Those are my principles and if you don’t like them… well, I have others. –Groucho Marx
Interviewing for my present job, someone asked me, “What would be so important to you as a teacher that you might resign over it?” My mind turned to static, as if the question discovered a blank channel in me. I must have fumbled through an answer—they hired me—but I don’t recall what I said.
I only recall the question. It could have clued me to my future—my school can be a pretty contentious place—but at the time, I didn’t know that. I wondered what might be wrong with me that nothing, nothing, nothing floated up. I wondered how much I might let go.
Since then, however, I’ve come up with an answer.
Oliver Wendell Holmes believed, “To have doubted one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man,” but his is the minority view. Few people believe in purposeful doubt, and, even if they do, doubt is something to vanquish. We are supposed to know what we think, and what we think is supposed to be important. For some, a life without principles is slovenly and slack, indistinguishable and undistinguished, a murky mess. Holding nothing inviolable is a bad sign.
I feel that way sometimes… except, to be honest, principled people can scare me—the extremist who gathers adherents as if popularity made his or her principles valid, the figure with a personal beef who sets him or herself up as a cause, the angry dam to every trickle of change or amendment, the strident voice asserting something is true because it ought to be, the zealot who calls every complication a lie, the person who can’t divide what-this-means-to-me and what-this-means.
Every now and again, I see myself as one of these people, which scares me even more.
Some acts appall me, some dismay me, some irk me—I’m bothered—but, at my best, I know my principles are not the only ones. I believe, in principle, we ought to acknowledge we think differently. Some basic doctrines help us coexist and persist, but losing the capacity to listen and adjust our principles in light of others will halt our evolution… and then likely lead to our end.
So here’s what I should have said:
“I understand that, for many people, resigning in protest is an admirable act, but I can’t see deciding not to contribute. I’d worry I was setting myself apart from and above others. If I’m ever uncomfortably out of tune with the values of this place, I’ll leave. But we all have values—I have many and many of them are complex and contradictory. I want to express what I feel and know the best way to be heard is to listen.”
And if that answer didn’t get me the job… well…