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.

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Integrity and orientation

My students and I began an interesting conversation yesterday.  We were talking about curriculum orientations and how they can and can’t help us educate with integrity.  We talked about how integrity is usually understood as clearly articulating our beliefs, values, and aims, and then matching our practice to what we have articulated, and then continually reflecting on whether or not this match continues.  We talked about the difficulty of being so completely self-transparent.  Can we really reflect accurately on the underlying motivations and overarching intentions of every aspect of our practice?  Do we really think about those things in the moment to moment decisions we make as educators?  Scripture tells us that our hearts are a mystery, only known fully by God, and that our actions flow from our hearts (the wellspring of life).  James Smith ( 2009) says we don’t move through the world with our worldviews, we move feeling our way with arms outstretched, “…we lead out with our heart and hands.” (p 47)  It takes a lifetime and more to come to know ourselves as we were intended to be, so it may be presumptuous to think we can know ourselves so quickly and transparently as teachers.  It seems that the integrity project, when conceived as a matching project, is closely related to the worldview project we discussed in a recent post.  I left the conversation with my students, prompted to think further about what it would mean to have integrity if one was oriented towards God.

Orientation is embodied and personal – life lived face to face with God and others, therefore integrity has to be about more than my individual efforts to match my practice to my inner thoughts and determinations about teaching or any other practice.  Integrity has to be about a bodily gesture that arises from a unified heart and mind that is intentionally responding to the other/Other.  What do I mean by a unified heart and mind?  I mean a mind that is stilled by a heart that is at peace – so at peace that Christ can be found there and righteousness is possible.  I mean a mind that isn’t distracted by discursive reasoning processes or the demands of a noisy ego or a busy day, but is listening deeply to the Other/other or others with them.  I mean a mind that is “mindful” of or “attentive” to the sacred space that opens where two or three are gathered, and authentically responsive.   Truly loving and fruitful teaching gestures can arise under those conditions.  Christos Yannaras (1984) writes about each person saving within themselves the universal possibilities of life-giving gestures.  I like to think about teachers saving within themselves the universal possibilities of the teaching act – treasures within them that can be offered at the right moment to the right students in the right manner.  It is good to know a great deal about teaching, to store up those treasures, to even articulate what your best understanding about educational practice is at this particular time and place, but integrity comes when you do what St. Basil the Great says, “…return to your cell,”  your heart, and allow the Holy Spirit to teach your mind to be at peace and to be ready to be fruitful.  Every teaching gesture can then be infused by the wisdom and love from above.  Integrity, when we are oriented, is a unified, unconditional offering of self to God and others.  It is a moment when we are both gathered and offered.  A lack of integrity would be a teaching gesture or offering that is fragmented, without presence, without peace, without intention for a particular person or persons, without anything from heaven to bring it to earth.

To think of integrity as matching practice to ideals is to fall into the trap of answering complexity with certainty and to believe that ideals, on their own, are life-giving.   Simone Weil calls ideals notions and says, those notions do not dwell in heaven; they hang in the middle air and for this very reason they cannot root themselves in earth…It is only what comes from heaven that can make a real impress on earth.”  Trying to address complexity with certainty can result in a ‘regime of truth’ that becomes easy to impose on others, as well as, yourself.  These ‘regimes of truth’ can result in self-justification or blaming when things aren’t matching.  We blame our students for not learning or our institutions for not providing us the right conditions for our ideals to flourish.  To think of integrity this way is also a swift road to despair because, in my experience, I’ve never been able to match my practice to my ideals.  And I’ve tried….hard…

What about this working understanding of integrity?  From the possibility of self-conscious transparency to the possibility, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, of offering person oriented, loving, life-giving teaching gestures in a multitude of moments.  This understanding gives me hope, hope in possible moments of integrity – even if those moments are few and far between.  I am just a beginner at unifying my mind and heart, of being gathered and offered.  This understanding also gives me a place to start – “return to my cell.” 

“Like a swan you swim across the quiet of my heart and make it fruitful.”   St. John Climacus

Smith, J.K.A. (2009).  Desiring the kingdom: worship, worldview, and cultural formation.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic.

Yannaras, C. (1984).  The freedom of morality.  Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

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