RSS

Tag Archives: time

Education, Refocused

Let’s assume that when students say they are in college “to get a job,” they really are answering honestly – and hopefully. But let’s also leave open the possibility that what students are really hoping for is life direction, an opportunity to discover and develop the creative potential they possess and live it out in a deeply meaningful way. They may not have the insight and vocabulary to articulate their aspiration in these terms, but the yearning is there, along with a willingness to entrust themselves to an education system committed to this same outcome.

And that’s where the process breaks down.

In fact, the education system is not very much interested in students’ self-discovery; they should be taking care of that outside of class. School is a place for gaining knowledge and skills that will one day land the successful graduate in gainful employment – in a job. And while that sounds very similar to what students themselves are saying, my experience in higher education reveals something else. Most students don’t just want a job; they want purpose.

On the left side of my diagram I have arranged five terms often used interchangeably in respect to the nature of work. As is my custom, their arrangement is hierarchical and organic, which means that the distinctions in value are to be read as growing up from the bottom.

The first value distinction in the nature of work is a job, sometimes taken as a humorous acronym for Just Over Broke. A job is a means for getting money, and quite a lot of jobs pay barely enough for us to keep the lights on, gas in the car, and food in the fridge. The principal reason you might go looking for a job is to make the money you need to afford the basic necessities of life. Students don’t go to college to get a job. They want something more.

An occupation is literally work that keeps you busy, or occupies your time. Out in the world of work there are many occupations – many forms of work whereby individuals keep themselves busy day after day. This value distinction represents a slight up-shift from the objective of staying just over broke. You give your time to an occupation in the hope that it will end up being a decent trade. While a job only pays you money in exchange for your labor, an occupation typically offers more in the form of benefits, promotions, and other incentives.

A profession requires specialized training to acquire the knowledge and skills you need. Post-secondary, technical, and trade school programs are designed to teach and qualify students for work in all sorts of professions: manufacturing, engineering, medicine, business management, social services, etc. For each, there is a special set of skills to master, certificates to achieve, and degrees to earn. As a successful graduate, you hope to find work in the profession for which your college degree prepared you. Almost half of college graduates, however, end up finding work in occupations or jobs outside their chosen degree.

In my diagram, a line to the right circles into a spiral to illustrate the current focus of higher education. Colleges recruit students, turn them into graduates, and then release them to join a trained workforce. The prosperity of every society depends on workers who possess the skills and are willing to trade their time in work for the money they need.

As he sat in a university library in London and pondered this situation, Karl Marx realized that many (or most) of these workers were not finding joy in what they were doing. A big part of this discontent, which Marx analyzed as exploitation, oppression, and the alienation of labor, was a function of capitalism and the way it separates work from the human spirit of the worker, all in the interest of increasing the wealth of those who own the technology of production.

This alienation of the human spirit from truly creative and meaningful work is a condition currently fueled by our education system.

Two more terms in my hierarchy of value distinctions can clarify what I mean by this claim. While a career is commonly just another name for a profession, occupation, or job, it refers more specifically to the arc of your lifespan and the evolution of identity. The person you are is itself a product of numerous storylines arcing and weaving together in a complex tapestry of meaning. There never has been someone just like you, and there never will be again. The unique pattern of aspirations and insecurities, of preferences, insights, and concerns that inform who you are is still evolving.

From the time you were very young until this moment, your creative engagement with life through childhood play, backyard adventures, self-discovery, artistic experimentation, formal training, and in various kinds of work has shaped you into the person you are today.

Students – particularly college students – are fully immersed in this work of constructing identity. They long to connect their current stage in life to the developing core of who they are. One day they hope to find their place in the world, where the spirit within them (referring to the innate desire and drive of human beings to connect, create, and contribute) will take wing.

Every culture and spiritual tradition acknowledges this spirit within, this deep and rising need to transcend mere self-interest for the sake of a higher and larger experience of reality. Many have interpreted it quite intuitively as an invitational call of reality to the self, as a calling from beyond ego. This is the literal meaning of our term vocation.

