On the Corner
By Robert Docter –
Standing at Christmas kettles provides a wonderful laboratory for human learning. This Christmas, I’ve learned much about myself and about humans in general while caroling around that magnificent, joy-bringing, boiling pot.
About me, I’ve learned about two values which I rarely examine: duty and pride. And, I’ve learned a little about the relationship between obligation and responsibility.
The first thing I’ve learned is that I don’t like to stand at Christmas kettles–until I get there. Then, I enjoy it tremendously. I suspect there are similar conscience driven commitments that you’d rather not face as well. This is so even if you don’t take your place regularly with a bell or a horn in your hand around that old red pot.
My days are full. There is much to do, and I’m always on some deadline. The kettle gig is just not part of what I do regularly. Then, I read the schedule, and there it is. Tonight! A sense of dread sets in. I begin a self appraisal of my physical well being. I feel a sudden cough coming on– and maybe a slight stuffiness in my nose. And what about my back–and the temperature–and the threat of rain…maybe. It gets very cold here in southern California at night –maybe even down into the high forties. Brrr.
But then guilt sets in.
I’m convinced that the guilt has its roots in my self disgust. My irrational rationalizations even turn me off. What gets me moving toward the closet where my uniform is hanging is a sense of duty.
I’ve never really resonated positively to that old hymn: By the pathway of duty flows the river of God’s grace. I just didn’t take positively to the word “duty.” To me, it meant that I was obliged to do something–that someone uttered a command and I had to snap to. I’ve always had a hard time taking direction, so following the edicts of others has been difficult. Duty as a concept turned me off. I wanted to perceive myself acting out of nobler values–like love, devotion, commitment. Whoever wrote the song must have been a person somewhat like me. Somehow, I never noticed the relationship between duty and moral and ethical obligations. Duty doesn’t mean that I abandon autonomy. It simply means that I have established a commitment, born out of loyalty and devotion, to engage or not engage in certain behaviors. If I abandon duty, I am unloving to the entity or individual to whom I have made commitments.
I’ve learned and accepted over the years that there are many times in my creative day when I absolutely must accept the direction or follow the rules of others if I am to fit into a functioning system designed to achieve a goal. There’s a big difference between “going it alone” and independence. The independent person acts in a mature way–in harmony with others–accepting responsibility for actions. Respon-sibility means that one accepts the “contractual” requirement to perform and is willing to accept the consequences of non-performance. Simply “going it alone” rejects the whole notion of community.
So there I am. Putting on my uniform. Grabbing my horn and my hat. Out the door in a timely fashion like a dutiful, responsible band member.
What happens when I get to the kettle has to do with pride
Pride and self-esteem are linked. We must have some or we have nothing to give away. We must take some pride in the quality of our performance or it will not do justice to whatever goal we hope to accomplish. At the kettle I wanted to look good in my uniform to do justice to the Army. I wanted to sound good to do justice to the message of the carols. In order to achieve this, I had to evidence some pride in my appearance and my musical proficiency.
Unfortunately, both pride and self-esteem are curvilinear in their relationship to how one is perceived by others. Too much pride becomes disdain. Too much self-esteem becomes self-conceit. Disdain and self-conceit are not positive virtues. We need some pride, and so the “proud” line goes up as we relate to others. When we get too much, it begins to curve over the top and any continuing increase in pride causes a decrease in our ability to relate effectively to others. The critical factor is knowing when you are going “over the top” on your pride line.
So, you see. I’m glad I stood at the kettles. I learned a lot.