Living from the Inside Out

Parker Palmer became my North Star as I read and re-read his  books about education.  His wisdom, clarity and compassion kept me focused. This June, as I remember the absolute joy of our prison graduation ceremonies, his commencement address is the best I have ever read, speaking not only to graduates, but to the current chaos and concerns in our politics.

 

Living From the Inside Out

In May, 2015, I gave the commencement address at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Founded in 1974 by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, Naropa merges Western scholarship with Eastern wisdom in a context of contemplative practice. I was grateful for a chance to welcome the Class of 2015 to a world in deep need of their competence and compassion. In this season of graduations, I wanted to share my talk with you.


I have two modest graduation gifts for the Class of 2015. The first is a six brief suggestions about the road ahead of you. The second is a promise to stop talking in about twelve minutes so you can get on that road sooner rather than later!

My first suggestion is simple: Be reckless when it comes to affairs of the heart.

Now, before someone thinks I’m trying to corrupt America’s youth, what I mean is fall madly in love with life! Be passionate about some part of the natural and/or human worlds, and take risks on its behalf, no matter how vulnerable they make you. No one ever died saying, “I’m so glad for the self-centered, self-serving, and self-protective life I lived.” Offer yourself to the world — your energies, your gifts, your visions, your spirit — with open-hearted generosity.

But understand that when you live this way, you will soon learn how little you know and how easy it is to fail. To grow in love and service, you must value ignorance as much as knowledge and failure as much as success. This is ironic advice on a day when we celebrate your success at passing a rigorous test of your knowledge! But clinging to what you already know is the path to an unlived life. So cultivate beginner’s mind, walk straight into your not-knowing, and take the risk of failing and falling, again and again — then getting up to learn again and again. That’s the path to a life lived large in service of love, truth, and justice.

Second, as you integrate ignorance and failure into your knowledge and success, do the same with all the alien parts of yourself.

Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to your shadow side: let your altruism meet your egotism, your generosity meet your greed, your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow: even Buddhists, even Quakers, even high-minded people like us. Especially high-minded people like us! But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good. Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection — it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. As a person who has made three deep-dives into depressionalong the way, I don’t speak lightly of this. I simply know it is true.

As you acknowledge and embrace all that you are, you give yourself a gift that will benefit the rest of us as well. Our world is in desperate need of leaders who live what Socrates called “an examined life.” In critical areas like politics, religion, business, and mass media, too many leaders refuse to name and claim their shadow side because they don’t want to look weak. With shadows that go unexamined and unchecked, they use their power heedlessly in ways that harm countless people and undermine public trust in our major institutions. If you value self-knowledge, you will become the leaders we need to help renew this society. But if, for some reason, you choose to live an unexamined life, I beg of you: Do not take a job that involves other people!

Third, as you welcome whatever you find alien within yourself, extend that same welcome to whatever you find alien in the outer world.

I don’t know any virtue more important these days than hospitality to the stranger, to those we perceive as “other” than us.

The old majority in this society — people who look like me — is on its way out. By 2045, the majority of Americans will be people of color. Many in the old majority fear that fact. And their fear, shamelessly manipulated by too many politicians, is bringing us down. The renewal this nation needs will not come from people who are afraid of “otherness” in race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Because of that fear, our once-vital society is gridlocked and stagnant — and our main hope for renewal is diversity welcomed and embraced.

I recently met a professor who left a predominantly white college to teach undocumented youth in Southern California. When I asked him how it was going, he said, “Best move I ever made. My previous students felt entitled and demanded to be entertained. My undocumented students are hungry to learn, hard-working, and courageous enough to keep moving out of their comfort zones.”

America will be renewed by people with those qualities. And if we who have privilege and power will welcome them, collaborate with them, and help remove the obstacles in their way, 2045 will be a year of promise for all of us.

Fourth, take on big jobs worth doing, jobs like the spread of love, peace, and justice.

That means refusing to be seduced by our cultural obsession with being effective as measured by short-term results. We all want our work to make a difference, of course. But if we take on the big jobs and our only measure of success is next quarter’s bottom line, we’ll end up disappointed, dropping out, and in despair.

Think of someone you respect because he or she lived a life devoted to high values: a Rosa Parks, a Nelson Mandela, or someone known only to a few. At the end of the road, was that person able to say, “I’m sure glad I took on that job because now everyone can check it off their to-do lists”? No, our heroes take on impossible jobs and stay with them for the long haul because they live by a standard that trumps effectiveness. The name of that standard is “faithfulness” — faithfulness to your gifts, to the needs of the world, and to offering your gifts to whatever needs are within your reach.

The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results. Public education is a tragic example. We no longer care about educating children — a big job that’s never done. We care only about getting kids to pass tests with measurable results — whether or not they measure what matters. In the process, we’re crushing the spirits of a lot of good teachers and vulnerable kids.

Care about being effective, of course. But care even more about being faithful, as countless teachers do — faithful to your calling and to the true needs of those entrusted to your care. You won’t get the big jobs done in your lifetime. But if, at the end of the day, you can say, “I was faithful,” you’ll be okay.

Fifth, since suffering as well as joy comes with being human, I urge you to remember this: Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.

