I am writing this reflection at the same time as I wrote the last one, “Who Am I?” In this one, I am remembering both my Emerson and Confucius. The first said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” The second, “labor without reflective thought (what I call a reflective “why”) is wasted; thought without learning is dangerous.” So, then, it’s not just a matter of working arduously and occasionally. It’s an every day matter. It’s also a matter of how you work, how long you work at it, towards what you are working, and whether what you’re doing is laborious or joyful to you. All that determines how far and hard you’re willing to push. Now, that I think about it, I think that’s why I’m not impressed when someone calls me “Doctor” or “Professor,” and why I prefer being a “Louis.” It’s not a question of being formal or informal, professional or non-professional or unprofessional. The “Doctor” and “Professor,” however important stuff it may be, it’s what I’ve done or am doing. The “Louis” stuff is the significant stuff of who I am, and who I am determines what and how and for what reasons I do.
I think we delude ourselves into believing we’ve hit our ceiling long before we have, if we ever do. It’s that “I’m doing my best” defensive illusion used to repel the assaulting forces of change and transformation. It’s an excuse for not taking the time and making the effort to reach. I was an athlete. And, my college coach never allowed anyone to be satisfied, to casually drop their hands to their side or to comfortably put them in their pockets. He demanded we reach out beyond our reach. So, for working on our balance and coordination we became “men in tights” as he had us take P.E. classes in ballet and fencing. On the practice field, we stretched; we practiced; we worked out; we sweated; we studied; we failed; we learned; we fell; we got up; we pushed; we ached; sometimes we got hurt. We ran plays over and over and over again both to hone our individual abilities into talents and to mesh with others into an interdependent, mutually supportive and encouraging team. We depended on each other; we needed each other; we learned how to work with each other. But, we never took that into the classroom, or were asked or demanded we take all that beyond the threshold. There, in a contradicting go it alone and often competitive rather than cooperative, “I don’t not want to depend on anyone for my grade” and grade curving culture, among the classroom lessons the crucial lessons of life were lost.
Anyway, my soccer coach was a advocate of the “no pain, no gain” theory. But, he didn’t mean just physical pain. That was the least of it. He meant the pain of risk and challenge, of playing to win rather than playing not to lose. For him, an ex-paratrooper, the pain was not of seeing the agony in the proverbial “agony of defeat,” but the “opportunity of defeat,” grabbing victory out from the jaws of defeat by learning from your mistakes and working not to repeat them. He meant not accepting the comfort and less painful “my best” as the best we could do; he meant the discomfort of accepting the fact that we didn’t know just what our best was or might be, and of pushing ourselves beyond our self-imposed limits of “best” toward an unimagined and unlimited “better.” He used to say a bunch of things to us: “put your best to rest, be a go-getter for your better,” “if you want things easy and comfortable, get a mattress;” “you can’t play the game without being in the game;” “if you don’t suck it up, you’re going to suck,” “when you stop pushing yourself, you’re a pushover and let yourself get pushed around.” We learned by constantly pushing our proverbial envelope; we learned one page in the playbook at a time, one practice at a time; nothing came easy, nothing was quick; nothing was magical; it was over and over and over again, day after day after day, learning more and more with each mistake, more and more and more our best got better and better and better,
So, looking back on those three collegiate years as an athlete, I’ve see now that in many ways I unwittingly learned more from him that I took with me and used through my life than I did from all my classroom professors combined! And, if you don’t think that has given me an insight into students’ psyche, well… So, I’ve copied a page from his soccer playbook into my life playbook. I push and push and push myself little by little beyond my best toward my better. I comfortably go out of my proverbial comfort zone one step, one day, one class, one term at a time, challenging myself to accept and keep being challenged. I tweak, but I don”t shy away from scrapping. I”m not afraid of being what”s called a “disruptive innovator” rather than a mere “sustaining innovator.” For me, that means that if I’m capable, I”m capable of being more capable, and that nothing is beyond my reach if I continually reach, if I continually exercise my capabilities. That means if I succeed, I step beyond that success to create more; if I mess up, I step over that mess to create success. And, as I’ve been doing that, my comfort zone has become one of being uncomfortable.
Remember, I said, I am a pusher. My Dean says challenge the students. I take her at her word. So, the condom comes off and there’s no safe teaching. I push my boundaries and delicately help each student push her or his own self-imposed restricting boundaries. Easy and comfortable teaching is like living an easy and comfortable life; it would be empty and impoverished. The authentically meaningful and purposeful things are not easy and comfortable. Easy and comfortable don’t have much value. If anything, they bring regret of possibilities not pursued and opportunities lost. So, I never stop pushing myself and, maybe far more importantly, pushing myself back; I’ve learned to know and feel when not to push ahead because if I don’t, I’ll push myself over the edge. I know I have authority; I also know that there is a strong possibility that as a fallible human being my exercise of that authority is subjective and hence can be flawed. So, when I feel myself getting to the point where I comfortably think “I’ve got it,” I know I’m about to lose it; when I feel a sense of having gotten there, I know I’m on the verge of getting lost. So, I never settle for settling in or settling down. And, for many around me that can be for them unsettling.
So, I’m farther along now, in better physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual shape at 71 than I was at 50. Curiosity is my name, adventure is my game. But, I never push myself to frustration; I never rush beyond expectation. In fact, I never rush to the point that people and things are blurry. I always think and feel and reflect things out. I have my “push out” moments each day; I have my “mush out” moments each day. I have my meditating, relaxing, and nap times each day; I have my power walks, my end-of-day wine and cheese, my playful nudging and romancing of my Susie, my flower garden, my creative and artsy around-the-house projects. I don’t pass up the essential small, everyday joys in life while reaching for the big ones.
My mushing out is not a state of stasis. It’s a time of revitalization, of clearing my mental and emotional and spiritual arteries, of spring cleaning cobwebs from my spirit, of making sure my juices are freely flowing. I am not an “uptight” guy. Nor am I lethargic guy. But, my short bursts are just that: occasional and short. They’re a balance of intensity intermingled with my “three Rs:” reflection, rest, and relaxation. I don’t drain myself. I shift my focus constantly so I”m never in a spiritual, mental, or emotional rut or frenzy. I always have time and space for some real, original thoughts and experiences that are more than mere over and over and over repeats. That way, there’s no grass growing under my moving feet and no moss gathering on my constantly rolling stone. That way I can check up on myself, reflect, think through, and feel my way through the challenging twists and turns and jumbles of everyday life. I don’t like the noise of the blaring, chic bandwagon. I’ve found that the bandwagon rolls slower and in the wrong direction than where I’m heading. The key is a willingness to sweat and sometimes to ache, that is, not to avoid the pain that comes with trial and error, not to be a moth and head only toward the light of instant gratification. That’s the formula for getting burned and “burnt out.” Aesop, as the latest research is showing, was right. It’s a matter of being tortoise-ish, of being slow and steady persevering, and committed; unlike the hare, it’s a process of depth and duration rather than of immediacy and intensity. After all, as I occasionally hear my coach screaming at me at any moment I am tempted to let up, “Schmier, don’t ease up; don’t ease to please; you’ve got to work through the pain to get to the gain.” One last set of words, from Winston Churchill, “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every barking dog.” So, that’s how I got here. And, that is the life lesson I would hope students start to learn, as well as those I offer through my discipline.