Can a person help being timid?

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While I was coming to work this morning I saw a blind man who had stopped at the top of several flights of stairs and was tapping his cane on the floor, hoping to get someone’s attention to help him down the stairs. I stood there torn between helping him and catching my train, which was in a different direction. The fact that I don’t speak a word of Japanese would also have complicated things. He might have thought he was being helped down steps by some babbling fool and become anxious. Then again, being helped by a foreigner might have made his day. He would have learned that even foreigners are human. Such events make my day, like the time I found a wallet with money and a driver’s license in it. I took it to the police station and the owner rang me the next day to thank me. She and her boyfriend came all the way to my train station to give me with a nice present of Kamakura biscuits. I think both of us, she and I, were happy, even though we couldn’t speak to each other (I speak no Japanese and she spoke no English).

A couple of days ago I had a class with a very timid student. Sometimes he tries my patience. I ask him a question and he ‘Umms’ a little to show he’s thinking. Then after things have gone silent for a while I look at him and it becomes clear that he didn’t understand my question. Rather than asking me to repeat it or explain it, he thinks that simply by waiting the question will go away by itself or I’ll forget I ever asked it.

I started to think about the belief that none of us is to blame for how we turn out. On this view, getting annoyed with my student would have been illogical, like getting angry with a car that refuses to go. After all, my student didn’t choose to be timid. Although he has the physical ability to ask me to repeat a question, he doesn’t have the character to do so, and this, according to some people, is just as disabling as not having a tongue in his head.

But is it really this bad? Is it really the case that normal adults have no more free will than animals, children and the retarded? Are we as powerless to control ourselves as we are of controlling the weather?

There is nothing the blind man I saw today can do to cure his blindness and me shouting at him, ‘For goodness sake, see!’ wouldn’t have helped. Yet it might be possible for my student to overcome his timidity. The former is like someone locked in a prison while the latter is sitting in a prison with an open door. So, not the same at all.

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