In retirement, I’ve been thinking about doing good. I confess that as a mother of small children, and then a manager and executive in technology, I cared less about virtue than excellence in my work. As a result, I’ve come at Good with the energy and naivete of a newbie.
I include my emergent thoughts here, on Saturdays abstractly, and on weekdays specifically – teasing out what ethical commerce and lifestyle initiatives I might support. To be sure, my efforts are patchy, intermittent, and a little plodding. But they’re not nothing.
I do get scolded.
Which made me wonder, scolding, does it actually contribute to our collective virtue? Does it make us better overall? And if so, how?
The village scold has been part of human culture for centuries. I think she played a useful function. I imagine a middle-aged woman, aproned, floured, wagging her finger at an errant youth. I imagine said youth either chastened or arrogant and laughing. But I also imagine that said youth couldn’t run away altogether from the scolder’s intent.
Villages were small. Families stayed put.
Today, I think if we want to scold someone with effect, we have to earn the trust of those we would make better.
People become adult precisely by coming to believe that they know what they are doing, that they have understood some things. When confronted with evidence to the contrary, i.e. when shamed, many of us activate self-defense mechanisms. “How do you know? There’s no science! You’re weird! That’s too hard! I’m good enough!” Or maybe that’s just me.
I used to respond strongly to shame. Maybe as do all well-loved children. My father would call me into his study, to stand on the Persian carpet. It was 1964, I was eight, he sat behind a Danish modern desk. Even seated he was tall. If I backed up I bumped into a low bookshelf filled with Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes. I didn’t move. I listened to him tell me what I had done wrong and I believed him. I felt it in my body. Although it hurt, I didn’t want to run. Shame works when you are cared for, and even so, should be used with caution.
Now, I respond to scolding when I trust the scold. Who do I trust? The kind. The consistent. Those who clearly live the precepts they profess. Those who have shown themselves vulnerable. Just being in the right isn’t enough, we humans love to squirm into gray areas, and we need a hand to keep us honest. Or maybe that’s just me.
Please do not stop speaking up for what is right, here. I am learning even though I’m a pretty good squirmer.
Maybe the same effort which gives us the right to scold does all kinds of other good? Who would object to intimacy, kindness, constancy, truth? Maybe the village finger-wagger was also a baker, sneaking hot and sugared currant buns to the the dirtiest of children? Maybe she burned their tongues just a little and it was OK.
Hot cross bun photo via Alpha on Flickr