As I walked the wet streets this morning, an old question started once again to buzz in my head: "Do we really believe anyone can truly flourish if no one cares about them, values them, notices them, supports and encourages them?" It was triggered when I was at a Bar Mitzvah party last weekend. I was mulling around after dinner with a bowl of ice cream that one of the servers, a student who had been in class with me, had "stolen" from the kitchen for me--the perks of giving her an "A." A woman came up to me, drink in hand, a flashing party hat on her head, a smile on her face. She gently rested her hand on my hand that was holding the bowl. She introduced herself to me. I looked at her. I could barely hear her over the party's deafening "noise" coming from the banquet room being played by the DJ who felt that volume was proportional to musical quality. Anyway, she leaned into my ear and said in a few darting sentences, "Dr. Schmier, I know you don't remember me. I'm....(too noisy to hear) and I'm a teacher at....(again, too noisy to hear)." Honestly, I was being polite since I was focusing on my ice cream, that is, until she hit me square in heart's eyes, "I was one of your freshmen students ten years ago. I saw you and just wanted you to know that of all of my professors, you were the most important. I never forget you. You're with me in my class every day whispering in my ear. I want to thank for loving me when I didn't and showing me that I was worth loving myself. You changed my life when you helped me see what you saw and set me on the right course. And, because of you I am helping my students struggle to do that, too. I just wanted to come to you and thank you when I saw you standing here."
I was stunned. Caught by surprise, I froze with a spoonful of ice cream half way to my open mouth. Slowly, I replied with a subdued, "Thank you." But, before I could gather my composure and add that she should thank herself for having the courage and mustering her newfound inner strength to make the hard choice of getting off her loveless path and to walk her own loving road, she was gone.
"Loving." Thinking this morning of that word she used, I know that all which is embodied in that "heart-word" was at the heart of my epiphany twenty years ago. It was, as Carl Jung would have said, what I had chosen to allow a certain and sudden realization to take hold of me rather me having it. That meant there was no letting when things got uncomfortable, inconvenient, and downright painful. And, trust me, they did, for the realization was a very uncomfortable one of a need to transform my "self." Heeding the realization, I held my breath and consciously took the deep plunge inside looking for the answers to my five essential questions: "Who am I?" "How did I get here? "Where should I be going" "What am I here to do?" and "Why does it matter?"
The quest for answers took me on a journey traveling from an exclusiveness and selective distance to an inclusiveness and unconditional connection. It was a change in my understanding about self-reliance. It took me to a higher and deeper place where I slowly, carefully, hesitantly risked being vulnerable and leaving my protective ego behind. I slowly and carefully, chose to move from an authoritative, masked, self-centered "spotlight on me" to a vulnerable, trusting, and loving reliance on a nobility and sacredness and uniqueness of my humanity. And, I then quickly expanded my questioning to an inclusive sixth one about each student: "Who are you?" The evolving answers helped me to decide that I should be teaching each student, not merely my transmitting the information and skills of my discipline; to see that each of us, including each student, is special; that, in the spirit of Psalms 82:6, each student is a human being, possessing a "sacredness," a "godliness" if you will, who is too valuable to simply disrespect, easily dismiss, or quickly discard. No, instead of being arrogantly and coldly weeded out, each student should be empathetically and compassionately nourished.
That change has become my only coin of my realm. That realization even has had an impact on my exercise routine of daily jogging, later power walking, and lifting weights. Triggered by a dear friend's heart attack at 35, my workouts first had been out of a reluctant and fearful desperation to get back into physical shape. They slowly transformed into avid work-ins to become emotionally and spiritually relaxed, fluid, and "in shape." And, as that transformation too place, I slowly learned that the body and spirit that walk and work together have "heart" health together, that both are wondrous things if maintained and treated with respect.
So, slowly, oh so slowly, I acquired an awareness, otherness, and attentiveness. I became aware of my memories and acknowledged my hurts, which made me attentive to theirs; I became conscious of my self-serving, selective, and discriminating perceptions about myself and others, which made me attentive to theirs; I became conscious of my ups and downs, heartaches, and thrills, failures and successes, with which I made a "been there, done that" connection with them. Now, each time I feel myself becoming judgmental and critical of myself, colleagues, and especially of students, I think "heart." When you think heart, your empathy appears; when your empathy appears, your compassion rises; when your compassion rises, you reach out in the service of others; when you serve others, you get to know their "heart stories;" when you get to know their heart stories, your heart opens; when your heart opens, you think "heart;" and it starts all over. I call this my "Loving Edge."
You may only look at this woman as a result of living that Edge, but you also have to look at a lot of the hard work that goes into keeping that Edge keen. Using my Ro4 method to avoid what the psychologists call attribution error, I consciously started correcting myself, pulling back, and stopping myself. I no longer say, knee-jerk "How can they do that?" or jump to a quick conclusion "How can they think that way?" or automatically reflex "Student nowadays aren't ...." I no longer send them negative and demeaning, and pathological denigrating messages. Instead, I stretch out my hand, open my heart, and broaden my mind. In responses to their journal entries, in small talk, in the "words of the day" I write on the whiteboard and we discuss for a few minutes at the beginning of each class, I just send them a positive, uplifting, empathic, supportive, encouraging, compassionate, and therapeutic, "You're better than that." " You can." "You'll surprise yourself." And, I when I do that, there are better chances that things will happen; when things happen, transformation can occur; and, that's when miracles have a better chance of taking place. I discovered that if I chose to align myself with my nobility and sacredness and uniqueness, everything I feel, think, and do will go in a certain direction, and I will align myself with each of their nobility, sacredness, and uniqueness. And, then, I have opportunities every minute of every day to get to that place and to stay in that place; or, if I go astray, to get back to that place. When you have given joyfully, without hesitation or reservation or condition or thoughts of gain, you never know. Someone may come up to you while you're eating a sinful, purloined bowl of ice cream, and tell you that it was all worthwhile.
Louis Schmier http://www.therandomthoughts.edublogs.org
Department of History http://www.therandomthoughts.com
Valdosta State University
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