Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Thu 1/16/2003 4:47 AM
Random Thought: On Fire or Burnt out

Good morning. Had a great walk this morning even it was in the mid-20s. After walking the grinding Himalayan hills of San Mateo, six miles on the flatlands of South Georgia is a breeze.

Talking about grinds and breezes, I passed a colleague from another department as I bounded two steps at a time up the stairs on the way to class Monday. "Oh, well, the grind starts," he unhappily moaned he slowly labored up the stairs, one trudging step at a time, with an arthritic spirit. This is on the first day of class!

My colleague is much younger than I am. He has been at what he calls "this teaching game" for almost four decades less than I have. You would think our attitudes would be reversed. You'd think after forty years in the classroom--counting my days as a TA--it would be me who has burned up all my fuel, that it would be my flame that's losing its blaze, and that it would be me who should be a burnt out cinder.

My colleague and I have talked on and off over the past year. He often reminds me of a photographer in a darkroom developing negatives. The real difference between my colleague and myself is not knowledge or talent or potential or longevity. The real difference is that eleven years ago I stopped being like him. Up until that time, like him, I felt more like a working stiff than a missionary. I hadn't gazed carefully at the students in the classroom. I had assumed that I had the whole picture at first glance. I didn't take for a closer and slower look at the details because I felt I had no need to so. I talked of individual students and treated them as carbon copies. What I didn't realize is that I took my quick and self-serving presumptions and preconceptions and made them into lasting, universal truths. At that fateful October, 1991, moment, I learned that I don't have to believe my thoughts. And, as I slowly challenged my assumptions, I broke the enslaving spell. I slowly--and painfully--broke the spell my thoughts had over me and I learned two things. I learned that there's no such person as a happy slave. And, I learned that thoughts--any thoughts--have no power other than which I give them.

There is a Zen saying: To a lover a beautiful woman is a delight; to a monk she is a distraction; to a mosquito she is a meal. As these words tell, the real difference now between my colleague and myself is the filter through which we each look at what we're doing, what we expect to get from what we're doing, and what we expect others to receive from what we doing. We each teach in two different worlds. The world we each choose to experience and the world we each choose to live in is precisely the world where each of us is. Where he sees little hope, I see a world filled with beauty and possibility. Where he sees little to discover, I see an adventure on which I see how much more there is to discover. Where he is discouraged, I am encouraged and excited. He doesn't know how not to be bored with teaching; I don't know how to be bored. Where he mumbles a resigned "why me," I proclaim an enthusiastic "why not me." He thinks in the next hour he'll be in the same place still wandering aimlessly. I believe in the next hour I will be in an entirely different place full of vitality. Where he sees lethargy and stagnation, I see shimmering kinetic energy, nuances of movement and change. Where he finds excuses, I find a way. He doesn't see a lot in his lot; I see a priceless treasure I have been given to live, to experience, and to share. He is in a fog of quiet despair and frustration--maybe even anger--because things are not working out as he planned. I've learned to live the life that's waiting for me, to have what Longfellow called "a heart for any fate." He's waiting for someone or something to keep his flame from flickering. I believe I have the potential to be an instrument of the highest good for each student and to be a literal miracle worker.

I'm not sure what his measure of success may be. I do know that I measure my success by the fact that I am doing what I love and love what I am doing. By that measure, he's is living in a conditional, wistful, yearning "if only" world. He doesn't want to know that. So, he blames students, administrators, and politicians for his plight. I have discovered the hard way that wanting people and circumstance to be perfect is one of the worst forms of self-abuse. It's a form of substance abuse that abuses the substance of our own existence so that we are in motion without movement or direction developing little more than a both a mental and emotional sclerosis that hardens the mind and attitude and spirit.

Somewhere I read that Abe Lincoln said, "A person is generally about as happy as he's willing to be." It's our choice to be enthusiastic until it positively thrills us or be depressed until it negatively deadens us. Listening to wise ole Abe, my colleague and I can generally be on fire or burnt out as we each are willing to be. And the truth is, what we decide to be radiates out from us to influence, to warm or chill, all around us.

         Make it a good day.


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

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