Friday, December 2, 2016

Professionalism and Perfectionism

I love to learn new things. I love to dig into something I don't know about, wrestle with it, defeat it and claim victory with my proverbial foot to its proverbial neck. I live in a world of ideas and possibilities, so it's only reasonable that I should want to explore all I can.

The problem is that I also hate making mistakes.

I am not sure how someone so enamored with learning can be such a chicken-shit when it comes to messing up. As a matter of fact, I don't dance, not because I can't, but because I don't do it well. I don't play checkers with my husband, not because I can't play, but because he always beats me. I don't play keyboard, not because I can't read music, but because I don't play well (especially the left hand) so I simply don't do it.

The few times that I have jumped into playing organ as a music director, the results were less than perfect. In fact, far less than perfect. I developed my own way of doing things, so that most people have no idea I can't play, but those who know, really know. My poor pastor was a real organist -- music degree and all. I am sure I made his ears bleed. Sorry, Father.

Recently, however, it's been even worse. As I age, I get more risk-averse. I don't want to offend or be embarrassed, so I step back from things that a younger Katie would have been all over. Everything from new techniques to new technology has fallen under this "I'm-too-old-for-that" umbrella.

But, in order to grow, one must be willing to fail. And when one stops growing, one begins to calcify. Calcification is the end of growth. I struggle with this all the time and I am not willing to give up on growing just yet.

I have started many projects that I simply give up on because they might not be good enough. I have written (or at least started) blog posts that might have had an impact on someone's life, but I have bitten back the words lest they offend or embarrass me.

At work, I have been dragging my feet on a project that I need to get done because I'm afraid I won't do it right and I will embarrass myself or cause delay. And that's a problem, because by dragging my feet, I am already causing delay.

Perfectionism --whence comes the idea that if I can't do it perfectly, I should not even try --is starting to hold me back again and is keeping me from Professionalism.

In a Facebook post today, I defined Professionalism as "knowing what you're doing" and characterized myself as an inexperienced professional. A friend wisely responded (without telling me I was wrong) that Professionalism is doing your best and taking feedback gracefully so that you can do it better the next time. Another friend asked, "What is the worst that could happen if you make a mistake?" Well, no one would die. Really, nothing would happen. I'd just have to fix it.

Once upon a time, I had a choir director who told me, "There is no perfection this side of Heaven. There is only our best." She was right (she usually is).

I realized at some point this afternoon that to give in to this hunger for perfectionism is also to give into to Pride. It's Pride that makes us want to seem like we have it all together and are never humbled by our weaknesses. Yet, only through humility do we get to see that Heavenly Perfection in its fullness. So, once again, I have to hold my nose and jump into this head first in the glorious pursuit of humility because only through realizing our lack can we find the pieces that fit those holes.

Monday, November 28, 2016

What Happens When It's YOUR Campus?

Orton Hall on the campus of The Ohio State University

I had made up my mind right after prayers this morning. I was going to write about the Mother of the Eucharist. But I got a text from the Campus Public Safety Department at about 10 AM telling me there was an active shooter on my campus.

My blood froze.  I was suddenly very afraid even though I was not on campus today. I was afraid for all my friends and colleagues on campus, the students, the people who go through the campus area each day... this was my community!

I grew up so close to campus that I could hear the Horseshoe explode with sound every time the Buckeyes made a Touchdown or a good play. I could hear The Band (and, yes, they are The Best Damn Band In The Land) practice as I raked leaves in the Fall. I spent all the time I could "on campus" as a teenager, competing in music contests, attending recruiting events, hanging out in the cool shops and restaurants all along High Street. And now, I work here.

The Ohio State University is my campus.

When you work in higher ed, there is always a little part of your brain that is prepared for a threat. I used to worry about it at Ohio Dominican. I had a plan for defense in both of the offices where I worked. But I worried about it much more at Ohio State - bigger campus, bigger population, more visible, more opportunity. I just never really thought it would actually happen in Columbus.

