“Know thyself!” proclaimed the Greek sages. When I was younger, like many adolescents, I took their advice as a call to self-consciousness. In high school I read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and regarded it suspiciously, unsure of my capability for independence. Rather, I have always been good at asking questions.
This is a strength, it seems, to a point. I’m thorough, I do my research, and I like to think I make careful and considered decisions. Where I read in Emerson a disdain for envy and imitation, I imagined instead humility and regard for a second, perhaps wiser opinion. And so I asked so many questions, sometimes curious and penetrating, sometimes cautious and self-doubting. At times, I begged for micro-management; usually, it was supplied.
My college, which I still love, had a culture of micro-management that stems from a variety of cultural, political, and theological influences that predispose it to paternalism. Administrators and trustees are policed by sometimes overactive and ignorant constituents; faculty, by administrators and governing committees; students, by Res Life staff, administrators, faculty, and one another.
All that policing leads to two things: a lot of apathy and passivity, and a tendency towards micro-management whenever one did get a hold of any responsibility. I know that when I was a student org leader I displayed the same controlling tendencies towards the students I worked with as the administrators I was responsible to showed me; I know that I sometimes failed at group work for the same reasons. On the other hand, I didn’t have to worry all that much about failure, because some paternalistic grown-up would usually sweep in before any harm was done, ignoring the harm that that very action wrought. We were never allowed to fail and so we were never truly responsible.
I worked this summer for an organization that refused to micro-manage, however, and I’ve been slowly coming to realize how deeply that unsettled me, for the better. When I asked questions whose answers I had to determine, my supervisors would simply tell me, “That’s up to you,” and they expected that when the high schoolers I supervised asked me questions that I would respond the same way. I don’t believe I always succeeded, but I hope I didn’t fail those students too badly.
So my New Year’s resolution is this: to continue on the path of finding what I believe is the best way, to trust my own instincts and abilities, and to likewise foster the capability for true responsibility in those around me. I intend to keep asking questions and acknowledging my limits, but I want them to be good questions, and I want to know my limits.