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Archive for October, 2017

Last week my son, Nathan, and I took a three day road trip.  We drove up north to my home town; a short 6 hour drive.  We visited the cemetery where my parents, Dorothy and Ernest and my brother, Thomas, are buried.  The next day we visited ‘The Springs.’  Among other things ‘The Springs’ is, indeed, a number of fresh water springs and it is also the name of the high school that I attended (for more than 20 years one of us six kids was enrolled in this small, faith-based high school).  The school is located a few miles outside of the city and sits majestically near the top of a ledge.  It has grown from a high school to three schools (K-12).  Currently the school is completing a 26 million dollar renovation; impressive to say the least.

Nathan visited a few art classes and engaged the students in conversation and creativity.  I spent a few hours with the school’s President.  I left feeling hope-full.  The next morning Nathan and I drove home.  It was during the drive home that I began to feel a deep sadness, almost a depression.  A memory was emerging.

FLASH-BACK

March, 1969.  I was finishing my second year as a high school teacher.  As a consequence of my first year’s teaching experience I had radically transformed (not changed – transformed) how I taught (which included my ‘teaching style,’ my syllabus and the classroom itself).  I also held a vision of a ‘school-within-a-school’ that would emerge from concept into reality within four months.  Then on Thursday, the 20th day of March, 1969 I had another life-altering experience.  It was the memory of this experience that was emerging for me on our drive home; the memory that was nurturing my deep sadness.

It was 3:15pm.  The last class had been dismissed.  Students and teachers were all alive with energy as they prepared to leave the school or to stay and engage in the many ‘after-school activities’ that were available.  I was preparing to go to a department meeting.  I was about to leave my classroom when Mike walked in.  Mike was a junior.  He was quiet.  He was involved in a number of activities (drama and the school newspaper come to mind).  He was not in any of my classes.  He asked me if I would talk with him.  I told him that I had a department meeting to go to; I was already running late.  Mike said that he would go and see if Mr.____ was available.

Mike, left the school, went home, and took his own life.

That night I learned that I was the fifth teacher Mike had sought out.  Mike did not connect with any of the six adults he sought out that afternoon; we were all too busy to take the time to talk to, to connect with Mike.

I was on my way to a ‘department meeting’ – SUBJECT was more important than STUDENT.

On the 21st of March, 1969 I made a decision.  The STUDENT would always come first.  My commitment: The STUDENT is infinitely more important than the SUBJECT. 

Since that fateful day in March, 1969 I have striven to be ‘person-focused’ first.  When I am not awake, aware, intentional, purposeful and fully present in the ‘now’ then I miss the opportunity to be ‘person-first.’  I strive to hold this question: ‘What are is your highest priority need right now?’

Today, once again, I will have the opportunity to be ‘person-first’ focused.  Today, once again, I will have choice: ‘STUDENT VS. SUBJECT.’

 

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To go into the dark with a light is to know the light.  To know the dark, go dark. – Wendell Berry

 I grew up with a belief that if I were good enough and brought enough light to my world then my dark side would disappear; I would become ‘perfect’.  So I spent many years trying to be good while ignoring my dark side.  Of course I failed.  When I failed, I then experienced both great shame and a greater determination to be good.  By the time I was 19 I loathed the dark side of who I was; I loathed it to the point of being one step away from taking my own life.

This was a literal step.  I had thought that if I was perfectly good then all would be ok; all would be ‘light’ – ‘I’ would be light.  Not being able to be perfectly good plus ignoring, or denying or rejecting my dark side ultimately led me to move from loathing my dark side to loathing myself and to finding myself one wintry night over-dressed and standing on the edge of a lake.  I have no words to capture my inner pain or struggle.  Outwardly I still functioned and used great energy to look good – and I was good at looking good.

Instead of taking the one last step to end my life I decided to take a different step; I decided to take a step into life. That was 53 years ago.

Today I still struggle with accepting all of me; to living a life of wholeness and not one of division.  To embrace and integrate all of who I am into one person, not two.  I am, mostly, awake and aware and I know most of the tricks that I have available to put me to sleep – busyness, distraction, noise, addictions and isolation.

I know the dark and I know the light; I know the sacred and I know the profane.  I know disgust and I know love.  I know feeling blessed and I know feeling cursed.  I have come to pay attention to what I project onto others as a way of seeing more clearly what I am denying or ignoring within myself.  As Carl Jung said, ‘It is the face of our own shadow that glowers at us across the room.’

 During the past 53 years I have not come close to taking that final step into the deep water and yet I know that I am capable of doing so (unlike some others, I do not question whether I am capable of taking my own life).  I know that as a fully human being I am both light and darkness, good and evil as Greenleaf would say, and that I have great potential for both.

