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from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.
Sunday, July 16, 2006
This morning there are a few things on my mind. As of next Saturday I will have to balance my roles as a teacher and my needs as a human being beyond school, and I will confront one possible aspect of our current situation as I consider my own future civic actgions, this meditation will embrace all four elements listed in the first paragraph - teaching, need for reflection and learning, civic participation, and possible implications of our current political environment.
In my younger days what you now read online would have been inaccessible to anyone except perhaps my closest friends, and then only if I took the initiative to share. When I would reflect it would take the form of my handwritten endeavors in a spiral pocket notebook, perhaps written while sitting in a bar - there were no Starbucks in those days. I was unsure of my own thinking, unwilling to expose to the eyes of others, and doubtful that what I wrote had any validity or purpose to it beyond getting things down where In was able to encounter them outside of the disorganization of my own thinking. In writing like this - a personal piece rather than an analysis of something that I have read that I believe might be of value for others to read, I recognize that there is a possible arrogance - what I write still may have no validity or purpose to it beyond getting it down so that I can read and reread. My being willing to expose it to the eyes and reactions of other is a recognition that much of what provokes me to write is a part of my being a member of something larger than myself, whether it is my school, my immediate community, or some broader aspect of the society in which I live. Thus the reactions of those others who may encounter what I write and choose to offer responses is an important part of my being - it helps me learn to communicate to those different than myself, and of greater importance to listen to what they have to say back to me, or to offer of themselves. This is one form of civic participation. It is an even more important way of reminding myself that my experiences and ideas cannot exist in isolation from those of others around me.
Recently when I write it has often been a reflection of the fear I have for our futures. I know I am not alone at feeling pummeled almost beyond belief by occasion after occasion in which I experience yet again this administration's contempt for the Constitutional process, or when I see yet another threat to the long-term stability of international relations. Some will respond to writings that reflect such fear with encouraging me not to despair. While I appreciate that affirmation, I think it does not recognize that if I despaired I would not be writing, nor would I still be wrestling with whether I can continue teaching or whether my participation in the political process could make a difference. I would simply give up. I might not commit physical suicide, but age 60 it would be quite possible to commit metaphorical suicide - withdraw from any attempt to make a difference, and find ways to occupy my waking hours that did not require me to wrestle with how to address injustice. Lord knows I would not take a month to try to learn more about an issue such as separation of church and state as I have done hear in Williamsburg.
I cannot pretend that what I write - about anything - will be of major importance in the larger scheme of things. Perhaps that is one reason why, no matter how well written I may believe something I post is, I should cease worrying whether or not people recommend or respond to it, how visible it may become. Perhaps one person who never recommends or comments upon a post will in some way be touched, perhaps in a fashion I cannot fathom. If so, then the effort I take to create an entry has more than served the value. Or I will receive in response one comment that at first seems irrelevant, but when I make the effort to offer to tis author the respect and attention I hope readers give to my efforts, I realize that it speaks to me in an important way, perhaps addressing my greatest need at that moment, even thought it was not where my mind was before I grasped it. In a sense, it would be like Jacob awakening after his dream and acknowledging that "God was in this place and I did not know it."
Or maybe the process of writing and posting can be a form of letting go of something that would otherwise be an obsession, thoughts that tormented me because I could not fully see them. As I write, as I attempt to give them coherence, I become somewhat like a small child turning on a flashlight to look under the bed and realizing that it was not a boogeyman after all, but something possibly far more benign.
I cannot fix the world by myself. One reason for political participation is to accept my shared responsibility for the world and society in which I live. There are perhaps a few people who can totally meet that responsibility by writing or by giving money. I have not enough of the latter nor am I skilled enough or with a wide enough audience that the former satisfies what I feel are the demands upon me as a civic person. On a personal level, my shyness might serve as an excuse to isolate myself, reinforcing my tendency to self-doubt. If I did not participate in some way that forced me to come out of my house or from the personal space in which it is possible to hide even in public places - as I used to do by writing in a notebook while sitting at a bar - then in fact I would not be fulfilling my responsibilities as a civic person, at least not as I must do -- this is a personal reflection that I am sharing to explain myself to you even as I attempt to better understand myself. In writing about myself I make no attempt to impose what I must do as a condition of my finding your actions commendable.
That leads me to realize something I have come to learn as a teacher, but which I do not always apply to my interactions outside that role. As a teacher I am quite aware that I cannot expect all of my students to learn in one fashion, that not all will grasp things in the same way, at the same speed, in the same order. As an educator part of my responsibility is to try to know them well enough to help them connect with the material, to assist them in understanding its relevance in their own lives. I must be willing to accept that there will be those who with no disrespect intended towards me as a person really have little enthusiasm or even interest for things that have great importance to me. As a civic person, as a member of many overlapping groups, social circles, or larger portions of our shared humanity, I will experience that in my encounters with others, and quite often it will be that one is a passion or a concern for someone else is of lesser interest to me - Somehow my lack of interest for the subject should not become a matter of disrespect for the person, nor should I assume that when I am expressing my concern that lack of agreement means that I am being rejected.