I can't get into too many specifics here regarding what has happened and how it all rolled out. Facts are still being confirmed in the case. I do want to unpack it, though, because it's so surreal. Things like this don't happen in Columbus, Ohio. Despite the growing population, this remains an affable and charming little city. It's really a small town that got a bit too big for its britches.

My husband and I can both trace our family history in this area all the way back to the mid-1800s (mine can actually be traced back to 1802.) When we married, we sent out 500 invitations --not because we thought we were so important, but because our parents and grandparents had friends who still wanted to be there. We joked that the half of the city that I was not related to, he was. Truly, until I was in my mid-30s I could not walk down the street in Downtown Columbus and not see someone I knew, greeting them with a wave and a smile.

And then there's the University. Columbus is home to 52 higher ed institutions, second only to the Boston area in the United States, but only one is "The Campus" and that's Ohio State. The North end of our city revolves around it. Grad students, professors, and staff live in the neighborhoods that touch campus, like my native neighborhood of Clintonville. People come from all over the world to attend and work at Ohio State. This makes our campus community a diverse population of people hungry for knowledge and anxious to make their mark with world-class research. Regardless of professional differences and ambitions that come into play anywhere you go, the campus community is also friendly and warm. The natives (like me) welcome them warmly and offer any help we can to make them feel at home. They return the favor by introducing us to their rich cultural heritage and helping us to see things through a lens that is not German/Irish-American and Midwestern.

Hospitality, then, is a specific gift of my hometown. There is a genuineness in the smile and the "How are you?" of a Columbus native. They actually aren't looking for the answer, "Fine." but really want to know how you are.

They listen. They make up their own minds, but they listen to other opinions. It is said that when the Suffragettes came through Ohio campaigning for women's votes, the men listened to them so carefully and politely that they thought that they'd pass the legislation for sure. They didn't, but they didn't throw rotten fruit at them either.

They defend your right to be "wrong". I have been at demonstrations and protests were the opposing sides went out for coffee after the protest.

So how did this happen here? I have no answers other than to say that this is a fallen world and we are a fallen, broken people who needs the healing mercy of Jesus Christ.

I am so sad for my city, for my campus, and for my community. My heart is breaking into a thousand pieces over this. There will be a guarded calm that settles over us, I imagine. Right now, it's just shock and sadness. Moving forward, there will be a twinge of mistrust, an uncertainty, a lack of confidence in the goodness of humanity. The friendly nature of our community has been wounded. These are things that I have already seen beginning to sprout in the garden of my hometown in this past couple of months.

This isn't new, but this act will confirm it. I want these weeds uprooted not watered.

(c) 2016 Katie O'Keefe. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Credit: By Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Socrates, Crito, and the 2016 Election

One of my favorite things about Philosophy is how evergreen it is. It's amazing to me that something that was written in 350 BC can be so very relevant to what we do every day, but I guess that's the entire point of the philosophical adventure --getting to the heart of what makes us human. And when we find that heart, it's really no surprise that humanity hasn't changed much.

There has been a great deal of talk about not voting for a presidential candidate in the upcoming presidential election, and, instead, voting down ticket. This is even something that I have toyed with, though I have made no firm statements about what I intend to do. Each of us must vote our own conscience. I only offer these posts as a check to you and to myself --are you sure you know what you are voting for and what that will mean if carried to its logical conclusion?

So, the question this week is: Should Catholics participate in this election fully? I think that the answer to that question is an emphatic and undeniable, "Yes!"

Plato's work, Crito, falls in the life of Socrates, after he is convicted (Apology) of corrupting the youth of Athens and before he is executed (Phaedo). Crito is named for Socrates' interlocutor for this dialogue. A close family friend (a member of his deme) who is a man of means and has connections, Crito has shown up at Socrates' cell just before dawn to break him out and spirit him away before he can be executed. He has bribed the guards and has arranged for Socrates to be taken to another city to live out his days in peace. Socrates, who is an old man of 70, turns Crito down.

Scholars have argued over the intervening centuries as to why Socrates wouldn't go with Crito --some say that it is because he was old and tired of the fight, but most agree that it is to prove a point that the Athenians got what they wanted, (but not what they needed,) by executing him.

