Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sabbath in a Busy Life

I am guessing that some of my readers are wondering whether I have been able to maintain honoring Sabbath in what I have termed my busiest semester since the semester I came up for tenure.

Well, one weekend I didn't. And on Sunday evening when I went into my office yet again, only to find myself totally unable to face anything I was so tired of it all, I realized that my new attempt to claim Relentless Hard Work as a virtue was woefully misguided. So I turned around and went home.

You'd think I should have known this by now!

Still, my life is very busy; I've been having some remarkable success facing all of the things that scare me. I haven't wanted to lose momentum when the momentum is there. So I haven't been as deliberate and intentional about honoring the sabbath as I was last semester.

But I find a natural pattern settling out that I try to notice and honor: I work really hard, get tired by the end of the week, and give myself a break on Saturday mornings. Then I often go into my office to work on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, I try not to go into my office at all, if I can help it, but I do let myself work, if I need to. The rule is that I only work on fun things, not scary things.

Then when I enter the week again, I feel spiritually renewed enough to tackle the scary things.

This has been working very well.

So, in the sabbath spirit of creating spaces for renewal, I've started thinking of "space" both in terms of time and place. Another pattern I've developed is to protect home from scary work. I let myself bring work home, but never is the work that I bring home the scary work -- just the fun work.

For me, scary = anything evaluative (including grading student work).

And my fun work includes reading for class and working on my writing.

Now that my office is the only place that I face the scary dimensions of my work, instead of that making my office a place I don't want to go, I find that it becomes a place where I find the strength and courage I need. And if, while in that space, I find myself becoming daunted or tired, I just allow myself to leave, knowing that other places are places for me to find rest and renewal.

So, I recommend this approach -- to think about sabbath both in terms of space and time. In addition to being alert for what are the natural sabbath times in the rhythm of your life (the times you naturally tend to seek rest and renewal), what are your sabbath places?

And we could add a third sabbath query: who are your "sabbath friends," the people in whose presence you find renewal? They might be people you know and can connect with in person, but they also might be writers whom you connect with by reading their writings.

Sabbath Queries
  • What are your natural sabbath times?
  • Where are your sabbath places?
  • Who are your sabbath friends?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

More on a Deeper Trust

I thought I would share a few more thoughts on the deeper trust I seek to learn.

This deeper trust again moves beyond naive trust and facile disillusionment.

It is grounded ultimately in belief in redemptive power: even despite the ways that people let each other down, there is a greater good that cannot be destroyed by the transitory nature of human failings.

And in my own personal quest, I realize that the nature of the deeper trust I seek has something to do with me. Do I trust myself enough? Even in humble awareness of my own failings, do I dare to believe in myself in a stronger and deeper way?

If I cannot learn to trust myself in this deeper way, I cannot possibly learn to trust others in the new way I seek.

Friday, February 16, 2007

A Student Gives a Gift

In class on Wednesday, I was going over a quiz, and a male student started arguing with me over an answer. He thought that he was right and I was wrong. He made some good points, but failed to see a nuance of understanding that this quiz question was intended to bring out. So I told him that I appreciated the points he was making, but that it was important to also take into consideration the other factors I was describing. His inability to agree that my answer was right showed me that he wasn't really understanding these new points I was trying to make. We went back and forth on this. He wanted full credit for his answer. I insisted that I could not give full credit, because his answer was based on a partial understanding, and full credit must be reserved for those who have a full understanding of the all the factors that play into the answer. He fell into an angry silence. I reaffirmed that I was glad that we had this dialogue -- I respected the points he made, and our discussion brought out the new points more clearly for the class. I affirmed that it was important to have these kinds of honest exchanges. But it was clear to all that I was not to be swayed into giving his answer (and hence the answers of about half the class) full credit.

We moved on.

Today I found myself unusually reluctant to face that class, and I realized that it was because I still felt uneasy by the student's angry silence at the end of our exchange. He is a student I like very much. I was content at the time to let him deal with his frustration -- often that is an important part of the learning process. But now I was uneasy because today's class session would help show whether or not he processed his frustration well, or whether he had written me off as an unreasonable bully.