Sometimes we aim that violence at ourselves — as in overwork that leads to burnout and worse, or in the many forms of substance abuse. Sometimes we aim that violence at other people — racism, sexism and homophobia often come from people trying to relieve their suffering by claiming superiority over others.

The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death. It happens every day. I know many people who’ve suffered the loss of the dearest person in their lives. At first, they go into deep grief, certain that their lives will never again be worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that — not in spite of their loss but because of it — they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys.

These are broken-hearted people — but their hearts have been broken open rather than broken apart. So every day, exercise your heart by taking in life’s pains and joys. That kind of exercise will make your heart supple, so that when it breaks — which it surely will — it will break not into a fragment grenade, but into a greater capacity for love.

Sixth and finally, I quote St. Benedict — not a Buddhist or a Quaker, but still worth quoting! — who said, “Daily keep your death before your eyes.”

That may sound like a morbid practice, but I assure you it isn’t. If you hold a healthy awareness of your own mortality, your eyes will be opened to the grandeur and glory of life. And that will evoke all of the virtues I’ve named, as well as those I haven’t, such as hope, generosity, and gratitude.

If the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining. So I’ll close with this brief quote from the writer Diane Ackerman who reminds us to live — truly live — our lives:

“The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.”

Once again, a deep bow to the Class of 2015. To each and every one of you, traveling mercies and blessings as you make the journey from one mystery to the next and the next and the next!

 

Unlearning Long Divisions: Mr. Hoffer’s Labels

Unlearning Long Divisions: Introduction

The prison fence is an obvious structure that divides us, but we are separated in other more subtle structural ways, by how we build wealth—or are not able to, by huge opportunity gaps, by our own judgements, assumptions and inabilities to listen and know each other, by our geography, by neighborhoods, lifestyles, and cultural misunderstandings. America has always had its separations, during slavery and then under Jim Crow, of class, race, cultural groups and religions, but it seems that the rancorous voices of political campaigns, talk radio, online comments, and the addition of big money have all turned up the volume and deepened the divisions between us. Much of it is fear-driven, no more evident than how we perceive people who are behind bars. The ideas in the following posts come from my interactions with my inmate students, who taught me how to unlearn many of my own assumptions—and to see them and my country in new ways.


Mr. Hoffer’s Labels

When Mr. Hoffer walked in on his first day of Language Arts, he reminded me of a linebacker on a football team: tall, muscular, and big.

Adult students who return to school after dropping out have much to teach us about how people learn and what gets in their way–Mr. Hoffer was no different in that regard. At the beginning of a language arts class, I talked to each of my students individually. One particular semester, there were no white students in my language art classroom—the group was evenly split between Hispanic men needing help with English as a Second Language (ESL) and African-American men. These students had two identifying facts in common: all were labeled felons and they were all drop-outs, having left school at differing points. For almost all new students, their first job was to recover their confidence and not fall back into thinking they could not succeed. Almost everyone who returns to an adult education high school classroom needs to work on language skills and the purpose of the class was to address reading and writing.

In addition to being a man of large presence, Mr. Hoffer’s smile was big too. He wore that smile as he headed for the back corner of the room on the first day of class. I learned to pay attention to students who wanted to sit in the farthest corner and in the back row. Often this signaled that they were more nervous about their ability than those who sat in the front of the room.

Mr. Hoffer saw me coming toward him when it was his turn to talk to me and jumped up to find me a more comfortable chair. I thanked him for helping the man who was sitting next to him.

“How do you feel about being back in school?” I asked.

His face clouded and he said in a low voice, “Mrs. Wenzel, I was always in special ed.”

I was surprised.

A few weeks passed as I watched him carefully, noticing that he was always friendly, easy-going, and unflappable. If he couldn’t understand a lesson, he stuck with it until he did, often wanting to figure it out himself. He was reliable, always getting his work done on time, and focused and steady as he worked. He continued to be helpful to other students. People in the office reported that he had offered to help with anything they needed, so he was spending time doing routine office work in his spare time. As I watched him, I kept coming up with the word competent. I saw no special needs. When mid-term evaluations came around, I used the word competent, spelling out his strong skills as a student. He told me no one had ever told him that before. His test scores had improved by the end of the semester, giving him the confidence to take higher level classes. He handled those with ease.

As we prepared for graduation, he told me that his mother was coming from another state to attend, and how excited they both were. His smile spread wide across his face as he accepted his diploma and stood for the photograph with the superintendent. During the reception following the ceremony, I found his mother and told her how much we had enjoyed her son and how helpful he had been to other students–and to the program. Her eyes filled with tears as she said, “I never thought I would see this day. He had such a horrible time in school.”

It is easy to pay attention to labels as a teacher. I have done that myself and not expected enough from my students. I wonder how the label of special ed that followed him from teacher to teacher and year to year—and the fact that he was an African-American growing up in a poor neighborhood—affected what kind of expectations his teachers had for him. I wonder about labels, how they get internalized, damage confidence, and affect student achievement. Somehow as an adult in his 20’s, Mr. Hoffer was able to overcome the negative labels enough to succeed in school. But if there was a direct link between his experience as a student when he was growing up and the fact that he committed a crime, as there often is, finding success in a prison classroom was a high price to pay.