A heartwarming scene: As friends and family dab their eyes, a popular 18-year-old, in Special Ed since middle school for “behavioral” and “cognitive” learning disabilities, hears his name over the loudspeaker, and with unself-conscious delight on his face shuffles across the platform to wild applause. He receives a warm hug from the principal – and his high school diploma.
By chance, I happened to be in that audience and caught that scene. We’ve all been part of moments like that. They’re the highlights, sweet moments that help other less-than-wonderful aspects of modern life be easier to endure.
It happened that I also met a few days later with that young man’s divorced Dad, who described how overcome with emotion he was as he clapped and wept (sitting well apart from his ex and her family) “just from seeing the expression on my son’s face,” as well as being “genuinely touched” by all the warm applause and support.
But now he’s consulting with me and asking, “Does it make me a bad person that I can’t get past the truth that my son really hasn’t learned much of anything, never studied, can barely read or write, and, if anything, has a shorter attention span now at age 18 than when he started high school four years ago?”
He wasn’t saying this to me simply to ventilate about the school’s apparent “just show up” standards for graduation. He was more concerned that the school didn’t see – or was ignoring – that his son’s behavior had also been deteriorating. Early on, his son’s sweetness and friendliness had carried him. He’d become well-known around the building – “kind of a school mascot” – but senior year he’d started to slide: angry outbursts, several “bad restraints” right in school in the last few months. Plus, according to Dad, “His mother doesn’t even want people to know how scared he can make her sometimes.” To me he asks in anguish, “Am I not supposed to say what I’m seeing? Am I supposed to just shut up?”
Apart from any direct advice or support I may have given this Dad as we brainstormed his best approach from here forward, his dilemma contains elements at the heart of our troubled times: does being consciously aware of our true perceptions and our honest emotions help us navigate this world? Or is “going there” an impediment, a “come down” or a sour note interfering with the crucial postmodern task of creating in our minds the reality we wish to be living in: selective cognition supporting your chosen “identity.”
So many people apparently agree that causing someone to be aware that he or she doesn’t know something, or hasn’t actually learned something, is so potentially embarrassing, so devastating, so utterly unbearable to realize, that a) we don’t want any part of instigating that distress, and b) we ”understand” – because we do it, too – why someone may need to deceive himself, or minimize the wallop, and even need be pre-emptively hostile to potential “truth tellers.”
Why? What’s really being avoided? Not the Truth with a capital T.
It turns out it’s the mostly little lies and small truths we/they haven’t been paying attention to, with the emphasis on the “not paying attention,” rather than outright denying. (That kid’s mother certainly knows her son hasn’t learned much, and isn’t really OK.)
It’s a kind of ”emotional” Golden Rule: I won’t call you on – or even notice – your anxiety-driven avoidance and your selective use of information and justification, and I’m sure you’ll return the favor.
The thing is, the premise of self-government is that, despite how hard and complicated it is, humans do have the capacity to manage their affairs and govern themselves. They can be “citizens” who discuss, debate, and come to the best compromise for now. Listening, respecting other opinions, accepting half a loaf, obeying the law, learning from successes as well as obvious failures, etc. etc. (your list is as good as mine), require either the natural temperament for such things or the basic honesty to recognize that’s what’s needed.
The rubber hits the road whenever an individual or a society “sees” something he or she wishes wasn’t true, but can no longer deny - like the anecdote above, for instance. It’s not that Dad is completely right and Mom is totally in denial. It’s that Dad shouldn’t be shamed into silence, because somehow it would puncture the fiction someone needs to be true.
Now what do we do?