"Hope is the thing with feathers - That perches in the soul - And sings the tune without the words - And never stops - at all -" - Emily Dickinson
A quick Google search of the word "generate" will give you this definition "to create by vital or natural process" or "to create and distribute vitally and profusely"
If you've ever seen or read "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" then you are familiar with the "Vogons." The Vogons are a species of bureaucratic aliens whose culture is defined by rigid processes; think the DMV or the IRS incarnate. This species lives to be a part of a mindless, tedious, and purposeless existence...they ARE boredom. The one thing they create is poetry - epically bad poetry - created from a culture that values pure efficiency above all else. For those who haven't developed a taste for poetry yet, think about music, any kind of music. Now think about music produced by a committee, with several subcommittees consulted under various department heads. One for rhythm, one for lyric, one for melody, each working under rigid guidelines that must be met for the music to be published. Each song created under the auspices of government directed guidelines and regulations.
Could we say that this is really creating?
Sure - collaboration is occurring, people are working together, but where is the inspiration? Where is the "vital or natural process" that pushes us to "distribute vitally and profusely?" This isn't creation - it is manufacturing. Now manufacturing is a good thing and has its place - but it is not art. I eat the manufactured bread I buy from Costco, but the bread my son and I make together is far more satisfying.
We are called by God to be co-creators, and there is a lot of writing out there on what that means. In adding to that conversation I suggest that being a co-creator means that we by the nature of God's work in us desire deeply to add beauty to the world. We want not just to manufacture, but to participate in the vital and natural process of creativity from which our zeal pushes us to distribute vitally and profusely. We wish to infuse life into all things - that is our nature.
While we are experiencing quarantine together, separately, I offer up this thought. Here is a time to experience hope in a new way. A hope that is a thing with feathers, that sings a tune you hear - a still small voice - that never stops at all. Hope is a generator; no matter the circumstance, it is there, pouring its beauty into the world. Whatever that still small voice is whispering, follow it, bring it into being. Add beauty to the world and share it. Be a generator that continually exudes your brilliance in the world and never stops at all. In a time where the darkness of the world seems closer, listen carefully for the song of hope - for that is the voice of God.
To my students:
Education these days can sometimes look a lot more like manufacturing than creation. If you see this, you are right to make note of it. How can we redefine the way we think so that students are not only consumers, but co-creators of their own knowledge? What does it mean for you to be a co-creator of your own knowledge? How does this stack up against the practical, concrete nature of living?
"'Life' does not mean something vague, but something very real and very concrete, just as life's tasks are also very real and concrete." - Viktor Frankl, "Man's Search for Meaning", pg. 77
One of the most interesting things that I've noticed since we began this experience of "social distancing" is that I see my neighbors more and more. I've talked with them more, I've seen them out walking, playing with their kids, working on their homes. Amidst what is a global crisis, my neighborhood has not just "carried on" it has in some way, flourished.
Similarly, I am both grateful and humbled by the degree to which we as a collective have been able to, on a moment's notice, shift our focus to those things which are truly important - those human and adamantine elements of life. Suddenly, we are not so distant from our neighbor. Suddenly, our homes become more than just a place to eat, sleep, and prepare for the next day's work. Suddenly, we are aware of those who aren't able to provide for themselves or their families, and we see the value in something as simple as a loaf of bread. Life - it seems, is much more and much more real a thing than the constructs we apply to it. What seems valuable to us and even "necessary" when things are "normal" are to some extent - illusory. The irony of course is that when we become aware that Mordor threatens our Shire, we treasure more what we had all along, and realize that what and how much we love is truly what defines us. In experiencing this event in history, we ought to be keenly aware of the reality of life - not what we have built on sand, but the foundation of what it truly means to live.
What we see clearly as important during a crisis is in fact, what is truly important. I'm reminded of Flannery O'Connor's Misfit who remarked of the woman who he had killed “She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
I pray for all of you, especially my students, that you and your families are safe and well. Know that we are all in need, and we must respond to this time as we are called to respond to all times - with immeasurable love. When we reflect on this time, let us remember the great effort that humanity exerted to bring those concrete and human goods to those in need. Let us think about how we deny those efforts to others when things are "normal" and let us pray that we may grow in love and in service to God and each other.
