IN GRATITUDE

Can’t sleep been up since 3:15 a.m.  I was thinking about a “….thank you for caring about me….” message I had received a few weeks ago from a student of thirteen years ago whom I’ll call Joe.  The subject line of Joe’s message read “A Long Overdue Thank You.”  That message, those particular words took me back over fifty years to Dr. Birdsal Viault.   You know, as John Dewey said, we never learn from our experiences, we only learn from reflecting on our experiences.  This reflection is where I get really personal about what teachers, or anyone who cares about someone else, can do.

         I unknowingly began to walk the road to who I presently am by stepping into Dr. Birdsal Viault’s history class as a default history major in the fall of my junior year.  My already weak self-esteem and self-confidence had been shaken to the core by the seismic devastation of a sophomore semester that dashed my–and my family’s–visions of a medical career on the rocks of a lousy transcript.  I was feeling more pain than usual, feeling a more than usual sadder disappointment to myself and others, feeling smaller than usual, feeling more unseen in a darker corner, feeling more unworthy and more incompetent than usual. I had reinforced the walls and deepened the moats of my inner redoubt to further protect myself.  

         About a third of the way into the semester, after handing in a short research paper, Birdsal Viault called me into his office.  I thought I would receive the usual caustic “you don’t know how” destructive dressing down I had received so many times from other professors and high school teachers before them.  I vividly remember him saying to my surprise, “Mr. Schmier (he always used the formal address), you have a lot of potential.  You are a good researcher and a very good writer.  I’ll help you if you want me to.” At the time, being a-washed in the formidable shame of “not good enough” and “don’t belong,” I stood there stunned, mentally looking around with a puzzled “who, me?”  For a moment I thought he was talking to someone else in his office behind me.  After all, only two years earlier I had been a high school graduate voted “clown of the class” by my fellow-students, and my teachers almost unanimously said I would be the least likely college-bound graduate in the class of 1958 to succeed.  The first two years, with a GPA dragged down by poor grades, it seemed that I was fulfilling their prophecy.  But, Birdsal Viault ignored all that.  He saw something in me  Over the next two years, he worked with me, encouraged me, had faith in me, invested in me.  In his own very, very reserved way, Birdsal Viault, only eight years my senior and relatively new to the professorial game, began to help me start taking down everything I had put up that was supposed to keep me safe, or, at least, he helped me to begin to remodel my sanctuary. 

         Now a Mr. Keating he wasn’t.  He was not one to rip pages out of a book or to get photographs to whisper or to go out on retreats in caves or to jump up on desks.  He was not given demonstratives.  The reserved airs Dr. Viault maintained made him not one for boisterous academic rah-rahs.  I could never envision him as a pom-pom waving professorial cheerleader.  He never wore his emotion on his sleeve; he almost embodied the idea that emotion was something to which those in the Ivory Tower not succumb, much less display.  He seemed outwardly to numb his emotions; he never let his guard down, always maintaining “proper” professorial decorum, always costuming everything he said and did in intellectual garb, always being the stately Ph.D. he thought he was supposed to be.  But, his empathy and compassion, closely guarded as they may have been, came though his outwardly tough armor.  He always came out from behind his separating desk, pulling a chair to sit next to me when giving me feedback.  His support and encouragement was subdued, slow, patient, and kind, but challenging, demanding, and pushing–and touching.  

         His comments to my work and me were always kind, constructive, supportive, and encouraging.  He never said an angry or corrosive word to me.  He always accentuated the positive.  He was the first to make me open my eyes–even if they were at the time only a squint–make me feel like I had a future, that I could dream, that I had a unique potential.  He showed me things about my self that I didn’t know and didn’t believe were there.  It was he who gave me confidence to go on for my Masters degree and then at his urging on for my Ph.D.   He made a difference in my life; he helped send me on my way.  It was a way I would never have struggled to find, the way ahead to a meaningful, satisfied, purposeful, and fulfilling life.  Though he sent me on my way, it was a route that was still fraught with a struggle between an angelic sense of worthiness to be loved and belong on one hand and the demonic minions of self-doubt and worry.  It wasn’t until I had my shape-shifting epiphany twenty-eight years later that spark Dr. Viault struck burst into a brilliant flame.  I realized at that moment in late 1991 that you find your way not by just opening doors to the amazing unknown ahead, but by what hard doors you close behind you, acting out from a place of knowing your worthiness.   

         Birdsal Viault has since died.  He had lived a short hop from Charlotte where my Susie and I often had visited her parents.  But, for some reason, he wouldn’t take my calls, wouldn’t agree for me to call upon him, would never answer my letters, would never respond to my later emails.  I don’t know why and I won’t speculate.   Then, again, he never was able to accept a “thank you;” always seemingly embarrassed by those two appreciative words.  I see now that Dr. Viault, for whatever reasons, might have had what Brene Brown in her “Daring Greatly” calls an “allergy to vulnerability.”  I always had a sense that he had built a protective facade around himself, with which I could relate, against being hurt or being seen as weak or being accused of gullibility, or being assaulted as “unprofessional,” or being judged as unmanly.  I remember overhearing the chair of the department assailing Dr. Viault as if he was trying to beat the emotion out of him, asserting that when it came to me, Dr. Viault was wasting his precious time, that he should stop being so emotional and, in his words, “just cut him out from the herd.”  Nevertheless, he cautiously became my ally.  He quietly dared greatly to reach out.  He secretly made a connection, and silently went all in wholeheartedly.  Though I don’t think he realized it, he had thrown caution to the wind and had put a lot of himself on the line for me.  

         So, Dr. Viault, though you wouldn’t allow me to say it in person, thank you for being who you were and still are to me.  Thank you for extending your hand and having the first hand in my achievement.  Thank you for not being isolated and remote, for noticing me, for acknowledging me, for your beautiful thoughts, for mentoring me, for caring about me, for being kind to me, for nurturing me, for loving me in your own reserved way, for having faith in me, for believing in me, for taking me from being stuck in the abyss of hopelessness to start climbing up to the heights of hopefulness, for taking me from ugliness to getting a first peek at my beauty, for being my “philosopher’s stone” and helping me to start transmuting from a base metal of worthlessness to having a noble mettle of worthiness,  for letting me begin developing my own “elixir of life,” for supporting me when no one else would, for encouraging me when all others did just the opposite.  While I could never pay off the debt I owe you, I realized, however, as someone said, my greatest acts of gratitude is living by them, doing for others what you did for me, that I could “pay off my debt forward” by unconditionally loving with my whole heart and soul, by willing to show up and go all in, and by helping others to be their own alchemists as you helped me.  So, I thank you, Birdsal Viault.  All the Joes whom you’ve touched through me thank you.  And, I thank all the Birdsal Viaults who were and are out there transforming lives, as teachers should, and not just credentialing.  Wherever and whoever you all are, I am deeply grateful.  

