I have been sorting through my things–lugging out bag after bag of garbage, and coming upon letters, books, poems, and other items I didn’t remember I had. I have not done this so thoroughly in a long time. It takes patience but refreshes my spirits (and makes my desk and drawers perusable again).
I have been noticing how important it is to perceive the good, or at least the possibility of good–in those around me and in life itself. This does not mean giving up one’s critical faculties; in fact, it requires looking more carefully than usual. Some of the letters I have saved for years have this quality of perception. Someone saw something good in me, or in someone else, or in something else; whatever the source of good, the perceiving was good in itself.
You can see good in someone without ignoring his or her flaws. Sometimes you have to call others on their errors or weaknesses–but if you do so with openness to the good, the criticism should not harm, unless it is taken in the wrong way. A mean-spirited critique (for instance, a spiteful review of a performance) shuts off possibilities, while a generous one keeps them open.
Of course it is difficult to be open to the good. We have preferences, instincts, and limited time. There are books I will not read to the end (and absolutely detest), albums I will not give a second chance, dishes I will not taste a second time, people whom I will not befriend. Still, I try to think of at least some of this in terms of my own limitations. I can’t do everything and would not want to try; I’d rather have more time for a few things. In addition, sometimes a harsh judgment can help me take a direction; I will find my way to good writing when I know what to pass over.
For a teacher, it is especially important to see good in the students and their efforts–and to resist the extremes of unmitigated applause and criticism. Some call this the “growth mindset”–focusing on helping students improve and helping them think in terms of progress–but there’s more to it. It has something to do with letting oneself see things and people in the first place. This can happen within the subject matter; you learn about others as you see them tackle an electrical circuit or interpret a passage of Emerson.
There is societal pressure to mark oneself and others with likes and dislikes, tally them up, and arrive at final numbers. Supposedly this speeds up the human processing. I am not sure why we have to go so fast, unless we are in some kind of danger (and even then, some caution is in order). As I sort through my things, I find myself grateful to those who took me slowly and kindly–and invited me into their interest in something else.