Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat, 5 Dec 1998 08:44:59 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: A Very Long Random Thought: Teaching and Holiness--a response

Good morning. Can't walk this morning. Still got a kink in my hip. So, I've nothing else to do but sip some freshly brewed coffee and "write to learn." I'm still thinking pensively about three unexpected, long, tearful, heart-rendering conversations I had with students last Wednesday night. They really got to me and got me going. They bookended me: one before class, two after class: unexpected pregnancy, exile by angry and unforgiving parents, reluctantly taking drugs for fear of losing "friends," ravages of physical abuse on the spirit. Wow! I was emotionally drained when I hit the house. That glass of wine and Susan's arms were a salvation.

I guess I was also thinking about how I got nailed on that last Random Thought more than usual. I told my good friend, Dale Fitzgibbons, yesterday that after a week of barbs I must look like a pop art sculpture of a porcupine. I guess talking about spirituality really hit some nerves more than usual and made a lot of people uneasy. I also thought about bits and pieces of an exchange I had on one list over this past week that I'd like to put together and share. I wasn't going to offer a general response, and I have talked with a lot of people indidividually, but my nails are eroding and my fingers are growing numb from pounding out so many messages. So, I hope you will understand if I respond all at once. It is, for me, no less personal.

A lot of the responses reminded me that there is an imbalance in academic life, maybe in most lives. That imbalance certainly existed in my life until I was forced to start correcting it eight years ago. My academic life, like most academics, was filled with discovery, excitement, learning wrapped around something a colleague called dedication to the discipline. My pride was tied to the scholarly things: I had a long resume of publications, presentations, grants, and so on; I had professional renown; I had something of a national reputation. My emotional or spiritual life, however, was flat, disappointing. My older son, Michael, always called me a rational-romantic--I think that was a compliment--and there were elements of the spiritual that occasionally showed themselves--when it was safe-- that I now know wanted to reveal itself. But, the truth was that, with what I want to believe are two exceptions, I was more in my head than in my heart, more in myself than in others, more in my importance in the importance of things. I really didn't make spirituality a daily part of my professional life, nor did I think that my inward journey would pass me through the place where I am presently at.

I now have discovered that spirituality enriches what I do professionally; it does not replace my academics or my intellect. It's not a matter of rationality or spirituality; it's a matter of both; each is essential and adds values and strengthens character to the other by bringing to the surface that hidden wonderful wholeness so many of us deny or ignore but need if we are to live and work "wholely." That's why I walk before the sun rises. Each step is a step back from my day-to-day mundane concerns and a step into reflection upon the gift that is my life. I found time and space--I make the time and space--to reflect fully on my relationship to myself, to other people, to my surroundings, to my place in life, to life. It is time I allow myself to shake my finger at myself to see emotion, spirituality, as an integral and valued part of all aspects of my personal and professional life.

We each are of two parts. We want to know and we want to feel; we want to understand and we want to be loved. But, they are not separated and we do not live separate lives at separate times in separate places. Each world informs the other and interpenetrates each other whether we like it or not and acknowledge it or not. If these two parts do not talk to each other, do not cooperate with each other, do not walk hand in hand, if they are not in community with each other, there is a turf war within ourselves or among each other from which no one benefits.

I have my wonderful colleagues. Few, however, are traveling down the road I now find myself on. Beyond staying abreast of their discipline and adding to their bank of information, most think that they are complete, have arrived, have got it. They talk as if they have constructed their building perfectly and there is no need for remodeling, renovation, reconstruction. I know. I was once among them. But, I have found that here is no stage in life when anyone of us is not journeying, is exempt from the needs of growing in one's philosophy or spirituality, in one's humanity. I find that new life can be found not just in youth, but in middle age as well. I don't know yet about old age; I'm not there yet, but I know it is true for that period in life. My hunch and experience is that a lot of people would like to walk this road, but are stopped by a variety of reasons, explanations, fears, rationalizations.

We academics may be versed in the jargon of our discipline and focusing on the rational, but so many, far too many, are spiritually illiterate, and our spiritual illiteracy is a stumbling block. So many are unedged by spirituality as I once was. We claim it is simply a matter of having a busy lifestyle, the "I don't have the time" explanation, that doesn't allow for reflection and self-examination. Is it? Maybe. Or is it a humiliation, a fear, when confronted by our ignorance, empty lives; or, is it an atmosphere that is emotionally sterile and fraught with oppressive and silencing fear?

