In the movie Freedom Writers, Hilary Swank plays a newbie English teacher assigned a classroom of troubled students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California.
The movie is based on the real life experiences of Erin Gruwell. Initially, Erin could not even keep control of her classroom. Gruwell, through pedagogical techniques such as journaling but most importantly her own belief in the capacity of her students to learn, transforms her class.
Of course, some teachers and administrators are in opposition. In one scene, Erin confronts a colleague:
Erin: “You can’t teach them. You don’t even like them.”
Colleague: “What does that have to do with it?”
In the movie, Erin’s colleague seems ridiculous and petty. But Erin’s colleague is really everyman; we all confuse cause and effect. We all believe our internal reactions are caused by our environment and not by our own beliefs.
Erin’s colleague doesn’t like Erin’s students, and he can’t teach them. To him, that Erin’s students cannot learn and cannot be taught is an objective reality to which he is responding. He believes his dislike for Erin’s students is a natural reaction to the circumstances at the high school. Thus, he never sees that his difficulty teaching and his state of mind are related. Erin’s success is simply explained away by her willingness to go outside established norms. “She’s not following the rules. If she followed the rules, she would be as miserable as I am,” Erin’s colleague may have reasoned.
In reality, the cause of Erin’s colleague’s difficulty is his state of mind. His state of mind is affecting his experience of reality. As long as he believes he has been buffeted by external circumstances, he cannot take the power of decision-making back to his own mind.
There is more trouble yet. Erin’s colleague does not recognize that his beliefs are the cause of his state of mind. He does not recognize that his state of mind is affecting his view of the external world and his perception of his problems. He tries to solve his perceived problems not seeing that his problems are arising from his state of mind, and quite naturally, the decisions he makes are not good ones.
It is easy enough to see somebody else’s foibles, but what about our own poor decisions? Why are we so ready to believe that our state of mind doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the decisions we make? The important question is why do we go through at least some part of most days with tolerance for our poor state of mind?
There are several answers. One is we trust in our feelings to both interpret our experiences and guide our behavior. In this we are mistaken. Our feelings are consistent with our poor state of mind because our feelings are consequences of our thinking. For example, if we feel angry, we have had angry thoughts. Feelings follow thoughts. Yet many believe that their angry feelings are evidence that their angry thinking is accurate. As long as we trust our feelings, there is no way out. We mistakenly believe we are victims of the external situation and that the only way our state of mind can improve is by removing ourselves from the external situation that is causing our feelings.
The second reason we tolerate our poor state of mind is that we like being an innocent victim. We like being right rather than being happy. For example, Erin’s colleague was out to see himself as an innocent victim of students that didn’t care about learning. Part of his identity became forged around this unquestioned belief. He was suffering; but in his mind, someone else was to blame for his misery. Yes, he was hurting; but it hurt so good. He simply didn’t value a happy state of mind.
We are far too tolerant of our wandering mind. We often call these wanderings, idle thoughts. Yet, these “idle thoughts” still determine what we feel in the moment. Thinking and feeling cannot be separated. Believing some outside entity or circumstance causes our feelings is simply harmful to our state of mind.
Imagine clenching your fist hard around a piece of cut glass. Now imagine opening your bloody hand, turning to the person next to you, and asking, “Why did you do this to me?” That would be pretty crazy behavior, wouldn’t it? But don’t we behave this way every day? We think painful thoughts and then attribute the cause of our thinking to someone or something else. Mentally we are saying, “Why did you do this to me?”
So what is the way out? We can choose happiness over being right. In other words, we must be willing to consider the idea that what we feel is not generated by external circumstances or other individuals. We can be aware that we will be tricked by our feelings; we can choose not to rely upon our feelings as guides to reality. Instead, we can observe our feelings and see them as indicators of our state of mind.
Erin’s colleague adjusted his life to a level of suffering, and peace was elusive. He was not willing to give up his misery and sense of victimization.
Our state of mind has everything to do with how we perceive life and the quality of the decisions we make as leaders, as colleagues, as friends, as parents, and as spouses. This understanding alone is the beginning of the way out of our individual and collective suffering.