Being Human: An Education

Raising humans isn’t for the faint of heart.  However, raising humans to be compassionate, thoughtful beings is the main job of parenting.  In my opinion (and it’s my blog, so it’s really all about my opinion), it’s also the most important part of educating a child, whether the child learns in or out of school.  David Brooks, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, addresses this challenge in his recent op-ed piece, The New Humanism.  In short, Brooks points out the tendency of policy makers and institutions to value reason and the measurable over emotion and the less tangible.  This is an understandable problem, given it’s hard to advocate large-scale spending for something yielding “soft” (my word) and subjective outcomes (like improved emotional intelligence or better character).  Those outcomes are hard or impossible to measure, vary over time, and are hardly linear in their growth, as any parent of a self-centered young teen who, only a year earlier, was magnanimous and generous.  The disconnect makes sense.

But we must use our reason to move us belong this disconnect.  And regardless of what policymakers do or don’t do, the primary responsibility for supporting and encouraging emotional growth belongs to parents.  Without compassion, reason can be used for evil (or at least thoughtless) ends.  Without connections to others, we are, I’d contend, not as human.

My younger son’s therapist noted this upon being told that my son was more pleasant to be with when he’d been regularly seeing his close friends:  “So when you’re with people, you’re more human.”  My son didn’t acknowledge that profound observation, but I was left a bit slack-jawed.  When you’re with people, you’re more human.  It’s true, but it’s not simple to make the next step to being a human that contributes to the betterment of the world, is moderately happy (at least), and is at least tolerable and hopefully desirable to be with.

On my roughest homeschooling days, in my worst parenting moments, during those times when I wonder if my kids will ever be able to make their way in the world, I remind myself of those three goals.  More eloquently and certainly more comprehensively, I want this for my children:

Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.  (David Brooks, The New Humanism)

Those five are a far greater challenge to teach than Calculus or Chemistry.  At least those have a text and YouTube videos about them.  I suppose my younger son’s therapist is a tutor of sorts for these, but since she’s declined my request for her to live with us 24/7, I guess a good part of this job is up to me.

I’m not sure whether it’s an asset or liability that I’m still working on these tasks myself.  I don’t think many (if any) folks master all of these all the time.  I spend a good amount of time monitoring my on mind, correcting as I go (equipoise), but I’ve long thought of that as perfectionism and ruminating.  It’s nice to know that habit can, with the right spin and focus, be a sign of emotional well-being.  My older, who is tempered like myself, is coming along quite nicely in his equipoise, given he’s a 13-year-old male.  My attunement and sympathy are strong, when I put the effort in them being so (and when I leave my agenda behind, staying present to what actually IS, not what was or might be.).  These are huge struggles for my younger, but given his wiring, that’s to be expected.  This is where his therapist earns every penny — helping him see that  attunement and sympathy are characteristics worth fostering.  Metis seems to be a bit different, involving more cognition and connection than social skills

Attunement, equipoise, metis, and sympathy.  These are, in part, teachable skills.  And, I’d maintain, it’s primarily a parent’s job to teach them.  We teach them when we think aloud, allowing our awareness of our own thought patterns to be visible to our children.  Where modeling alone doesn’t suffice (and is really doesn’t always), direct teaching can help.  I can coach my children to pay attention to their surroundings and “fall into a rhythm” with those around them (unless, by using their attunement, they see that they’re better off not marching to that beat).  I can guide their metis, discussing the patterns I see and the conclusions I draw from these patterns.  I can help them monitor their own minds, encouraging them to gently search their minds, seeking understanding self which can lead to the ability to make corrections.

It’s limerence that I’m not sure is as teachable, although I’m sure it can be modeled to some degree.  My limerence has gained strength with age and experience, especially with experiences that have been painful.  It helps that I’ve never been terribly driven by success or money, but there’s a jump from not having those as primary motivators to seeking “transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task, or the love of God.”  A big jump. Again, modeling is a step to limerence, with plenty of discussion about why one makes the choices one does for jobs, homes, lifestyles, etc.  At this point, my younger is driven largely by money and time to play computer games.   He’s not too interested in the approval and happiness of others, which, given his Asperger’s, makes sense, because he really doesn’t sense those emotions and other and/or they don’t seem important to him.    We’re working on it. (My younger is also challenged, thanks to his autism spectrum disorder, on attunement, equipoise, sympathy, and, to a lesser degree, metis, but that’s another post).

Being in relationship with people makes us more human.  Understanding their points of view and falling in rhythm with others and understanding the “big picture”and how we fit into it:  these skill improve our relationships with other human.  Understanding one’s own mind and correcting maladaptive ways:  this deepens our comfort in our own skin while easing our way with others.  Finding fulfillment and peace in one’s tasks and relationships with others or the divine, and letting “the skull line fall(s) away”:  this allows us to live from the deep heart, to touch what we understand as divine, and to become more fully human.  There’s no curriculum for any of these tasks (although I’m sure if these become measurable and profitable,  curricula will be created), and the only path to these is for the adults in the lives our children to work on these skills in their own lives, then modeling them and discussing the unseen parts of them.

Attunement, equipoise, metis, sympathy, limerence.  These are the true basics to a whole and happy life and the human relationships in that life.  Let’s make teaching about being human the most important part of each day with our kids.


2 thoughts on “Being Human: An Education

  1. I also found this article very thought provoking, though some criticized it for being simplistic. Educating us on what it means to be human is the job of the humanities: philosophy, religion, history, music, literature, fine art, etc. I am so thankful to have had a liberal arts education, including many humanities courses, and worry about what will happen to society if this vital component of education falls by the wayside. IMHO, every graduate of a a four-year degree program should have some humanities courses under their belt.

    Wikipedia provides this definition of the humanities: The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural science.

    I worry that too many people in society lack skills for analyzing, criticizing, and speculating. These are so important to continuing and furthering our culture. Whether or not you like David Brooks (read some of the comments under his article that was posted in Facebook by the New York Times; they are very interesting and entertaining), you must admit that the humanities are a vital part of our culture and need more vocal advocates. Without the ability to analyze and criticize, how can we effectively and creatively apply the sciences? Without speculating, how can we dream up new ideas?

    Anyhow, I’m afraid I’m in danger of rambling now, but I look forward to revisiting these ideas and dicussing them further, perhaps in a future blog post of my own.

    Thanks, Sarah 🙂

  2. As a fellow liberal arts grad, I agree about the humanities being quite humanizing (if taught well and willingly received by the student). The humanities can be taught via reason only, unfortunately, and a class like that is unlikely to make most students jump further. (I’m thinking of all my high school level history courses, here.) Regardless of major, a college grad should have some experience with philosophy, history, literature, the arts, etc. It’s part of understanding our world and fellow humans.

    I’d maintain that Brooks takes a move away from the humanities to humanism and the skills it takes to be a better one, which are not easily taught in class at all. It takes compassionate, explicit and implicit, instruction from the adults in childrens’ lives to nurture these skill. Adults who are doing the hard, inner work it takes to grow their understanding of self and others, can be teachers, parents, relatives, friends, whatever. This (IMO) is the crux of Brooks’ New Humanism.

    So glad to hear your thoughts and looking forward to your response to the article on your blog, Chris!


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