Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun 4/10/2005 5:05 AM
Random Thought: Ah, Me

Ah, me. Why don’t things go our way. Why don’t people act as we want? Life would be so much easier and simpler. You know a prayer is not so much a request as it is a reminder. Take Reinhold Neibuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s not just a prayer for recovery of addicts. It’s a prayer we all should say, for we’re all addicted to denying a basic truth about life and life in the classroom: life is complex, complicated, and impermanent. It’s a realization prayer of the truth that try to control as we may, there are things, immutable things, built into the nature of everything over which we are powerless. It’s a prayer for acquiring an unconditional “yes” to living and of getting on with life rather than getting caught up in and thrown about my life. It’s a prayer for knowing when to hold and when to fold. It’s a reminder that happiness is determined more by the state of one’s mind than by one’s external conditions, circumstances, or events It’s a reminder that the key to happiness in the classroom, if not in all of life, is in our own hands. Grumbling doesn’t make it better. Wishing upon a star doesn’t change things. Making up horror stories doesn’t improve things. If anything, they all make things worse. They bog the spirit down with their own tiresome and wearisome weights in the muck of despair. They scan the radar scope for the next impending crisis. They cloud the sky and block out the sun and the stars.

I’ll just say that she, a student, had chosen the grade over doing what was right. I was convinced she wouldn’t. She did. The grade meant everything to her. And so, she was willing to do anything to get it, to pay a lot of her integrity for that transcript inscription. I not sure she really realized what she had done to herself. She wasn’t the first. Nevertheless, it hurt. I was disappointed. I struggled to be empathetic. For a while I flayed myself with trying to find what words or gestures I could have used to guide onto that right road. I felt a momentary tide of “why bother” rise inside me. It was all for naught. She made me realize that while there are limits to my grand vision of doing good and making a difference I shouldn’t hesitate to pursue that vision. It also drove home the realization that while I don’t respect or love her choice, I can still respect and love her as a fallible human being. It underlined the fact that can’t allow myself to create a distance, a disconnect, merely because this situation didn’t go my way. I can’t shut down or even close a bit. I have to be willing to remain open, to fight to maintain that unconditional connectivity with others from which I draw my strength, enjoyment of life and teaching, and through which I make my contribution of offering support, encouragement, strength, and joy to others.

We live too often what I’ll call a life of “conditional ‘yeses.’” That is, if things go our way, we’ll be happy; if people what we want, we’ll be affectionate and appreciative. But, what would happen if we made those “yeses” unconditional, that is, only if things turn out the way we want? Do we loose faith? Do we tear at our clothing, don sackcloth, put ashes on our heads, scream out that students aren’t like they used to be, and burn out? If I let such regret of this student’s choice let me down, if I let it be a source of weighty discouragement, if I let it interfere with the pursuit of my purpose and meaning, how do I go on with everything I’ve got to give?

I mean this student was a walking serenity prayer. Dealing with people is a very complex issue. There’s no one proverbial size that fits all, no one formula for dealing with all issues. You’ve got to be supple. She reminded me that things don’t always go according to my plan, that people don’t always do what I want or expect, that I don’t always make the right read, that I will make mistakes and have lapses of judgment, that I can’t control anything or anyone other than myself, that people won’t always take the right road, there will be disappointment, there will always be choices to make, and that who I am is both determined and revealed by how I choose to come to terms with these truths. So, do I struggle to ignore and get around these truths or do I accept them. My own answer is in learning the toughest lesson of all: just accept those truths of life.

I believe there’s a vitality in each of us. It’s more than a spark. It’s a bonfire. It’s an urge toward wholeness, a passion for transforming, a commitment to evolving. Its makes us go on, start all over, not give up, not give in with a “who’s next?” We teachers are a Spring people valiantly living finding bits of hope and renewal each day in our own experiences. So, why do so many of us surrender, burn out, lapse into resignation.

Here’s my take on it as I explained to the faculty at Adrian College, Baker College, and Kettering University. So many of us fight those truths by struggling futilely to play the “perfection game” and the “control game,” and maybe even the “changeless game.” So many of us are terrified by these facts of life. So many of us are fearful of what is. And, we let our ego get in the way when these truths come home to roost. And, the more we try to hold on to our evasions, the more grotesque and distorted life in the classroom becomes and our anxiety or resignation level heightens. Dissapointment or its minions can be great stumbling blocks to purpose and meaning.

So, would you be surprised if I treat this student with gratitude. Would you be stunned if I told you that I see her aas a benefactor? It’s the struggle with life, that “it’s hard” thing, that makes us who we are, that keeps us on our toes, that keeps us from doing things unthinkingly and unmindfully in our sleep. That’s why “it’s hard” is so important. And, this student tested me. Yet, she gave me the chance to practice humility, patience, and empathy. Ready or not, she gave me the opportunity to take a fresh look at my own beliefs, practices, purposes, and meaning. As a teacher, I still believe in the sacredness and worth of each and every student; I still believe I am here to help each and every student help him/herself become the person he or she is capable of becoming; I still believe in the value of empathy; I still believe in a policy of faith, hope, love, and kindness; I still teach from the vantage point of that value system; I still allow myself great flexibility and freedom to deal with the vast array of human complexity in the classroom.

Victory Frankl, said “Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it.” He observed in the Nazi concentration camps that the people most likely to survive the unimaginable atrocities weren’t the physically strong, but those who drew their strength from and based their survival on the strength derived from a sense of purpose and meaning. I guess he meant that finding and clinging to meaning and purpose is a powerful means of helping us cope with those “hard” and trying times. He also meant we should search for our “why” and have a sense of meaning and purpose in the good times when things are going well in order to be better prepared for those times when things don’t go well.

That is, the attitudes and outlook we cultivate in advance may well decide how well we recognize the difficulties and how we let them affects us when they strike.

Yeah, a prayer is a reminder. I ought to send this student a gift of thanks. She taught me that my “pain” may not be what I wanted, but it was a pain I obviously needed in order to be more accepting of these life truths, balanced with my own sense of purpose and meaning, without getting down. Instead of letting them disappoint, frustrate, sadden, consume, I’ll use them to continue to bring out the best in me, to strengthen my courage and compassion for others with less fear. I can now better and more serenely balance reaching out to touch a student and not being able to touch a student however I stretch my reach. It’s a kind of what someone called disrobing myself of my centrist ego. It’s understanding that we should appreciate what we have and have done rather seeking merely to have what we want for the sake of having and wanting. This student made me realize even more what that ‘40s tune said about accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, to teach by looking at my assets and see how I can still reach out, touch, and help transform. It’s a kind of plea bargaining or settling out of court with the condition of existence. It frees me from any compulsion to control and have things only my way. It allows me to continually give it all I’ve got. It gives me the strength to be authentic. It gives me the courage to hold nothing back. It animates my unconditional faith, belief, and love.

She also reminded me not to let things I cannot affect get in the way of and interfere with things I can affect. If I want to be in control of myself, then I simply have to be open to events as they happen and not get bowled over by events that happen. It’s not a passive or surrendering letting the chips fall where they may. It’s a matter of picking up those fallen chips with a greater resolve, using them to make new bets with a greater enthusiasm, and continuing to stay in the game with a greater soft sensitivity and hard determination. Every moment prepares shapes the next. Happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment can be achieved through the systematic training of our hearts and minds by letting our attitudes and outlooks endure the necessary aces and strains and even pain of “pumping iron.” My painful “ah, me” in the long run may not be as bad as I thought at first, for as I can do what I just said, my teaching report card will more likely than not will continue to list straight As: acceptance, attention, appreciation, admiration, affection.

         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,   \ /^\
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