There’s a small dirt plot outside the brownstone I live in surrounding a young tree, planted sometime within the past year. Half of it is overgrown with weeds, and all of it draws flies to the litter and uncollected dog waste that accumulates daily. I’m particularly in tune to the dog waste, having a dog myself. I’d guess that approximately 70% of the people who have dogs in my neighborhood do not “pick up.”
The other day I sat briefly on my stoop feeling the magnificence of early fall sun, and staring at this plot. Within 60 seconds my mind went through a complete pendulum swing from determining that I’d buy a rake and clean this plot myself (I’m a renter, not owner) to full resignation that not only would my efforts be in vain, as I’m sure within a day or two it would resort back to its fly-ridden state, but that in addition, my own dismay would actually increase to a greater state than where it started, because of the proof that apathy and disregard for the collective good are stronger forces than individual efforts to make a positive change.
This dance between our hopeful and fearful states of mind persists throughout our lives and often goes unrecognized, unacknowledged and un-guided. Yet identifying its power and exercising our ability to direct it, is critical to our ability to consciously choose the direction of our lives.
At exalt, we incorporate a discussion of what psychologists Osyerman and Markus call our “balanced possible selves” (PsycNET) into our curriculum. Balanced possible selves refers to the identification and relationship of our expected self, hoped-for self, and feared self. It’s obvious that what we expect for ourselves plays a strong role in how our lives unfold. But changing what we expect for ourselves, at our core, is not as simple as making a decision. Our expected selves are shaped by what we see and experience around us everyday. If our parents attended college, or we attend a school in which 90% of the graduating classes attend college, that pushes our expectations towards attending college and attaining the socially correlated outcomes like choosing a career we want to pursue, becoming financially independent, having the ability to choose where we live. The reverse is equally true. If we see family members who are suffering the effects of incarceration, are un/underemployed, who struggle to get by, our expected self develops accordingly.
Of course we all have individual agency. exalt illuminates the dynamic of the balanced possible selves precisely to help trigger our students’ awareness of the urgency of exercising their agency. One of the most beautiful things about kids is their resilience, the tenacity with which they will cling to hope in the face of trauma and persistent messages in every aspect of their lives that contradict this hope. In an exalt classroom, this often translates into students’ conscious identification with their hoped-for selves, despite the forces pushing them towards their feared selves. So to drive the point in about how powerful and seemingly invisible environmental forces can be, a discussion may go like this:
exalt Senior Teacher: “We’ve been talking about how our expected selves do the actions necessary to get to our hoped-for selves. But, can we expect to fail?”
Teacher: “What does that look like? Because nobody really says ‘I’m trying to fail’.”
Teacher: “It goes something like this: ‘I’m not going to go to school today. It doesn’t matter, what’s the point?’...”
Students: faces become solemn
Teacher: “That may seem like just a momentary decision, but what you’re really saying is ‘I’m preparing to fail.’”
Students: fully attentive silence
It’s true, we rarely, consciously set out to fail. But we do make decisions all the time that have a web of other decisions and implications tied together, leaning us in a particular direction. To rake the dirty plot outside my home, or not, perhaps won’t determine the direction of the rest of my life, but then again, it might.