I saw the cuts from the film Whiplash on the Academy Awards 2015 show last night. Seeing the cuts made me not want to see the film. I do not enjoy seeing people abused, even in fiction. It has to be well worth watching abuse and violence for me to willingly agree to do so.

I do not know whether I will go see this movie. I am somewhat drawn to do so, because I want to know the attitude towards teaching that is portrayed in this movie. Does it advocate such “pushing” to bring out “greatness” in students? Does it portray itself as an antidote to being too lenient with students? What does it say about learning? It may well be a film layered with meaning or a “hollow psycho-thriller.” 

But it makes me ask the question in the title of this post — and different people may answer differently. Maybe there are people who need to be “forced” to be excellent. But in my own experience, it was encouragement that gave me the further excitement and enthusiasm to push on in my learning. If I had been pushed in the other way, I would have been beaten down or enraged, and I wonder how much I would have learned. (As you see from former posts, I was enraged by a professor and went home and wrote a song about it!!! But I was not happy!!!) Those who were critical of my work seem to me to be people either who did not know how to help me or who expected a degree of background knowledge coming into a course that I did not possess. It was those who were gentler who helped me excel further.

Maybe there are people out there who learn by being verbally or physically abused. Yet what price must then be paid by the individual who succeeds? That experience of abuse will be with him or her for the rest of his/her life. And what price must then be paid by the individual who does not succeed? Perhaps an even higher price.

And yet sometimes learning and happiness are the result of doing something that is unpleasant, even painful. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes: “The best moments [in our lives] usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. … Such experiences are not necessarily pelasant at the time they occur. The swimmer’s muscles might have ached during his most memorable race. … But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery – or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life – that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.”

Yet he also says: “[Optimal experience] is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind ships through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt—sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator. Or it is the feeling a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile.”

I think the pain described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is different from the pain of abuse by another person. The pain of mastery is different from the pain of abuse. Furthermore, sometimes when optimal experience occurs, the effort it took might have been challenging, but I would not call it painful in every instance. When I discovered the ways in which communication does not occur, even though people think they are communicating, it was not painful. It took reading, thinking, discussion, but it was not painful. Learning another language was sometimes very difficult, and that was “a pain,” but when I got to learn by doing, the good feelings outweighed the negative. When I wrote articles that were eventually published, there were negative aspects to them – the fear that the next article might not be good enough. Of course. There were challenges. And practicing a piece of music until it “shines” is sometimes verrrrry repetitious (and scales and chords can be boring even if you are “in the moment” with them), but not necessarily painful in any way. Of course, I didn’t want to make mistakes, and depending on my emotional state, I might be somewhat afraid when performing, but at other times I was not, and the little tension that occurred was easily overcome. I usually was with people who wanted me to succeed, and that made me less nervous, even when participating in the National Guild Piano Auditions.

There is, however, a state in which I am completely “in the moment” when I am doing something. When I am writing and feeling centered or playing the piano and feeling centered, and all else fades away, it is very satisfying. Does that constitute happiness, or a kind of happiness? It certainly would not feel so good if I had been abused into doing it. That is what I think Csikszentmihalyi is referring to when he talks about the sailor, the painter, and the father. That is where I like to live.

Personally, if it takes abuse to be great, I do not want to be great. I’ll take optimal experience anytime over that.