Monday, May 4, 2009

My Own Way

Tonight there was a pre-graduation ceremony at Stern which recognized certain individuals for their achievement and character. One of those people was a teacher who I am taking now for the fourth semester. In fact, I have taken every single one of the classes she teaches at Stern.

What I loved about the way she spoke was how natural it was. She was truly speaking from the heart. I was grinning the entire time she spoke and really felt proud to be her student. I was truly, truly happy for her and could not have felt more strongly that she is one of the best teachers in the school. Nothing was clearer when she spoke than that she genuinely deserves her awards.

Afterward, another professor who won an award spoke. This was a professor who actually teaches Speech, yet his own speech was not at all as striking as the first teacher's. He read off a paper and there wasn't very much meaning behind his words. It was almost like he considered such a thing to be routine. I didn't detect real feeling, or even any real thoughts. Anything he said that could have been meaningful came across as flat.

That was one thing I noticed. There is such a thing as being too prepared. This might sound cliche, or cheesy, and I've been told this more than once before, but seeing it in action made me realize how true it is: what comes from the heart, goes to the heart. You can write a speech and memorize it and know it perfectly, and there might even be some really important things in there, but if you don't really feel what you're saying - forget about smiling, forget about posture, forget about projecting or any other tips people give you about speaking - if you don't feel it, no one else will, either. The speech won't seem real. It'll just seem over-rehearsed, or like you don't care. And if you do put all your emotion behind what you're saying - if it really comes from within you - all the other stuff will come naturally. You'll speak up. You'll stand straight. You'll smile. You'll look the audience in the eye because you'll really want to be saying what you're saying. And you'll want them to know it.

The other thing I noticed was that when the second professor was speaking, he spoke about his subject. Speech. Drama. He spoke about his subject and then he applied it to life. God created the world with speech. Through speech, we can grow.

As he was speaking, I thought about how he sees the world through the lens of his subject. Meanwhile, my literature and philosophy teacher sees the world through the lens of her subject. She has been helping me with my thesis, been guiding my mind all year through complex philosophical ideas, and has helped shape the way I see writing and some of the way I approach life. But that doesn't mean her way is the only way. In fact, I don't always agree with her way of seeing things.

But when people are so invested in one idea, that seems to be the only idea they see as truly valid. Oh sure, they'll tell you other people have other ideas that work for them, but they don't really believe those ideas are as good, do they? Otherwise, why would they be so invested in a different idea?

So I thought about the point of being exposed to all these kinds of people. Why be pushed around in various directions? When taking this teacher, I'm told to see the world one way. When taking another, I have to adjust to see the world a different way. And for a third teacher, I have to reorient my ideas yet again. So which way is correct? What am I supposed to be learning? What have I gotten out of my time in college?

And I realized that what I got is the opportunity to do my own thinking. I don't think you realize you're doing your own thinking until after you've thought a lot. Suddenly, you find yourself rejecting certain ideas, latching onto others, and tweaking others to construct your own way of seeing the world.

Just because someone is older than you and knows more than you doesn't mean that person is wiser, or that that person has the only correct way of doing things. There are different kinds of wisdom, too. There is an intellectual sort of wisdom, where you can take ideas and understand their complexities. Teachers who really make you think can have that. But there's also another kind of wisdom. There's the wisdom of knowing yourself, knowing what works for you, knowing yourself in relation to others, knowing others in general, and having a feel for the world around you.

I think being open minded to ideas is a kind of wisdom. It's recognizing the worth in certain ideas, yet not getting pigeonholed into thinking only one way of life really works best.

Yet, even so, you can still have a favorite way of approaching things. And perhaps that's what these teachers have. Maybe it's not that they see their way as best, but just as the way they prefer best. So perhaps I've been wrong all along about that.

As might be apparent, graduating from college does not mean my education is finished. We've always got to be learning and growing or we would all stagnate as productive human beings. I mean that in the sense of both being productive in the world and also being productive for ourselves. We have to be interested in our own self-improvement and self-growth. If not, why be a part of the world?

As R' Yisroel Salanter says, in order for the world to change, you have to first change yourself. If you work on yourself, if you try to become a better person, then your relation to the world will change, too.

If you're not invested in your own self, then in what can you invest? Truly invest, I mean. It's you, not anyone else, who is going to ultimately make you a better person. And it's you who is going to most impact your own world. Everyone else provides guides, hindrances, support, waylays. Some give you great gifts. Some hurt you terribly. But each experience is for you to take from it what you will and use what you take productively towards your personal growth.

I believe that once you start growing and shaping yourself into who you really wish to be, only then can you truly stand up straight and face the world. And when I'm ready to face the world, I don't want to seem over-rehearsed. I want to do it with my whole heart.

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