Maybe others are blocked by a series of fears that I once knew. There is the self-depreciating "I don't have it" fear, the fear that is projected by hesitation and paralysis, but can be overcome by learning to slug your way through difficult times, taking the chance to see inside if you do, and finding the courage to fail; there is the combative and disconnecting "this is a dog eat dog" fear which promotes a paranoia that everyone is out to get you and which can be overcome by being reminded that there is an awful lot of caring and loving out there; there is the isolating "I can't count on anyone else" fear which blinds you to the reaching out of other people and can be handled by risking to share and seek the support all around us; there is the frantic "I am losing control" fear which squashes creativity and imagination and can only be dealt with by regeneration and the courage to let go and see what happens; there is the conforming "I can't handle being different" fear that promotes a blandness which can be addressed by seeing all the uniqueness in each of us; there is the paralyzing "changing means I am weak" fear that keeps things in life lifelessly on life support and can only be neutralized by recognizing that the only thing in life that does not change is constant change and to change is a sign of strength and courage, not weakness; there is the enslaving "what will others think and say" fear that paralyzes and can only be put aside by the realization that you can't control the responses of others and can only be true to yourself; there is the atrophying "this is me" fear which can be addressed that "me" that and can be neutralized with the realization that "me" has always been a state of becoming. Life is in constant motions; it's not a frozen statue; and finally there is the overwhelming "it's bigger than me" fear, the system fear, which imposes surrender, resignation and submission which can be dealt a blow by accepting small steps as great strides.

These fears turn solid ground into quicksand, grind movement to a halt, turn transformity into conformity. They are the fears of the stilled fearful; they produce an academic culture of silence wherein we mouth pronouncements of others rather than saying our own words and naming our own worlds; they make academic life poorer and emptier and less authentic; they make education, which is not a neutral process, into an instrument of slothful, flattening sameness.

It is easy to talk of that which is easy and materially successful; it is hard to talk of that which is hard and unsuccessful. It is hard, as someone recently told me, to look within; it is easy to allow our old habits and set patterns to dominate us! How well I know that!! Those habits had wrought suffering and discomfort and imbalance on me. I had accepted them with almost fatalistic resignation because I was so accustomed to giving in to them. I tried to hide from them, but I couldn't hide them. I may have idealized my freedom, but when it cames to my habits, I was completely enslaved. I may have venerated individuality, but when it came to my habits, I was so submissive. I knew what I was doing was not right. I knew I could not serve two masters: scholarship and teaching. I knew what I was doing was not in the best interest of students. I knew what I was doing was not in the best interest of myself. Still, in the name of these fears I did them even at someone's expense.

I see now that I had made for myself a simplified and intelligible image of my world in the fashion that had suited me best. I substituted this emotionally satisfying world for the worlds around me and within me. My self-created cosmos was the pivot of my life. In it I convinced myself that I had found peace, security, comfort, and assurance. I hadn't. But, I wouldn't acknowledge the whirlpool within me. I couldn't acknowledge my inner dishonesty and disharmony.

I know reflection can slowly, though not without discomfort, bring us honesty and wisdom. We can come to see that we are falling again and again into fixed repetitive patterns, and begin to long to get out of them. We may, of course, fall back into them, again and again, but slowly we can emerge from them and change.

It's something like when I was walking one morning and tripped over a raised crack in the dark street and fell. It was my fault and I hadn't noticed it. The next morning I was on alert. Where I thought the crack was I changed my pace. I was wrong and tripped over it again. Didn't fall this time. I couldn't believe I had done it again. The third morning, I was ready. I was on the lookout for it. I focused on that blasted crack and forgot the reason for my walks. When I came upon it, I said to myself, "There's that sucker," and I changed the course of my walk and went around it. But, I had been off balance the whole walk, focusing on that crack, waiting for it to appear, then spending the rest of the walk thinking of how I had not let it trip me. But, I still lost sight of the reason for my walk and wouldn't acknowledge that the crack still was getting the best of me. The fourth morning I just walked on the other side of the street walking at my normal pace, doing my meditative thing, without wasting time and energy thinking about the crack.

My biggest problem is one of community. Where is community? It is not in a mere gathering of individuals or collection of disciplines or doing something. There are several large departments on this campus that are divided into cliques of one! There are departments and colleges engaged in open and hidden turf warfare over curriculum, budget, facilities, and silly perks. There are "us and them" rifts between people called administrators, labelled as faculty, categorized as staff, cubbyholed as students. No, I think real community is within each of us; it's invisible; it goes beyond each of us and beyond the face-to-face daily physical relationships and beyond narrowing and isolating roles. It's about connections. As I just told a colleague, community is in the ecological system of the discoveries about life of biology and physics and chemistry, the expanding gazes of astronomy, the questions of philosophy and religion, the cultural habits and practices of anthropology, the expressions of language, the shapes and colors of art, the sounds of music, the forms of sculpture, the structures of architecture, the logic of mathematics, the artifacts and patterns of palentology, sociology and history, AND ourselves. Community is knowing and feeling those great issues, forces, questions and answers, actions, dreams, achievements, other stuff, and ourselves; great teaching is drawing ourselves and others into that community, and helping ourselves and them find it within ourselves and themselves; community is to strip away the barriers of the stranger and have the courage to go public and become the supporting and encouraging friend; community is to offer a feast for the mind and heart, a feast of lives the attending of which are nourished by the nutrients of the food.

