Monday, July 11, 2011

Of goats and schemas

There's nothing quite like an afternoon that is spent smiling until your cheeks ache. And that's how I am around goats, particularly goats in costume. Can't help it; Lady BaBa, bumble bees, a zebra, a plethora of little ballerina fairy princesses, a unicorn, a Christmas elf, circus cars, and a hippie tie-dyed goat make a girl happy.

I spent some years of my childhood going back and forth from city girl to country girl. As I grew up, I settled upon city girl. I thrived in the constant activity, the diverse culture, the opportunities abounding in the city. And yet... and yet that way of understanding and defining myself is in flux. While I still love the city and so many aspects of city life, I find myself driving back to country places with some wistfulness, longing for a simpler, quieter, reach-out-and-take-hold-of-the-earth sort of life. Some distance from all the technology that can swallow life, actually distance us from living. It's one of the reasons, perhaps, I feel a sense of pure delight when I'm around goats.

In grad school, one of my beloved professors, Dr. Nelson, gave a memorable demonstration of this concept called "schema." It's been a few years, so I'll borrow a definition of schema I found on the internet from someone named Kendra Cherry:

"A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas can be useful, because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting a vast amount of information. However, these mental frameworks also cause us to exclude pertinent information in favor of information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and ideas. Schemas can contribute to stereotypes and make it difficult to retain new information that does not conform to our established schemas."

Dr. N wrote the word "bird" on the whiteboard and circled it. Then he asked for any ideas that came to mind when we thought of a bird. As we shouted them out, he drew little lines coming from the circled bird and wrote our concepts of a bird in new circles. The more little circles and concepts that stemmed from our original "bird" schema, the more apparent it was that, while we all knew what a bird is, we had slightly and even vastly different frameworks for organizing and interpreting that information.

Funny, but Dr. N might be surprised to know that much of my post-grad work has centered around this idea of schemas. My schemas of God, profession, life direction, vocation (or calling), success, value, priorities, love, church, worship, faith, marriage, turning thirty, and the whole of who I am, for example, have all been called into question and in many cases, restructured. Or shall I say, they are in the process of being restructured.

All this restructuring can be tiring work. The questioning, the wrestling, the wide-eyed seeing, sometimes painfully but always eventually freeing, what I hold to be true. Admitting who I really am and how different that often is from who I thought I was and accepting that person, with grace, this is not easy work. Yet the closer I get to that understanding and acceptance, the more I can give myself permission to just be me, the more alive I feel.

The ongoing question is, can I have a flexible enough framework of life, one that does not include "should" as a preface; that has space enough for the continuous addition of stems connected to descriptive words, ever expanding and deepening and opening to this journey of becoming?

I could end with a question, as I've done so many times before. Or I could draw another line, another stem coming from me, circling "Yes." Why yes, yes I can. Not perfectly, but persistently and intentionally, yes.

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