Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed 1/19/2005 4:24 AM
Random Thought: "Spiritualholism"

Good morning. Stuck inside. It's very cold outside. The weather is driving everyone and all the plants in my garden crazy. Last week we were spelling "January": M-A-Y. This week we're spelling it: "B-r-r-r-r-r-r--r." My angelic Susan, steely-eyed DI that she is, won't let me hit the streets, however I'm bundled up in my grubbies, for fear I'll get a sniffle, and screw up the surgery scheduled next week. So, here I am, sipping a delicious cup of freshly brewed coffee, thinking-feeling about a message I just received from a student whom I'll call Judy who is in one of this semester's classes. Talk about my cancer being a gift for which I should be thankful. With tears soon running down my cheeks and my breathing getting slower and deeper, she talked of her stomach cancer. She wrote in her journal:

		I was getting so discouraged that it was effecting my work and
		the people around me.  I was afraid to talk about my cancer,
		even mention the word.  I was angry.  I was scared.  The chemo
		was working, but I was so afraid, paralyzed, that it soon wouldn't.
		I couldn't think about anything else.  I couldn't talk with
		anyone about my feelings.  They don't understand.  Then, you pop
		into class out of the blue and tell us in the first few minutes of
		the first day of class, 'I have cancer.'  And, you're in class!
		Caring about us!  Worrying that we won't be hurt during the month
		you're getting over your operation.  It was like a candle suddenly
		lit me up.  I was letting my cancer control me.  I couldn't believe
		that when we brought in an object symbolizing what we wanted the others
		in the class to know about us, I stood up, showed the class a pill,
		 and said out loud "I have stomach cancer."  And, talked about it.
		That was the first time I could say it.  It was like your words had
		given me permission to say my words.  I stayed up all night reading
		and reading and reading those essays I asked you to send me.  I want
		you to know that I woke up this morning smiling, smiling inside, for the
		first time in a long time.  My soul was smiling, not just my lips.
		I felt free.  It wasn't that I couldn't talk with anyone about the
		cancer.  I couldn't talk with myself.  I was so afraid of dying tomorrow
		I wasn't living today.  At eighteen, I felt so sorry for myself.  I
		was pitying myself.  I saw no purpose in doing anything.  Now I
		do.  At least, I can help others face their stuff, like you're
		helping me face my cancer.  Now, I have to go to class.  I have to
		do my work.  I have to live.  I have to enjoy life.  I have to smile
		and be happy.  If I don't, this cancer has won. Each time
		I hear you and each time I read the words you wrote about your
		cancer and your dealing with it, I feel hope rising in me when
		I thought there was none.  Everyone told me how smart you are, but
		they didn't say a word about your spirit.  I want you to know
		in the few days we've known each other, your spirit has touched
		me and has already started to work its wonders on my life.  Thanks.

Did you know that Susan Sontag died last month? Among other things, she had been an outspoken advocate of demolishing the artificial distinction and chasm-like separation between thought, feeling, and action. She argued that so many people were anti-intellectual because so many effete intellectuals are what I would call "anti-human." That is, too many self-proclaimed intellectuals are self-avowed paragons of rationality and objectivity who cast their noses high at emotion and subjectivity. They are distant, detached, cold fish who snobbishly and arrogantly believe or act as if being emotional is a lower form existence. She argued that the head and heart are organically one, that thinking and feeling were inseparately one, that the qualitative and quantitative were hand-in-hand partners, that dreaming and analyzing are indistingushingly one, that thinking is a form of feeling; that feeling is a form of thinking; that you couldn't have one without the other.

In the spirit of Susan Sontag, I'm standing up as if I am at an SA (Spiritualists Anonymous) meeting and admitting, "I am a spiritualholic." It's not what I deliberately set out to be or consciously try to be; it's what I've become; it's what I am. And, having cancer has accentuated and accelerated that process.

I know. Anything "aholic," doesn't have a good reputation. To most of us it means an enslaving compulsion, an uncontrollable habit, a loss of independence. It means having an addiction, being hooked, having something that has unbreakable hold. A "aholism" is an action in which someone feels he or she MUST engage. It comes in all sizes and shapes: shopoholic, powerholic, alcoholic, chocoholic, workaholic. I was once an incessant gnawing "nailaholic." I was once a professorial "talkoholic." I was once a consumed scholarly "researchoholic" and "publishoholic." Now, I am an unabashed teaching and learning "spiritualholic."

