Went out early on the streets this morning amid Noel Coward’s mad dogs and Englishmen. But, trust me, his noonday sun doesn’t hold a candle to South Georgia’s brutally blazing summer morning sun: 82 searing degrees, 84% swampy humidity. For an hour and a quarter, I fast walked six miles in that sauna under a cloudless, breezeless, azure sky. The air was so heavy, no breeze could have move it. All along the way, water cascaded off my body and I wondered if I was walking or swimming, if I should have put on a bathing suit, reef shoes and googles instead of my jogging shorts, walkers, and sunglasses. When I got home, all clammy with salt, knowing how Lot’s wife felt, I poured cool water down my throat to replenish the gallons that poured out from my pores.
As nature was water-boarding me, however, I had a soothing warmth inside. I was thinking once again about faith, hope and love because of one of those “you don’t ask” incidents that happened on my walk Saturday. As the saying goes: the strangest things happen at the strangest places in the strangest ways. I wasn’t two blocks out when, waiting for the light to change by the University, a young man rushed over to me. He introduced himself as Erik Wells, a student of mine in 2004. He was so excited that he had accidentally bumped into his “favorite professor” that he naively asked if he could walk and talk with me. During the entire six miles, at a pace I feared would give him a heart attack, we eagerly talked. For the next 80 minutes or so, we both forgot about the heat and humidity. We exchanged professional and personal micro-autobiographies. Our discussions jumped around like a marble in Chinese checkers from philosophy to theology to politics, from teaching to sales, from the classroom to the workplace, from family to society. And yet, as I look back, there was a common thread. Every word, implicitly and explicitly, centered around such things as personal integrity, authenticity, values, character, mindfulness, honesty, reflection, gratitude, purpose, service, otherness, purpose, meaningfulness, and community. They, in turn, constantly and explicitly evoked faith, hope, and love. We talked of Dale Carnegie, Viktor Fraenkl, and Leo Buscaglia.
I wrote Erik that night how the walk and talk for me was an uplifting, inspiring, and meaningful “wow” experience. A few of his sentences have stayed with me. “In everything you did with us was for us, each of us….You not only spoke about faith, hope, and love to us, but you lived it. And, you helped each of us struggle to do the same thing with ourselves and others….I always remember how on the last day of class when we did closure, you said to us without any embarrassment, “I love you”….After all these years, I didn’t see it until now that you’re still living in me and teaching me.” At the end of the route, in front of my house, we hugged, parted, and promised to keep in touch.
Fluff some of you have said to me about the need for faith, hope, and love as guiding principles in academia. Tell Erik that; he and his peers are heirs to them. To the naysayers, I answer, that it’s easy to have an “I care,” or “I have faith in you,” or “There’s hope for you,” or “I love you” roll off your tongue. It’s something else to have them in your bones, to sincerely live faithfully, hopefully, and lovingly, and to have others feel that special, unconditional faith in them, hope for them, and love of them. Fluff? It’s hard to continually have faith, hope, and love, much less to constantly embody them. It’s takes a hell of lot of concentrated and conscious effort. It takes a lot of time, commitment, determination. A soft heart is strong; a gentle soul is fierce; a “touchy-feely” spirit touches and feels.
To have unconditional–unconditional–faith, hope, and love is like walking through a London fog that forces you to slow down and have all your attentive senses on full alert. It forces you to deeply and penetratingly see and intently listen. To what? Well, first, to yourself, and then to the needs of people around you. I know from whence I speak. I was in that thick mist until twenty-four years ago. To find my way out of it, I had to be walk willingly–willingly– inside myself and ask the tough questions of myself: Who are you, really? Am I generous? Am I haughty? Do I close doors? Am I judgmental? Do I offer opportunities? Am I cynical? Am I a “kindness failure?” Am I selfish? Do I share? Am I serving? Am I truly happy? Am I grim? Am I connecting and touching others? What do I have to offer? Do I nurture people? Do I moan and groan? Do I weed out? Am I respectful of who they are? Am I distant? Am I fearful? Am I insecure? Am I enjoying life? Am I going? Do I resent? Am I filling empty pursuits with purpose? And, do I have to have the strength and courage to honestly answer those queries and make real decisions, for the answers are at the heart of how I best map out the road trip forward towards my vision, of the extent to which this trip is a joyful one. No fluff in that!
For me to have unconditional faith, hope, and love, I discovered that I had to obey the command of constantly letting go of dehumanizing stereotypes, of impersonal generalizations, of flattening labels, and of closed-minded and denigrating assumptions and expectations. Faith, hope, and love, for me, became candles that illuminated the unique and miraculous richness in every person; they came to be about seeing and respecting each person as a valuable rarity, each possessing a unique potential. As Viktor Frankl might say, they are about mindfulness, awareness, alertness, attentiveness without which I could not truly be reflective and contemplative; not see and listen to each student; not really care and be empathetic and be sympathetic of each student, and not be supporting and encouraging of each student. And, by enabling each person become aware of who she or he can be, I can help each student help her/himself strive to become the person she or he can be. And so, faith, hope, and love created a mindfulness, awareness, alertness, and attentiveness that led me to fashion that vision and to create my “Teacher’s Oath” as a mean of walking towards that vision with each student.
Faith, hope, and love came to live within me, spread beauty throughout all I did, were all I had and all I was and am. They became my reason. They became my drive. They became my persistence and insistence. They became my patience. They opened, welcomed, cared, embraced, nurtured, fertilized. They filled me with the power of an authentic purpose. They gave me courage and confidence.
Roll your eyes if you will, but I tell you from personal and professional experience, if you want to value strength, hardness, vigor, ruggedness, sturdiness, muscular, toughness, value faith, hope, and love. To have faith, hope, and love for anyone in the classroom, and anywhere for that matter, demands a strong heart, a rugged determination, a steadfast spirit, a tough skin, a hard perseverance, and enduring persistence.
I’m not sure academics need more pedagogies, more technologies, more assessment, and all that stuff. What the Eriks of this world prove is that, as Erik said in so many words, academia really needs is more humanity, more community, more spirituality, more seeing, more listening, more serving, more dealing with the needs of others, more unconditional faith, hope, and love.