I’ve been dancing around this essay for months. It isn’t about any one person, group, or event. It’s about years of study. Years of teaching. Years of joining and leaving. This essay is about some of the necessary building blocks that make up adult humans.
This essay is about not drinking the Kool-Aid™.*
Every human needs an outside force to challenge us, to come at us sideways, to cause us discomfort, to offer us hope.
But we need to not sell our souls to do so. We need to not give over our autonomy or sense of choice.
We need to practice discernment.
We need to remember we have value, all on our own.
No one person, group, or method, has all the answers. Not even us.
Groups can help us. Teachers can help us. New experiences can help us.
We often need training wheels. Systems to guide or support us as we learn. We may need to follow some pretty strict guidelines for awhile, in order to get the benefit from whatever the method we’re trying is.
But no person or group has the right to crush our sense of self.
Don’t give yourself away. Ever.
Whether it is asked for or not. Don’t do it.
Years ago, before I was about to undertake a course of study, a friend hemmed and hawed a bit, and finally admitted they had some issues with the teacher.
I replied something along the lines of: “Trust me, I see the personality issues, but there’s a lot here that I want to learn anyway. I’m an adult, going in with open eyes. I’ll take what’s useful and leave the rest.”
And so I did.
Other students revered that teacher. Still others ranted and railed against them. Luckily, I was able to take the good with the not-so-good.
Studying hard, I learned a lot. The stuff that bugged me? I was able to let slide. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t what I was there for.
I never drank the Kool-Aid.
I’ve seen people put teachers or systems up on pedestals, only to feel resentful later, oftentimes shoving as hard as they can in order to get the person off, and back down to the ground. I’ve also seen teachers encourage sycophants, and have quickly run the other direction. But I’ve also seen students elevate teachers who never asked for it.
It’s healthy to admire people. It’s not healthy to act as though they know everything there is to know. It’s not healthy to never disagree.
Teachers need sincere inquiry.
Teachers and leaders also need to be students, peers, and followers, somewhere else.
I’ve often said “Beware the teacher who only has students.” Those people are prone to imbalances, and sometimes even abuse.
Ah, yes. Abuse. I’ve seen the fall out from very real breaches of trust. I’ve seen and heard of sexual abuse, mental and verbal abuse, physical abuse.
Abuse in any system of tiered power or privilege is a very real possibility. Some leaders are prone to it, and manipulate the people who have put their trust in them. Other leaders or systems fall into it because of structural dis-integrity.
Sometimes people need help and support in order to leave these systems of active abuse. Once entrenched in those systems, things can feel tangled, and leaving can be fraught, and even dangerous. When leaving feels as dangerous as staying, outside help is often called for.
May we offer that help when called upon.
Sometimes people want – or emotionally need –to see teachers or leaders as all-knowing. They place them up on pedestals.
I’ve seen these leaders or teachers lashed out at in anger simply because the person in question wanted to disagree but didn’t know how to do so as one adult to another. The role of teacher and student was too ingrained for them to take what they needed and disregard the rest.
They had to splinter the whole relationship and throw it all away.
They drank the Kool-Aid without even being asked to.
Mostly, though? I’ve seen a lot of disappointment.
People have been disappointed in me that’s for sure. They’ve even gotten angry. Sometimes this is because I’ve made very real mistakes or missteps. Sometimes this is simply because I didn’t live up to whatever expectations someone had of me.
Other times? Maybe the person was just going through a rough time in their life, and felt safe enough to lash out at me.
The point is, the minute we drink the Kool-Aid – and stop questioning, experimenting, or trying things out on our own – is the minute we give our power away.
The antidote? To practice, and to question.
Always weigh things in your mind, and assess things in your practice. See what works for you, over time. Take in what seems to work. Gather more information. Do more research. Test the waters.
We can honor those who teach us even when we disagree.
And sometimes? We figure out we’ve gotten what we needed from the teacher, or the course, or the system. We’ve integrated what was useful and it’s time to either give back or move on.
Other times? We discover that the system or course or teaching just isn’t that useful. And we walk away.
To learn is to allow our whole lives to become a laboratory. Anything can be tested, over time.
What best supports your learning process? Seek that out, as often as you can.
Retain your autonomy, your dignity, and your sense of self.
I will, too.
*Regarding the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid”:
Jim Jones was a charismatic leader and teacher who founded The People’s Temple, a Christian, socialist religious group with an emphasis on racial equality. 20 years after its founding, 918 members of the group committed mass suicide under Jones’ leadership. They drank cyanide-laced, grape-flavored, Flavor Aid, which is a Kool-Aid type punch. The story got passed down as the people drinking small paper cups of Kool-Aid.
To “drink the Kool-Aid” is to swallow everything from a teacher or system, regardless of how detrimental to your health it may become.
Note: I added a few sentences to the original for clarity’s sake. I wanted to make sure my words couldn’t be construed as blaming victims of abusive leaders. I don’t blame victims or survivors:
Once entrenched in those systems, things can feel tangled, and leaving can be fraught, and even dangerous. When leaving feels as dangerous as staying, outside help is often called for.
May we offer that help when called upon.
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