At the risk of opening with a lamentable cliché, the older I grow the less I know. More and more, I’m questioning old paradigms, not only in my work, education, but also in life.
Take, for example, the paradigm of sincerity. It is an accepted truism that we must be true to ourselves: old Polonius’ ‘to thine own self be true’ could hardly be more frequently quoted (and we conveniently forget the rest of his advice is brushed off as the witterings of an old ditherer). How about fixing our difficult relationships: we tend to want to have a heart-to-heart, ‘this changes everything’ conversation.
But what if there was a different way?
Michael Puett’s The Path: a new way to think about everything takes ancient Chinese wisdom and reveals its use in the modern world. He notes the ‘unhappiness, narcissism and anxiety surging in the developed world’ and suggests an Eastern alternative. Instead of prizing sincerity, Chinese philosophers emphasise: ‘honing our instincts, training our emotions, and engaging in a constant process of self-cultivation so eventually we would act in the right, ethical way.’ For them, artifice is crucial: we would not want to say everything that comes into our heads, and nor should we.
Puett talks about everyday rituals, such as the response to ‘how are you’ being ‘fine, how are you?’ This ritual is important: it establishes a connection quickly, and allows us to move on. We are learning to behave in a socially appropriate way all the time. The most notable example of this is the use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ We first learn these words as a rote act, and they are largely meaningless to the toddlers who respond automatically to Mum’s ‘what do you say?’ But over time, this rote act evolves, and we come to genuinely feel grateful to others. Puett reminds us that we construct new realities with such white lies all the time: couples say ‘I love you’ when they don’t necessarily feel that loving nurtures the relationship and improves it, allowing their love to grow with this ritual.
Our lives are patterned by such rituals, and our behaviour is the inheritor of them. Instead of saying: ‘it’s just the way I am: I’m a very angry/emotional/sad person,’ you should recognise that you have slipped into ‘patterns of behaviour’ over time, and you have the power to change those patterns. Why do some of us revert to our teenage selves around our parents? Patterns of behaviour. But we can change ourselves and our relationships. How? By focusing on each daily moment. If we change how we ‘live our lives on a daily basis,’ we can alter our lives for good.
A large part of this is in staying in touch with our emotions, while not letting them rule us. Puett notes: ‘you will not mend a troubled relationship with your sister by sitting down for a single big breakthrough heart-to-heart talk. It will happen instead through the tiny decisions you make about how to behave and respond every time you talk.’ So, next time she pushes your buttons, instead of responding, think: ‘I’m feeling anger right now. But if I can put that emotion aside and respond in a kind way, I can change this interaction.’ We can even acknowledge our emotions in a heated exchange to help clarify what is going wrong: ‘I’m responding in an angry way because I’m feeling threatened by what you are saying. But you are not trying to threaten me, so let me understand what you mean.’ If we can take control of our emotions, and then our responses, we won’t be buffeted by the events of life to happiness and sadness, but can instead cultivate ‘balance and alignment, or an inner stability.’
Puett compares the Protestant world view, so pervasive today, that the world ultimately has order and sense with the philosopher Mencius’ view that the world is capricious: ‘hard work would not necessarily lead to prosperity. Bad deeds would not necessarily be punished.’ He believes that if we fail to respond to the changing world, we ‘die in shackles.’ Our reactions can’t be controlled by the things that happen to us. Again, a micro, daily focus is helpful here: instead of saying: ‘who am I?’, which is something always shifting and changing, or ‘how should I plan my life?’ which is open to similar flux, we need to move our focus to alter things on a small, interaction by interaction level.
And this is why artifice is intensely helpful. We get further in life by employing artifice. If you march into work, bringing your mood with you, you infect everyone you meet with your anger and upset. As adults, we have self-control, and we can grow our self control. As teachers, we are artificial ever single day, and many is the day I’ve woken up tired and grumpy, to plaster a smile on my face and ‘get through the day,’ only to end a teaching day feeling genuinely delighted. Pretending to be happy is the surest route to happy I know of. Similarly, the ‘deliberate training’ of a pianist, the artificial scales and arpeggios, is what leads to the ‘joyful freedom’ of the concert pianist.
This way of thinking is vital for schools: ‘our habits limit what we can see, access and know.’ Our children with least self-control must be taught self-control. They must be taught how to behave, and over time they will internalise it. Telling a child to say ‘thank you’ for a lesson might feel artificial, but over time gratitude grows from the external appearance of gratitude. Telling children to sit up straight and ‘track’ the speaker might feel horribly controlling, but over time this artificial habit becomes a real habit, and one that will stand them in excellent stead when they have marathon attention-spans that will enable them to argue at length in law courts, parliamentary debates, and focus throughout complex surgical procedures.
Puett writes: ‘in this fractured and fragmented world, it’s up to us to generate order.’ This is true of ourselves, and also true of our schools. The world is a messy place, and if our children are going to thrive in it, they need to understand how to control themselves and their emotions, and learn the habits that will allow them to succeed.