Croskey’s Corner: Sincerity
Spoiler Alert! I am going to give away the ending of a movie on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” List. Number 31, The Maltese Falcon, is a detective story about murder and loyalty (or DISloyalty) to one’s friends. Some of the greatest actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age – Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet – chew up the scenery as they chase a ceramic bird statue (the Falcon of the title) reputed to be worth millions in gold and jewels. Here’s the Spoiler: after at least 3 murders and multiple betrayals, the group discovers that the statue is nothing but metal and enamel, basically worthless. When Bogart is asked what the black bird is, he says, “[T]he stuff that dreams are made of.”
When I first saw this film, I was strongly impacted by the futility of people willing to cheat and kill for what turned out to be a statue of no value. It reminded me of an estate sale I attended. My grandmother had died, and the contents of her house were being sold. At the auction, several relatives got into a “bidding war” over a red ceramic statue of a bird. In my opinion, it was kind of gaudy. Not to my taste as a young adult. However, the loser in the bidding began calling the highest bidder all kinds of names. These people were siblings! The argument deteriorated into accusations as to who loved my grandmother more and who was just trying to steal her money. I was sickened by the pursuit of our family’s “black bird.” Relatives were saying and doing insincere and hypocritical things in order to beat someone else out of a piece of junk. They say that Death brings out the best in us…or not.
At this time in my life, I knew everything. Or thought I did. I had seen an interview with the investigative journalist, Jessica Mitford. She was promoting her book, The American Way of Death. It was an exposé of the funeral business and argued that the deceased’s family was at the mercy of unscrupulous people who were willing to charge exorbitant prices and to “guilt” the family into buying unneeded products and services. In my self-righteous fervor, I began to look at funerals with a hypercritical eye. My grandmother’s funeral and aftermath convinced me that funerals were a waste of time and lacked Sincerity. I was going to campaign to eradicate barbaric practices, and to point out the hypocrisy of mourners. My target would be people like my relatives who were not able to express their love for family during someone’s lifetime, but were willing to come to blows over objects owned by the deceased. They could not face the truth of their grieving over their loss. In my inexperience, I had come to believe that funerals were for the sake of the one who had died. I did not understand that funerals did as much, or more, for the surviving family and friends, offering them the comfort of ritual, closure, and family time to share memories and reflections. But, I eventually learned.
The Character Quality for this month, Sincerity, is defined as “Doing what is right with transparent motives.” One of the “I will -” statements is “To Always mean what I say.” And the opposite of Sincerity is Hypocrisy. So, we are encouraged to have transparent motives and not to be hypocritical in our words. My funeral experience showed me both insincere motives and hypocritical talk. But, as I have come to appreciate the value of funerals for those who are living, I have also come to look for the ways to BE Sincere rather than pointing so much to the times when we are hypocritical.
It strikes me that there are two aspects which determine whether one follows the path to Sincerity or veers off to Hypocrisy. One relates to the DOING what is right; in other words, our actions. The other is MOTIVES, how transparent are we in showing why we are doing what we are doing. What we do is observable, but seeing through to our motives involves a fair amount of judgment on the part of our audience. (And, as far as that goes, a significant amount of introspection on our own parts.) But transparency is likely the secret to Sincerity.
And what is tricky for educators is that we are constantly observing our students’ actions and judging both those acts and the presumed motives behind those acts. Students may be very poor at making their actions transparent. So, we guess. Sometimes, we guess wrong. And we determine they are “insincere.” Say a student acts out in class, calling attention to himself and making life miserable for the teacher. The motives often attributed to him are laziness, or lack of caring about his education. Or worse, we educators decide he is a “punk.” Arrested; charged; tried; and convicted.
How Sincere was this student? His actions were obvious, transparent. But his motives were not. Maybe that attention-seeking is a result of his parents divorcing. Maybe he is using school to get their attention to shift back to him. Maybe he thinks (or feels) that he can get his parents to pay attention to him if he is disruptive at school? Acceptable? No. But understandable. And, it takes a different kind of intervention to correct.
The same series of misunderstandings can happen with staff members. Teachers can blow up at students over incidents which would have been ignored or dealt with quietly the previous day. Motive? Maybe the teacher had just been diagnosed with a life-threatening disorder. He did not blame his students for the sickness, but he took it out on them. Acceptable? No. But, again, understandable.
Assuming we know the non-transparent motives of another is a dreadful mistake; that is, we presume to assume! Instead, we would do well to not presuppose we know another’s motives. It takes listening, observing, and asking to learn those motives. If we presume or assume anything, maybe we could presume innocence of selfish motives, until we know otherwise. That may create an atmosphere where the student – or colleague – feels safe enough to allow such motives to be seen, transparently.