Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Runnin' with the big dogs

I just finished my second test in phd school. I didn’t think I was worried about it but I found I was unable to eat supper before I left. I suspect my stomach betrayed me. I have trouble getting past the idea that I have to do really well on these tests. I don’t mean staying-in-the-program well; I mean impress-other-people-with-my-brilliance well. I want to prove to myself that I am good enough to run with the big dogs. (Especially because all of those big dogs are so much younger and faster than me.) Somehow I doubt that my “brilliance” is the reason why God put me here. I mean, if I haven’t been especially brilliant up to this point I doubt He would suddenly grant me 40 more IQ points. I think I better learn to settle with runnin’ behind the big dogs. As long as I don’t lose sight of them, I should be okay.

As I left Teacher Hall and walked across campus to my car, I was overcome by a feeling of contentment. This was not a feeling related to my performance on the test. I changed my answers on that baby more times than a politician between town hall sessions. I found concentrating particularly challenging because the class next door was laughing at a movie that involved loud screaming. What kind of class is that? It certainly isn’t a stats class, but, whatever it is I am signing up for it for next semester. I bet it is abnormal psychology.

The feeling of contentment was directly related to my conviction that I am where I am supposed to be. As implausible as a nearly 50 year old woman embarking on a long degree program that is unlikely to result in a career is, I am content to be here.

It is not a contentment born of the feeling that everything is going my way. That is a flimsy contentment that is destined to fade into grief and stress. This contentment is more solid than that. God has His plan and He guides me down this interesting and challenging path. This kind of contentment is a blessing. It’s a trust thing that assures me troubles will be survived, and plans will unfold, regardless of my own incapability.

It is even better than the contentment that comes from walking out of the student union with a dark chocolate snickers bar clutched in your pocketed hand. Hard work needs its reward; if not in a good grade than in calories. Hey, dark chocolate is practically a cure for cancer and a guarantee of world peace. At least that is what the current research says and I intend to accept, practice and cite that research until my journey on this planet is done.

Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him - for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work - this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:1

Monday, October 20, 2008

Tricky Ethics

Well, that was interesting.

I attended an ethics workshop to try to get certified to do research. I sat between two professors who complained that they had been “tricked” into coming and two research students from the neuro-psych department who talked about a subject that had undergone a “procedure” but might not have survived.

I was quite relieved to find out the subject was a lab rat.

The one professor rolled her eyes and announced that she had been given the assignment to teach a course on ethics for her department. The research students primarily saw ethics as having to do with animal research or how ethically they were being treated by their advisors. The professors felt put out because the onus for teaching ethics fell on their shoulders and they were already busy. The students felt it was the professors’ job to teach them what to do and straighten them out if they were going astray, ethics-wise.

So here I am a student in a class that is learning about the stages of moral development and I am sitting at a table with four highly educated, presumably highly developed people who are working from the viewpoint of: 1. ethics isn’t my job and 2. it’s not wrong unless I get caught.

Not exactly high stages of moral development; in fact the same stages could be used to describe kindergarten restroom behaviors. (See the previous two posts)

We spent the day talking about how universities ought to teach ethics, in the unspoken context of moral relativism. The room was full of a large group of people who admit they are forced to teach when what they really want to do is research. They know little about effective teaching but feel that teaching is a lower level skill. However, they wonder why their efforts to teach ethics are failing. I was frequently encouraged to speak up because my opinion as a graduate student was valued, but frankly, I didn’t know where to begin. To me this was just wrong on so many levels.

I got a migraine and left early.

One thing, that was said, keeps running circles in my head. One of the workshop leaders made the point that it is easy for scientists to step over the line ethically because they believe they are purists when it comes to the scientific method. They believe that somehow makes them immune to unethical behavior like falsifying data or taking credit for a colleague’s work. This belief lets down their guard and allows them to sort of slip slowly into unethical territory with justifications such as “I know what the ‘right’ answer is anyway” or “I am under so much pressure to publish.”

Oooh, that stings. Here I am feeling all snotty because as a church worker of 25+ years my world has been all about ethics and morals and such. I have had the blessing to have been given a faith that is based on an absolute truth. I obviously have an advantage over these poor secular, relativistic clueless scientists. Hmmm. Who is working from the lowest stage of moral development, now? Who is being judgmental in spite of her faith? Who is slipping into unethical territory because she feels SHE is immune? My last blood test showed I am immune to measles but I am not immune to sin, and I am most definitely not immune to pride.

