The violence of activism, overwork and speed

We are used to thinking of our world as a violent place and used to doing what we can to make it less violent. But there is a kind of pervasive violence that we either don’t notice or feel hopeless about – a violence that Thomas Merton (1966) says is particularly lethal. He calls it the “violence of activism and overwork“, the “rush and pressure of modern life“, “allowing oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything.” It is a violence that we often don’t notice unless we take a step away from our regular routine, something many of my K-12 colleagues are doing as they are enjoying spring break. This posting is dedicated to them and to all others who find themselves easily succumbing.

To easily succumb means that we aren’t fighting very hard to resist this violence. There are probably a lot of reasons for this – our protestant work ethic culture, our focus on visible results, our understanding of identity as wrapped up in what we do rather than who we are…. We might even believe that we are sacrificing ourselves for the good of others. We all have a “messiah complex” to a certain degree. What we often don’t realize is that the violence of this activism, overwork and speed isn’t just a violence that we suffer – our work suffers and the people around us suffer. We are not sacrificing ourselves at the altar of progress and work for anything that is truly life giving. Merton says that “the frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” (p. 73) We may be successful at rearranging our little worlds, but we won’t be successful at actually changing our world. Someone once said that only people of Spirit actually change the world – people who have the one thing necessary, people who take the time to clothe all that they do with reverence, gentleness, patience and care, people who remember that only God knows what will prosper (Eccl 11:6), that only the things God does shall be forever (Eccl 2:14), people who begin each day remembering God and letting His brightness shine upon the works of our hands (Ps. 89), people who ask God to help them refuse to succumb to the pervasive violence of our time.

This violence seems particularly fierce in the helping professions. We know we are succumbing when we realize we aren’t even seeing the people in front of us anymore, when the people around us become a means to an end we perceive as more important than being fully present to them. St. Porphyrios tells a story about a pediatrician who was supervising an intern. The pediatrician was concerned about the way the intern was interacting with patients and admonishes him for being too busy to do the spiritual work necessary to truly help. “Listen to what I have to say to you. Every time you examine a child you should offer a fervent prayer with love. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on your servant’…God has sent a precious little soul into your hands…place your hand on their heads…Do all these things spiritually and in secret…The routine is getting to you and you are forgetting.” St. Porphyrios also encouraged educators to pray all the way to school and to enter every school as if it were a church.

To remember the precious souls given into our hands, to remember our need for God’s help, to remember that our work is impacting souls – this is good advice. The violence of activism, overwork and speed can’t happen when we are aware of the sacredness of each moment, when we “take off our shoes” and turn away from the well-worn and dusty path to see the life we normally ignore.

We all let the routine get to us. We all suffer as a result. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we all breathed a lot more, if communion, beauty, and joy were more important than speed, busyness, measurable change and progress. I think we wouldn’t be living our lives as if we were “thrown stones” as one wise person said about us busy ones. And our students? “Neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

Merton, T. (1966). Conjectures of a guilty bystander. Doubleday.

Do the good you know and the rest will be revealed to you

I don’t remember where I heard this wisdom, but it is advice that dropped into my heart once and stayed and continues to encourage me when I don’t know or can’t see clearly what is right or true, or when I am confused about the big picture. Life is complicated and messy. People are even more complicated and messier.

What is particularly wise about this saying is that it prioritizes doing the good before knowing with certainty, the hardest before the easiest. I would much rather be certain and right about something, than do the good I know. And I always do know a little good to do. There is always a little good that is written in my heart, a good that calls me beyond myself, a good that asks me to let go of my own needs or fears, and serve and be present with others with peace and joy. I’m just not always willing to obey that good.

There are many versions of this saying in Scripture. You can find it all over the wisdom writings, in the gospels and in the epistles. Wasn’t this the truth God spoke to Adam and Eve in the garden as well? Once you start looking, you see it everywhere. One of the latest places I found it was in the parable of the wise man and the foolish man building houses on rock or sand. I used to think of the rock as the Bible and my ability to believe everything in it, to “stand alone on the word of God”, “to stand on knowing what was right or wrong, black or white.” But Jesus says the wise person is anyone who hears his words and “puts them into practice“. The foolish person is the one who hears and “doesn’t put his words into practice” – the one who stands alone on the word of God, thinking belief is enough, that belief is wisdom, that belief is the solid foundation. But no, like Christ as a child, we get to grow and become strong through our virtue, our practice, and then God fills us with wisdom, and we might even have a little wisdom to share with others. He gives us a little good to do at a time, and then these little obediences open up into wider spaces so that we can learn to run in His commandments, our true freedom. One little good leads to another, because good always wants to create more good.

