to "protect them and others"?
It would mean that if I was completely honest with myself about this whole situation I would have to go back and look at my own motives and beliefs.
It would mean that I would have to consider that I might have been the one who was "wrong" and that my whole sense of justice was completely out of line with true justice. I would have to do the extremely painful inner-work of looking at my own prejudices, pain, anger, and all the other dark shadow stuff I'd rather not deal with.
I might even come to the realization that the outcome I had assumed this other person would have (and even out of anger hoped they would get)-- the one where their belief system is ripped from them and torn to shreds-- is actually now my own outcome.
Now this might be the realization if I was brave enough, strong enough, and stayed still long enough to let myself see it; and as painful as it seems I would argue it would probably be the best outcome for me because it would give me a chance to rebuild my belief system on things I truly believe in instead of past disappointments, influences, and that host of other factors that make up ideologies.
However, this isn't the typical initial response to seeing your ideology fall apart (again this is based on my experiences, observations and knowledge and not on solid evidence-- so maybe it is typical, but in my life it hasn't been). What I have seen as a more likely response is that the first hint that a person's belief system is about to collapse sends out a twinge of pain which sets off a bunch of internal alarms. These alarms blare and point fingers to get the attention away from the possibility of internal collapse.
I think it is this second response that appeared in the movie. This is response that I think is often referred to as "jealousy". It is, in fact (I use 'in fact' as a colloquial device not because I can actually prove this is a fact) jealousy, because the person is jealous that their ideological opponent is validated while they are not. However, the reason for the jealousy goes much deeper.
Jealous in this case, is actually a protective mechanism. It protects the jealous person from having to look beyond all those internal alarms and consider the fact that they might actually be wrong. It's hard to be wrong about something that we really believe in. It is hard not only because we live in a world where 'perfection' is the goal and to be "wrong" is to be "flawed" and "imperfect;" but even more so because to be wrong means that you have to make a decision.
That decision is hard because what you decide will have long term ramifications in all areas of your life (and no matter what will require some form of loss and change). Basically, what this type of jealousy seems to be doing is creating a sense of security so that a person doesn't have to go through the excruciatingly painful (albeit transformative) process of tearing apart everything they believe in and rebuilding their internal life from the bottom up.
The reason for such a deep and poisonous expression of jealousy is because this ideological battle actually hints at a crack in the foundation of the teacher's current belief system.
It means that the teacher can't just adjust one or two things and move forward. If she accepted that there was a flaw in her perspective of teaching (and the world in general) it would mean that she would have to choose to 1. continue the path she's taking knowing that she doesn't actually believe in it (this would create a state of cognitive dissonance that is extremely painful and likely to lead to psychological and/or physical illness) or 2. She'd have to stop and tear her life apart piece by piece--the good and bad-- to get to that crack, fix it and then rebuild everything again (and this could take years to do and would probably lead to a bunch of outward resistance because it would mean re-establishing relationship boundaries).
The jealousy comes up to say: "The other teacher is wrong! Not me! Nothing is wrong with me!" and this spares the older teacher from making a choice that will inevitably be life changing and painful.
Jealously (like ignorance), then seems to be a temporary form of protection that gives a sense of security and stability. The problem is that it is just a "sense" and not actually secure. It would be easier for this teacher to say that Ms. G is overly idealistic, unrealistic, and that her beliefs are the unfair to all the other students than it would be for her to look inward and ask if maybe her entire life was built on a shaky foundation.
Regardless of whether this teacher came to the conclusion that she was right or wrong in her idea of what a "just" school system would look like; the very act of LOOKING at that ideology is terrifying. Jealousy serves the role of stepping in and protecting her from the "terror" of looking and potentially the outcome of realizing that she was wrong.
This is where I will end this. No judgement about right and wrong and actually not an answer to my original question; but I feel like this has been a valuable thought-journey nonetheless. It has for me at least.
Until I just wrote this I hadn't thought about the role of jealousy and though I'd heard other people talk about how what we see as "negative" emotions are actually misunderstood forms of self-preservation, I never made this specific connection to this specific emotion.
I hope it was helpful to you, like it was to me. Thank you for taking this journey with me. Please feel free to let me know what you think (just don't be needlessly mean if you disagree.) And thank you for letting me write this and helping my understand a new concept.
All the best,