Not This, but That, or That
The editor with whom I worked on Holy Clarity: the Practice of Planning and Evaluation (The Alban Institute, 2009) taught me a lot about writing. She also taught me a lot about thinking. I had heard from my colleague Jeff, who’d worked with her before, “Beth Gaede is obsessed with antecedents.” I didn’t worry when I heard this. I understand that pronouns ought to be used sparingly, and their referent should be in the sentence before. Check and check; no problem.
Problem. It turns out that I have a dysfunctional relationship with the pronoun “this.” Every time I used it, Beth corrected me and made me specify that to which “this” referred. Whenever I started a sentence with the word, she sprayed red TrackChanges all over it until I reorganized everything. To this very day, more than ten years later, I cringe whenever I read sentences — or, God forbid, paragraphs — beginning with the word, “this.”
I’ve spent the past 20-odd years wondering what causes people to resist life-giving change. I’ve learned that one of the loci of resistance is magical thinking, which is sometimes betrayed by sloppy use of antecedents. The good news is that tighter language can train our brains, attuning them to our surroundings so we might adapt to them more harmoniously.
Consider the academic year for which we at Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School are preparing. We have a lot of choices to make. Doing what we did last year is not on the menu. How can our language reflect that reality?
We have to be extremely specific about the purposes of our actions, as effective leadership amidst physical distancing relies on intentionality. With every plan we put in place, we have to name why it’s important and furthers our school’s purposes. We’re not around each other in such a way that we can, as Gandhi taught, “Be the change.” We have to say it.
I feel as prepared as a person could be for planning programming in this strange, pandemic moment after having gone through the process of moving a school. Andover Newton’s leaders encountered some resistance to change during our move to become an embedded entity at Yale University (she says, understatement intended as irony). When we were able to engage in conversation regarding that resistance, we could sometimes see the false narrative behind it, where objectors thought we had options we didn’t.
The wider Andover Newton community, leading up to the transition, had been well aware that change was coming. They had witnessed numerous attempts at a new business model, such as merger negotiations and institutional rethinking. Yet when the decision ultimately landed, we heard, “Why are you doing that, when you could do this?” Translation: why are you moving (“that” — the foreign, strange thing I don’t know), when you could stay (“this” — the reality I know, and where I feel safe)?
Going on the way things were was a nonstarter. We’d used up all the runway, and the plane had to lift off or crash. We were 18 months away from not being able to make payroll, and two to three years away from ballooning interest charges on a loan we’d taken out to extend said runway. The antecedents “that” and “this” were clouding not just the resister’s speech, but their understanding of that with which our beloved school was dealing.
During the past week, I have had several conversations with students trying to make good decisions for the fall. Some are considering a leave, or deferring enrollment, given that they want wholly in-person seminary. I’ve found myself encouraging them to ask themselves the question, “What would you do if you weren’t enrolled?” In some cases, the student was subconsciously fantasizing that they could do something, somewhere, that was untouched by Covid-19.
They want to spend the fall semester on Planet-No-Covid. There is no Planet-No-Covid. They aren’t choosing between this and that, they are choosing between that and that. Covid-19 took “this” (the familiar, the desired) away. When students realize they are choosing between that and that, and they are liberated from the illusion of “this,” their minds are cleared to focus on the future.
Andover Newton’s theme for the academic year 2020–2021 will be “Embracing Transformation.” That theme will guide my ‘blog for the remainder of the summer. What do antecedents have to do with it? In order to embrace the new, we have to take a leap of faith. Anything we do to cling to the illusion that the status quo can be recaptured prevents our leaping, even the most subtle choices of words.
Covid-19 has taken away the possibility that this year will be like last year, not that the possibility was real to begin with, for each new year is just that: new. As my mentor Peter Gomes used to preach, “We are a future people.” By “we,” he meant Christians, Beth.