How often does this happen in church work? How often does a pastor let his moral guard down when it comes to sexual attraction? How often does a principal or a teacher, or a DCE let his/her moral guard down when it comes to justifying a new set of rules, an all-law-and-no-grace classroom management technique or the treatment of a child? I know I have asked several times, how could a pastor or a principal or a teacher let that happen? I know I have asked myself that about my own behavior. You would think we would know better.

We do know better; we just don’t do better.

If you seek answers to life’s persistent questions: read your Bible. My daily Bible reading for the same day of the workshop, had I managed to get up early enough to read it before I left, held the answer:

Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”?

Differing weighs and differing measures – the LORD detests them both.

Even a child is known by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right.

Proverbs 20:9-10

When I try to justify my actions with shifty reasons such as assuming that I am beyond reproach or that the child needs to learn this lesson regardless of my method of teaching it, I am using differing weights and differing measures to try to make it all come out right in the end. That is detestable. It may be hidden from me but it is not hidden from God.

The lamp of the LORD searches the spirit of man;

it searches out his inmost being.

Proverbs 20: 27

Thankfully, for me, and for my migraine, I have a loving and forgiving God. I think I have found the direction for my prayers for this week.

I still need ethics training, though.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Confirmation bias

Thelma the gerbil was found dead in her cage. We buried her in the backyard. She rests next to Louise who is next to Fred who is next to Jeff, in a nice circle around a tree that seems to be doing quite well. It is the Marxhausen family version of the “circle of life.” I do feel kind of bad that Arthur the giant African millipede and the fire belly toad whose name escapes me, were unceremoniously thrown into the trash. I suppose my kindergarten pets have to be mammals to warrant proper burial.

Thelma represents the last vestige of my kindergarten teaching experience. With Thelma gone, now all of my supplies, books, and memories are neatly packed away, given away or sold. I can quietly close the door on that part of my life and ministry. I love teaching and I loved spending my day with young children, but, I can honestly say that I don’t miss it. God has spared me that emotion. He has filled my day and my heart with new work and wonders.

I have been thinking about confirmation bias, lately. I am a big proponent of this shady practice. I spend my days looking for evidence that confirms what I already suspect. Of course, when I taught kindergarten, what I suspected was happening in the boy’s room, was usually correct. There is just no mistaking the sound of a five year old boy’s shoes as they hit the ground from jumping off the toilet. You do not need empirical evidence to show that boys that age consider the restroom to be an extension to the playground. It is a theory that will stand the test of time.

Confirmation bias has crept into my Monday night class. My professor likes to lecture and once he starts there is little that will stop him. Not even the look of panic on the faces of his students as we try to keep up with our note taking. Every once in a while he will throw out a controversial example of some theory and will hope that a discussion will ensue. It doesn’t. First of all, we are all brain-stunned and cannot switch from listening and writing to thinking and discussing quite that fast.

Secondly, he does not inspire a heated discussion because by the time he has presented the argument he has answered any possible contradictions making it clear to us that the issue should be seen his way. He is a philosopher and a student of logic who has an interesting habit of manipulating his definitions to suit his argument; a fascinating form of confirmation bias.

Of course I always figure out a brilliant way around his arguments – two days later when my brain finally catches up with him. In class all I can think of is “oh yeah, says who?” So far I have refrained from participating in the discussions. I seem to have honed my debating skills on the playground.

At night I lay awake and think about how this brilliant man has managed to develop this technique that sabotages what he is trying to teach us. He wants us to learn that adolescents develop when they are allowed to consider different options and reason as to what should be included in their sense of morality and their sense of identity. Yet, he has managed to keep himself safe from that happening in his classroom of adults.

When I think of him I am reminded of how every time I read about the children of Israel wandering in the desert I can’t believe that they had trouble believing in a God who spoke to them through a prophet. They had manna, and columns of fire and smoke, and two large tablets with writing carved into them and still they wondered if they shouldn’t turn around and go back to Egypt and her gods. They had a serious confirmation bias problem. They were looking at verifiable evidence of an all loving and all powerful God, but yet that golden calf looked so good, especially when Aaron gave it a spit shine.

But, then, whenever I start harping on the Israelites, who, by the way, had a pretty tough life living in tents and eating the same thing everyday, God turns my finger of accusation away from the twelve tribes and right back to me. My confirmation bias is worry. When I worry I tend to look for evidence that my worry is justified and I am usually successful in finding it. I have awesome powers of observation that allow me to look right past the real evidence of God’s love and care for me and on to reasons why I need to feel stressed. My own sinful heart has turned me away from the truth. I am my own saboteur. I am my own worst enemy.