Before class, I collect questions that the students submit electronically. This student had submitted a question that continued our discussion, and I was glad -- it showed that he was still thinking about things. In the intervening days, I remained convinced that my interpretation was right, and that I was right to have stood my ground. So I was a bit encouraged.

And then I read a question from another student: a young woman who sits next to this young man and is clearly good friends with him.

She thanked me for standing my ground. "I am in three classes with this student," she said, "and he does this over and over again, and professors always cave in. It was so refreshing to finally see a professor stand up to him. You were right, and you held your ground. Thank you."

This note had an amazing effect on me. I have been under a lot of pressure from many sources, coming at me from all directions, and I have felt so alone (see recent postings). For this student to have taken the time to say, "I noticed what you were doing, and I was inspired to see you holding your ground," meant a lot to me.

It helped make visible to me that I'm not alone; that what I do matters to others. I've had the faith that it does, but having a real affirmation from someone else every now and then is so tremendously reassuring and supportive -- because without it, over time, we really can start to doubt ourselves. We can start to develop the fear that what we call "faith" is some kind of delusion after all.

I do know about myself that I listen well, and am willing to admit that I'm wrong if I come to realize that I am wrong. I value these characteristics in myself -- so well that in fact I can be vulnerable to giving way too quickly and easily. I fear the accusation of being a rigid bully, and in this fear, I am vulnerable too. But there are times when a person has to stand strong in what he or she believes.

I needed to see in myself that I can hold strong when I am right.

For a student to see this and tell me how much she appreciated it meant a lot to me, because my quest these days is for strength. Her affirming that it is not only okay for me to stand strong, but important beyond just myself, was what I needed to hear. Young people such as herself are looking for what that kind of strength looks like, and are disappointed at how hard it is to find it. Her saying that reminded me of how often I have been similarly disappointed. I feel honored that she recognized this in me. What a gift she has given me!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Deeper Trust

As a follow-up from my latest posting, I wanted to write more about the deeper trust in people I am trying to learn.

Humans are interdependent beings. We rely on each other in many ways. There is a basic level of interdependency: every individual's very survival depends upon the help and support of others. Even a person who might choose to leave human society and live alone in the wilderness is not truly independent, because that person's survival still depends on all that that person had learned while in human society: how to build a fire, how clothing and shelter provide warmth, how some plants are edible and others are poisonous, etc.

But the survival level is not the only level of human interdependency. There is also the level of defining and accomplishing one's goals in the world. At this level as well, we are interdependent. We cannot do it alone. We need interconnection with each other. And I am not really talking about worldly definitions of "success," here. What matters most to me is efficacy, the capacity to make a difference. The world has serious problems, and one of my burning questions lately is this: how can an individual make a real difference? How is it possible to tap into and change the very sources of power that have created the problems to begin with?

So many of us feel so overwhelmed and powerless today.

The answer is that individuals can make a difference, but never as individuals alone. To tap into that power requires making use of our essential interconnectedness, in the right ways.

So, back to the question of trust: the people who make a difference not only have some very excellent support in their own lives which gives them personal wisdom, courage, and strength, but also their interconnections with others open up access to the world's operative sources of power.

In contrast, people who never quite "make it" (in whatever sense is meaningful to them) are those who get bogged down from lack of support in their lives, and so never quite have the means of summoning the personal strength to be able to step out in new ways very far beyond basic survival. (And for some -- too many -- even basic survival is fragile.) Or, the person's support is adequate enough, but the person just never quite figures out how to extend connections in ways that finally tap into sources of power. Either they never do make the connection to sources of power; or, maybe those connections are in their reach, but not in ways that allow the matching of their own gifts with the world's needs. A person might be friends with someone very influential, but that influential friend is not able to perceive or be affected by the wisdom the person offers. Or the influential friend's range of influence might not be of the kind that can channel the person's wisdom to where that wisdom most needs to be heard.

