Gifts and Resolutions

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This is the time of year when we think about giving gifts and making resolutions. Gifts are tricky things. If you are an empathetic person you try to pick out something that you feel the other person needs or will like. This doesn’t always work. As most of us have learned over time, gift-giving is not an exact science, which is why the day after Christmas is one of the busiest days of the year for merchants. People rush out to return that sweater that seems a bit too much, or that DVD that is the third copy of something they already have.

If gift-giving is tricky, resolutions are even worse. We approach each New Year with a set of self-expectations. These usually revolve around self-improvement in one form or the other and they tend to last less time than does our affection for that sweater that Aunt Ethel gave us. The good thing about resolutions is that you can use them again next year because they are as fresh and unused as they were when you made them.

With all this in mind, I would like to share with you some gifts and a resolution that we might want to share with those around us-particularly the children we serve.

The first gift is to understand that not all shiny objects are worthy of our attention. Americans seem to be enamored with the next new thing whether it is the newest smart phone or a movie that we just have to see or a political leader we have to elect. Some people have figured out our weakness for distraction and use it against us. Hollywood, Madison Avenue and politicians have become particularly adept at using our weakness for shiny objects to manipulate us and control us. Politicians are even worse. Like the Roman Emperors of old they use bread and circuses to distract us from our reality and to keep us under control.

One of the gifts we can give our children is to help them understand that the grass is brown on both sides of the fence. That thing that seems so new and different probably isn’t something you must have, and you need to question whether it is better than those things you already know and have. I remember that at Christmas, after my children had torn through every package and strewn paper all over the house, they often ended up playing with the boxes the presents came in. They instinctively knew that the known is more valuable than the unknown and that all that glitters is not gold and that everything that shines shouldn’t distract us from what is truly valuable. Sometimes an empty box is better than the shiny object it came in.

Another gift we need to bestow is to remind our children that life is a movie not a scrapbook. It is fun to look at pictures and reminders of what happened at a point in time, but our life moves forward with the click of each frame of film and that to truly understand what is happening you have to see the whole movie. When I was an active leader in schools and at AASA, I used to make sure that my board understood this concept. It is very easy to look at a set of data and think you understand what is going on. It is only when you look at the trends can you really know the truth.

Data points are interesting, but trend lines tell the story. We can be told that job growth or crime is up or down this month and that really tells us very little. It is only when you look at multiple months and years of data that we really come to understand whether things are getting better or worse. A number of years ago politicians were raging about rising crime, but the overall trend in crime was down, and had been for several years. One data point does not a trend make.

Our new president recently made a big noise about saving a few hundred jobs in on plant in Indiana. Great for those people. That same week we learned that nearly two hundred thousand jobs were created that same month and that over the course of the last eight years over 16 million new jobs were added. Which is more important? Is it important to yell about how bad the economy is or is it important to look at what the trends are for job creation, the value of the stock market, or unemployment? Is it important to worry about the results of one math test, or look at the whole semester?

The problem we have as humans is that we are driven by anecdote. We hear a story about what happened to someone or what happened to us and we generalize it to the broader context. Anecdotes are useful but they hardly tell the whole story. When I was working in Washington I saw members of Congress design bills based upon stories they heard from their wife at home or from a constituent. Stories are great and often reveal a bigger truth, but using data over time will give you a firmer grasp on reality.

This leads to another gift we can offer our children. They need to learn the difference between fact and opinion. It has been said that we are living in a fact-free world. The truth is that although many around us don’t like to use or accept facts, they still exist. Not believing in something doesn’t stop it from happening. When someone says, “I feel” you should listen to them because having empathy towards feelings is a good human trait, although it is not the same thing as honoring their feelings as facts. There is a huge difference between feeling and knowing. Operating on gut instinct is one useful tool. Intuition can sometimes be powerful. But it shouldn’t be the only tool in your tool box. That is dangerous.

There is an added dimension to this which is that we are also living in a world of distractions and distortions. Much has been made lately about “fake news.” These are articles put out online purport to be news but are really made-up stories intended to distort views about people or events and distract the reader from seeking the true story. As has been shown, this isn’t just aggravating, it is dangerous. It is particularly dangerous in a democracy where we depend on people to act in a rational manner based upon some semblance of truth.

Since most resolutions tend to be ignored I will offer only one here for consideration. I once heard a story about two men. One man asked the other man if he knew the difference between ignorance and apathy. The other replied that he didn’t know and he didn’t care. That is the danger we face in today’s world. Too many people don’t know things they should know and don’t care that they don’t know them. This is self-limited behavior that builds walls between us and the truth, and between us and our fellow man. We need to resolve to work to remove ignorance in our lives and the lives of those around us, and to care deeply about what is happening to our world. And we must pass that on to our children.