In the course of the dialogue, Socrates gives his reasons for staying. First, that by leaving, he would do harm to his reputation as a philosopher. He would be branded as a coward, or worse, as a dishonest man. He had spent his life trying to get the Athenians to govern themselves, personally and politically, with wisdom and to be the same man in public as each was in private. To be one man in private and another in public was, to Socrates, dishonest and did not move one closer to living the best life (which is what ethics is all about). By eliminating his voice, the Athenians might sleep more soundly in the short term and not have to give adequate thought to the laws and governance of the city, but in the long-term that inattention to wisdom will ultimately be their undoing. This is a "prophecy" that Socrates makes in the Apology, but he reiterates it here in the Crito. This, however, is not the argument he spends the most time on.

The argument I really want to focus on is that Socrates tells Crito that he has been a citizen of Athens from his birth and as such, he had taken advantage of the protections of the laws of Athens. Though Socrates has not participated actively in the political life of his city-state, he has benefited from the stability of the political life and the laws that govern him. Plato spends a great deal of time in this dialogue working through a soliloquy that is an imagined dialogue between Socrates and the Laws of Athens. This argument is a two-fold warning for us here in 2016.

First, Socrates gives a defense of the laws themselves. We cannot say that we agree to be governed by the laws of our country and then pick and choose which laws we will follow and which ones we will not. Socrates tells us that he agreed to abide by the laws of Athens and that includes the laws that he disagrees with but were legislated appropriately with a majority vote. This means that if Socrates benefits by the laws of Athens and they say that he should die for his crimes, then he must abide by those laws, too.

This is a warning for the single-issue voter. If you would have a wisely governed country, then you must pay attention to the whole picture. You don't want to be the one working on the cat puzzle while everyone else is working on the balloon puzzle. If you are only focused on one piece of the puzzle, it's easy to miss all the other pieces that make that picture complete. Socrates was so worried about gaining wisdom, that he missed the political piece of the picture that ultimately killed him. (Or maybe he didn't. Maybe his death was the final thing he had to teach the people of Athens --that's a debate I have heard, too!) 

When we focus on a single issue, we can miss the other pieces that would make that issue work more effectively. Legislation that improves life for those who are poor and helps to heal some of the generational effects of poverty treats the roots of the abortion issue, not just the symptom. Ignoring these other issues and clinging only to one piece of that very complex problem ignores a set of tools that might be more effective in ending the scourge of abortion in the long run.

Am I saying that pro-life legislation is worthless? NOT AT ALL. I think it needs to be approached holistically and right now, the approach is not holistic. When we have pro-life public figures actively tearing down victims of sexual assault and defending the indefensible, in the name of respecting all women --including the unborn --we have a big problem with cognitive dissonance.

Secondly, we can infer that Socrates is encouraging us not to stand by and allow laws to be made in our name (as citizens) that we do not agree with. We must use our voices to hold our government accountable. By standing aside and allowing laws to be made without his active participation, Socrates has become the unintentional victim of his own lack of involvement in the political process.

This is a warning for the apathetic voter - if you don't vote, you may be the unintentional victim of what comes next. Whether you vote for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, a third-party candidate or no one, you will still be subject to the winner's rule. That's the agreement we make as citizens of the United States. We benefit from all of the freedoms (and, yes! there are still many more that we enjoy than citizens of other nations) but this also means that we must accept the outcome of the political process. If you do not participate, then you have no hand in that decision.

There is a saying in the Catholic Church that we always get the vocations that we deserve. I think that the same can be said of our politicians in the United States. My daughter, quite frankly, is furious with all of us. This is her very first presidential election as a voter "...and these are the choices you're giving me?" But, maybe we really do deserve exactly these choices. It's up to us to choose wisely and force the parties we have left after this election to make better choices in 2020.

Photo: "The Death of Socrates"  Jacques-Louis David (detail)

Want to read Crito for yourself? Click here to get access to a free online copy.