Louis

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BEING YOUR OWN PERSON

A professor, not in an admiring tone, just called me “revolutionary,” “radical,” “a threat,” and “audacious.”   Guilty to three out of four.  I admitted to her that I make no bones about being a cable cutter.  I added that my vision is bright, shining, and valuable only when I have the courage to follow it. When I know that it is the thing to do, then I step up and do it.  But, I am no threat, however others may feel threatened.  All I do is to stay informed, to educate myself on the latest research on learning, to pay attention, very close attention to what others have discovered, say, and write.  It doesn’t bother me that a lot of the new brain-based findings on learning goes against long held myths.  I am “revolutionary” and “radical” in that I don’t hesitate to find ways to change my thinking and doing.  I don’t tightly grip to the comfortable, risk-free ignorance of age-old presumption, assumption, or perception.   I am not, for example, threatened by the recent revelations in Frances Jensen’s “The Teenage Brain” that adds to the challenge of long held views that our students are rational, thinking-before-acting “adults.”    I just remember who I am, who I was, where I came from, where I am, where I want to go, and what I have to offer.  I give color and texture and substance and sensation to my most treasured dreams.  I focus my mind, my energy, my spirit, my feelings, and my emotions on helping others to help themselves become the persons they each are capable of becoming.  When that occurs, it is the most joyful and fulfilling scenario of service I can imagine.  If that be “revolutionary” and “radical,” and a “threat,” so be it.

Now,  as for being “audacious,” I admit that I have an engaged amazement of life, or what Rabbi Abraham Herschel would call a “spiritual audacity.” And why not.   At this stage of my life, at the age of 74 and still young in spirit and somewhat physically spry, after a forty-six year academic career, after surviving myself, after having an enlightening epiphany, after overcoming cancer, and after miraculously–that’s the only word that fits–surviving unscathed a massive cerebral hemorrahage that normally kills or seriously disables 95% of the people who have experienced it, should I be otherwise?  Am I really supposed to be worried about what others think?  Am I really supposed to succumb and become the person others want me to become?   Am I really supposed to tow the academic party line and kowtow to academic convention?  I think not!

I’ll tell you, my greatest sense of stability is to live my vision and base my intentional choices on it.  I get going when I get life going my way, when I move my dreams from “someday” or “tomorrow” to “now” and “today.”   My greatest sense of liberation, the bedrock of my self-esteem, comes from not worrying about what others think, not performing as others would have me, and not conforming to the demand of others.  Over the past twenty-three years or so since my epiphany, catalyzed by having survived cancer and that cerebral hemorrhage, I have learned that my life is the result of all the conscious and unconscious choices I’ve made about whose voices to heed, what paths to walk, what vision I may or may not have, in what direction I go, and whom I serve.   As I had begun slowly and cautiously to control the process of choosing, I found that I had begun to take control of all aspects of my life. I slowly found the freedom that came from being in charge of myself.

It was and is that simple.  When I take control, I have control.  I intend consciously to live my intention of living well, that is, to bring sincere happiness, fulfillment, and purpose to each moment.  And if any shortfalls occur, I’ll choose to morph disappointment into unstoppable determination.  It breaks whatever controls others may wish to exercise over me.  When I stop looking over my shoulder, I look forward and have my eyes on the prize.  When I take the responsibility of the choices I make, when I silence that blaming whispered or proclaimed “the devil made me do it,” when I replace “you made me…” with the recognition that “I made me…,” I, and only I, am in charge of me. When I accept that “I am responsible for…,” I am the only one who owns me.  I am my own person.  I decide how to react to and respond to people and circumstances around me.  The truth is that I will be miserable when I choose to be miserable, and I will be happy when I choose to be happy.  I don’t need a particular job, title, income, or any set of circumstance to enjoy; I must simply choose to enjoy.  The bottom line is that whatever and wherever and whenever I choose to feel, I feel.  It’s all in the way I choose to look at life and all in the way I choose the way.

Of course, it’s not that simple, not as simple as self-help platitudes make it out to be.  As DaVinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  Sure, the outside world exerts a lot of pressure and influence that yield anxiety and fear.  But, I found that I can have greater inner influence over me.  So, breaking the binding chains is not easy.  It requires courage and strength.  It requires commitment, dedication, perseverance, and patience.  It demands sweat.   It demands a lot of challenge to inner conventional thinking, a lot of inner crockery breaking.  It requires a new course setting over a long haul.  Now, you may say that I’m going too far.  But, as T.S. Eliot said, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

So, my inner peace comes a twenty-four year and counting inner emotional and spiritual workout program of listening to myself,  being honest with myself about myself, and constantly in pursuit of becoming and being my authentic self.  That inner serenity and freedom give me a power, not to overwhelm, but to transform; not to be the bull in the proverbial china shop, but empathetically to tread carefully and lightly; not to be arrogant and self-righteous, but to be a mergence of power and gentleness and authority and kindness; to be humble; to be harmonious, but to be in community; not to be self-centered, but to have a keen sense of awareness and otherness and deep respectfulness; not to be haughty, but to be empathetic and sympathetic; not to take, but grab the chance to serve and to contribute to something bigger than myself.

I guess, as Cornel West would say, I am unbound, unafraid, unbought, and unintimidated to be me.  You see, when I sing my own song, when I dance to my own choreography, when I perform my own lines, when I feel obligated to enlarge my world and the world around me, that’s when I have ownership of what I do, that’s when I experience purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.  And, that’s when I am truly happy: when I truly love who I am and love more who I am constantly becoming, when I have a durable and enduring feeling of well-being, and when I have a quiet and honest satisfaction with what I am doing with my life.

