Higher Ground

by Jean Marie Johnson

It was 1976. Seeking answers to complex questions already lived or hinted at, I signed up for Philosophy 101 with my whole heart.  I arrived with great expectations, indeed. But what I hadn't expected was Brother Phillip.

Most of us were just out of high school, commuter students who had already mastered the fine art of juggling what we later referred to as "work and life." Riding the local bus to and from the small apartment I lived in with my mother, brother and sister, my day was scheduled from start to finish: early classes, then off to work in the Placement Office, then back to class, followed by a few hours in the Skills Center (tutoring paid the BIG bucks), then back to class, grab the bus, get home to study and hawk some AVON on the side. My gig wasn't so different from those around me, just a bit more "intense" I'd guess.

Brother Philip seemed to understand our circumstance. Or maybe, "circumstance" was beside the point as he demonstrated equal patience with impertinence, exhaustion and youthful non-chalance. That semester, we worked our way through the eternal questions in the classical manner of a "survey course." A Jesuit, Brother Philip paced mindfully in his long brown robes, pausing to connect with a student, listening for the essence of an ill-formed idea, or, considering how in the world to respond.

Brother Philip had a way about him. Disarming in his kindness, yes, but he was no pushover. He was too slick for that. Wise. When I look back, I am certain that he saw our sometime-insolence for the naiveté that it was. Back then, I thought of him as middle-aged, but now I am not so sure. He was, in any case, a deep soul, and where we were concerned, he knew what was coming.

It was clear, from his stories, that Brother Philip had lived a life of joy, pain, and uncertainty just like the rest of us. He hadn't walked on water and didn't pretend to. To my way of thinking, he had "street cred." So when he said "Just because you can, doesn't mean that you may," he stopped me in my tracks. Pen poised for copious note-taking, I remember thinking, could you say that again? But I didn't need to ask. He knew the import of his words, and repeated them slowly, so that they could sink into our young minds. 

It was, after all, the 70's; the numerous "revolutions" of the 60's were past, but our lives and culture were forever changed. I don't believe that Brother Philip's purpose was to take a stand against the changing mores of the times, per se. His wasn't the voice of parental protection or religious rectitude. Brother Philip was speaking from higher ground. He was alluding to the fact that in every situation, we have the power and the responsibility to choose who and how we will be.

What a drag. I remember thinking; Maybe I don't want to know this, maybe not now.

Of course, a lot has happened in the years beyond that classroom. There is much that I've caused to happen, too. And now, from the perspective of time and a journey past-middle, mine is a heart of gratitude. Of all the lessons I Iearned that fall, The Platonic Theory, The Socratic Method, and the rest, only this one, a persistent whisper, took root in my consciousness: Just because you can doesn't mean that you may… 
 

Beyond Can

In MAGIC® terms, we too, make a distinction between the miniscule "can" and the equally-diminutive "may." We can do many things. A matter of ability and available resources, of technology and high-speed everything, our "can do" is ever-expanding. But may is a different matter. It is not bound by time or beholden to change and progress. It is indifferent to circumstance. It just is. Brother Phillip put it out there. He invited us into a question that would, unbeknownst to us, persist over the course of our lives, sometimes, inconveniently so.  
 

Doing the right thing when it is a matter of black and white is easy. It's negotiating the subtleties and nuances where higher ground meets common ground that can be dicey. Dicey, that is, but not lofty:

You extend empathy to someone who "should" be extending it to you. You know how this one goes: you're on what seems like a perpetual hold. When you finally get through, you explain your situation for the umpteenth time and the service rep gets curt with you. You could get snippy and say "EXCUSE ME, but let me remind you that I am the customer here!" Right, you are. But so what? Instead, you say, "Hey, Chantelle, I know you guys are really slammed today. It must be hard to even catch your breath."

You cut your friend a little slack when he flat-out doesn't come through for you. There's a backstory and you know that he's going through a hard time. Sure, you can lay into him; you have a right to do so. Instead, you say, "Are you alright?" 

You decide not to take the bait of a family member's sarcasm, because you recognize it's an old pattern that doesn't serve anyone. You resist the urge to sling something back or to play the victim. Taking the long view, you change the subject to something positive or neutral, because you don't want to contribute to chipping away at the relationship.

You let it go when a co-worker is clearly doing a CYA because she thinks that's what she needs to do. Enough said; you know what I mean. 

I am reminded by my missteps that everyday life is filled with higher-ground opportunity. The details differ, but the call is the same.

I sometimes wonder where Brother Philip is these days, because I can still hear him: Just because you can, doesn't mean that you may. It's the wisdom for navigating our common ground. I arrived in Philosophy 101 seeking answers. Instead, I found the one statement to provoke the powerful questions that continue to inform a lifetime of choices: mine. Thank you, Brother Phillip. 
 

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for over 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
 

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