Each of us, therefore, has to be brought together with our strengths and weaknesses, with our dreams and nightmare, with our courage and fears, with our visions and blindnesses, with our accomplishments and failures to help ourselves and others face our and their restrictive fears and find ways to overcome them, to help ourselves and others see their capacity and strive to fulfill them, to see what each can learn of themselves and others from this meeting, to increase the fullness of our lives and those of others, and thereby share community. But, we would do this only if we hold ourselves and each other sacred, for as I have said, the sacred, the respect for each other, is the connective tissue to reconnect the disconnected.

As an avid practioner of classroom community and an equally enthused promoter of campus learning community I would suggest that a spirit of community must exist within each of us if a community is to persist, that it is the spirit which inspires those in a learning community to aspire and prevents such a community from expiring. I would suggest that the conditions for connective learning are far more atmospheric than structural and administrative, among which are: story, inquiry, listening, reflection, presence, examination, uniqueness, fun, humility, integrity, silence, joy, passion, welcome, patience, individuality, understanding, questioning, appreciation, respect, curiosity. That these conditions create an encompassing web binding each of us together in a way that role and turf boundaries are blurred so we each learn from and teach each other, follow and lead each other in the classroom, outside the classroom, on campus, off campus, in work, in life.

As I just told someone on a list, spirituality, as well as a sense of community, is not a personal, isolated experience. They are really a team sport. They can't grow unless it's practiced in the community in community. There are many times people tell me that they feel closer and feel a kindredness to students or to virtual colleagues on the internet or to friends they meet once or twice a year at teaching conferences than they do to the people in the office next door. How well I know those feelings. So, it hasn't been easy, avoiding the cracks and walking on the other side of the street. Almost all of my colleagues ignore me nowadays. It's at times lonely, to walk the campus surrounded by so many strangers whom I have known, worked with, fought with, some for nearly thirty years. I'm out of the loop. I don't shake my fingers at them or walk with a lamp held high although they feel I do just by my mere presence and actions and shared words. They are at times uneasy with my words, at times antagonistic towards my methods, at times feel threatened by student attitudes towards me, at times cynical, at times patronizing and condescending, at times defensive, at times embarrassed with words like spirituality and love, at times dubious, at times petty. Some professors have told students that I am high schoolish, unprofessional, foolish, kindergartenish. They wonder why I want to challenge, question, uproot, risk, complicate the status quo of doing things and thinking a certain way that has become a routine, easy and comfortable for them. They see my changes as signs of weakness. They think I'm stupid for continuing to put so much time and effort into students instead of taking advantage of my opportunity to retire. They've told me to my face that they don't understand how I can still be enjoying myself, why I'm not bored to tears after all these years, how I can still be having fun. What they see as the resting and waning years of my career, I see as the most exciting, restive, and waxing years of my life.

As my friend Ann Boyce told me recently, it is lonely and VERY scary out here on the high wire with no net -- but once you've done it, you can never go back to the safe, bland world where you hide in a shell behind a professional mask and withhold the only true gift we have as teachers to give: ourselves.

Nevertheless, as a teacher, I think it's especially tough. Some of the best teachers have to learn how to deal with what my son, Michael, calls this "sweet and sour" problem -- to convey to and to teach people how to find freedom, but also to accept them as they are at the same time. Good teachers know lots about community, spirituality, heart, reality, mindfulness, even if they have not recognized and talked about such qualities. Yet, they can not just explain all of this, to students or colleagues. Instead, they have to somehow awaken the process in them, while being mindful that each person has to walk his or her own road. They just can't and shouldn't tell someone, "live"; they have to live themselves, and testify to life. And, if, as another friend told me, in their effort of those teachers to honestly give themselves, they must deal with the disapproval of others, so be it. There is way more to be gained than there is to be lost.

It will take time to build community. It cannot be mandated or legislated as things so often are on campuses. That may foster temporary compliance, but it will not generate lasting commitment. To build community, to create a share vision, will take effort and time, one person at a time. Faith and belief are caught, not taught. They are passed on only by coming into contact with people who have faith and belief, share that faith and belief, and live that faith and that belief.

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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