Louis

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MICRO NONVIOLENCE

         Tomorrow we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. Having been in the civil rights movement, I slowly began to discover that there are always other ways to experience the world and to act in it, and to refuse to accept the than prevailing “this is the way it is” reality.  In that spirit, I slowly, too slowly until my explosive epiphany in 1991, evolved to be a kind of a micro-practitioner of activist physical, intellectual and emotional non-violence. Because of that, some called me rebellious, non-traditional, a “save the world” dreamer, a “new ager,” and worse. I’m none of those to me. If and when I have to, I describe myself as an ever-curious “what if,” “live on the edge’ kind of guy, a guy who enjoys the struggle of the journey, a good trouble maker who is always finding ways to get in the way, a guy who never hesitates to ask the uncomfortable question, an innovator, a positive creative disruptor. I’m a guy who is always seeking consciously to connect my inner self with my outer doings. I’m more of a persuader and convincer than an imposer by struggling to be a living expression of hope and love. I work in the trenches as what I call an engaged, risk taking “change maker.” I work to help guide people to guide themselves toward something I have experienced and understand: find a balance between self-inflation and self-denigration; accept that we are all frail and fallible, carrying both large and small imperfections; not being without fault, don’t be quick to fault others; nothing in life is perfect; love the sight and sound of both yourself and others; don’t honor yourself at the expense of others; it’s always too early to stop dreaming and never too late to start dreaming; have faith; hope; believe; love; care about both yourself and others; and, the best way to find yourself, as Gandhi said, is in the service of others.

But, if truth be told, I don’t have a label for myself. If I did, I’d screw things up because self-labeling is just as distorting, misguiding, imprisoning, depersonalizing, and dangerous as being labeled. It would skew my perceptions and expectations; I’d focus on it; I’d be conscious of having live up to that reputation. No, I see myself as just a label-defying “Louis, that rhymes with ‘phooey.'” I do just what I do to be fruitful in what I do, make it feel like fun rather than arduous work, have a belief that I have a voice worth uttering, have a humility to learn from others, share and hopefully influence others, and have a faithfulness to what I see needs to be done and is within my reach. I’m zealous in a quiet sort of way; sometimes I’m not so quiet. Either way, I don’t play the 100% or perfection or gimmick games.

I am deeply impacted constantly by my reflections on my upbringing and youthful experiences, by my involvement in the civil rights movement, by my volcanic epiphany in 1991 at the age of 50, by my overcoming cancer in 2004, and especially by my survival of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 2007. A lot of well-intentioned people tell me to get over these events, especially the cerebral hemorrhage, and get on with my life. They don’t understand that the fact that I did not die from that sudden and unforewarned huge brain bleed as almost all do, gave me a life mooring like nothing else. I knew just to be alive was a blessing and that I had to meet the challenge to live my life. They made everything crisper, sharper, and more vital. Let me tell you something. You are never more appreciative of and more in love with life then in the presence of death; you never love more the people you love.

So, I consciously make sure I never get over and forget anything, especially that near-death hemorrhage. Because of it, my bucket list is simple and long: to live as full of a life each moment as I possibly can. I wake each day and bounce out of bed with a “yes” in my heart for each opportunity life gives me that day. This touch of winter’s crud or flu these past two weeks has reminded me that days may not turn out the way I expect or want and people may not do what I expect or want, but I am still be grateful to be alive, and have hope for and love those other people. I do my damnedest not to sigh with a host of self-righteous “ah me,” not to arrogantly surrender to resignation, not get frustrated, not to point fingers of blame, not to demean and belittle, not to sneer, not to get irritated, and not be angered. Those negatives are too heavy to bear, and they will not build anything positive. Now, I may not like what happened or what those others did or did not do, but my response is with continued wonderment, faith, belief, hope, and kindness; I will not stop smiling; I will not stop being kind; I will not stop embracing; I will not stop supporting and encouraging; I will not stop being grateful; I will continue loving them.

No, I sustain myself with a faith, belief, hope, and love. I never turn away, never give up, never give in, never throw in the towel, never throw up my hands; I never hang it up; I just hang in there; I keep looking life and others in the eye; I just hold on; I remain excited, hopeful, and loving; and, I patiently and persistently–patiently and persistently–keep coming back and back and back and back. I just actively support and encourage the apathy out of them; I hope the disbelief out of them; I love the self-disrespect out of them. All this is not a feeling; it’s a release; it’s a stirring; it’s a vibrancy; it’s an energizer and encourager; it’s a way of life; it’s an active and powerful doing. To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Heschel, it’s praying with your entire being, and hearing a returned whisper, “Louis, you, too, can make a difference.”

Making a difference in the lives of others, that’s my “true north,” my guiding wisdom that helps to insure as much as possible that my disruption, innovation, and creativity are for the betterment of others by instilling belief, faith, hope, by instilling the basic values of love, empathy, resiliency, responsibility, respect; to find that middle ground between the varied pitches of over-selfestimation and under-selfestimation.

When I draw my last breath and stand before the Pearly Gates, I won’t be asked about the numbers of the assessments by others of me; no one will look at my professional resume of degrees, titles, grants, and publications as recommendations to enter; I will not be vetted through my material possessions. No, I will be asked whether I heeded that whisper; whether my heart was in the right place; whether I kept walking the long road; whether I left the roadblocking doubts and insecurities behind; whether I cast aside excuses and rationales; whether I seized fleeting teachable moments to make them lasting; whether I kept making every effort to be a good and just person; and whether I constantly worked to transform some of the impossible into the possible. I will be asked about the bedrock of my values, if my life was my message, if I felt I stood on holy ground each day, if I unwrapped the presents of each present day and used them–my abilities, my unique potential, my possibilities, and my vision–to make a difference in the lives of others.

Louis

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MONEY AND COLLEGE SPORTS

Rant alert!!

I’ll be brief.  It’s the day after the college championship football game, and I am in a “grrrrrrrrr” mood.  I’ve been gnashing my teeth lately.  A lyric has been swirling in my angry head:  “Money makes the world go round, the world go round, the world go round.”