I know who I am called to be and how I need to act in order to embrace all of me.  I have choice.  I was under the illusion that all of this would become easier as I grew older – for me the struggle continues for there is part of me that still thinks that if I do this integration in the right way then I will be ‘perfect.’

I have come to experience that no matter the intensity of my struggle to embrace all of me and no matter how dark it seems when I am feeling defeated, that hope and light in their tiniest most distant forms are still out there calling me back, calling me to be fully me.

I still struggle as I attempt to make friends with my inner darkness; I say that I am afraid that my inner darkness will whelm me over – and what does it mean anyway to become friends with something I loathe?  My way out of this neat little trap is to acknowledge that I am the one I loathe for I am both light and darkness.  Once I am able to see that ‘I’ am the one that I loathe then, paradoxically, it is easier for me to remember how I am loved by those who know the ‘whole me’ and still love me.  Their love of ‘me’ enables me to move closer to ‘me loving me.’  I am aware that without embracing my darkness that I cannot become the person I am called to become.  Many years ago, an unknown author provided me with a mantra which I now offer to you gentle reader:

May the power of the little pieces of light which penetrate the darkness give you reason to go on. 

 

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PEACE. . .

Blessed are the peacemakers. –7th Be-Attitude

These past months I have been thinking about ‘Peace.’  I have a hunch that many other folks living in our global community have also been thinking more about ‘Peace.’  In 1972, R.M. Hare named two distinct forces endangering national and world peace (see his book: ‘Applications of Moral Philosophy’).  The two forces that he believed were operative in 1972 were: Nationalism and Fanaticism.  Today, these two forces are alive and well and are, once again, endangering national and world peace.

A ‘Nationalist’ is a person who believes it right to pursue the interests of his or her nation above, and often to the detriment of, the interests of other nations.  The nation becomes the big ‘I’ and there is little, if any room for the little ‘we’ (as in ‘globally we are in this together’).  When asked to explain/defend this stance/policy the ‘nationalist’ will probably invoke certain features of a situation, citing and emphasizing the differences in regard to creed, race, nationality, goals, etc.  For the ‘nationalist’ these serve as morally relevant features that support his or her ‘nationalism.’

It is fairly easy to intellectually dispel the tap roots that feed, nurture and sustain ‘nationalism’ via the use of logic, reason and facts.  However, it is nearly impossible to emotionally and psychologically dispel the tap roots.  ‘Nationalists’ often pride themselves on the ‘reason-able-ness’ of their position and yet when they are presented with logic, reason and facts they will quickly move from a rational defense to an emotional defense.  Their immediate shift indicates that their tap roots are emotional and not logical/rational.

Their tap roots include deep tacit assumptions about those who are not like them.  They include negative, and often dehumanizing, beliefs, stereotypes, prejudices, judgments, and attitudes about the ‘other’ that engenders suspicion, fear, and misunderstanding and maximizes the ‘nationalists’ protective-defensiveness.  The ‘nationalist’ becomes self-righteous and assumes the high moral ground.  If enough small steps are taken by the ‘nationalist’ it then requires only one more small step and the ‘nationalist’ is then able to guilt-free take actions that indirectly and directly harm the ‘other.’

If pressed, the ‘nationalist’ might well retreat to ‘fanaticism’ – a fanatical form of nationalism.  History tells us (I was going to use the term ‘teaches’ but it seems that we have not been taught yet) that the ‘fanatic’ will sacrifice all of the interests of the other AND  sacrifice his or her own interests as well, out of a zeal fostered by his or her ideal.  If pushed to the wall, the ‘nationalist-fanatic’ will choose to ‘do it all in’ rather than give in (again, history tell us that this type of ‘sacrifice’ has been going on for thousands of years).

‘Nationalism’ fed by ‘Fanaticism’ will lead, not to ‘Peace’ but to ‘Destruction.’  The tap roots of ‘Nationalism’ are feeding us today.  Some of us in the global community – some of us in our country, some of us in positions of power in our country – are being nurtured by the tap roots of ‘nationalism’ and have shown signs of being prone to ‘fanaticism’.  The signals and signs are being offered to us on a daily basis.  Today, PEACE is at risk.

Few are guilty, but all are responsible. –Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Generalities fail to help us understand a human being.  When I meet another human being I am not meeting a ‘generality,’ I am meeting a unique individual.  Our applying generalities to humans and to the human situation accounts for many of our failures (think: failures of compassion, empathy, sympathy, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing).  There is a tribe in Africa where the greeting is, ‘I see you.’  How often am I able to utter these words when I have the opportunity to truly ‘see’ the other?

