Sunday, April 24, 2016

"If you would just try a little harder..."

I haven't posted in quite some time, because I just haven't felt inspired. I've been going through a tough time at work, I've been sick, and I've been more interested in savoring good moments while they last instead of sitting at my laptop writing about them.

But over the past couple days, this idea of "If you would just...," keeps showing up, specifically how demoralizing it can be, and I thought, "I'm going to write a blog post to remind myself to cut this crap out."

Another variation of "If you would just...," is, "If you just cared more..." Unless you are living the most charmed life, you probably have some experience with these incendiary turns of phrase. We use them to judge both ourselves and others in a variety of contexts.

It's an idea that's thrown around quite recklessly in the world of education, so I'm quite familiar with it in that context. I just finished a book about physical, emotional, and spiritual decluttering in which the author suggested that Christians (or, because I'm hesitant to speak for an entire religion, Christians she happens to know) use it as a way to beat themselves (and others) up when they fall short of a Christ-like existence. And then again, this morning, on NPR they were discussing the belief that anyone in America can be part of the middle class if they only work hard enough, and the idea that anyone who hasn't "made it," is a loser.

How the sentence ends obviously depends on the context:

"If you would just try a little harder, all of your students would do their homework."

"If you just cared more, your students would pass the AP exam."

"If you would just try a little harder, you would stop valuing material possessions."

"If you just cared more, you wouldn't relapse into bad behaviors."

"If you would just try a little harder, you could get a higher-paying job."

"If you just cared more, you would find ways to save more money."

Looking at those statements in black and white, I think it's pretty obvious to see that, while there's a kernel of truth embedded in them, they're incredibly short-sighted, shallow things to say. For example, a teacher might care about her students more than any teacher ever has before, and she might work harder than any other teacher ever before, but she can't go home with every single one of those kids and coach them through their homework. Similarly, a woman on a search for a higher-paying job might spend every available minute hunting, networking, cold-calling, etc., but she can't force a job to materialize. If the economy is poor and there simply aren't any higher-paying jobs in her area, that's that.

We all love a good, "started from the bottom, now we're here" or "hit rock-bottom, had an epiphany, then dedicated life to serving God in third-world countries" kind of story. I certainly don't want to take anything away from people who beat the odds; they're amazing! Their stories are the stuff that movies are made of, often literally. But they're the stuff movies are made of because they're special. Can we celebrate these successes without using them as a metric against which to judge ourselves and others? Can we celebrate our own successes even if no one is going to make a movie about them? People all around us (and including us) are living lives of dignity and service, but if it doesn't "look right," somehow it doesn't count.

What if the next time you started to have a thought that begins, "If I just...," you cut yourself off and changed it to, "Am I doing the best I can right now?" What if you took the judgement right out of it, acknowledged what you're doing to be a better person, and then, if applicable, came up with a plan to prevent similar issues in the future?

What if the next time you started to judge someone else with a phrase like, "If she would only just...," you stopped and recognized that you don't know the ins and outs of that person's life, and maybe this is truly the best she can do right now. Maybe she actually needs help. Or a friend. (Or just fewer judgments from the peanut gallery.) What if you didn't tolerate that kind of gossipy judgment and instead used your time to check in with those people who might be in need of a little kindness?

It might not make for a very exciting movie, but I think it would make for a happier life.

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