So many people console themselves when they reach a certain age and realize that their life is not what they had hoped it could be back in their idealistic youth. They console themselves with humility. They cast "ambition" as something to be regarded with suspicion. If they are people of faith, they tell themselves that trying to "save the world," is precariously close to "sin of pride." They tone down what "faithfulness" means in their own lives to something more "realistic," to something that matches the reality of the lives they actually find themselves in. And they hope that in humble ways they still do make a modest difference; even a modest difference really matters. And most of all, they remind themselves that their value as human beings is not contingent on the magnitude of their "accomplishments."

And I say "amen" to all of that.

And yet -- for myself, in my own life, I am raging mad at how powerless I feel.

And I'm finally able to say that out loud and unapologetically.

I am raging mad because I don't care one whit about these questions for myself, but I care enormously for the world.

I don't care if I die unnoticed (having mostly lived unnoticed throughout my life, I am used to this now -- in fact, it's a safe and comfortable place!), or if I achieve enduring fame. After all, I myself won't be around to notice one way or another after I'm gone! This is not about me.

But here I am, a being that notices, and cares, and loves -- and I want nothing more than to know how to take my willing energy and have a healing effect on this wounded world, for the world's sake.

But I don't know how to do this.

Back to trust: I cannot do it alone. I need the help of others.

Here's where I am in life: I have a power that I begin to see. There are times when I talk when suddenly everyone pays attention. I stir a collective energy. An energy rises and fills everyone with new hope, a new vision of what's possible.

But then everyone goes back to their frenetic busy lives, and forgets, and fails to follow through on their promises.

I wake something that then keeps falling back to sleep, or falling back into a certain kind of collective trance.

But I do trust the love and kindness that does surround me. It provides a support that gives me more than mere survival: my friends recognize something special about what I am trying to do. When it stirs, they pay attention and affirm it. In this, I am very fortunate indeed. So many people do not have even this. Instead they have friends who say, "take tobacco, sing psalms" (or today's modern equivalent: "you're all worked up! Take a break: have a beer and watch TV").

It's at the next level of trust that I feel let down. While I understand people's reluctance to fully step onto this path with me in a more real sort of way (they have their own complex lives, etc., etc.), still, I feel disappointed and alone. I push at mighty things thinking that others are with me, and then I feel a strain, and look around, and notice they all have left for the evening, glancing at their watches and scurrying to their next appointments, leaving me bearing the full weight by myself. I'm exhausted.

And yet, and yet -- I reach for a new kind of trust. There's something wrong in what I've been hoping for from others, and yet there is something else that is deeper that is appropriate for me to hope for. I must not blame them. There's a piece of the puzzle here that I'm not getting. I've reached for their help in the wrong way, at the wrong level. I want their hands to help, but it is their hearts I must engage more fully.

That's all I know, at this point. I make my way in the dark. This is the faint glimmer I have.

Everything in my life is about this. In this too, I am fortunate. My life is busy and complex, but through all of this is this overarching simplicity. Really, I have just one problem, and it is this, reflected in myriad ways every way I turn in my life. Each mirror gives me a different angle on the problem.

Sorry if this is obscure and difficult to understand. It is that I am living on (and writing from) the edge of my new emerging understandings.

I write the story of Vision birthing.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Love That Cannot Be Abused

One of my burning questions in life at the moment is this: how can I live from a love that cannot be abused?

Yes, strong phrasing.

There has been a steadily growing anger in my soul. This is new for me (to have it or to recognize it? I am not sure). As I struggle with the various things I struggle with (see recent postings), another way of describing the pattern that is crystallizing is that I am increasingly furious that people take advantage of my, and other nice people's, kindness.

Yet, I don't want to stop being nice, kind, attentive, thoughtful, understanding, forgiving.

The question I have phrased has been a puzzle for me, a paradox. But urgent. There must be a way. I know God did not design a tragic universe: one in which those who love routinely get destroyed by all of the desperate need that wants to throw itself at any trace of love it can find.

Today I finally start to get a glimmer of new understanding.

I see that I started from naive trust, and then moved into wounded distrust (the birth of my anger). But neither of these is it.

I had to stay with that anger for a while. My instinct was to recoil from it, draw back in denial to the naive trust again, but it was too late. I knew now that that was not it.

No, I have to move forward, through the anger, to a new kind of strength, and a new kind of trust.

