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Role Models and the Spiritual Self

Karen Allendoerfer

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Published: April 20, 2015 at 7:44 PM [UTC]

Last weekend vote, there was a poll: “Who is your musical role model?” The choices were: a teacher, a superstar, a fellow student, a colleague, or I have no role model. I had a hard time choosing between my violin teacher and a friend/colleague who passed away a few years ago. But, I went ahead and picked “a teacher,” which both then and today was narrowly the most popular choice, picked by ~40% of the respondents.

It no longer surprises me, but it still puzzles me, that “a superstar” comes in a close second. I have never really understood how superstars are supposed to work as role models: people one doesn’t know, probably will never know, and, unless one is uniquely gifted (I’m not), cannot reasonably hope to emulate. As a spectator or consumer, one can taste and enjoy what they bring to the world on special occasions, but my day-to-day life, at least, flows on without many ripples from superstardom.

Music is “just” a hobby for me though. I didn’t go to music school, and I don’t usually make money at music. I had industrial-strength performance anxiety until at least my mid-20s, and while it has gradually waned since then--after much effort to combat it on my part—it has never fully gone away. To me, performing on the violin, especially solo, is rather like eating quinoa, or like vigorous exercise. I know it’s good for me, and I’m always glad to have done it. But that’s only if you ask me after it’s over.

So maybe I just don’t get the appeal of the superstar role model on the violin because violin isn’t my passion and my everything. By profession, I am a PhD scientist and science educator. I care deeply about STEM education and about a scientifically literate public, and I want to see all students succeed, including students from diverse genders and cultural and economic backgrounds. So, what was my reaction when I saw this article this morning?

“Virginia student earns admission to all eight Ivy League schools, and others”

After reading and mentally processing the article, I am filled with admiration for this young woman. It’s a short article, but in it she appears to be gifted, hard-working, and humble. A woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, she has made the most of her opportunities, and she demonstrates an uncommon level of maturity and generosity. She’s clearly a superstar, and deserves admission to any top college in the country or in the world.

But my first reaction was still, “yikes!"

The yikes don’t have to do with this brilliant young woman herself, but rather specifically with the idea of her as a role model. Her principal calls her a “STEM superwoman.” Her guidance counselor is quoted as saying that the senior is “dedicated to pushing herself in the classroom . . . 'she’s taking the hardest courses, the most challenging we offer' . . .” And, her decision to apply to all 8 Ivy League schools is “not typically what we advise.” Some commenters say that we “need more” of students like this. Others want to know “how she did it.” Either way the implication is that others should read this article and emulate its subject. This superstar can be their role model.

Yet, I already know entire high schools worth of kids, kids from all different backgrounds and cultures, some privileged and some less so, who want, and who try, to be like the student described in this article. Who overload themselves with too many AP classes and too little sleep in order to gain that precious Ivy League acceptance. I have a teenager in one of these high schools now. Thirty or so years ago, I was one of them too (but back then the acceptance rate at my alma mater, Princeton University, was around 17%, not the 6.99% it was in 2015). There isn't a shortage of teenagers trying as hard as they can, to be super. It’s just that most of them don’t succeed, at least not by this definition.

A few spaces in my Facebook feed down from the article about the Ivy League-bound student, I saw this one: Why kids who believe in something are happier and healthier. A little put off by the title at first, I read it anyway when a friend summarized the contents. The author, Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist, sees a lot of unhappy teens. She claims that over the past decade, up to 65% of teens have been shown to struggle with intrusive depression symptoms at some point, and often with anxiety and substance abuse as well. And this is especially a problem for the kids who should, theoretically, have the easiest chance for happiness: those who are economically well-off and whose parents provide them with opportunities and choices.

Her theory to explain this paradox is that “an increasingly narcissistic culture and the constant reward for achievement, whether on the playing field, the music stage or the math test, creates what I call in my book the unbalanced “performance self” of the child; a child who feels his or her worth is founded on ability and accomplishment."

Her antidote to the unbalanced "performance self" is the development of the "spiritual self,” which she says is neglected in our culture. The spiritual self is not connected to any specific religion, or even to religion, per se. It is measured as a deep spiritual connection with a sense of a sacred world. It can be encouraged and fostered by steps such as meditation, prayer, or long walks in nature, and modeled by such traits as caring for others, empathy, and optimism.

“In contrast to the performance self, the spiritual self is sturdy and resilient, happy at a win, but not dependent on it to feel worthy as a human being."

Miller is writing generally here; this is her life’s work, and she has book coming out. But I couldn’t help but think specifically about music, the violin, and the role of the performance self vs. the spiritual self. Historically people came to music through the church, and music served a spiritual function, first and foremost. This is especially true for what we call “classical music” today, and for large parts of the violin, symphonic, and choral repertoire. Personally, its spiritual meaning is what drew me to this music, and is why I play the violin in the first place. Although I have been through several marked changes in religious and spiritual path along the way, the constant thread has been music. Music still makes me cry in embarrassing moments, mortifying my performance self.

It has actually taken me a long time to develop any kind of real performance self at all, and that which I do have is still fragile and easily injured. I regularly like to give the performance self a rest. Maybe it’s the introvert in me. I feel pretty content in this approach, at least for myself. But I still wonder, especially as I look at the suffering this imbalance between personal and performance selves seems to create in our culture, how music can help it heal.