That’s not the sordid world outside the Ivory Tower.  That’s the Ivory Tower.  Higher education is increasingly being lowered by bigger bucks.  It is becoming as imbalanced at a huge container ship listing and stuck on a sandbank.  It is becoming more brashly commercialized.   Conferences expanding; governors politiking governors; schools being wooed  away to one conference by another; schools switching conferences; players wanting to unionize.  For what?  It’s hasn’t got a thing to do with academics.  It’s all about “football” and “basketball,” and in academia that translates into “cold cash.”  It’s not about academic integrity; it’s about money.  It’s not about character development; it’s about building up bank accounts.  It’s not about graudation rates; it’s about win/lose records.  It’s not about the future well-being of the kids–yes, the student/athletes are kids–it’s about the coaches’ jobs. Athletic meat markets aren’t becoming much different from diploma mills.   Instead of diplomas stacked high; money is stacked in rolls.  It’s not about academic honors; it’s about football championships.  Presidents talk academics and walk money.  Power in so many colleges have been surrendered to coaches and ADs by emasculated Presidents.  All these athletic cents make no academic sense.  And, they’ve brought me to my senses.  The Big 12 commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, self-servingly and self-aggrandizingly said in reference to college sports. “I think it’s a function of higher education.”  I think he should have said “disfunction.”

A seven year contract salary of $35 million–for starters? For a college football coach? How about $7.3 billion–yes, billion–for seven years of championship TV rights paid by ESPN.  $5 billion yearly earnings, just for football?  Lucrative?  No.  Ludicrous!  Corrupting!!  That’s the height of obscenity in higher education. But, that’s not the point. You say these athletes are getting an education to which they otherwise wouldn’t have access?  The point is in a rampant mentality, that’s even infected my beloved UNC, revealed in a tweet by Cardale Jones, starting quarterback of Ohio State in the championship game, that appeared recently in the  NY Times: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”

–“we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POONTLESS.”–Now, whomever that doesn’t bother is part of the problem!!  Lock away your idealism?  Let your ethics shrivel?  Trade them both off for entertainment? Tolerate and be content with exploitation?   I, for one, won’t. I’d rather walk away, but not quietly.

I know, this train has left the station.  But I don’t have to wave at it with a fluttering handkerchief, smile and cheer.  This ex-student/athlete, avid sports fan, hasn’t watched one collegiate or pro football or basketball game this year, not even the playoffs and championships.  Not one.  Haven’t even gazed glancingly at the sports section, much less scores or standings.  I am that angry.  But, I was amazed how easy it is.  I don’t feel any separation anxiety.  I’m sure that no one will care about my “nano-protest” or “micro-rant,” but it sure makes me feel better.

As Joel Gray sang, “Money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money….”  GRRRRRRRRR!!

Louis

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A CAMPUS DIVERSITY WE NEED

It is damnably hard not to angrily condemn the Islamic terrorists in France this day.  But, while all these recent incidents are horrifying, before we get high and mighty with a host “je suis Charlie” and issue blanket “we are better than them” condemnations of Islam, we should stop, take a breath, slow down, reflect, and learn.  I’ve already read, “We don’t shoot and kill like Islamists when we disagree with someone.”  Some of us don’t?  We just had a bombing of NAACP offices in Colorado Springs a couple of days ago.  Without going back to the Crusades or the religious wars of the Reformation or to pogroms against the Jews or the “Gangs of New York” or SLA,  without referring to signs “Italians (aka Catholics) need not apply” or “No Jews Allowed,” do a lot of us always converse openly, respectfully, and civilly with people of different faiths, or do too many of us often take the high ground for ourselves, pontificate, insult, accuse, and condemn?  We don’t have our share of puerile, simplistic, fundamental biblical literalists quoting scripture left and right in support of their intolerant views and actions, condemning to hell left and right those who disagree with them?  We shouldn’t forget the equally home-grown intolerance bombings of abortion clinics, killing of abortion doctors, beatings of homosexuals, burning of Korans, demonizing of transgenders; we shouldn’t forget white supremacists, anti-feminists, anti-semites, anti-Catholics, and, of course, the KKK, all of whose close-minded stands and actions were and are self-valdiated in the name of their version of Christianity.