The wounded distrust is not wisdom. It is a facile disillusionment. Of course people cannot be trusted in the way I used to trust! Nothing really remarkable about that insight. (It reminds me, anyway, of my students who confess to me that something traumatic in their past is why they no longer believe in God.)

But in what way(s) can people be trusted? This is my new question. Its answer will guide me to learning to love in a way that cannot be abused.

It is just a glimmer, but I sense in this question great power.

People are fallible and get tired and overworked and don't pay very much attention and don't realize their effects on each other and may not like each other very much anyway and in all of that can hurt each other deeply, and yet...

There is still a wise way of trusting, nevertheless -- a trust that runs deeper than a naive expectation of basic courtesy, respect, and competence. It's a trust that is not about these things (which, really, we cannot expect, anyway. When they are present, they are rare gifts!)

Where is that deeper trust grounded? I know, of course, that it is ultimately grounded in God, but I strive to find a clearer sense of exactly how it is manifest even in fallible human souls.

When I find that, I will learn a new way to love.

And maybe in that, my wounded soul will finally find healing.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Shoveling Snow as Spiritual Discipline

We got a lot of snow yesterday. This morning I was up bright and early to shovel. It took me an hour and a half. The hardest part is the mountain at the foot of the driveway left by the snowplows that plow the road.

Here are some of the games I play to help me do this arduous task with good cheer.

Sometimes I imagine snow shoveling as a winter Olympic sport. I imagine the TV commentary as all of those riveted fans watch and admire my technique.

Other times, I simply imagine my neighbors watching out their windows, noticing that my approach is artistic, and admiring that my technique is graceful, almost dancelike. I get into a rhythm, and try to convey through my motions joy and beauty (rather than the grumpy fatigue I am tempted to feel)! Can I, through this simple activity, inspire in others a new perspective on mundane reality? Can I convey my undying love for snow even though it creates all of this hard work? I set this as my task. There is more at stake than a driveway needing clearing -- it's an existential moment with its own transcendent possibilities, not only for myself, but for others.

And yet I hold no illusions that anyone is paying the slightest bit of attention. After I come in, I hear neighbors' snow-blowers revving up. Sighing, I realize that, while they might admire me for doing my long driveway by hand, at a pragmatic level they more likely think I am a bit clueless. If they think about me at all, they probably think that I'm poor, or afraid of machines, instead of in-principle trying to reduce carbon emissions. They probably don't perceive that I intentionally adopt an exercise program of useful work as much as I can integrate it into my life.

So, in the end, it is not those fantasies that really keep me going, so much as my appreciation of the inherent spiritual value of using one's own human energy to get work done in the world, and seeking to inject such work with as much joy, grace, and beauty, as one can manage.

So I carve up my driveway into interesting patterns, and tackle one at a time. And I create ergonomic dancelike moments to reduce the risk of injuring my back. I go in and put band-aids on if I start to get blisters.

And I soak in a nice warm bath after I finally finish.

Comfortably Chained to the Wall in the Cave

This past week, I was teaching about Plato's cave in one of my classes (see Plato's Republic, Book VII), and for the first time ever (and I've been teaching about this for years), my students quite seriously said, "if you're chained to the wall watching the shadows, and you are comfortable there, and you'd rather not be unchained and have your whole world disrupted, then there's nothing wrong with just staying there."

I was stunned.

It's not that it has never occurred to me that people might think this.

It's that my students have never argued for and held this position like this group did this time.

And yet, in a way I can understand that they might simply be overwhelmed now. Is this a new stage we are moving into? Bush's power starts to falter. Disagreement is okay again. The situation in Iraq is unquestionably dire. A new report about global climate change comes out, and even the Bush administration starts to acknowledge that it's really happening.

There are no longer any viable fantasies to believe in.

Time to get overwhelmed.

It's as if my students are saying, "We don't want sore muscles, eyes blinded and hurting from bright light, or the mental strain of trying to grasp the confusing complexity of color and three-dimensionality!" If only reality could be understood by staying in one place, simply studying the motions of two-dimensional, black-and-white shadows on a wall...