I also know, like Susan Sontag, that in the intellectual world of academia to talk of spirituality in the classroom is risky. It's a button pushing subject. Far too many of us academics are totally into our intellectual heads and not sufficiently into our sensual souls. Far too many of us believe it's so ridiculous to think that spirituality belongs in any intellectual discussion. Far too many of us encase ourselves in the thick armor of objectivity and intellectuality that we think is as impenetrable as depleted uranium armor on an M1A1 battle tank. There is, however, one deep, exposing, vulnerable crack in our dense plates. We are human. For better or worse, spirituality, or emotion or psychological factors, or whatever you want to call it, plays more of a role in our professional lives, and is more crucial in teaching and learning, than most of us are aware much less want to admit. And, as educators I think we ought to talk about it, admit to it, live it, and mesh it into our classes.

A recent study done at the Higher Education Research Institute reveals that 76% of students are searching for meaning and purpose in life; 73% say spirituality, theological and otherwise, a sense of something bigger than themselves, helped them develop their identity. About 68% say it helps them help others. Yet, while 78% discuss such matters with their friends, about 66% say professors ignore the subject, and their academic work and campus programs seem to be divorced from it. The report says, "Clearly, itís far more important to them [students] than most people in higher education may assume, and there are indicators that institutions are simply not encouraging students to delve into these issues and not supporting their search in the sphere of values and beliefs."

As far as we academics go, we hate admitting to being human on campus and that we're not above the Law of Spirit. Truth be told, I don't know, you don't know, of one person, even that person who emotionally denies it, who isn't governed by this law as much as he or she is bound by Newton's Laws of Motion or Boyle's Law of Gases. As a specie, we are as much "feeling man" as we are "thinking man." There is more emotion and spirituality in the rational and intellectual world of academia than most academics realize or want to admit. In some way, we're each spiritualholics; we each have a faith in, belief in, conviction of, passion about, feelings for, fear of, joy in, satisfaction with, and get emotional about something. When we say hesitantly or fearfully or defensively "I'm not" or "I'm not comfortable doing that" or "I don't like" or "It's not me," more often than not we're talking subjectively of our attitude, emotion, spirit, or whatever non-intellectual word you feel comfortable using. When we talk of having a sense of this or a feeling of that, when we're cheery or leery, when we are up or down, when we're elated with an acceptance of a proposal or deflated by a rejection, when we're fearful of what others will say or think, we're in our emotional and spiritual selves; we're wearing our emotions on our sleeves. It is the ultimate myth to think that the Ivory Tower is a non-human bastion of detached objectivity and disengaged rationality and distant intellectuality. And, the greatest obstacles to seeing that myth for what it is, to examining the assumptions upon which it is built, to considering considerations, to stepping back and seeing yourself seeing, are close-minded dogma, peer pressure, professional ambition, and inner personal fear.

It is said that we teach who we are; that we perceive who we are; that we are the questions we ask; that we are in our talking. For me, "spiritualholism" is unique. The other -holics are into themselves. They are selfish and self-centered, often to the exclusion and detriment of others. They light their own candle, and a person who only is concerned about burning his or her own candle, sheds very little light. I see spirituality as more than emotion, more than mood. In a word, for me, spirituality is a sense of "otherness." In a feeling, it is a sense of something greater than my own cocoon. It is a sense of connectedness. In an action, it is a serving in the service of others. It is concerned with igniting the candles of others with my own lit candle. And so, spirituality is made of the ingredients of respect, awareness, authenticity, wholeness, awakeness, kindness, generosity, service, hopefulness, faith, humility, empathy, fearlessness, growth, creativity, change.

You know, great teachers do not work their magic through their knowledge; they do not move people with their resumes; they do not ignite passion with their techniques; they do not push people with methods; they do not inspire with technology. No, great teachers work through their spirit to touch and stir the spirit of others.

And so, I see my role as a teacher as a spiritual calling that gives my life meaning. Teaching is living a prayer, a request, to make a difference and leave the world a better place. For me, teaching is not just a transmission of information however important that information is; it is not just a development of intellectual skills however crucial they are. It is making something happen. It a way of helping someone grow and transform. It is helping to guide the use of that information and those skills towards becoming a different and better person. To be a teacher you've got to be a spiritual guide, a "spiritualholic." A teacher is not a dealer in information, but a dealer of hope, belief, faith, and love in both him/herself and others.