But, there’s something else, something that’s been sitting in my craw for the last nine months or so, something that is part of this story.   I want us to think about a crime that too often is regrettably being committed on our campuses.  That crime is an intolerant and disrespectful strangulation of debate, debate that is essential to reminding each of us who we are and what are our beliefs.  By that I mean, are our campuses really open-minded?  Are they really bastions of free expression?  Are they really trading posts for an exchange of ideas?  Do they really give a wide latitude in allowing disagreeable, even offensive, speech?   How long do you think a satirical publication such as Charlie Hebdo would last on any campus?
I want us to think of all those commencement invitations that were stridently attacked last May and June by the holier-than-thou, close-minded, and self-exaggerated who were offended by the views and positions of the invited speakers and demanded that they be denied a podium.  I want us to think about, as David Brooks reminded us in his column yesterday, the plague of all those cowardly administrative disinvitations of commencement speakers this past spring.
All this has taken me back to a June micro-furor on my campus in which childish, arrogant, and self-righteous groups loudly protested against an invitation issued to the ultra-conservative Ben Carson to speak at VSU in September.  Filled with self-puffery, they resorted to close-minded, disrespectful insult.  He was labeled, “branded” is a better word,  “attacked” is still a better word, a “conservative darling” and the “dr. of division.”  A call was made for the President of the University to display “assertive leadership” and withdraw the invitation.  And, he did display “assertive leadership,” for unlike on other campuses where the authorities caved in and withdrew commencement invitations, our President refused.  Rightly so, I say. These people were just plain wrong.  Agree with Carson’s stands or not, we should stand up for free expression on our campuses.  As Sun Tzu said, “If ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.”  And, even if you disagreed, you were, at least, better informed.  Nothing is learned with ear plugs and blind folds, or an ostrich stance.
The one labeling attack on Ben Carson was interesting:  he was an “affront to academe.”  Why?  Because he was a conservative?  Because some people didn’t like or disagreed with his pronouncements?   The real affront to academe was the close-minded call to bar him a campus podium.  You know, when we talked of diversity, we initially meant racial diversity.  Then, we added gender diversity.  And, then, we added sexual preference diversity.  To these we added ethnic diversity and a host other differences.  We talk of the diversity this and the diversity that.  We say diversity does all great things for each of us, that it expands our world by meeting and entering other worlds, that it forces us to reflect and articulate the “why” of our thinking.  It does all of that.   If this true, and I believe it is, we must embrace another diversity, one too often greeted with closed door inhospitality:  diversity of thought, a diversity of belief, a diversity of all kinds of religious, cultural, social and political stands.
This past year my campus was celebrating “50 Years of Inclusion.”  It was a celebration limited to racial integration.  It should been expanded to include and embrace all who knocked on our doors to enter.  If our campuses are truly Ivory Towers with lowered bridges for all to enter, they must be down for other forms of thought.  The real test of supporting the right of free speech, that corner stone of American democracy, is defending and allowing the presence of expressions when you think such thoughts are different, disagreeable, indefensible, unsupportable, offensive, and detestable. Never have I seen in that First Amendment’s eloquent terseness, “Congress shall make no law….abridging the freedom of speech,” anything said with adjectives such as convenient, comfortable, appropriate, agreeable, inoffensive, untroubling, acceptable.  Were our Founding Fathers to have imposed such restricting and imprisoning and subjective adjectives on speech, that portion of the First Amendment would be hollow.
We all need challenge to our own too often closed certainty, challenges that chisel at those things we have set in stone.  We need to realize that no one and no one group possesses all the truth and wisdom, we all should have an openness to the experience of the other.  To be sure, it makes for a more messy place.   But, then, what do we want?  Neatness?  Commonality?  Order?  Peace?  Uniformity?  Conformity?  Certainty?  Imposition?  Or, do we want freedom, skepticism, inquiry, individuality, and authenticity. Think how poorer would we have been if we didn’t have those who got under our skin, pushed our buttons, tweaked our noses, got us mad, needled us, gave us pause to reflect, and caused us–forced us–to articulate. How much farther would we be from the ideals of American values.
Ever read Dale Carnegie’s HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE?  I think many on my campus, and others as well, should.  We all would be better off not starting off with a self-righteous, arrogant, and closed “I am right” and “you are wrong.”  Instead, we should humbly stop talking and start listening; we should begin with a little humble “let’s hear what you have to say,” a bit of acknowledging our own fallibility, and a praise for the something about the other side.  We should cut ourselves a little slack.  Maybe we should say in word, thought, and deed about us and them,  “our guys got some things wrong,”  “we were wrong about this,”  “your guys got some things right.” “you were right about that.”  We’d all be better off having a civil conversation then a verbal pie throwing fight.  By that I mean doing more respectful, sincere, and open listening and reflecting than close-minded talking, finger pointing, and pontificating. We would be better off overcoming close-mindedness.  We’d be better off respecting and learning something from the other person with whom we differ.  We would have been better off if people avoided the dynamic of combatants, had praised for the other guy, and acknowledged that no one has the perfect answer.
What we need is a truly fusion academy when we can taste all sorts of foods for thought and then make an informed decision for ourselves about what suits our palate.

Louis

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A REPRINT: WHAT IS IT WE GET PAID TO DO

I was reading in today’s Valdosta newspaper of a presentation made by the University’s President, whom I highly respect, to the local Rotary Club.  Something jumped out at me.  According to this article,  all he talked about was the University becoming a center for “pure and applied research” and an “economic engine.”   Assuming that the reporting is accurate, the President noted that the University’s relevance in the region and “the near future,” for my tastes, was certainly one-sided. The contents of this article took me back to something I shared in February, 1995, before I call my reflections “Random Thoughts.”  I titled it, “What Is It We’re Paid To Do?”  It was to become a keystone in my developing philosophy of education and vision of my purpose as a teacher.  It is certainly at the core of my “Teacher’s Oath.”  It was relevant then; it is even more relevant now.  I believed it then; twenty years later I believe it even more.  So, for the first time in my over two decades of sharing, I am reprinting and resending this Random Thought as a reminder of what is “higher” in Higher Education:

It’s late. I am sitting here in my office thinking. A student just left. We were sitting in the empty hallway, sucking on Tootsie Pops, talking about his difficulties in class.

“What’s your major?” I asked between licks.

“Accounting,” was his slurpy reply. “Why do I have to take history anyway?” he continued as he tried to defend his lack of studying. “What good is all this dead stuff in the past? I’m not going to do anything with it. I don’t need it for my major.”

A reasonable question.

“Why are you here at the university?” I asked without answering his question.

“To get a good job,” replied without skipping a beat. “I want to make money.”

An expected and reasonable answer.

“Is that all,” I kept probing.

“What else is there,” he replied with a look of amazement.

That, too, is regrettably a reasonable answer.

Well, as I walked back into my office I started thinking about a question my e-mail friend, Kathy Bolland, raised. In the course of one of our exchanges, she asked, “What is the public paying us for?”

Good question that deserves an answer.

Heck, that student could probably answer the question in a flash. He is probably a good reflection of all that John and Jane Q. Public perceive to be the value of an education. That’s probably all they think they pay us and want us to do: train people to get a good paying job. That’s probably how many of us educators would answer the question. It certainly is more often that not how we in our kowtowing to legislatures, in our patronizing of the public, in our pandering to ourselves usually explain the value of an education and defend the reasons for our existence. We talk so much about education almost solely in economic considerations, the need to prepare the student for the work place, the need to compete in the global economy, that we have become–or at least think of ourselves–as little more than what I call “white collar vocational institutions.” We also hear the earned pronouncements of how the universities are research centers from which spew the world’s major scientific advances and technological development necessary to maintain the country’s economic vitality and high standard of living.

Don’t get me wrong. I think these are legitimate and important purposes and goals and achievements. As valuable as these missions are, and however desirable are the consequences of such efforts, they are not the whole picture. Maybe, not even the most important part of the picture. They may address the issue of economic leadership, technological gaps, and the budget deficits. But, I’m not sure they are effective in generating and harnessing the moral and spiritual horsepower necessary to eliminate the social deficit.

