Thursday, December 22, 2005

In Praise of Repression

Since the semester ends this week, everyone’s nerves are frayed, including mine. This is when I most appreciate the value of emotional repression.

Repression gets a bad rap. It’s considered ‘unhealthy,’ ‘inauthentic,’ insincere. Calling someone ‘repressed’ is a serious insult.

Phooey, I say. What a wonderful world it would be, if more people would learn to put a sock in it.

The strong, silent type was ‘repressed,’ and a good thing, too. Learning to suck it up is an important life skill. Learning not to throw our feces in anger separates us from the apes. (And yes, intelligent design folk, we came from apes. To my mind, the best refutation of intelligent design is the platypus. What the hell is that thing? A mammal that lays eggs? I think of it as God’s typo. But I digress.) Learning to think before speaking, to consider that others don’t especially want to (or deserve to) deal with your own petty failings, is part of maturation.

Deaning requires advanced repression skills. By the time students get to my office, they’ve already been frustrated by their professors and their professors’ department chairs, so they’re pretty worked up. They show up loaded for bear, and before I can even begin to suss out what it is they’re actually upset about, I first have to talk them down. It’s sort of like hostage negotiation, only without weaponry.

It’s a multi-stage process. First, get them to calm down enough so that they’re speaking in sentences. This frequently involves a tricky combination of distant civility (“have a seat”), sympathy (“I’m sorry you feel that way”) and, at times, boundary drawing (“if that’s your attitude, you can address me as Dr. Dean”). All of this could be considered insincere, in a way, but I don’t think sincerity is really the point. I show more respect for the student by putting aside my sincere annoyance and actually trying to engage the student’s better nature.

Once we’re actually ‘using our words,’ as The Boy’s teachers say, there begins a delicate dance of the seven veils, as I try to separate the self-justifying fibs from the wishful thoughts from the nuggets of truth. “The professor wouldn’t let me do a makeup.” Why not? “She’s mean.” I’ve never known her to be mean. Have you missed any classes? “Well, yeah.” How many? “I don’t know.” Have you missed other assignments? “Well, yeah.” And so it goes.

The box of kleenex on the desk earns its keep this week.

The question that frequently stops them in their tracks is “what would you have me do?” They often haven’t thought that far. That’s where good repression comes in.

Good repression is functional, in that it gives you time to think through the consequences of the nasty revenge fantasy that keeps trying to hatch in your brain. It can keep you from making an idiot of yourself, as with road rage. Really good repression actually helps you reach a higher ethical plane, as you start to get a sense of your place in the big picture. (As the singer Steve Earle once put it, “I know there’s a higher power out there, and it ain’t me.”)

You can’t learn to repress if you don’t have frustration. This is why I object so strenuously to helicopter parents always hovering around. Let the kid fight his own battles, and even lose some of them. Learning to lose the right way, to maintain your ethics and your dignity as you dust yourself off, is a major life skill. A kid who learns that in college has learned something real.

To be fair, repression gets easier with age. Marriage does wonders for the naturally repressed. During my single days, if I saw a lovely creature and did nothing about it (which was pretty much standard behavior), I would chalk it up to a character flaw, castigate myself for failing to embrace life, and spend the night staring at the wall, convinced that I would die alone. Now, the same behavior isn’t wimpy at all – it’s the manly self-sacrifice of a loving husband and father! Woo-hoo! (It also allows me to harbor the cherished illusion that I had a shot in the first place. It’s my illusion, and I like it.)

To be fair, in my office, I get a skewed sample of students. I don’t see the kids who are successfully sucking it up, since it wouldn’t occur to them to go to the dean in the first place. So a quick ‘thank you’ to all you professors out there who teach the valuable lesson of repression, of dealing, of sucking it up. There’s only so much one dean can do.