Monday, November 25, 2013

Changing our Stories

This is a First Word I presented to my Quaker community, West Hills Friends. A First Word is a time to share a story of how God's spirit is moving in your life and through sharing these stories we can more fully understand the world of the spirit in the world. I hope this story can shed some light on this big crazy world for you. Writing it helped me. 

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Hi, my name is Alyss and I am a middle school teacher. As far as I can see, the only thing on earth harder than being a middle school teacher is being a middle school student. Some of my students come into my cramped but well appointed classroom with worried faces, and folded, tight body language of those trying to be unobtrusive. Others show up with manic grins, big bouncing steps, drawing attention to themselves with wild gestures and loud words. Not a single one of them is sure of themselves or how they fit in this world and in that, I feel a great kinship with them. Being twelve is really, really hard… but it turns out being an adult is almost just as hard. Actually, I think it’s just hard to be a people.

I teach science and my main objectives as a science educator are to introduce kids to great minds that have come before them and to give their minds the tools they need to see the great world in front of them. We just started a unit on the Solar System and so, fittingly, we started with an introduction to how astronomers have viewed the solar system throughout the history of western civilization. I should not have been so surprised at their eagerness for these stories – stories of men who looked and saw, were confused and then made sense.

One of their favorites and mine is that well-known Polish astronomer Copernicus. 500 years ago he spent his life watching the stars trying to understand what was going on in this big crazy world. My sixth graders love it when I tell them that the world is crazy and we’re all just trying to understand it…. Copernicus, me and them in the same boat of having no idea what is going on. After years of dedicated watching, Copernicus realized that the observations he was making about the heavens did not fit with story he had been taught about how the solar system worked.  For over 1000 years western culture had been sure that the earth stood still in the center of the solar system and the rest of the heavenly bodies moved around it. But Copernicus’ data just wouldn’t fit that model. He had to change his story to make sense of his observations.

He had to change his story to make sense of his observations. I probably said that 25 times this week and at some point it dawned on me – I’m not just talking about astronomy, or science even. When Copernicus realized that his new information didn’t fit this old story he most likely felt the excitement of discovery but I suspect he also felt confused, insecure, anxious and maybe even more intense emotions like fear, dread, sadness or grief. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

We have to change our story to make sense of our observations. We tell ourselves lots of stories about how the world works – that the earth stands still, that God created heaven and earth in 6 days, that those people are taking our jobs, that that person will always act like this, or I will always do this or someday my prince will come. So many of these stories were built on outdated information but humans are meaning making machines and we hold onto our narratives like a drowning man, even when we know how to swim.

We have to change our story to make sense of our new observations. Hah, if only it were so easy. The child psychologist Piaget recognized that when humans get new information they can either ignore it, assimilate it seamlessly into their old story or reshape their understanding. Fundamentalists, hack scientists and addicts of all kinds are prime examples of the ignoring strategy, but we are all guilty. Piaget called the reshaping strategy disequilibrium, recognizing how uncomfortable and complex this process is.

Disequilibrium. Yeah, I know about that. Feeling like the ground is shifting under your feet. Like nothing makes sense anymore. Like all the old rules and old stories are a bunch of garbage and you are left with…. Well, you have no idea what you are left with. Anxiety and fear, sadness and grief are marking my disequilibrium. I see confusion and distress in the disequilibrium that my students are going through – because what is middle school if not a time when you are learning new things that don’t make sense in your old world order. Their bodies are changing, their brains are changing, their social networks are changing and nothing makes sense anymore. Yep, I know all about disequilibrium.

Piaget says that disequilibrium is a motivator for intellectual growth and creating schema, understandings, that are ever more adequate for dealing with reality. The astronomers we studied eventually came to a schema about the solar system that has allowed us to send men to the moon and probes to the worlds throughout our solar system. I have faith that my 6th graders will some day be generally functional adults and I’m sure I will come to an “ever more adequate schema” though I have no idea what that will look like. And none of these disequilibrium events are easy or comfortable. But as my Zen Buddhist friend says, with that very serious look Zen Buddhists so often have – what’s wrong with being uncomfortable? You just want to tell them to shut it, but he’s probably right.

I have to change my story to make sense of my observations. I’m anxious, uncomfortable, upset scared and sad these days. I’m in a state of disequilibrium. I’m not miserable, though… a new thing is rising or else I would still be happy in my old understanding. Its hard, it’s not fun, there are a lot of tears. But I guess one of those stories that doesn’t really work is the one that says life will be simple, comfortable and pleasant at all times.

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