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The other day I watched the Eat, Pray, Love movie based on a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, which chronicles her spiritual trip around the world after her divorce. When I heard Richard, one of the main characters in the story, utter the words quoted above, I got to my feet and rushed to grab my notebook so that I could note them down. I never do this but I found the words so appealing that I made an exception. According to Gilbert, selecting thoughts is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on your mind.
I’d already heard a similar zen piece of advice in my life before, and I’d always become enthusiastic and said to myself: Yeah! How easy! Let’s try. Unfortunately, I’d invariably come to the conclusion that it’s a very difficult thing to do. There are hundreds of thoughts swirling in my head every day, of which a large percentage is useless, poisonous crap. Obviously, there are a few ideas which I believe are worth cherishing and relishing. But finding them sometimes feels like gold panning – strenuous and often unsuccessful. The good gets lost easily among all the garbage.
With the advent of the new academic year, various unsettling ideas have suddenly started bothering me. These ideas appear in the form of disturbing questions and nagging doubts, and they usually come just before I fall asleep to spoil my dreams or very early in the morning to spoil my day. Will I manage all the tasks awaiting me? Will I be able to do all the red tape stuff along with teaching my regular classes? What about my family – will I have enough time for them? Will I have a good relationship with my classes (the kids have grown and changed over the two months of holidays after all). What if my students don’t succeed in standardized tests? Will I be able to defend my views in front of my administrators?
Now that I think about it, these are pretty useless questions – for one obvious reason; there are no answers to them. I can’t answer questions about the future because I’m not a clairvoyant. Is there a point in asking worrying questions then? Can the act of asking the unanswerable be helpful in some way? Can such questions be incorporated into my future plans? The trouble is that it’s not me who actually asks them. They come uninvited. They are unwelcome, annoying guests to my otherwise peaceful mind. I’d say they spring from my deeply rooted fears – fears of failure and disappointment I once experienced. Hence I don’t think they can become part of my constructive planning. However, I do believe I have the power to change them and make them answerable: What will I do to manage all the red tape stuff effectively? What strategies will I select to help my students succeed in standardized tests? What are the best ways of dealing with administrators in case I want to defend my views?
What happens if I later turn these questions into the past tense, such as Did I manage all the tasks in the previous academic year? Then, I believe, they will make sense and they should be answered, as part of my professional reflection, for example. However, there’s always the danger of me crying over the spilt milk if the answer is no. Too often do I worry about things from the past; things I can’t change any more. But again, isn’t our constant dissatisfaction with the past a source of future successes? Doesn’t each failure teach us a lesson? But where’s the borderline between self-flagellation and reflection? My guess is that self-flagellation hurts and makes us even more desperate while reflection points optimistically to the future. Reflection can’t stand alone; it needs to be accompanied by an action plan. It makes us active. Self-flagellation, on the other hand, is criticizing and punishing without forgiveness. It brings about passivity and stagnation. So once the answer is: “No, my students didn’t succeed in standardized tests last year”, my immediate reaction should be: “Ok, what will I do to change it in the future?”.
What’s my point then? Start gold panning. Cherish the gold you find and get rid of the waste. Or rather, turn the waste into gold. You can do it because ideas and thoughts are not material; they can be moulded and shaped as you wish if you learn how to.