There is an all-important third mission of an education beside teaching of the professions, the search for new knowledge, and the development of new technologies. You can’t see it, feel it, hold it, count it, list it, or hear it. It’s not to be found in physical structures or test scores or resumes or scholarships or grants or spread sheets or in test tubes or in labs or on keyboards or even on the scoreboard. It doesn’t have glitzy or sexy instant quantifiable gratifying results that you can extol at a fund-raiser for alums, brag about in an annual report, or earn an award with. Like the weather, everyone talks about it but does little about it. Oh, you’ll find it mentioned in glowing and meaningless mission statements as well as in eloquent and meaningless speeches. But, in reality, it is too often relegated to the neglected position of the third son; it is too often exiled to the periphery of consideration; it is barely and haphazardly addressed; it is too often given little more than grudgingly “let’s get it over and done with as quickly as possible so we can get on to the important professional stuff” lip service; it is not taken seriously in either the curriculum–first-year core or otherwise–and the definition of education. If it is embraced, it is done so more often than not with reluctance rather than with great aspiration.

Yet, it is this third mission which distinguishes what we do in higher education–or are suppose to do–from vocational training. Its moral vocational role and function is inseparably woven in with the material missions. It’s moral compass provide the guiding spirit of both education and society that are, as Thomas Edison said, the heart and soul that control, guide and give meaning to the creature creations of the mind.

That mission is the preparation of the broadly informed, flexible, adaptable human being endowed with knowledge, skills, and attitude to live rightly as well as to earn a living. It is the development of a thoughtful citizen and a compassionate human being who is also a skilled worker. It is a mission that is concerned with the whole person rather than merely the partial wage-earner. It is the mission that seeks to insure that our students will graduate as individuals of character more competent in their ability to contribute to society, more civil in how they think, more respectful in how they talk, more sympathetic in how they act, more sensitive to the needs of the community of which they are a part. It is a mission that promotes a flexibility and adaptability in the face of rapid change both inside and outside the work place, that affords the students a better opportunity to play the many roles in life outside of the work place. I don’t think we educators are what someone might call value neutral however we delude ourselves into thinking otherwise. Like it or not, it seems so obvious to me that society’s future citizens, not just its future work force, is being groomed in our educational institutions. Wasn’t it Pericles to said something to the effect: as people are educated so they shall live and lead.

Education, then, should go beyond the narrow confines of subject matter and vocational skills. It’s the communication of a basic set of personal and social values which include: understanding that life is teamwork and thus learning how to work together; learning how to work through miscommunications and the conflicts that arise from individuality and diversity; learning how to acquire a love for excellence; learning a tolerance for others; acquiring a commitment to each other and to the dignity of all; developing a love of learning, commitment to free inquiry, devotion to free expression.

It should, therefore, instil in all students genuine, loving, lifelong eagerness to learn, flexibility across fields, love for their chosen lives. It should foster a life of continual growth and development. It should encourage and assist students to develop the basic values needed for learning and living: self-discipline, self-confidence, self-worth, perseverance, responsibility, pursuit of excellence, emotional courage, intellectual honesty, humility, compassion for others.

This may not be what the public pays us or thinks it pays us to do. This may not be what we think we get paid to do. This may not even be what the public wants. It certainly isn’t what my student wants. But, we must, forcefully argue that we must require students throughout their educational experience to learn about and reflect on people, places, ideas and things with which they are unfamiliar, which have no obvious technical, scientific, or vocational value, but which are an essential part of living. This is what I think my student needs and should get. This is what I think the public needs and should get. This is what I think I really get paid to do.

Louis

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A TRULY HAPPY NEW YEAR

Well, for me the New Year was hornless, hatless, and champagne-less.  Instead, as some crud that’s been going around here in Valdosta  thankfully got only a slight hold on me New Year’s Eve, I welcomed the new year with coughs, sneezes, and achiness.   Thank goodness for Drambui.  It beats Tamaflu going away.  Anyway, I was reading an article in USA TODAY by an anthropologist at Vanderbuilt, Edward Fischer.  He says in the article, something I learned about 25 years ago:  “For a long time we defined well-being by income.  Now what we have come to realize is it really involves all these other things….I think we get on that treadmill and we think that a little more money, a little better car, a little nicer house, that’s what’s going to make us happy…If we let those things define us, I think it’s ultimately disappointing.”

Ain’t that the truth.  How many of us have said, “If only I had ____, then I’d be really happy.”   Maybe that explains why our campuses, or the rest of our lives, are fraught with overwhelming fear and anxiety, as we run various forms of the rat race.  So, I’ll make this quick and simple.  Someone once said, “You can’t buy happiness; you can’t wear it; you can’t drive it, or drink it, or sell it, or steal it. You can’t lock it away. You can’t negotiate for it. You can’t win it, you can’t marry it, you can’t inherit it, you can’t cheat it. You can’t smoke it, or inject it, or rent it or borrow it. You can’t campaign for it or beg for it, or talk other people into giving you theirs.  You only can live happiness.  You can create it. You can be it. You can give it to others. You can enjoy it. You can share it. You can claim it. You can have as much as you wish. You can enjoy it as much as you want, at any time, under any circumstance.”

So, we ought to take care about what New Year resolutions we make.  Fischer talks of society as a whole.  It’s not much different in academia.  So, if you think tenure, renown, title, degree, and/or promotion will make you happy, you don’t have tenure, renown, title, degree, and/or that promotion.  Trust me.  I had it all, and I still wasn’t truly happy.  I started being happy when as a part of my epiphany I discovered that happiness is what you are, not what you have; that happiness is not “out there;”  true happiness is in me!  The secret to happiness is not in a wealth of things; it’s in a richness of being.  Happiness comes from mastering the art of appreciating and consciously enjoying what you already have.  It’s having a loving soul, a gentle laughter, a generous spirit, a boundless optimism, an unending hope, and a joyous life; it’s in priceless kindness, caring, and love.  So, if you want to be happy, as that is the meaning of New Year resolutions, chase more things less.  Chase more love, more joy, more hugging, more authenticity, more honesty, more laughter, more kindness, more love.  Smile more.  Hope more.  Believe more.    