So now I try to remember to ask myself in times of confusion or uncertainty, what is the little good you know to do? Do it and see what happens. Pay attention. And then sometimes miracles happen because God is always the Father of the prodigal, looking down the road for those who are inclined to do the good, always there to help them grow in strength and wisdom.

But I have to start with the little good I know, and that’s the hard part, but also the hopeful part because, if I know a little good, that means God is already at work in me and more will be revealed.

The strength of her kindness

I recently read a description of someone’s grandmother and the phrase, ‘the strength of her kindness’, jumped out at me.  We don’t often hold strength and kindness together in our thoughts.  The two words are usually considered to be opposites.  Kindness means being nice or sweet and not really expecting/requiring anything from anyone else.  Strength means being tough and uncompromising, holding others to a higher standard or at least a standard we think is higher.  As a result of the seeming incompatibility of these two words, I often have conversations with my colleagues and students about kindness that center around questions of being too kind and then appearing to be passive or weak.  And then I have other conversations about strength centered around questions of being too uncompromising and unwilling to respond to contextual, individual situations.  I think both of these conversations have incorrect assumptions about kindness and strength.

I find that we think about kindness the way we think about grace.  We imagine that God’s grace is simply  forgiveness for our sins that leaves us free of the burden of punishment and able to go on as we always have with the assurance that we’re “saved”.  As teachers we equate grace to giving extensions on papers, excusing students from requirements, allowing students to break rules without consequences.  I’ve even heard of ‘grace coupons‘ that students in Christian schools can use like ‘get out of jail free’ cards.   I hear this word thrown around a lot in Christian contexts and I always find myself wanting to cry, “No, that is not grace! That is not who God is!” 

God’s grace is always life-giving, always transformative, helping us turn towards Him and away from ourselves, making us more like Him.  God is not interested in leaving us in our brokenness.  How unkind that would be!  He is the one who loves us, who instructs us with care.  (Pr. 13:26; 12:2)  God’s grace is God sharing His strength with us, the strength to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, gentle, and self-controlled.  His grace allows ‘our souls to return to rest‘ because He shows us kindness, delivering our souls from death, our eyes from tears and our feet from slipping.  (Ps. 114:7, LXX)  There is nothing weak about grace that delivers from death!

I fear my kindness as a teacher, friend, parent, has often been weak, and therefore, not kind at all.  I’m not saying that we should never show mercy to our students or that we shouldn’t be open to individual situations and unique needs requiring different responses.  I am not interested in legalism or authoritarianism.   But I am interested in education, in being a teacher, in doing what brings true life to my students, in helping them grow.  To leave our students in ignorance, or in habits that are damaging to their well-being is unkind, unloving, and uncaring.

When kindness is a quality of spirit rather than a prescribed set of kind or unkind actions, it becomes an ethos or an orientation that infuses our practices as teachers.  It represents an inner and outer integrity, although that integrity may not always be readily visible to an observer or initially understood by the person receiving the action.  Sometimes we don’t understand how kind God is to us – particularly when He allows us to be shaken, or doesn’t rescue us immediately from the consequences of our actions.  Sometimes our students won’t understand our actions as kindness, at least not until the fruit is revealed.  However, even as God never falls short of His Fatherhood, we need to be sure we don’t fall short of our teacherhood.  We exist to benefit our students in ways that are educative, redeeming and reconciling, but we do this with the strength of patience, gentleness and compassion.

The difficulty is that we are not yet completely like God.  So along with the strength of our kindness must come more gifts of God’s grace – wisdom and discernment and humility.  We will surely make mistakes and so we need to pay attention to the impact of what we think is kindness and be willing to change direction when we see that what we are doing is not helping, is not life-giving.

I sometimes see online postings written to teachers about what students remember and don’t remember about them.  These letters focus on the ‘who‘ of teaching rather than the what and how,  and encourage teachers to do what is most important – usually build strong relationships with their students.  Even though I am sympathetic with this message and recognize that teachers can often be distracted by the trivial, I am also concerned that this message can undermine the nature of the relationship we have with our students.  It is not our job to be remembered well, but it is our job to educate well – with kind strength.

As much my students’ as mine

I had the joy of reading one of George MacDonald’s fairy tales over the Christmas holiday,  At the back of the north wind.   The main character of the tale, Diamond, is an extraordinarily pure of heart child whose loving simplicity brings healing, light and love to everyone he encounters.  He has a baby brother who he loves to bounce on his knee and while doing so he makes up silly songs to entertain him.  One of his friends, an author, asks him to sing one of the songs he created.  But Diamond says it is not possible.