I'm not talking about theatrics or lip-service. I'm talking about honesty. The more authentically, the more sincerely, the more openly, the more skillfully a teacher shares his or her spirituality, the more students will feel that contagious spirit. Spirituality in academics is not the trivial matter so many academics would have us believe. It has real consequence for getting work done. So, I lead with spirituality. Every day is an expression of my spirituality. And if I do things well, I seek the wonders in each student.

This being the case, thinking of Judy's letter and the comments from other students:

I will assert that in the classroom our first task is an emotional one, not an intellectual one. As a teacher, my fundamental task, hence all the methods and techniques I utilize, is to prime the pump of good feelings of self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth in each student from which would flow a positive--I will repeat that, "from which will flow a positive"-- stream of faith, belief, and hope that nourishes, guides, and energizes the quest of each student for the unique potential in him or her.

I will assert that an education can only have purpose and meaning if it also serves in a spiritual way. I mean what good are retention programs if our college graduates are moral and ethical drop-outs?

I will assert that spiritualism in the classroom is a very practical form of teaching inside-out. After all, the student on the outside can never be more successful than the student on the inside permits. And, so it is with us academics. Once again, we teach who we are; we are the questions we ask; we are our perceptions. We each are limited by the limits we set on ourselves. So, we must cultivate the positive, unique potential lurking deep inside the student and ourselves if we want the student and ourselves to come to life on the outside.

I will assert that teaching and learning is a partnership of mutual respect and responsibility.

I will assert that if you want to help a student help him/herself develop skills, you have to help him or her with his or her spirit. And to do that, you have to be aware of your own spirit.

I will assert that everything else we attempt to do has a far less chance of working as well as it can if we ignore this often ignored spiritual role of teaching. It is the art of nurturing a supporting and encouraging relationship that is crucial for achievement.

I will assert that teachers achieve their goals through contagious emotion, their uplifting spirit, the aromatic climate of the classroom; that how a student feels largely determines how he or she will perform and what he or she will truly achieve.

I will assert that a teacher's positive, supporting, and encouraging mood has a power to move, inspire, stir, arouse, ignite, motivate, and commit; it has the power to ignite passion, create excitement, eliminate doubt, cultivate trust, stir the imagination, invite innovation, generate optimism, and foster creativity. And conversely, a teacher's toxic mood has a power to paralyze, douse, dispirit, sedate, discourage, and destroy.

I will assert that when someone talks of mission or vision or credo or mastery, he or she is really talking about a spirituality.

I will assert that the joy and happiness in teaching all comes from wanting students to be happy; and whenever we're unhappy with teaching, it is because we only want ourselves to be happy.

I will assert that teachers are most successful when they are tuned into and value the human ingredients.

We will talk about working longer and harder, and we should. We will talk about knowing more, and we should. We seek out methods and techniques and technologies, and we should. We feel more comfortable talking about the "what" of our discipline and the "how" of techniques and methods. We seek to be "subject-wise," "techno-wise," and even "campus politics-wise." And, they're all important. But, that's not all there is. There are first principles; there is a foundation. We need to talk more about being, our being, the students' being, as well. We need to be "heart wise" or acquire and utilize, as Daniel Goleman calls it, "emotional intelligence."

It is not really a matter of heart vs. mind or spirituality vs. rationality or subjectivity vs. objectivity. It is a matter of believing in or having a faith in or getting emotional about a "why." It's about a totality; it's about a wholeness. It's a matter of reaching deeper into yourself for an authenticity, to attune yourself to what you, after constant reflection and articulation, consider timeless principles and unassailable truths. I don't think we do enough of that, hear enough of it, work constantly at it. We need to feel comfortable seeking out and talking about the purpose and meaning of our below the surface "why." We feel comfortable talking about others; we feel comfortable talking about our subject; we don't feel comfortable talking about ourselves. We feel comfortable being intellectual; we feel comfortable being rational; we feel comfortable being objective. We must feel comfortable feeling emotional and spiritual and subjective.

We have to embrace spirituality rather than keep it at arm's length. We have to involve ourselves with it. We must be in it rather than stand back from it. We have to treat it as something concrete with concrete impacts on us and others and our institution rather than as an ethereal abstraction.

         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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