the fullness of emptying out

440px-Helianthus_whorlI love summer vacation. One of the most precious parts of a life in schools is the implacability of the schedule. In September, as sure as gravity, I teach. And right now, in the middle of the summer — unless I make a deliberate choice to do otherwise — I do not.

But I get tired on vacation. It is weird.

It is the perhaps the main reason why I have not taken the sabbatical — sorry, “Off Campus Scholarly Assignment” — my institution has offered me for the last four years. Even though it restores me to be away from school, time away from school wears me out.

And the best reason I can figure is because, on vacation, I do not have the needs of my students arresting my attention and my energy twice a week. All the vacation in the world cannot give me what I receive from my students. Or more precisely, from their demands on me.

How can rest both restore me, and make me weary? How can work both exhaust and sustain? It is a paradox.

It is a basic tenet, though, of most value systems — of human comity, of ethical conduct, of faith. Focusing on the needs of others will bring one joy and peace. I read this truth most every morning, in the range of wisdom scripture I try to tune my life to. If it is a paradox, many have certainly found it a productive one.

I wonder sometimes if my response to the insistence of my students’ demands is the actual core of who I am. It is certainly a lot of who I am. I am a creature of the rhythms of school, and have evolved to serve its exigencies. The tyranny of the clock above all. The intractability of the calendar. What is due, what is due back; what must be read, assessed, calculated. Class is always about to start. You will need to have something to say to your students, and something to ask them to do, when that time inexorably arrives.

I remember how uncomfortable this rock-hard truth was as a new teacher, driving into the city on Monday morning and frantically trying to construct something to do in the twenty minutes, the fifteen minutes, the ten minutes before class was to start. A life in school has taught me to accept that background, anxious hum as inescapable. And finally, to live with it as a constant companion, or even as a friend. Class starts in an hour — and yet I drink coffee. Class starts in an hour — and yet I respond to email. The state of impending-need-to-have-something-to-say is now a feature, not a bug. My mind is now working on the problem on the background.

Which really means that my mind is never not working on something. I am almost never fully at rest — if “rest” means completely disengaged from attending to the world through the eyes of one responsible for sparking others’ interest in it. Those close to me have noted a fundamental distraction in me. One that has almost always been there. I am always thinking about something, they say; I seem a little less fully here than I might.

They are partially right. But I am rarely thinking about things in a philosophical vein; rarely trying to figure things out. I am more often turning over what the world is presenting in terms of its qualities and, especially, its connections to other things. I am thinking about aspects of the world in the ways you do when you might be called upon to explain them, or contextualize them, or nestle them into an illuminating relation to other things. I am studying things and filing things, tentatively. My most basic internet-assisted move of the day is opening the Wikipedia app on my phone. What is this thing? When did it happen, and what was it in response to? To whom else did it matter?

Sometimes such research might seem a little like a defense against ever getting caught out not knowing what something is — a grad school trauma echo. But not really. Grad school is over. And I am one of those vanishing few academics who has nothing else to prove in the real world unless I choose to, whether to mentors or tenure committees or any other arbiter of whether or not I can claim to know something. (If any creature of the academy can ever really feel outside the echo chamber of status and peer-reviewed affirmation.) When I am researching now, I am researching for myself. And for my students.

Because students act differently when confronted by a teacher who has been thinking about the topic of the day really hard — and, by extension, how to share it with them compellingly. It is not just a response to an instructor’s intellectual power, though that might be part of it. It is always bracing to be around someone who is smart and passionate and articulate.

No, it is more about a kind of resonance in the room. A kind of vibration that a teacher can get started when he comes in genuinely connected to what is to be explored that day. Not in an abstract, “I love learning” way, but in an “I read this this morning, and found a connection to something in the news right now, and to my personal life as well” kind of way.

It seems incumbent upon the teacher to bring the initial spark of this kind of engagement into the room. To model it, maybe; there’s always a piece of education, at every level, which is mimetic, about showing children how to be and encouraging or requiring them to be and do likewise.

But for those of us who work with older students, college students, it can no longer be about crisscross applesauce and gold stars for compliance. Now it is about presenting a viable version of why thinking about the world is worth doing. It might be the teacher’s real job, beneath the accountability and the feedback loops. His only job, now that content is freely available and there is no longer a hierarchy of knowledge whose access points are solely controlled by the academy.

In other words, the teacher no longer has value because he is merely smart. But he has tremendous value if he is able to present a walking, living example of why being smart might matter today, and connect it to those with whose attention he is entrusted. Why learning might make life better, or even worth living.

Although to be very honest, I sometimes wonder if it is a character flaw. This need for others. The story of the successful scholarly life I was and am modeled reinforces that question. Why am I more likely to spend my energy reading an article and preparing to teach it than writing my own article? Is this evidence that I do not actually have my own voice, or my own things to say? That as one who cannot do…I teach? After all, careers open for those who sit down alone and write stuff, not for those who get in groups with their students to talk about stuff.

I acknowledge that I need the response from students that comes back from them when what I am putting out is worthy of their real engagement. And acknowledging that you need others in the world can be — often is — cast as a weakness. The great mind sits down alone and writes. Everything else is mere childcare.

While the individualistic, competitive, gain-getting world might bear that message back to me, I know it is not true. I venture that it is really a refraction of how repellent a patriarchal world will still find nurture, care, love — any admission of a need for each other, for interdependence. How determined it is to self-protect by insulating with the story of the great mind laboring alone toward enlightenment and beauty. That’s a lie (albeit a remunerative one). To need others is a dear and human truth. To acknowledge it is a step toward wholeness, not weakness. This I know is true.

So having the opportunity in my life to exist in connection with, and service to, others a few times every week — this requirement, this structure — is a core part of what enables me to continue functioning. This is not intended to be a dramatic statement. It is simply the case.

It is perhaps a commonplace expression of the spiritual truth I mentioned earlier, that I try to have into my life each day despite stubborn, solipsistic, human nature.

Or better to say: it is how I can begin to understand the principle of service to others as the path to one’s own salvation. I am beginning to understand an amplification of this in Cynthia Bourgeault’s articulation of a “kenotic” gospel. A life of “self-emptying” of selfish focus, the better to be an instrument of a greater intelligence and a greater wisdom in the world. (Or maybe I just love a big new word, and what it opens to view.)

I just know from experience that connection to the world is at the core of life being bearable. “No place at last is better than the world. The world is no better than its places,” wrote Wendell Berry.

The burden and the privilege of the teacher is to embody and share that reality with a group of strangers — other peoples’ children — reliably, on schedule. A few times a week, nine months of the year.

This is certainly a burden, because it disqualifies you from sleepwalking through your life. It is a privilege for precisely the same reason.

And it makes vacation a beautiful pause in one’s diurnal course. A precious season. But a brief and fleeting one, by necessity. Because the real relation — the underlying theme — is in the work. And it will be time to work again soon enough.

Image of Fibonacci sequence in the whorls of Helianthus (sunflower) from Wikipedia. Because they are awesome. Mystic rhythms. 

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