When you decide to do that, happiness is yours.
Susie and I want to wish one and all a happy New Year filled with true happiness.
Louis

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A METAPHOR FOR LIFE IN WOOD, STONE, AND MARBLE

         Lately, in the midst of the season of frantic candle lighting, gift buying and baking, wrapping, and mailing, I’ve been pensive.  My brother-in-law, my dearest friend, whom I’ve known since the days before he met my sister when we roomed together back in the early sixties at UNC, is in the hospital, again, with some real serious stuff, again.   It was in that deep mood, about 4:30 this morning, that I jumped out of bed, brewed a cup of coffee, and came back to sit on the steps leading down to the sunken master bedroom.   It was still.  My angelic Susie was sleeping.  In the silky dark, I could feel a presence, for I find that it’s in the dark that my inner light shines forth brightest.  I looked up at the 22′ high cathedral ceiling and shook my head in amazement.  This  20′ x 20′ room, along with the large master bath and Susie’s huge walk-in closet, is what Susie and I call our “get-away master complex” in which we can shut ourselves off completely from the rest of the house with the mere closing of a door.

I had designed and built the whole thing with my own two hands thirty-seven years ago.  Me, an intellectual, a history professor, an “egghead,” but a person who loves to work with both his mind and hands.  Starting and continuing with a “what the hell” beginner’s mind I opened the roof, stripped off the outer brick in order to tie-in the new wing to the old house.  I did all the concrete work, carpentry, stone work, framing, electrical work, masonry, drywalling, plastering, wood working, hauling, lifting, nailing, screwing, hammering, ship-lapping, painting, staining, roofing.  It took me a year.  It wasn’t a free ride.  It was full of challenges.  It was full of aches and pains.  It was full of cuts and scratches, and an injury or two.  It was full of mistakes.  It was full of tearing out and redoing.  It was full of learning.   I still look at it now, as I have been almost daily for these past nearly four decades, with  a “wow!”   The “wow” was the result of keeping at it until I got it, and it, and it, and it.   It was the result of a determination, an needed antidote to cynicism, to face up to the hard realities of what it took to build this addition myself without letting anyone or anything diminish my imagination, creativity, and enthusiasm.

Since then, I’ve renovated most of the rest of the house, and Susan says I never really wanted to move not only because we live a block from campus, but because I have so much of myself in the house.  That’s true.  Much of what I learned, much of what I have confidence in doing started with this 800 square foot complex. I found abilities and talents I wasn’t sure I possessed.  But, while I picked up the gauntlet to build this complex, and learned a lot about myself, I did not risk taking the lessons of what it took to build this addition and other renovations beyond the confines of wood, marble, and stone into my larger personal, social, and professional life.  Until my epiphany fourteen years later, in the fall of 1991, there was still a great divide between the words I spoke and the way I lived.

As I began to put flesh on what I call “little big words” words like faith, belief, hope, and love, however, and as I began to embody those words in my values and beliefs, in my identity and integrity, in my all my relations, I came back to this complex with a different amazement.  “Why was I so blind and deaf that didn’t I see and hear what you have been saying all these years,” I remember one dark morning tearfully speaking to these rooms in the winter of 1991.  Since then, listening to the whispered answers of this complex, it has become for me a deep and insightful metaphor for anything in life:

First, throughout the year it took to build this complex, I was in a state of constant “edginess.”  But, I had learned that those unwilling to take any risk and play is safe have allowed comfort zones to control and restrict them; yet, they have as much angst in their comfort zone as a person who is willing to put it all out on the table, and expands what Howard Thurman called a her or his “growing edge” in life.

Second, so, I think the biggest mistake anyone can make is to avoid anything where they might make a mistake, for mistakes are the road signs to what we have to learn.

Third, I found as I was willing to be discomforted, I became so comfortable with discomfort that I could live boldly and fearlessly. In the words of Rumi;  “Forget safety.  Live where you fear to live.  Destroy your reputation.  Be notorious.”

Fourth, as a consequence, I learned that the boundaries of comfort zones are more often than not expanded by discomfort.  Again, in the words of Rumi:  “If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”  It’s a way of looking at things, a kind of essential edgy growth around the edges that reveals the nascent light within, and makes new starts possible in everything we do every day.

And, finally, I came to realize that the things I value most are those things to which, and for which, I give of myself the most.  I value this part of the house most because I gave of myself the most. I took the most chances; I learned most how to do things; I risked the most screw-ups.  I experimented the most.  I tested myself the most.  I reached out and stretched the most.  The valuable things are valuable because of how much of me has been put into them, not because they are easy.  The effort spent on creating value is a joy; and, when it is a joy, it is not laborious work.

Each day I hear this complex, as well as my koi pond and water fountain, speak to me.  They say that arduous and challenging efforts are not somethings to be avoided, but somethings to be sought out. They’re the way to make a difference in your life and the lives of others; they’re the way that problems are transcended; they’re the way of making a difference; they’re the way that lives live on.

Louis

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THE CORE QUESTION

As I was listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing Christmas songs, my eyes drifted to a quote that hangs above my computer desk.  It contains some earth-shaking words written by Thomas Merton in his “No Man Is An Island”:  “Why do we spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be? If only we knew what we wanted. Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we were made for?”  Some questions!  I had been consciously asking those questions since my epiphany in the fall of 1991.  I found that they don’t just shake, they shatter.  And, to make sure I don’t let anything settle, I put them up there to read each morning as a constant reminder to struggle with my human imperfections in an effort to focus on living a life of constant astonishment and of daily epiphanies.

This quiet, melodic, soggy morning I thought that if we could cut through this time of superficial light bulb celebration of flickering, blaring, glaring, blinking neons, fluorescents, halogens, CFLs, incandescents, and LEDS, to the essence of Chanukah, Christmas, Kawanza, and New Years, it would be in Merton’s stirring-up words.

You see, I know how they’re spacious invitations to be reflective, to be contemplative, to be mindful of, to be alert to, to be aware of, to notice, to be awake to all things in your daily professional, personal, and social life.  Basically they boil down to ask the most challenging, frightening, and yet clarifying of all questions:  “What would you want to do, resolve to do, and do if you could do anything that you could do?”

