Tuesday, March 29, 2005

I Cried in Class Today

I teach a class on peacemaking. Today, I showed some film clips of Martin Luther King, Jr. We have been reading his life and work, and have just studied the Montgomery Bus Boycott in some depth. I thought it would be meaningful for the students to follow up the words-on-paper and words-in-class with actual images of him and his work, to make it real for them. This is ancient history for today's students, because the civil rights movement happened whole decades before they were born. This time period is just at the far edge of my own memories. I'm just old enough to realize that I was shaped by all of this being in the air as my consciousness first emerged, but just young enough not to have actual memories of, for example, seeing King on the TV -- and I'm kind of sad about that latter point, actually. I would like to be able to say that I remember seeing him (at least on TV) at the time when he was making history, but here I am instead watching archived "historical" excerpts with my students, decades later.

So, I do pretty well in my teaching, actually, but tend not to incorporate a lot of flashy new (or even flashy old) technology into the classroom. Classroom time is a kind of sacred time for me, a time I mostly keep focused on discussion. In our complex world, full of fast-paced action, dazzle, and excitement, I regard it as somewhat radical of me to give students time to just talk to each other, in depth, about ideas. But every great now and then, I surprise them by revving up the technology in our well-equipped classroom, and showing a video, DVD, or even the Web. I only ever do this for a good reason.

Watching King is a good reason.

But as the documentary film began, I already felt a surge of my own emotion and suddenly remembered that one of the reasons I seldom do show films in class is that in my own TV-free life, this medium can affect me quite powerfully. And there is something about the civil rights movement that always affects me especially powerfully. I'm not sure why this is so. Is it because it's at the very threshold of my earliest memories? Did I catch and absorb the intensity and excitement of that time? Or is it that I feel called myself to engage such work, despite its uncertainties and dangers? (I keep wanting to veer away from that latter question, and yet, it haunts me.)

After the initial surge of emotion, I calmed down and remembered where I was and put my "teacher" persona back on, reinforcing this persona by quickly pointing things out to the students when a scene appeared that we had read about, to help them make the connections. I only did this a few times, because I didn't want to interrupt the flow of the documentary too much. Then we all settled more deeply into just watching it, caught up ourselves in the drama of it all.

The moment that got me was (of course) the "Mountaintop" speech. I knew what was coming, but I'm not sure the students fully realized. It is really unbelievably moving to watch King giving this speech. It is as if he knew what was coming, and he really was ready. To live your life well, and to face the reality of your coming death without flinching; to speak the deepest truths of what you know, when you have lived from the core of who you most truly are -- what a sacred moment! How can you not cry when you are witness to such a moment (even 37 years later)?

The documentary shifts from that speech to the bald statement, "The next day, he was dead."

I don't know if my students noticed my tears. But I don't mind if they did. Being real with each other is really so important, even in teaching, or perhaps especially in teaching.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

A Disciplined Life

Key to being a contemplative is adopting some kind of spiritual discipline. This is an idea that fascinates me, and has attracted me for a long time. The reason it has attracted me for a long time, I think, is because I have never quite come to where I would really like to be in this respect. I have this idealized image of what my life could be like, and it includes a sense of my going through my days following a soothing, predictable rhythm that instills in me a sense of centeredness and peace. And, in fact, the academic life can create something of a predictable rhythm that approximates what I am looking for: the weekly rhythm of classes, office hours, and regularly scheduled meetings. Yet there is something about the frenetic pace of it all that keeps an edge of perpetual anxiety in my life instead of the peace I seek.

Others often perceive me as a person who seems reasonably at peace, at least relative to many others! I think I am perceived this way because part of the spiritual discipline I have adopted for myself is to try not to talk very much about feeling stressed or busy, but to shift attention instead to something good, meaningful, or exciting going on. So when I run into colleagues in the photocopy room and we chat, what I will share is a recent good interaction with a student, or an enlightening moment in the classroom, or my relief at having just finished a draft of a paper I am working on, etc. I'm not doing this to mislead people into thinking I'm more at peace and on top of things than I usually feel -- I do this because I think it is far more important to share with each other the substance of what our lives are all about than merely to vent our chronic restless dissatisfaction. Our culture is already too much a culture of complaint. I don't hold it against people to complain -- human beings may in fact be problem-seeking and problem-solving beings. I just prefer to keep trying to focus attention on the positive side of that tendency (what it is like when problems are solved) instead of the negative side (a listing of the currently pending problems).

So the idea of a disciplined life is more than having a good, healthy rhythm to life that keeps you reasonably healthy, happy, growing, and engaged in meaningful activity and relationships. Spiritual disciplines also keep you oriented within those rhythms in positive, helpful ways.

There is so much that is troubling in our world today that it is too easy to feel discouraged. We often feel powerless to effect positive change. We don't know how to begin; and besides, we are too busy.

And yet, we can question the forces that keep us too busy. We actually have more choice and more power in our lives than we are led to believe -- we can make choices within our lives to focus our attention more clearly on what we really care about. This is what the idea of a disciplined life is really all about -- your chosing how to spend your time, how to structure your days, to ensure that you are focusing most effectively on what really matters to you. And as your vision of how you would like your life to be clarifies, then you keep asking the question, "how can I make this possible?" instead of measuring, over and over again, how large the gap is between where you are and where you would like to be.

As Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Deep Breath

After about a year of contemplation, I have decided to do it -- start a Blog. It's strange to think of these words being posted in a "public" kind of space, read by people who don't know me -- don't even know who I am. Why are you reading this? (Why have I read others' blogs?) What (if anything) will develop from my taking this step?

So, why I am writing this? Who am I and what is my own purpose?

It seems appropriate that I should start with a little introduction.

I am a recently tenured professor at a small liberal arts college, still reeling a bit from the intensity of the tenure-review process, and struggling to define and hold onto a positive vision of who I would like to be. I call myself "Contemplative Scholar" because it expresses this vision of myself that I find so hard to maintain in the midst of a complex, busy, and demanding life. Even though it seems that academia should be a context in which it is still possible to be contemplative, in fact, it is very hard. But I seek a deep centeredness, a stance of clarity, compassion, and strength from which to live my life and meet the various challenges that face me. And I want to engage in meaningful research and scholarship that will address some of the pressing problems our world faces today.

I entitle this Blog "Embracing Complexity" because, after a long time of trying over and over again to simplify my life, I finally realized that this quest put me in a fundamentally adversarial relationship with the rich diversity of my own interests and the complexity of my own mind (not to mention the complexity of life in today's world). So I was always fighting. And I didn't want to be always fighting -- I wanted to find peace. One day I realized that an attitude change might be helpful. Will I be more successful at finding peace with myself and the world if, instead of trying to force myself into simplicity, I decided to try to learn how to embrace complexity?

I don't think I am alone in these kinds of struggles. This is why I've decided to start a blog. It will be interesting to see what happens from here.