Now I'm trying to discern how to take the next step with this class.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

New Ways to Manage Life's Complexity

We are already two weeks into our new semester. My work right now seems busier than ever before (except for the semester I came up for tenure).

There's a way that I worked harder and longer hours when I first began full-time university teaching, but even so, I was actually less busy than now. I didn't actually have as much going on as I do now. But at that time, it was all new, and the learning curve was steep, as they say. Getting a grip on full-time teaching is a challenge. And for a shy person (like me), the "performance" aspect was initially somewhat scary. The problem was compounded by certain features of the structure of our academic world: newly minted PhDs have a hard time returning to "beginner mind"; and students who feel a bit captive and vulnerable can develop resentment very quickly and easily if they find a course over their heads.

It is nice to see that I now regard the teaching part of my work as the most fun. Almost all of my anxiety about it has totally evaporated. (The only bits that remain have to do with my continued fretting about certain aspects of the structure of academia that I cannot really change, and now I regard myself and my students as allies against these kinds of problems.) I not only feel at home in the classroom (a feeling I could not even imagine in those earlier days), I come alive in new ways. I have great rapport with most students, but when I do encounter students with "issues," I feel strong enough in myself not to take it personally. I do my best. Sometimes we have breakthroughs; other times not. I know that they are on a journey and so am I, and I really do trust the process.

Right now, at the beginning of the semester, as I adjust to a slightly heavier teaching load than I've had for several years, I encounter again the effort of the start-up process. I see my students trying to figure me out, and I am amused by this process instead of self-conscious about it. I put in that familiar work of trying to build a sense of community in the classroom, but I know that I am not in full control. There is mystery. It is alchemy. I cannot predict -- we will just have to see how it develops over the next 12 weeks.

My life is busy because of all else that I am involved in, much not really fully my choice but a product of our changing times.

I was scared of all of this as the semester was about to start, but my recent breakthrough has helped tremendously. I still find this kind of challenge difficult, but now that I know its nature and can appreciate the value of my learning how to live into this challenge, I am not as daunted. I can chart a way forward. I'm not just bewilderingly stuck anymore.

Slowly over these two weeks, I have begun to develop a new way of organizing my work, and it is more quickly successful than I would have expected. So, even though I am busier than ever before, I am actually, for the first time in years, feeling reasonably on top of things at last!

I think that earlier I have talked about my Master List of Projects. I just listed all the ongoing projects I have to attend to, and refer to this list often to make sure I am not neglecting something important in favor of the little urgencies that keep tapping on my door, so to speak, of their own will. Constructing this list was a step in the right direction.

What I've added is that I bought a notebook, small enough that I can carry it around with me everywhere, whose purpose is simply to be my running To Do list. I call this my Notebook of Everything. Whenever I think of something I have to do (that I can't just get done right now), I simply write it down. Here I don't worry about order, or whether something else must be done first. Anything that would nag at my subconscious, generating vague waves of worry for being yet-undone, gets written in this notebook.

Then, I refer to it often. I check off the items I complete, and I add as many new things as I can think of when I open it.

Stuck in this notebook too is the listing of my Master List of Projects. I refer to that too, to generate ideas about specific tasks that need to be added to the Notebook of Everything.

This is such a simple technique, but I find it very powerful. I've always had versions of To Do lists, but I've tended to keep different ones for different kinds of projects in different places. But that was no longer working for me, because I always had the anxiety, when turning to project A and all its associated lists and files, that maybe there was some other more important or urgent project that I should be attending to before I get to that project. The beauty of the Notebook of Everything is that all of the current tasks before me are visible, making it easier for me to prioritize with confidence, and then focus without the nagging anxiety of wondering if I was forgetting something important.

So, it's nice to have some new success at long last in developing a technique that really helps me deal more effectively with the complexity of my life.

I finally feel like I'm moving forward in life again, in small, unremarkable-looking steps. To me, though, this is big. Slowly, my "spirits" are picking up again, and this means everything to me.

In case my techniques are helpful to others, I share them. Yet I'm well aware that "technique" is not everything. I had to get at the underlying spiritual challenge first before technique could begin to make any difference at all for me. We have to work at life's challenges on both levels.