So, what were some of those lessons of the transforming process that led me to “soft teach” which I had to learn and take to heart? First, the overall lesson. I had an explosive epiphany in the autumn of 1991 that would turn out to be my springtime only if I admitted that I had to do something with it. It was hard, oh so hard, to learn that lesson, and all the derivative ones to come. I needed to change my personal and professional and social vocabulary and gaits, as well as the entire trajectory of my life. And, they often were learned unsteadily and incrementally over the years to come.
For me, learning about myself was really what I already secretly knew, but had ignored or disguised or rationalized away or buried or locked up. That sudden epiphany erupted with three simple, yet profound and meaningful, challenge questions for me : “Do you want to let go of the influence of those debilitating parts of your life?” “Do you want a new future?” “Do you have it in you to do what has to be done?” To my own astonishment, before I could think about it, I heard my immediate answer was an unhesitant, firm, and resounding “Yes!” So, I tearfully issued a respectful invitation to myself for a deeper and more honest conversation with myself.
The point of that exchange would be to face my inner pain, heartache, fear, disappointment, weakened self-esteem and self-confidence, and subtle sense of failure that was I was allowing to restrict me; to face those who had hurt me—including myself—and to face up to it all in order to face them all down. Slowly I gave my life to become to who I am now and who I will be down the short road that’s left for me to walk. Was it worth it? Boy, was it.
Those lessons challenged me to brave rearranging how I was put together, to break the covenant of the “research and publish scholar,” to move from “professor” to a student serving “teacher,” to move from appearances to authenticities, to transition from being in information business to being in a “people” business, to cut through layers and layers to arrive at liberation and self-empowerment. They were complex self-redefinitions that slowly worked their way from the inside to the outside. I and my inner spirit, who had been somewhat at odds for many decades, slowly came to like each other. We were to become life-long bosom buddies.
I slowly stopped arguing for my limitations, overcame fear, strengthened self-esteem, built up self-confidence, and beheld wonder. It was a wonder that created a sense of connectedness with each student, an attentiveness to the needs of each student, and a desire to be in the service of her or him. I slowly replaced the outwardness of my degrees, titles, and resume with my inward humanity to define the academic me, the personal me, and a socialized me—the everything together me— as well.
It was only recently that I discovered that during all these decades I had been experiencing what the research of UC-Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner, NYU’s Jonathan Haidt, and others had revealed: soul-stirring wonder imbues a person with a different sense of self; with a transcendent, exuberant, imaginative, creative, optimistic, flexible, caring, empathic, sympathetic, kindly, and serving self. From my experience, I would add an overall faithful, hopeful, and loving self.
The bottom line, as the noted psychologist, Robert Brooks, says, is that these characteristics generated by wonder all have a positive impact on our physical and emotional well-being. They are the rock-solid foundations for community and a sense of community; for meaning, purpose, serving. And, it behooves us to learn to be constantly awe-struck by finding, seeing, and listening to such wonder in the most mundane, daily experiences. That describes my mood setting pre-dawn meditative “wonder contemplations,” sipping a wondrously freshly brewed coffee, by my koi pond each morning, my every-other-morning 7 mile meditative “wonder walks,” my awesome conversations with my flowers, my daily end-of-day gratitude exercise, and, above all, my wondrous daily chats with my beloved Susie over a glass of evening wine. As for people in general and students in particular, for me, I have learned to inoculate into our academic “wonder-deprived” culture by constantly seeing and listening to angels walking before each person pronouncing “Make way! Make way for someone created in the image of God.” That powerful and profound image causes me to see the hitherto hidden sacredness, nobility, and uniqueness in each person that in my eyes makes each of them a “phenomenal you.” That’s how I find that exuberant wonder in other people and begin my faithful, hopeful, and loving connection with them.