I am not expressing this clearly. I believe it is legitimate to say that some things matter so much to us that lack of agreement may mean an occasion where we will not expend further effort. Certainly I have chosen to limit willingness to politically support some people because of a particular issue that is crucial to me, in one recent case the matter of the flag desecration amendment. I can accept that a reasonable person can come to a different conclusion. I can also accept that others may not be as consumed by a dedication to the Bill of Rights as am I. I hope that our difference of perception will not mean a cessation of all human interconnection and communication. Far too much of our politics is of the variety of "if you are not with us you are against us" mentality, one that is often arrogant in its expression. The one who speaks in such a fashion seems to operate as if s/he has divine understanding without possibility of error, and I would point out that even Popes claim such authority only when speaking ex cathedra. Perhaps one reason I was never a Catholic is because I could not accept even such a limited claim for inerrancy. Here I remember the words of the Russian philosopher and theologian Alexander Khomiakov who said that if in so speaking the Pope could not make an error than he was less free than the basest of the serfs on Khomiakov's estate, because freedom consisted in large part in the possibility of making an error.
On a more immediate - and for me personal level -- to presume that I cannot be wrong would justify my not having to listen, not paying attention to the concerns of those who disagreed with me. I can legitimately make a choice not to listen further, because time and energy are not inexhaustible. But I should always maintain awareness that such is my choice, my exercise of my freedom, and paceKhomiakov, the exercise of that freedom may mean that I am making the wrong choice. Still, to avoid paralysis we do have to make choices, to build upon the choices that we have made. And perhaps the only solace I can offer to those who might question - as I have often asked myself in the past -- but what if that choice is wrong, what if all we do based upon it is wrong, is to again offer my favorite tale from the early Christian monks, the Desert Fathers:
A young novice asked, "Abba, what do we do here in the desert?" and received the response "We fall, we pick ourselves up, we fall, we pick ourselves up, we fall, we pick ourselves up." My trousers may be torn, my hands and knees scraped, my nose bruised, but I can pick myself up, dust myself off, and try again.
I have not yet addressed one point raised in the beginning of this meditation, my one planned event for next Friday. Many have argued that we should not discuss impeachment, that it is unrealistic, that even were the Democrats to gain both the House and the Senate, they would not have 2/3 of the latter, so why waste time considering something one cannot achieve. And given how limited are our time and energy and the nature of the crises we already face, there is a certain appeal of such an argument. While some may be passionate about this, I have above discussed how lack of agreement with the passion of another does not mean that the person whose passion is being expressed is necessarily being rejected as a person.
But I am sixty years old. I have seen how an idea can start small, and spread. The method being used, a teach-in, was a part of how American attitudes about the war in Vietnam were changed. I also know something about history, both of our own nation and of the larger world. Most who today consider themselves Christians have an approach to the Holy Trinity that did not have to be the position of the Church at large, that was a matter of some great controversy in the 4th Century. Church historians will often note that the man most responsible for how the church came to address the Trinity, Athanasius of Alexandria, was (a) but a deacon at the time the controversy first exploded, and (b) later on despite loft church offices was often isolated, almost alone in his position, something occasionally described as Athanasius contra Mundum (and if my Latin is slightly inaccurate please grant some slack to my senior status).
I believe I have a responsibility to consider the possibility of what others claim is a necessary step. In choosing to attend a teach-in on impeachment I have made no commitment beyond two hours on one evening, to hear what others have to say on a subject of great importance, even if it seems unrealistic. That the process of impeachment has in recent years been used inappropriately is not the issue. Nor is the fact that most people are not yet willing to consider it. When our Constitution was written abolition did not seem immediately possible, yet in less than a century the vast majority of Americans accepted the idea that one human should not own another -- that many did not accept the full humanity of the former slaves is a separate problem.
I am part of a larger civic environment, in which I participate. But if I burn myself out I am not of use - to myself or to others. I must have time to simply "be." I also must allow myself the time and space to reflect -- to look back upon what I have been doing to see if in fact "we fall" and may now need to "pick ourselves up." As a teacher, the primary official way in which I interact with others, if I am to be effective I need to step back and reexamine: was how I presented a lesson appropriate for the audience of students? Did I miss something a student said that was a key to helping her understand or make a connection to her own life?
For me the process of reflection is not merely about the past, about what I might have been able to do better, or even of those things in which I can take some comfort as to their value. Have I given due consideration to the possible impact of the actions I propose to take in the future? Will I be allowing myself the opportunity to experience the perspectives of others from which i might be able to grow? Am I so committing my time and energy so that I do not have to confront a possibly uncomfortable choice or course of action?
It is Sunday morning. I have meditated in words, and recorded those words in case there may be some small nugget of value to someone else, or that my words might serve as the occasion when one reading them can offer me a larger nugget from their own perceptions and experiences.
I am a teacher, but I am also a student. In my classroom I often learn far more than do my students, for far too often they focus only on me and not on one another. They think they have one teacher -- I know the thirty in the seats before me are all my teachers, as well as the teachers of each other. It is Sunday. As I recognize that we each have the freedom that means we have the right as well as the opportunity to make mistakes, I also know that the answer to the Biblical query of whether I am my brother's keeper is contradictory, for it is both yes and no. That contradiction is the only way I can understand wholeness, through paradox. I am his keeper, in that I cannot ignore his well-being, I cannot pretend that "he has made his bed, let him lie in it." But I also cannot impose, to assume that my perception is so infallible that I can remove from him his freedom, his opportunity and right to be wrong.
For me part of the magnificence of our shared humanity comes precisely from that individual freedom to be wrong, for without the possibility of error true learning and change are not really possible. For me this meditation is a way of expressing the humility that I can be wrong, that I will need to apologize as one way of picking myself up, but because that exists, I can go forward, exercise my freedom, not fear that I will be wrong. For me our shared humanity is what enables me to grow, to learn from trying albeit at times unsuccessfully. Our shared failure and acknowledgment of same is as important as our shared successes.
And I have written more than enough. Enjoy your Sunday, but be sure you give yourself some time to reflect. It can be quite worthwhile. And thank you for being willing to share mine.
Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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