“No sir.  I couldn’t.  I forget them as soon as I’ve done with them.  Besides I couldn’t make a line without baby on my knee.  We make them together, you know.  They’re as much the baby’s as mine.  It’s he that pulls them out of me.”   

This little interaction made me think about the relationship between teachers, students and curriculum planning, and I have to say that this is one of the best descriptions of curriculum planning I’ve come across in a long time.  I have never been a teacher who has been able to teach the same thing twice in the same way.  Even when I have planned the same class for two different sections back to back, the conversation is different, the interaction is different, the learning is different.  My students pull out of me and I’m sure I pull out of them in ways that can’t be duplicated.   And then there are the many ways students pull out of each other.

I love this dynamic of the classroom, it’s why I love being a teacher.  It’s also why teaching is so complex and challenging, yet filled with sacred, joyful and delightful moments.

I can’t say that what is pulled out of me and us is always beautifully in tune, my heart isn’t as pure as Diamond’s and sometimes I am distracted or weighed down.  Sometimes, I am trying too hard to sing another person’s song, or not really paying close enough attention to my students to see what would delight them and invite them into learning.

But there is always the next class, always a new song to sing, as long as I stay convinced that the words and music are as much my students’ as mine.


The teacher’s gaze

I am teaching an Assessment for Learning class again this semester.  One of the first things I often ask my students to do in this class  is to read an excerpt from Leo Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina.  The passage opens with the following words – “Serezha’s eyes, that had been shining with affection and joy, grew dull and dropped under his father’s gaze.”  It then goes on to describe an educational interaction between Serezha and his father that is punctuated by different kinds of assessment in an effort to support learning, but it is the assessment of his father’s ‘gaze‘ that has already derailed the learning from the start, leading to progressive frustration and anger on the part of the father (teacher) and the anxiety and ultimate punishment of the child for not learning.

We forget, as teachers, that our gazes matter, that our gazes communicate, that our gazes can be extreme barriers to learning or gates that open the possibility of a transformational relationship.  So even though I’ve written before about “Beholding the beloved into being” (see February 14, 2012), I think it is worth coming back to this topic – maybe again and again.

God seems to care about countenances.  He wants us to be ‘face to face’ with Him and ‘face to face‘ with each other.  He is the one who lifts up our heads.  He is the one who raised the woman bent over for many years.  He is the one who shares his countenance with us – “stamping the light of His face upon us, putting gladness in our hearts and causing us to dwell in hope.” (Ps. 4:7)

But being ‘face to face‘ is not easy.  Just ask Peter who denied Christ three times and didn’t realize it until Christ turned and looked at him. (Luke 22:60)  Not one word from Christ was necessary.  We are judged by gazes and that judgment can often cause us to escape or want to escape – our eyes grow dull and drop.  To be ‘face to face‘ is to be revealed in all of our brokenness, to be fully known and to recognize that knowing in the eyes of another.  Gazes can’t pretend. They recognize and then communicate that recognition, inviting or rejecting the other.   Christ didn’t pretend that Peter hadn’t denied Him, but His gaze must have hinted at His forgiveness and love, making it possible for Peter to overcome his shame and return to Him.  Job also talks about seeing God ‘face to face’ and the truth that is revealed in this encounter.  I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You…Therefore I regard myself as dust and ashes. (Job 42:5)  But Job also finds the courage to go beyond this truth, asking God to teach him.  God’s countenance judged and yet invited Him into relationship.

The teacher’s gaze often has to judge or ‘truth-tell’, but it must also invite. Like God’s face, our faces must shine in any darkness of our students’ lives so that truth is revealed yet mercy endures.  The encounters with us, and any person in authority, become the way our students understand the face of God.  Is God angry and wrathful, seeking the punishment of sinners, or is God not willing for any to perish and unchanging in His gaze of mercy and love towards us?  We are responsible for our gazes, to seek the face of God until our faces are stamped with His true image.  Our students need to look at us and see that there is someone who knows them, who is a refuge for them, who cares for their souls. (Psalm 142:4)

Mary, the fragrance of God

It is Christmas Eve, that most fragrant of times.  Beautiful and delicious smells have filled the air for weeks, wrapping us in anticipation and hope, arresting us in our busyness, reminding us to breathe, reorienting us to the present.  Today, Christ is born to the most fragrant of human beings, a woman whose name means ‘myrrh’, a woman whose soul was a cave of purity, peace, and prayer, a woman who said yes and raised the world to the God’s descent.