From blog

Also on my word press blog, at Role Models and the Spiritual Self

From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 20, 2015 at 8:28 PM
What a fascinating blog, Karen. Thank you for sharing all those private feelings with us. I suspect that the search for a performance self never really ends; what that self looks like simply evolves as our spiritual and other selves do. However, I think, as I think you do, that music is an important link or commonality between and among selves, at least for those of us who feel music is important. Some of the times I think I am closest to the infinite is listening to some of the pieces which bring me to, or close to, tearing up. Good luck in your search.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 21, 2015 at 2:34 PM
Tom, I hadn't really thought of there being more than two selves in this way. The article implies something of a binary, performance vs. spiritual (doesn't say so explicitly), but your idea is more interesting, and probably more correct. And I love the picture of music linking them all together!
From Andrei Pricope
Posted on April 22, 2015 at 10:37 AM
We are human BEINGS, not human DOINGS. But we can only be(come) fuller, deeper, richer, by doing...

I believe it to be a false dichotomy. "Being" is not arrived at by simply spectating the inner and outer world, but as a result of involvement in direct personal experiences, often agonizing (self-)awareness, analysis, and continuous search for what to us represents the meaningful, the essential, and the timeless. It involves accumulation of countless life experiences, a process of ruthless selection, and deep emotional and spiritual sacrifices that help to chisel us into who we eventually become – the "meaning" of our own life... The ironic tragedy seems to be that, by the time we become our deepest and best, we are too weak to apply it fully, and our time is up!

An essential part of the self's process of becoming is dealing with our own creative potential, our resources and opportunities, the passage of time, the aging of the body, the various seemingly inescapable social needs and pressures, our struggle to avoid emotional discomfort, physical pain, embarrassments of all sorts, and regret, at a personal and professional level. It's the ultimate struggle to define ourselves and the balance of that never-arrived-at definition of self in its physical, social, cultural, and temporal context, in a relevant, satisfactory way.

Self-actualizing by definition transcends lower-grade needs, but MUST have included them at some prior time, not ignore and not avoid them. Understanding and, hopefully, true acceptance of the self emerge and develop from this process, which is by definition active, not passive. So the harmonious, organic, endless, and meaningful congruence of doing and being is best interpreted as a circle, and not a Venn diagram, i.e. DOING AND BEING ARE ONE AND THE SAME.

In essence, we do AS we are, and we are AS we do, the apparent separation comes only as we try to understand and achieve their unity into our own self...


For whatever is worth, here is my personal list on "Contrasts, Degrees, and Paradoxes" to consider and digest in this struggle, in no particular order which may suggest a limiting hierarchy:

Meaningful - meaningless
Deep - shallow
Wide (defuse) - (narrow) focus
Within - outside
Form - content - function
Temporary - permanent - timeless
Sound/noise - silence
Alone (solitary) - together (community)
Conflict - resolution
Doubt - certainty
Strong - tender/sensitive
Living loud - living softly
Ascending - receding
Ignorance - knowledge - wisdom
More - less
Want - need
Quantity - quality
Indifferent - complacent - engaged - committed - invested - passionate
Light - dark
Aware - oblivious
Selfish - selfless
Static - dynamic
Dissonant - consonant - resonant
Mindful - absent
Danger - opportunity
Through - around
Past - present - future
Nowhere - anywhere - there - here
Potential - realization
None - some - most - all
Accumulation - simplification
Routine - transformative
(Self-)enslaved - free(d)
Tradition - discovery - innovation
Regress - stagnation - evolution - revolution
Opposite - different - alike - similar - identical
Intuitive - taught - learned
Authentic - fake
Scripted - spontaneous
Implied - suggested - dictated
Reality - fantasy
Consume - create
Follow - lead
Make happen - let happen
Assumption - open to possibility
(Self-)Reflection - action
Knowledge (addition of facts, data) - wisdom (deletion of non-essentials)
Analysis (understanding by zooming in) - synthesis (contextual, relational by zooming out)
Universal - particular
Cause (intentional imperative) - effect (consequences)
Doing - having - being


Thanks for an enjoyable and important topic, Karen!

From Paul Deck
Posted on April 22, 2015 at 2:47 PM
My PhD mentor always told his students to focus not on becoming someTHING but rather on becoming someONE. What he meant is that it's more important to become a great person than it is to become a great chemist, even though society's reward system suggests just the opposite.

Just a week or so ago, I attended a master class given by cellist Steve Doane. For a teenaged participant who might aspire to a career as a cellist, I can easily see how someone like Doane could be a role model, and I suspect that serious students often choose superstar role models based on a personal interaction, either through a master class or such, especially if they see that person a few times, at an annual camp or whatever.

Aside from that, as much as I admire the playing of certain violin superstars, I kind of agree that it's weird to think about them as role models because I don't think of them as someONE but rather as someTHING.

I suppose one can have multiple role models, each of limited scope. One's role model for determination in overcoming an injury might be Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, etc. But my sense tells me when you said "role model" you mean something deeper than that.

I love Andrei's list. Those are all like coordinate axes. We do live in a multidimensional universe.

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