Thursday, October 04, 2007

Setting a Good Example

I attended the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York City. In fact, I was ordained as an interfaith minister in 2005.

Attending the seminary was a really powerful experience for me. Although I was a distance learning student, I made the trek to NYC each month for 2 years to attend the classes in person. Airfare was incredibly cheap back then and I had generous friends in the city who allowed me to stay with them every month for my 'class weekend.'

Each month, we met in the same classroom at the school. It is a large room with folding chairs to accommodate the 60 or so students in attendance. The floor is carpeted and the walls are adorned with artifacts from cultures and religious traditions around the world.

We were informed of a rule on the first weekend that we were not to eat or drink in the classroom. It was explained that the carpets are not often cleaned, and spills could make it very unpleasant for everyone in the room. It made sense to me, and I observed the rules.

I was frequently extremely jet lagged when I arrived in NYC to attend class. Sometimes I came from Seattle. In this case, with school starting at 9:30am EST, I had to be up by 7am to make it to class. To my body that was 4am PST!!! Other times I would come directly from the middle east, land at 5am EST and be in class by 9:30am. I would fly all night and then go to class all day. In both cases, it was very hard to go through the morning class without my coffee!

As the months went along, I noticed that many of my classmates did not observe the rules, especially about drinking coffee. Every day in class I would see at least 5 or 6 people drinking coffee in the mornings. This started to annoy me a bit. Here I was, coming from the west coast or the other side of the world, and I was going without coffee to be observant of the rules. People who were coming from across town were enjoying their morning latte! What bothered me most was that no one on the faculty was 'correcting' the behavior of those who were breaking the rules.

As I watched all this unfolding, I started to wonder if maybe the rules had changed and I wasn't aware of it. I decided, in a rather self righteous way, that if anyone had the right to drink coffee in that room it was me! After all, I was traveling further than anyone else, often attending class after having flown all night. It made sense... right? Right! Or so I told myself.

The next time I attended class, I brazenly walked to Starbucks, got a Venti drip coffee with cream and sugar and went to school. I was super careful with my coffee cup. I never set my cup down, not even for a second. I held it in my hands to make sure that I didn't spill a drop on the carpet. I made sure that when my cup was empty, I took it directly to the trash can. I felt very vindicated. I had my coffee and I hadn't harmed the room or the floor! Then... it began.

As the day progressed, I watched the other students with their coffee. I saw one person set their cup down on the floor and proceed to kick it over with their foot when they weren't paying attention. Coffee, with cream went all over the floor. Time after time I watched people's drinks fall over, get kicked over or get bumped by other students. Over and over again I saw drinks spilling and tipping over. This happened all day long! I must have seen 6 drinks get spilled on the floor that day.

I had never seen so many drinks spill in one place at one time in all my life! I have learned to listen carefully when things like this happen. A message was being communicated to me. It was time to reflect on what I did and what I had observed.

The rule was in place to protect the carpet and to keep the environment pleasant for all of us. It wasn't randomly set up to be inconvenient. There was a valid purpose for that rule. Some people broke the rule and others did not. I finally decided to break the rule. I was very careful and 'successfully' broke the rule. Then, I was treated to a veritable feast of watching others break the rule and not be careful.

I started to think about the 'example' I was setting by breaking the rule. I tend to be rather strict with myself about rules and doing what is right. I started to wonder if any other students saw me drinking coffee and said, "Wow... if Nola is doing it, it must be OK." Maybe some of those spills throughout the day were a direct result of me breaking the rule.

I realized that people watch what I do. I think its true of everyone. We all influence each other with our behavior. Doing something often gives others permission to do it too... good... or bad.

I realized that I was being shown the possible 'ripple effect' of bad behavior. I was being called to a higher standard.

It was a pretty profound experience for me. Needless to say, I never drank coffee in that room again. I spoke to my Dean about it, just to make sure the rule hadn't changed without my knowledge. It hadn't. Drinks were still forbidden.

It no longer mattered to me what anyone else did. I needed to honor the rule because it was the rule that was given to us, and I did, in fact, agree with the reason for the rule. My actions needed to be carefully considered, because they could either validate or invalidate the idea of honoring one's word.

If we disagree with a rule, we should work to change that rule. Unless the rule or law is unethical, immoral or corrupt, we should follow that rule, or assertively work to change it. Going 'around' a legitimate rule because it inconveniences us or we don't like it, is actually passive aggressive.

We all have the power to set good examples, or poor ones. We have the ability to validate other people's bad behaviors by duplicating them. We don't have to preach or call people out (necessarily), but we can set a different example. Sometimes that is the most powerful action we can take!

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