Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Some Elements of Hope

Originally posted on July 17, 2011

An acquaintance posted a jeremiad on one of the listserves I plug into—a rant by a friend about how we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. It was too sad—I couldn’t take it.

There was a psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, who had a number of good ideas about education, my favorite being the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This refers to the category of new learning that requires a bit of a stretch. If children are allowed to work with notions that are already mastered and comfortably familiar, they become bored. If they are presented with notions that are beyond the ZPD, they feel overloaded, overwhelmed, and they shrink back, demoralized. The trick is to design levels of challenge that remain interesting, in that middle area of the ZPD, neither overly familiar or too far a stretch. Moreover—I don’t know if Vygotsky said this—kids also need to rest a while or retreat to the more comfortable arena of mastery, just to get grounded, as if to say, “Yeah, I can do this.”

A similar theme occurs to me about hope: If I am too pampered and shielded, I can forget that anything needs done, that the world does have many and interesting challenges. Admittedly, complacence can be deadening, and a little shaking up is okay. Someone once offered a blessing that goes, “May the Divine Spirit forever continue to comfort—and disturb—you.”

If, on the other hand, I am presented with all the ways the world is in trouble, all the pressing needs, that can be terrifying and disheartening. I cannot help but recoil. What’s needed is an optimal ZPD in which I feel my efforts make some impact, however small.

A corollary here is that I need to have some concrete actions I can take. Merely talking about how there are problems unconsciously feeds the illusion that if I can complain enough, Mommy will fix it. It’s inconceivable that Mommy can’t fix it because she—or Daddy or any “grown ups”— haven’t a clue! There are grown men, old men, who are into being grumpy, as if their annoyance again will magically reduce their helplessness. Or they reserve at least the right to feel aggrieved. It’s so nice to be able to blame the “gummint” or “politicians” or one’s favorite scapegoat.

So useful calls for hope might be more effective if at least they have specific goals. Send us money. (Of course, there’s a chance those appealing this way are fraudulent, and how can you tell nowadays?) Join our group! I am torn even here, because there are innumerable seemingly noble causes operating locally, regionally, internationally. On the other hand, it seems good to at least witness to people doing good things. Occasionally someone will say, “Hey, I want to learn more about that person or group of ideas or cause.”

I’m offering a series of six lectures for my elder community (55 – 95) locally this Fall (i.e. at the Senior University Georgetown), the topic being “Contemporary Visions: What We May Yet Become.” I appreciate Bud witnessing to those specific people and want to ask him more about them. That’s the spirit. I’m going to talk about Moreno’s ideas, and Teilhard de Chardin, various people supporting inter-spirituality, and those offering a new myth and meaning of our culture. Montessori’s ideas about education will be supplemented by others’ visions. Who would you like me to mention and why? Where can I read up on this? 

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