But my God continues to love me, forgive me, and hold me in His arms. And when it is time for me to be buried beneath a tree in some cemetery, I will become a part of His beautiful circle of everlasting life. I don’t need to confirm that bias with evidence. I have the faith that God gave me.

For the waywardness of the simple will kill them,

and the complacency of fools will destroy them;

but whoever listens to Me will live in safety and be at ease,

without fear of harm.

Proverbs 1: 32-33

Friday, October 3, 2008

Multi-tasking with a single brain

I had one eye and one ear open this morning in time to hear an NPR Morning Edition story on multi-tasking. It was quite a relief to hear that scientists have determined that it is not possible for our brains to do two things at once.

I thought it was just me. I am so glad I am not alone.

Apparently, MRIs show our brains can very quickly slip back and forth between several things but we cannot actually do two at once. I think this is most commonly demonstrated with the picture of the “vase/two people looking at each other” illustration. One can either see a vase or the two people but never both at once.

Thank goodness the burden to learn to text while I drive has been lifted from my shoulders.

I always felt that this distinct inability to spread my focus among several simultaneous things was my weakest link in early childhood teaching. I just can’t do the trick where you keep 6 plates spinning on top of poles. I was fine when it was story time and we were all sitting quietly on the rug contemplating the latest Kevin Henkes book. But, I was woefully inadequate when the situation called for me to work with a few students, keep the rest gainfully employed, keep an ear out for all call messages, greet the visiting family at the door, think about what was coming up next on the schedule, remember where I set my lesson plan book, settle a dispute between friends and prevent a fight between enemies all while using my TPESP (teacher powers of extra sensory perception) to monitor what was really happening in the boys room. I just couldn’t do it. And furthermore, trying to do it simply wore me out.

Dear reader, if you know an early childhood teacher: find that person and give him/her a hug. If you are an early childhood teacher. . . well, I will pray for you and God bless!

The urge to multi-task is not limited to our wonderful early childhood teachers. It is prevalent everywhere in our society. We eat while we drive, shop while talking on the phone, discipline our children while fixing supper, listen to our mp3 players while riding our bikes and dine with our families while watching TV. Good grief, we even read while sitting on the toilet. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we try to do so much? Why is it better to do many things fairly well than to do one thing with all our minds? Why do we keep trying to do something, which is rarely, if ever, successful when we admit it makes us miserable?

It sounds like insanity, yet, somehow the answer has to be “sin.”

C.S. Lewis noted that the root of all sin is pride. The root of pride is our pitiful attempt to make ourselves god. Now, I don’t really mean to imply that reading in the bathroom is a prideful act. I really don’t want to discuss private bathroom affairs at all, thank you. Lately, God has been reminding me that He did not create me to do many things at once. He created me to do one thing; to serve Him. When I was learning to be an interpreter for the Deaf I remember being warned that when I was talking with a mixed group (hearing and Deaf) I should not try to talk and sign at the same time. In fact, the Deaf refer to this as “macho signing.” Deaf people had evidence that you could not speak in two languages at once and they knew that their language would get the short end of the brain. I am coming to the realization that I cannot serve God and do ten other things at the same time. If I try, everything I do will suffer.

Yet, how do we reconcile this with the busyness of our lives and the work we need to do? We can’t completely clear our schedules (after all, at least our kids need to eat) and sit patiently in a chair with our Bible. The cloistered life of a monastery works for some but not for all. We have driving, listening, talking, cooking, cleaning, reading, paying, exercising, planning, sleeping, playing to do and a limited amount of time in which to do it. How do we stop ourselves from multi-tasking?

It sounds like an impossibility, yet, somehow the answer has to be “integrate the faith.”

When Jesus lived on earth He accomplished our salvation and He did it all without a palm pilot or a cell phone. He did it by living a life that integrated the faith into everything He did. He did it by serving our Heavenly Father and by doing the work that was set out before Him. And He did it with prayer.

My schedule is no less busy than it was at this time last year; although, I am eternally grateful that I no longer have to monitor the boy’s room. My life is no less stressful than it was at this time last year; but I feel less stress. The difference is that God is bringing me around to realize that I can do only one thing at a time and that is to serve Him. He sets out my schedule for me like a parent setting out school clothes on the bed in the morning. Then He helps me to do what is asked and to do it with a servant’s heart. He is changing me little by little. I don’t have to do everything at once. I don’t have to do everything. I just need to follow Him.

This will be a big change. This will be a change orchestrated only by God. I have a long way to go and a lifetime of watching God work.


You have searched me and You know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

You perceive my thought from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

You are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue You know it completely,

O LORD.You hem me in-behind and before;

You have laid Your hand upon me,

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

Psalm 139:1-6