Harry Wong had a saying that he proposed in one of his famous talks on teaching. He said, "Culture is built around the dinner table." When I watched the poor quality recording from the early nineties in which he spoke these words, I was struck by their truth. In our attempts as teachers to create a "culture of learning" we are tempted to rely on systems, on research, on engaging and culturally relevant lessons, and the rest. All of these things are excellent, and their power to support a classroom that builds upon students' wonder should not be underestimated. I think they share a common flaw, however. All these techniques and methods are aimed too much at something resembling "productivity". How often do we allow out focus to shift away from learning targets to the students and the class themselves? Given such a short amount of time to accomplish our educational goals, we (or at least I) neglect to address the more human and important elements of education.
We in Catholic education have the blessing and opportunity to engage in fellowship with our students. By fellowship I simply mean spending time together as a community for no other purpose than to enjoy the company of others and build a shared trust. In Christian fellowship we are reminded that wherever two or more gather in Jesus' name, he is there. So our act of fellowship becomes a devotion, a growing in love of Christ as much as for our fellow (see what happened there) human beings.
I had the pleasure of spending time with a fine group of students, teachers, and members of our community in the form of the inaugural dinner of the "Society of Francis and Clare." I was touched by how the students who were reticent at first to engage, soon dissolved the bands of technological and personal isolation and began to speak, to lose track of time, in the course of a long shared meal. One of our guests remarked at how "This is very European" and "this is what a meal should be". I was honored that he saw the same things I did.
Culture is indeed built around a dinner table, and education, being a model of human culture should incorporate such fellowship openly and frequently. Wherever we can remove the stress of performance in favor of the joy of shared experience and thrill of the pursuit of wonder we are on the right track. Here's to you!
Part of the challenge of learning how to read complex texts is understanding that sometimes authors have more purposes than easily meet the eye. For example, Tim O'Brien use of narrative storytelling in "How to Tell a True War Story" is a haunting work of art. He creates a simultaneously beautiful and revolting picture of the horrors of war, and in doing so, also communicates a message about the human condition, suffering, and the meaninglessness of war from the perspective of a Soldier.
We spend a lot of time in life seeking our "purpose". What do we want to do? Who do we want to be? How should we make a living? Who will we love? What will we stand for? I think that sometimes when we pursue only one aspect of our lives so strongly, we lose sight of our grander purpose. Like Frankenstein, we lose ourselves in the search for our own identities.
In an era and a culture so dominated by the quest for functionality, and efficiency, purpose has come to take on the meaning of these words. Something must fill a purpose for me here, now, practically. People become just like tools for us, fulfilling a need for connection, validation, or social capital. People who have fulfilled their usefulness to us are easily discarded.
What stands against this bleak view is the reality of our true purpose. Removed from any concept of function, there is meaning in our own existence. We are loved, and in response, we love. Instead of seeing purpose in terms of function, perhaps we would be better off thinking of it in terms of meaning. Fun, beauty, love, art, all have meaning, but perhaps no function. People, have and create meaning, but asking what their function is makes as much sense as asking how efficient a painting is.
In the end, we must remember to make time for us to simply be us. To put aside the things of the world we will leave behind and contemplate things that are beautiful and pointless at the same time.
Today marks an exciting time for me as an educator. Today is the first day, of the last year of school for my first freshman class. My students I had as freshmen are now seniors. I have walked with them on their journey for what will be four years now, and I'm certain it has flown by for them as it has for me.
To all my students: Welcome! This year promises to bring new challenges and excitement for you.
For my seniors: This year your theme will be "Existence, Freedom, and Responsibility". We will be examining our own identities, our freedom as moral agents, and the meaning that freedom carries for us as we navigate our way through life. We will examine the essential question "What maketh thee?" as we explore the canon of world literature together.
For my juniors: This year your theme will be "I am my brothers' keeper: Justice and Society". You will be challenged to read primary source documents, powerful narrations, and to create original work that answers the question "What does it mean to live in community?" This year is a powerful journey during which you will examine your own beliefs and those of your peers around you.
I look forward to working with you all and continuing to build our community of scholars! Comments are welcome, please contribute to our conversation here!