Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Fri 9/27/2002 5:57 AM
Random Thought: Let's Be Real

I'll just say that every time I finish reading the about 170 weekly student journals, I think of one of my favorite Zen stories. And reading a host of e-mail responses and getting involved in a few off-list conversations with some e-colleagues, that story is even more vivid this morning. Both student journals and faculty comments were replete with explicit and implicit yearns for an Eden before the expulsion, with prayers of "if only" and wishes upon a star of "I wish" for all problems to go away.

One of my favorite Zen stories:

A priest was in charge of the garden within a famous Zen temple. He had been given the job because he loved the flowers, shrubs, and trees. Next to the temple there was another, smaller temple where there lived a very old Zen master. One day, when the priest was expecting some special guests, he took extra care in tending to the garden. He pulled the weeds, trimmed the shrubs, combed the moss, and spent a long time meticulously raking up and carefully arranging all the dry autumn leaves. As he worked, the old master watched him with interest from across the wall that separated the temples.

When he had finished, the priest stood back to admire his work and whispered to himself, "Beautiful. Perfect."

"Isn't it beautiful," he called out to the old master.

"Yes," replied the old man, "but there is something missing. Help me over this wall and I'll put it right for you."

After hesitating, the priest lifted the old fellow over and set him down. Slowly, the master walked to the tree near the center of the garden, grabbed it by the trunk, and shook it. Leaves showered down all over the garden.

"What are you doing?" screamed the priest.

"There," said the old man, "it is now as it should be."

The moral of the story is simply that we should be real and accept the truth that there is no ideal. There is no ideal student and no ideal classroom situation--and no ideal professor. Now, don't get me wrong. I am idealistic and I think ideals are important. They have a role to play. They should motivate us to reach out and up. Yes. They should point us in the right direction. Yes. Uplift us. Yes. Make us lighthearted. Yes. Offer purpose. Yes. Create a sense of mission. Yes. They are a tool of inspiration. Yes. They are a measurement by which we gauge our lives. Yes. They are all these things. They are not realities in themselves. And, an overdose of ideals is, if we assume the ideal student or the ideal professor or the ideal classroom is a reality, harmful to our health. Ben Franklin warned that when circumstances and people don't fit our ideal, if we're not careful, the ideals become our difficulties and afflictions. How true. When we are plagued with either or both what I'll call "the perfect student syndrome" or "the perfect professor" syndrome, we lose our balance, our sense of the real; and we hallucinate, painfully mumbling a mournful dirge of "if only" and "I wish." It is when we forget what ole Ben said that we get frustrated, because we are looking for something that cannot be found, searching for someone who doesn't exist, striving to create something we cannot fashion, thinking we are someone who is not, and fashioning becoming someone we cannot be.

So, let's be real about students and ourselves. We academics can't be the perfect human beings because we are human beings. We can't expect students to be perfect humans because they, too, are human beings. We can't expect any class composed of human beings to go perfectly as we want because that class is composed of human beings. We have to get unstuck from the ideal image of ourselves and of students. We have to stop polishing our halos and promoting our saintliness by tarnishing the humanity of students. We have to stop assuming what we think about ourselves and students is the absolute truth about us and them. We have to stop retreating from life and advance into it. We have to stop wishing upon a star who we want ourselves and them to be, and accept who we and they are. We have to acknowledge our own human needs, our own pains, our own fears, our own darkness which we allow to halt, confine, constrain, divert us. And when we don't, we and they pay a high price. We bury ourselves into a blinding and deafing and desensitizing fictional prose, and we cannot connect.

You know, a few weeks ago I had what my darling Susan fearfully called a "serious cancer scare." I mean I had my annual check-up on a Wednesday, unexpectedly got a call from my doctor on Thursday that he was sending me to a Urologist, heard from the urologist on Friday, saw him on Monday to be examined and have some tests done--and then waited around for a couple of weeks waiting the results to verify the urologist's diagnosis. I struggled to console her, and comfort her, and allay her fears, and put my best foot forward. Hell, I struggled to do the same things with myself. I struggled to put the prospects of having cancer out of my mind. I suppose I could say that I succeeded. I could say that, but don't believe that for a second. You don't think that the rapidity of those events, the fact I didn't have to wait months to get an appointment didn't put my hair on end? You think I didn't bring it into the classroom with me? In a pig's eye! It was lurking all about me like an enveloping, and sometimes opaque, cloud. Every now and then I thought I saw the speck of a vulture circling in that cloud. My ideal of not worrying until I knew there was something to be concerned about didn't quite perfectly work. Sure, I tried to paper over it, pretend it wasn't so, not deal with it. And yet, it caught up with me every moment because by the very fact I was fighting to put it out of my mind, I was consciously putting it in the forefront of my mind. I couldn't run away from myself. I couldn't escape myself. It was going wherever I was because I was going wherever I was.

None of us is free of life's problems and challenges and distractions and shatterings any more than are students. We each live in what Carl Jung called "our shadow." We all have periods of fear, moments of cynicism and/or skepticism, times of confusion, instances of depression, resignation, distractions, troubled relationships, worries, discouragements, despairs, compromises, annoyances, angers, disappointments, abuses, senses of rejection, stresses, arrogances, uncertainties, insecurities, and impatience. Students and us are dealing with financial problems, death, injury, marital problems, parental problems, time conflict, alcohol and drug problems, legal problems, single parenthood, lousy job situations, pregnancy, divorces, painful divorces, physical illness, troubled children, troubling children, troubling room mates, lost love, new love, etc, etc, etc. Students carry that "stuff" with them and it impacts on their focus, attitude, and performance. We carry that "stuff" with us whether we want to or not, whether we acknowledge that or not, whether we're conscious of that or not. And it impacts on our concentration, attitude, and performance.

And yet, so many of us are in denial, fight so hard, spend so much time, expend so much energy struggling to be that super-human paragon of strength and virtue we are not and cannot be. It is to no avail. It still preys on us however we pray it won't. As a recent book by Jon Kabat-Zinn is titled, wherever you go there you are. And, we academics waste so much time and energy fighting to deny that simple truth of our humanity. So many of us think we can be into our intellect and subject and our of ourselves. Celebrity, resume, title, degrees, wealth of knowledge, position are not protective immunization shots against being an imperfect human being. In fact, they may make the light dimmer and darken the darkness.

If, as the Persians said, fate throws a knife at us, will we catch it by the blade or the handle? If we utilize the ideal and the real properly, if we reach for one and accept the other, they will embolden our courage, strengthen our resolve, brace our determination, maintain our perseverance, give us more patience, deepen our understanding, sharpen our senses, alter our perceptions and preconceptions, give us faith and love, and provide us more insight and wisdom. If we use them the wrong way, we'll feel discouraged, frustrated, depressed, annoyed, angered; and we'll accuse and blame.

Circumstances, us and them are always different from what they might or should be. The question is, then, "Now what?" How are we going to handle it?

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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