Monday, January 9, 2012

Balancing Context

My 11-year-old daughter asked me, "Is Daddy a good person who does bad things, or a bad person who sometimes does good things?"

My daughters have experienced first-hand how important context is when thinking about a whole person. 

Sam Sommers' Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World is a great read, all of it, and it helps the reader understand that personality is only one factor when it comes to understanding humanity.

My answer to my daughter was, he's just a person. I told her that a few years ago, I might have called him a good person who does bad things, but because he continues to do bad things and finds himself in jail again for his 51st birthday, he doesn't show a great capacity to learn. But he's still not a bad person. He's not evil. He just can't seem to get his life together.

I've learned how to be honest with my daughters about their father's actions, without necessarily bad-mouthing him. The girls have learned that they can love their father, but not love his actions.

Sommers' book includes many stories of ordinary people in situations where their actions might have left many of us judging them as bad or heartless people. Sommers shows us how easily we could have (and probably have) been guilty of similar actions in similar circumstances. Sommers calls this type of judgment What You See Is What Is What You Get (WYSIWYG). A benign example from Sommers' own experience: getting irritated with a driver that won't leave their parking space so Sommers can pull into it it; thinking the driver selfish or mean-spirited. Sommers later learned that (a) he knew the driver (and knew him not to be selfish or mean-spirited), and (b) the car wouldn't start and had to be towed.

My favorite chapter is Chapter 4: You're Not the Person You Thought You Were. This chapter was fresh on my mind when I wrote It's Not Your Fault. There were a lot of things at play when I said, "I do." Like, being 7 months pregnant with our second child. Even before legally wedding him, I now recognize how much fear factored into my decisions when I stayed with him, or went back to him. Some of that fear was of my own making, and X exploited those fears to make me feel like being with him was my best option. I'm not necessarily a fearful person, nor was I then, but in context with being in love with him, I found myself in a situation I never thought could happen to me.

Situation Matters helped me see that while I'll never know myself completely, I don't have to judge myself because of one action, and future actions will continue to change me. Of course, I hope for the better, but I know that won't always be the case, either. Nor will one action dictate the rest of my daughters' lives.

Sommers goes into a lot more detail of how context matters on a variety of levels: from dozens of witnesses who did nothing when a boy was kidnapped and beaten to the assumptions of gender differences, race relations, and even the idea of soul mates. Sommers is rarely preachy, often witty, and balances scientific evidence with great personal anecdotes to keep from feeling like you're in a lecture hall. 

As hard as it may be to deal with the consequences of X, I do think the girls are better off for already understanding how to balance situations with personality.

Disclosure: I was given an advance copy of the book to read for participating in TLC's Book Tour.


BigLittleWolf said...

What a great perspective and wonderful examples, April. This sounds like a good read.

And how compassionately and delicately you handle your daughters' questions. While still providing them the ability to love their father.

Anonymous said...

Wow, it sounds like you really connected with this book on a personal level. I'm so glad you were a part of this tour - it seems this one was a great fit for you!