Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date:Thu 9/28/2006 3:38 AM
Random Thought: Avodah, Another Word On Happiness

I was sitting in synagogue this past weekend as we of the Jewish faith celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. As I listened to the chanting, I started thinking about cancer. For me, having discovered almost two years ago that I had cancer and having had beaten it, though physical side effects persist, is a daily humbling experience. Yet, what I lost is nothing compared to what I found. Each day I feel more than ever that I've gotten back my life. Each day I feel intensely is another chance at life. Each day I am so deeply humble and grateful for each day. Each day I ask myself what am I doing with this day. You see, the day in itself, is not important. Someone said that a day is a blink in a cosmic eye. What makes that day important is the eye that blinks; it is how you live that day. It is whether you unwrap the present of the present; whether you give substance to your vision; and, it is whether you grow and improve on who you already are and what already is. It is how you live it with meaning. Do that and you've made that day something.

Meaning of life, purpose in life, and significance of life is not automatic. Imagine a windowpane which hasn't been kept all that clean. It's dusty; it's dirty; it's grimy; it's splattered with mud drops; it's covered with cobwebs. Because it has become opaque, when we look out, all we see are blurred forms. And, though the sun may be shining brightly outside, light won't penetrate with the same brilliance until the glass is cleaned. Each of us is a windowpane, and though the sun is shining, we have difficulty seeing that until we take the time to clear away what it is that's clouding our vision. Then, we gaze through the clear panes at the landscape, if we take the time and make the effort, we can see new things; we see things we never imagined; treasures in your heart find fresh expression. The view was always there. That didn't change. What changes is our capacity to see.

It's not easy work. Life is full of dirty distractions. It's easy to get wrapped up the grime in our daily lives, the grit of professional demands, the dust of emotional entanglements, and the cobwebs of personal challenges. Each day, now more than ever, I consciously look around, remember where I was, where I am, where I want to be going, and keep washing my window.

I think it was thinking about all this as I walked the cool, autumny streets this morning because of a rather long message I had received a while back from a past student whom I had not heard from in ten years. She is now a collegiate teacher. She is a professional academic adviser. Who would have known at the time. With each step through the dark silence, I slowly remembered. With each step I silently thought of how many times I came close to throwing up my hands in surrender to her. I thought of how many times I nearly turned away and got out of her face. She never met the members of her community half way; always seemed to be off in the distance, never opened up the slightest, never smiled, always seemed defiant, never cooperated, never journaled, was more often MIA in class than not. Everything was "lame," "stupid," "dumb"--until that last day of the semester. I know that last sentence is cryptic, but let's leave it at that. She failed the course. And now, a decade later, I heard from her:

	.... I heard you have cancer.  So, in case anything happens, I want you to know
you made a difference.  You made a difference in my life and you are making a difference in
the lives of other students through me.  I want you to know that you have affected my
personal and professional life in a way that is almost beyond description.  I know that may
sound trite, but it's not a cliché to say I learned that the most important things are on the
inside of me...... Though I failed the course and failed myself, you never once treated me as a
failure....I screwed up, to say the least, but you never treated me as a useless screw-up.  You
never saw less than an angel in me, although I acted more like a devil.  The more I thought
about that throughout that summer, the more I saw how you never let my poor mouthing and
disrespect influence you to do anything other than dig in to help me dig myself out.  You
gave a damn about me when I didn't, had faith in me when I was faithless, and you only saw me
as someone better than I saw me....I never told you how that got to me.   I never
could stop thinking about what you said about nothing gets built with excuses.  It's
time.....You're my model for always loving, believing in, having faith in, and having hope for each
and every student. You're my model for helping students help themselves....A day doesn't go
by that  I don't read those words of Yoda you put on the board as your "Words For The Day."
I hand them to students I am advising to advise themselves: "Try not.  Do.  Or, do not.
There is no try.".....Thanks for caring.  Thanks for believing I can be a better person, and
helping not to believe otherwise or care any less.  Keep that pinky painted. Don't lose your
happiness for what you're doing.  Don't lose that passion and joy for helping each of us help
ourselves.  Get well. Stick around.  For all those others to come.  Please.

And somehow, since reading and rereading the entirety of that seven page letter, catalyzed by a magnificent act of kindness I witnessed in the synagogue at the end of the service on Sunday, which I don't care to describe, this message, that act kindness, the cancer, the meaning in any teaching, making a difference, being significant, purpose my work, and my happiness all seemed to come together.

Do you know how many great rabbis and philosophers say that happiness is all about your work? No, they didn't mean it’s all about your job. Good work is not about making that goal and getting that bonus. Work and job are not the same. It's about what in Judaism is called “avodah.” At it's simplest, avodah means “work. But, it also means something deeper and higher. It means “service” – sacred service, service to someone other than ourselves, service to something greater than ourselves. The rabbis and thinkers were talking about how we live our personal and professional lives and how we should live those lives. Professionally, what better place is there for the practice of avodah than the classroom. Teaching, after all, is all about others. Education is a service industry. We classroom academics are in the people business. Avodah means how we teach, the meaning and purpose of our teaching, how we should live our teaching, how our teaching should serve others. Avodah raises some pointed questions for us to honestly ponder. Are we out to get tenure? Do we compromise our values in our quest? Are we out to get promotion? Do we bargain away our principles on the way? Are we out to get appointment? Do we sacrifice our morals on that path? Are we genuine? Are we out to get reputation? Do we edit our beliefs? Do we have a strong resume? Do we have a strong heart? Do we have a strong soul? Do we have a strong stand? Are we out to help people help themselves? Do we leave a mark? Do we make a difference? Are we significant? Teaching, done with vigor, with integrity, with dedication, with meaning, with purpose, and above all, with an unyielding commitment to serve others becomes avodah, sacred work, with a moral significance, making a last difference that lasts long after we and our resumes have crumbled to dust..

For the past few days, as I can't keep me from going from my head into my soul, as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement approaches, all I hear are three questions, three sacred questions: What have you done, and how? Your work, where is your work?” "Where is your avodah, your work that gives your life meaning and purpose? They are questions to help me become aware of myself, to learn to face more often in the right direction, to be less apt to miss the mark, to walk Robert Frost's less taken road. These High Holidays are the time we ask ourselves what are we doing that obscures what is really important, how are we letting our own issues get in the way of relating the way we want to relate to others, how our ego is preventing us from being the person we want to be. We can perform avodah – our true work –we all can perform the labor of love. That labor is not how we feel. It is about what we do with what we intend to do. It is about what has to be done. What rests in our hands is the power to do avodah, to work well, to give ourselves to something beyond ourselves, to be significant, to make a difference.

Avodah is great word for my Dictionary of Good Teaching. Avodah is about the power of caring. No, it's about the power of loving. It's about a forceful energy to which we're exposed that generates a no-limited and an unstoppable "me." It's about how that power can place each of us so close to significance and greatness. It's about a power that can place us a heart beat away from heart-felt humility, gratitude, significance, and happiness. It's about a few simple truths: when you change how you look at yourself, a student, and the classroom, you, that classroom, and the student you look at change. When we are excited, we know we can do it. When we are inspired, our dormant abilities and talents come alive. When we love, all obstacles crumble before us. And you ask why letters like this one light up my world and leave me with a lifetime chill?

On these Jewish High Holidays, Susan and I would like to wish a shana tova, a good year, to our Jewish friends, and in this holy month of Ramadan, we wish an Eid Mubarak, blessed festival, to our Muslim friends.

         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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