We can become just as fragrant.  In fact, this is our only calling – to smell like Christians, to be what St. Theophan calls “roses who don’t speak, but have a fragrance that spreads far in silence.”

I have a friend who is allergic to all inorganic or processed scents.  This allergy is extremely debilitating for her because she can’t go anywhere in public without being accosted by the scents around her and most of them are inorganic and processed.  Without medication, one breath of scent can put her to bed with an intense migraine.  I am never more conscious of how I smell than when I am with her.  I should always be this conscious though, careful of what I anoint myself with, knowing that my ‘fragrance’ imposes itself on everyone I come into contact with throughout each day.  I am sure I have given many people intense ‘migraines’.  I long to be the fragrance of God.

What does being the fragrance of God mean?  It means being a vessel or atomizer so that, through us, Christ diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place (2 Cor. 2:14, 15) .  It means being further clothed by life (virtue) so that our mortality (all that smells) is swallowed up by all that is fragrant (2 Cor. 5:4).  It means being anointed by the Holy Spirit –  we cannot become the fragrance of God without God.  It means being pierced by sorrow (myrrh is made from resin that runs from a small thorn-bush that is pierced with sharp instruments, over and over again).  It means being ‘aromatherapy’ in that the grace of peace fully abounds in us like the pleasant scent of sweet spices that fills the air around it with its own fragrance, so that our lives may heal the sickness of others St. Gregory of Nyssa).  It means to have a heart that is an enclosed garden that the Holy Spirit can blow through (Song of Songs 4).  It means to “see God in others, (to) go forth from ourself to seek the good of others.  All of the virtues are at the service of this response to love.  (Without this) the message will run the risk of losing its freshness and will cease to have the ‘fragrance of the gospel’ (Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium).  It means to let our hearts be stirred by Christ’s knocking and to open the door with hands dripping with myrrh (Song of Songs 5:2-5).

There is more that the scriptures and saints reveal, but the list is already mysterious enough – who is sufficient for these things (2 Cor. 2:15)?   Thank God, that with God, all things are possible (Luke 18: 27).  Like Mary, our ‘fiat’ is required – again and again.  We prepare the ‘stable of our hearts’ with prayer (like incense) and repentance, and God does the rest, Christ is born in us through the Holy Spirit.  May we become a fragrant presence others can breathe like gentle and pure air,  filling the universe with invisible goodness (Fr. Lev Gillet).  

Christ is born, glorify Him!

The late bloomer and the gift of time

There’s a lovely children’s book by Robert Kraus (1971) called, Leo the late bloomer.  Leo is a small tiger who can’t seem to do anything that his other animal friends can do.  He can’t read, write, draw, eat neatly, or talk.  His father, looking at his son in light of the other animals, begins to get quite concerned about the lack of progress evident in Leo.  Leo’s mother, on the other hand, soothes the father’s concerns by encouraging him to be patient because Leo is just a late bloomer, and “watched bloomers don’t bloom.” I was reminded of this story when I was talking with some of my students about differentiating curriculum.  Sometimes we make differentiation a very complex and overwhelming task.  Sometimes we forget that we already have gifts/resources to give that can help students naturally learn and grow.  Sometimes they do just need more time – along with a caregiver who is patient, who sees the child in light of who they are meant to be rather than in comparison to other children.

Schools establish quite arbitrary time systems that aren’t always informed by good research or even good logic and can seem incredibly inflexible to students, parents and teachers.  But maybe they aren’t as inflexible as we think.  The gift of time is possible and not hard to give – even at the university level (if we’re willing to give up our own agenda).  It’s amazing to me that we’re still using the factory model in schools and our students are the ones punching the time clocks.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons so many parents are choosing to home-school their children.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons teachers get discouraged – because teachers usually are like Leo’s mother, but feel the pressure of performance that Leo’s father seems to feel.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t intervene when you see a child struggling, I’m just saying that sometimes we intervene too quickly – for our own reasons, instead of the child’s best interest.  Sometimes our help doesn’t help. It seems that reverence for the learner would require us to be discerning about this.

I’m not saying that structure and time requirements are wrong either.  Schools need them to function, students sometimes need them to learn to manage their time well and to be able to move onto something new.  I am just saying that you can push back on institutional demands a little when necessary.  Wise educational leaders know this and support it.

We are all late bloomers in some way or another, all in need of the gift of time and a patient caregiver.  The gift of time often brings peace, and peace is the best environment for blooming.

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