It may seem to be a dangerous cross-roads question, certainly fraught with heartache and fear, for it demands you confront yourself with some serious choices.  It demands a quest for answers to a subset of questions:  Why am I doing this?  Who do I really want to be?  What do I want to really do?  What is my deepest identity that moves me?  And, then, “why am I not doing it?”  But, to shirk away, shrink into a dark corner, and not to ask, much less to seek honest answers, it is to languish in a dismal prison chained to a wall.  To ask and seek the answer with all honesty, to muster every fiber of your being to get rid of those enchaining things, to see that you have the courage and strength to break those shackles and open the cell door, ultimately is a releasing and liberating of a more loving, more believing, more hopeful, more caring, more joyous, more respectful, more honest, kinder, and more authentic person.

It’s a letting go of and a sacrificing of the “I am” person for a “I want to be” person.  It’s putting a smile on what was once a long, morose, grim face.  It’s a process of becoming your own, while shedding someone else’s, person.  It’s getting off your butt, meeting yourself where you are, facing your human messiness, taking yourself by your hand, and leading yourself to where you want to and can be.  It’s filling your shallowness with a fullness.  It’s putting flesh on your most secret yearnings.  It’s going through your own three Dickensonian Christmases.  It’s what Joseph Campbell called following “your bliss.”

Trust me, it can be pretty amazing stuff, scary as it may be, when that happens; it can be life-changing.  Having faced up to those questions, the answers somehow kept me in academia, or, as a student once told me, “you luckily found your place in the very place you were standing.”  Yet, it was both the same place and a different place, for slowly my answers took a surprisingly willing me out from the archive into the classroom, away from wanting to be important and professionally renown to doing things of importance and little renown, away from scholarship to teaching, away from being a professor to being a teacher.

But, it never ends, especially for me at this time and place.  After having reluctantly retired in December, 2012, I’ve had to go on and have been on an adventure to uncover a new set of answers for and from a very different place.  Everything I do, everything I contemplate, everything I share, everything and everyone of which I am mindful is part of an ever-searching, never-ending journey.

Louis

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WHAT IF….

There is a coming sadness as this season of joy reaches its pinnacle with Chanukah and Christmas conjoining.  “Tis the season” will soon be over.  The season of miracles will be behind us.  The Yule Log will be a heap of ash.  The calendar will have turned.  The tree will be on the sidewalk for collection; we will have taken down the lights; we will have put the nativity scenes and menorahs in the closet along with the ribbons and wrapping. Unfortunately, any lingering inking of the meaning of the holiday season will be also boxed up and put away.  And so, we will go back to our everyday lives once again unaware of the miracles around us.  We’ll ignore the mysterious splendor of miracle layered on miracle in every step we take.  We will be deaf and blind to the miracle in which we constant engage:  ourselves, each other person, and our surroundings.  And, the challenge to be buoyant will return.

But, what if.  What if we rewrote the lyrics of  “Joy To The World” so that we lived the coming year in such a way that “Tis the season” became “tis the day” day after day until we can sing “tis the year.”  Great miracles are happening all around us.   When we stop being amazed, we stop revering; we stop appreciating; we stop celebrating; we stop making a pilgrimage to our hearts; we stop singing and dancing; we stop caring; we stop loving.  You know, if you go about your lives without a wonder that defies frustration, despair, scoffing, sneering, even mocking,  it just isn’t worth going there.  You’ll not live each and every aspect of your life life as if its a work of art.
So, I ask, what do you lose when you wonder at a student or anyone, if you live all aspects of your life in what Rabbi Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement?”  What if our frame of heart, that condition of consciousness in which each moment of life is apprehended, is that of a miracle, when each person is a blessing is a moment when the wondrous and the common, are never separated.  What if you stood constantly in awe?  What if you constantly were impressed.  What if you always noticed?  What if nothing and no one become “normal,” everyday, mundane, common?
I have striven to do two things since my epiphany 23 years ago, with jolts from having survived a bout of cancer a decade ago and a massive cerebral hemorrhage seven years ago. First,I get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted and nothing is treated casually; everything is incredible.  I go about with caring mindfulness.  I never treat life casually  It makes the seemingly ordinary into something extraordinary, the insignificant into something significant, the small into something large.  Second, I don’t wait to start living.  My goal is to live life in the present moment with a consciousness of being aware.
To do this,  I’ve learned several key life practices that I carry with me wherever I go, especially into the classroom:
1.   I don’t have to act impressively to make an impression and to impress;
2.   If I constantly worried about how I appear to others, I won’t really enjoy what I’m doing.  Moreover, it’s hard looking ahead when I’m peering over my shoulder;
3.   I’m not really concerned with how others define me. When they define me, they are defining and limiting themselves.  It says everything about them and nothing about me.  So, it’s their problem, not mine;
4.   I refuse to allow other people  make me into the person they want me to be who I don’t want to be.  In the spirit Viktor Frankl, I can’t lose, or have taken away, who I am—unless I agree–I can only lose what I have;
5.   #3 means I don’t limit myself or others.  I don’t bury my or their miraculousness by labeling or defining myself and others.  If I did, I’d be living up to an image and demanding others do so as well.  That’s called “inauthenticity,” making true connection impossible;
6.   I don’t interact with people according to my authority, role, or title.  I’m just me.  I’m not “Dr,” or “Professor of.”  Just “Louis”(rhymes with “phooey”);
7.   I realize intensely that now–the present moment–is all I have, and it’s my responsibility to make this now–not yesterday and not tomorrow–the primary focus of  my life.  Heck, the only time I can do anything is now;
8.   Change is the natural state of all things, and if my perceptions and expectations don’t change, I’m in trouble;
9.   I have discovered that a true inner peace does not come from what I have gathered, not in my position and title, not in my resume.  Whenever I become anxious or stressed, I know the outside trappings have taken over;
10. The primary cause of unhappiness or happiness is never the situation or person, but my thoughts about it or them.  I am constantly aware of the feelings I’m feeling and the thoughts I’m thinking.  Being whatever I believe I am,  has nothing to do with what I believe and everything to do with my state of heart and mind.  My mindfulness is my greatest catalyst for growth, and it is a mindfulness that must feel and live, not just think and talk about.
11.  I don’t need a reason for belief, faith, hope or love.  I just feel them; I just do them, live with them, nurture them, abide by them.
  Susie and I would like to wish one and all a merry, happy and all that.  May your candle burn brightly and bring only light and warmth each day in the coming year so that you can joyously sing “tis the day” each day.

Louis

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