How often do I define my own existence as a series of events?  How often, then, do I miss my own uniqueness?  How often do I neglect to see or remember or understand that my existence as a story in history is an original; I am not a copy (although I might be a rough draft).  Intellectually I know – I believe that most of us know – that ‘I’ am unique; that no two of us are truly alike (although Identical Twins come close).  To be human is to be unique.

Each of us human beings has something to say, to think, and to do which is unprecedented.  The challenge I/We face is whether we will seek to find our ‘unique voice’ and ‘live our unique story.’  How many of us speak in the voice that others want us to use?  How many of us live a story that others want us to live?  How many of us strive to find our unique voice and live our unique story?

Every human being is an extension of his/her past.  Every human being is also ‘an anticipation’ of what is to come – of what might be.  Being a unique human being is truly a ‘surprise’ waiting to be revealed.  Each of us has choice.  Each of us has some capacity to create or co-create.  How many of us have chosen not to be unique?  How many of us fear being unique?  A wise person once noted that what we humans fear the most is our own unique ‘light’ – the ‘light’ that no one else can bring to the world.

This morning I was sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops reading.  I was engrossed in the words the author was presenting to me.  I felt a presence.  I looked up and there stood a little girl. ‘Hi, my name is Megan.  I am two years old.’  Megan was feeling life in all of her being.  She continued, ‘What is your name?  Your shirt is orange.  Is your coffee hot?’  Megan was holding a bottle of juice.  ‘I am drinking my juice.’  Megan’s father was standing behind her.  He was about to have her move to a table but Megan had already decided that she wanted to sit next to me so she put her juice bottle down and climbed up into the big easy chair next to mine.

Megan’s mother emerged from the crowd.  Megan’s father asked if I would be disturbed if they sat in the three other easy chairs.  I said that Megan has chosen and that I would like her company.  Megan was full of life and curiosity.  I am now closing my eyes and I am seeing Megan – a unique human being.  In the brief time we had together it was clear that her parents nurtured Megan’s uniqueness.  How many parents ‘fear’ their child’s uniqueness?  How many parents stress conformity and unintentionally ‘kill’ uniqueness?

You are unique, and if that is not fulfilled, then something has been lost. –Martha Graham

 

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Two nights ago I had the gift of having dinner with my son, Nathan (gentle reader, you might recall that Nathan, among the other gifts he has, is an artist and teacher).  These past two years or so, Nathan has been ‘artist in residence’ at a wonderful gallery here.  The gallery’s owner, not an artist in the ‘traditional sense,’ has, for years, been committed to serving the community that is the nesting place for his gallery.

During our dinner conversation Nathan presented me with a challenge that has begun to engulf, him, the staff and the students.  The challenge involves a ‘regular’ who takes classes and who comes for the ‘open studio’ times.  As happens all too often in communities or organizations certain behaviors have been tolerated for months and now people, including Nathan, have ‘reached their limit’ and they want the person to change; to let go of certain behaviors and attitudes and to take on ‘healthier’ behaviors and attitudes.  Among other things, Nathan is puzzled.  ‘Why,’ he wonders, ‘does a person choose behaviors and attitudes that negatively impact others – and that end up negatively impacting him/her?’

These past two days I have been reflecting upon Nathan’s ‘challenge’ and question.  The question that emerged into my consciousness last night was: ‘Why are we humans puzzled when it comes to us humans?’

When I think of us humans as biological entities I find that it is easy to define and classify us humans.  We can define the human species and place our species in relation to the animal world.  This definition – human species as animal species – is, I have found, and Nathan has found, is of little value when it comes to my/our seeking to understand the relations of human being to human being.  What complicates this is that ‘I’ must first seek to understand my own self before I am able to seek to understand the ‘I’ of the other.

What seems to puzzle our minds is the uniqueness of each of us.  All of the other ‘beings’ seem to neatly fit into a natural order and are, for the most part, determined by set and permanent principles (think: laws of nature).  As ‘natural beings’ we humans are also determined by natural laws. As ‘human beings,’ however, we must also choose (choice seems to be a ‘gift’ and a ‘curse’).  We are truly unrestrained when it comes to ‘choice’ – to our ‘free will.’  When we are confronted with the fork in the road, we have choice – we decide which road to take (think: the road less traveled).

The paths that my life will take – the paths I am taking – are truly unpredictable.  My destination is rooted in choice – not in fate or in determinism.  To change my metaphor: I do not write my autobiography in advance.  My choices are so discrete that I can choose each letter; the changing of one letter can make all the difference (think: ‘see’ becomes ‘sea’ and all that might follow from my ‘seeing’ to my ‘seaing’).

As I conclude this morning I am thinking of Margaret Mead’s words: ‘Always remember that you are absolutely unique.  Just like everyone else. 

 

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