Sunday, March 12, 2006

Something about keeping it real and approval needs

Warning: This is a stream of consciousness piece. Read at risk of becoming as confused as I know I am.

I think it is a pretty basic human need to feel approved of. We obtain great strength of character when we make choices and behave in ways that allow us to truly approve of ourselves and feel approved of God. But very frequently people seek out the approval of other human beings and too frequently throw away or suppress their own identities in the attempt. Unfortunately for such people this strategy almost never works. A couple of particular examples come to mind.

A few years back I had a job in my church where I had some leadership or oversight of the Sunday Schools of a group of nine congregations. In those days I visited to observe lots of Sunday School classes with the intent of advising the teachers on ways of improving their classes. Ultimately I did not visit to say if the class was good or bad, I was just interested in making suggestions for improvement. In all but one or two of the observations I noticed the teachers behave in ways that suggested to me they were trying to get my approval or at least deflect my criticism. It was always fascinating to see what the teachers thought my expectations were for their classes. Where I was interested in content, participation, and discussion the teachers always apologized for how noisy the kids were, how fidgety they were, or in general how well behaved the kids were. Frankly, I didn’t care about these things much. There was no violence or trauma. And however talkative they were, the kids were almost always respectful enough for the teacher to give a lesson, and almost always came away demonstrating that they had listened to and gotten something from it. In other words the teachers would feel like they needed to put on a show. But the shows they would choose were things I didn’t really think were all that important.

Another example that comes to mind was the interaction I observed recently between a student and his family. In the presence of “other people” they talked, and laughed, and joked a little too much as if to show that they were a nice normal family. The reality was that in paying close attention one would notice that it was highly superficial. They would say things that demonstrated a great deal of factual knowledge of one another and an absolute obliviousness to each other’s states of mind, emotions, and inner-selves. It was much like I would imagine a high school reunion with a bunch of people talking to people they hated about old-times of misery with pasted on smiles and forced laughter, all the while people really just wanting to either leave or cut their wrists. In the case of this family it was easy to see the parents continually asserting or superimposing some fabricated identity on the student whose inner world and self-perception they hadn’t the slightest clue of. It was as if they were saying, “Oh, we know who you are.” and pointing at a caricature that was more a compilation of their demons than depiction of the student. Meanwhile the student was clearly torn between trying to be that caricature for the sake of playing along and wanting to rain down fire to assert his own existence. I shudder at the idea of being so unable to identify myself. I hope this student can discover himself soon.