Thursday, December 28, 2017

Bringing out the best

As New Year approaches, I am thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Most of those I have made in the past have gone unattained, ranging from losing weight to being a better husband and father. This year, one notion seems stuck in my mind – namely, bringing out the best in others. That is advice from my father, the rabbi, as he was explaining to me as an adolescent what it meant to be a rabbi. I have paraphrased his advice as being a rabbi was to be a teacher - someone who is the voice that encourages, the ear that listens, the eye that reflects, the hand that guides, the face that does not turn away. That is how he thought about bringing out the best in others. Ironically, as he was trying to help me decide to become a rabbi, I was becoming convinced that I could not live up to those demands as so well exemplified in his life.

Even more ironic is the fact that I became a teacher instead of becoming a rabbi. And now, towards the end of that career, I am wondering to what extent I have met his criteria for being a teacher. My conclusion is that I have fallen short, so I am considering adopting the New Year’s resolution of bringing out the best in others.

Given my training, I am also wondering what bringing out the best in others entails. What comes to mind first is the idea of being the coach of an athletic team. The coach is trying to bring out the best in team members. Why? To have a winning season? So that team members will feel good about having done their best? So that team members will improve and do even better next year? As I am not an athlete and have not been coached, I really do not know. I do recall a high school boy who, as a junior lifesaver, coached a blind and deaf child in swimming, however. The goal was to give the child an enjoyable summer. The child had a different goal, however. He wanted to learn to swim, and the boy’s coach decided to support that goal, which was attained much to the surprise of the parents and the senior lifeguards. That incident leaves me thinking that what is best for someone else is best left to that person’s determination.

It seems to me that too many people think they know what is best for someone else in terms of a career choice, or a religious choice, or a place to live, or a job, or a partner, and so on. One of my mentors in computer science told me that he did not know the religion of his daughter who had just married. He said that he left such choices to his children and purposefully chose not to interfere or even influence them one way or another. I tried to follow his guidance but found myself unable to follow through as well as he had done. Over the years, I discovered that my own children often chose to do the opposite of what I had recommended even though I usually only offered advice when asked.

I remember my father telling my sister when she was about to ask a personal question that she should not ask if she was not willing to hear the answer. She asked anyway and he told her the standard orthodox answer about piercing parts of one’s body. He later eased up somewhat and allowed her to have her ears pierced. He never turned away from his children or his wife of so many years.

So, how do I bring out the best in others when I do not know what is best for someone else? Leave it up to that person to say what is best for him or her? There is a problem with that approach as well. In thinking about my own case, I have often thought something was best for me when it turned out not to be the case. Then there is Nietzsche’s criticism of Socrates in Twilight of the Idols – namely that Socrates claimed to know the value of life, of his own life, but that Socrates failed to realize that one is not in a position to judge one’s own life as that involves an inescapable bias. In addition, one can go as far back as Plato to find the notion that acting badly (i.e., not doing what is best for oneself, in Plato’s terms) is a result of ignorance or lack of understanding what is truly good. Moreover, one can find emphasis on doing what is good or what is right in nearly all religions, including Buddhism , Christianity, Confucionism, Islam, Judaism. I am particularly fond of Rabbi Hillel’s formulation – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” I like the balance between oneself and others in Hillel’s formulation. I like the notion that by acting one way or another one is becoming more of one kind of person and less of a different kind of person.

That last thought led me to Bouwsma’s note in one of his unpublished journals – “surely your life will show what you think about yourself.” Bouwsma was writing about Socrates in that entry and he considered Socrates as someone who talked highly and acted accordingly leaving most others in one of the remaining categories (talking low but acting well – quite rare; talking and acting low – as in too many people in high political positions; talking well but acting low – unfortunately not rare and the category in which Socrates regarded so many Athenians). I know I have mixed up the labels – high and low, well and badly – but perhaps the idea is still clear.

Where does that leave me? Well, I am still wondering how I will determine how to bring out the best in others. Perhaps the most I can do is ask another person if he or she believes that this or another course of action is what is best for him or her and others involved. Or I might ask what kind of person someone who does this or that becomes. Or, more innocently, I could ask what other options are possible and what that person is assuming. Well, I can ask but I should not turn away.

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