The career of your identity (or the story of who you are) has brought you to numerous thresholds where the calling of a higher purpose invited you to get over yourself, shift perspective to a bigger frame, and devote your energies to what really matters. Many times (perhaps most) you ignored the call, turned down the volume, got distracted, and carried on with life-as-usual.

Vocation is less about where we feel called or what we feel called to do than what we are called to become. Hero myths from around the world have the protagonist going different places and undergoing different challenges, but they share a central fascination with how the hero changes or is transformed in the process. The hero might be killed and rise to life again with new powers, discover a hidden key that unlocks the gate to freedom, overcome his fear and confront the dragon, or find within herself a virtue that had lain dormant until the critical moment – the circumstances are secondary to the peculiar virtue gained or revealed in the hero’s transformation.

It seems clear to me that what is revealed in those mythic heroes is something their storytellers saw as a human potential. Even though European rationalism made a break from ancient mythology, claiming that humans had attained the fulfillment of their nature with the Age of Reason, our current education system – as both product and mechanism of this preference for rational technique over human virtue – is glaring evidence of how truly ignorant we are.

We don’t hold before our students the high ideal of what the human being possesses in potentia, nor does the typical classroom instructor stand before them as any kind of self-conscious model of virtue or its aspiration.

A refocused education system would not only turn out graduates into a trained workforce, but it would work to inspire and support students in their pursuit of enlightenment. Students aren’t in college just to get a job, but to clarify who they are and what their own hero’s journey is all about. What I’m calling an enlightened humanity refers to the actualization of virtues that exemplify our higher nature.

Five rungs of an ascending ladder in my diagram correspond to five existential and ethical virtues (capacities, powers, qualities, or abilities) that have strong recognition across all cultures, not necessarily independent of their different religious traditions but transcending (going beyond) them in a higher post-theistic focus.

An enlightened humanity is humble (or grounded: from humus, ground), compassionate, kind, generous, and forgiving. An intentional pursuit of this ideal aims to embody and live out these virtues in ever-increasing degrees of realization. This is our vocation, or calling, as a species. Our culture and education system need to renew our commitment to them, just as each of us ought to measure our progress and purpose in life according to how well we demonstrate these virtues in action.

As far as our prospect for genuine community, the liberated life, and planetary wellbeing is concerned, refocusing education on an enlightened humanity may be our most urgent task at hand.


For more thoughts on the state of education today, check out the following posts:

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Grateful Life

As my mother receives guests into her home and says goodbye to old friends, some deep questions poke to the surface of my conscious thought. What is this life that I so easily take for granted, this stretch of 80 years (if I’m lucky) from cradle to grave?

Just now the morning sun glows in the curtains, dappling the floor in a play of shadows and light. In five minutes it will be different – but that’s only because my attention chunks time into snapshots for measurement and comparison. Actually, each moment opens a unique touch-point on reality, where the fluttering pattern of light and shade is continuous with yet utterly different from what it was just a moment before.morning

How wide is a moment of time? Just a flash, a dissolving threshold? Am I not always in it – however wide or impossibly narrow it may be?

This, right now, is the present because at this very moment reality presents itself to my awareness. As present, it is a gift that I can open or set aside for later.

But if I should set it aside – out of intentional avoidance, preoccupation, laziness or on the promise that I’ll get back to it, it’s no longer there when I do.

The past isn’t where the present goes. It’s only how I remember or try to recall what happened, a fixed snapshot in my album.

I also spend a lot of time looking ahead, into the future, which is not the present coming to me but merely my mind again, chasing out the trendlines, flopping assumptions from over my shoulder and onto the path ahead.

So whether I’m reaching back to recover the past or looking forward to predict the future, I’m doing all of it in the present. This won’t be here again. Yesterday I was hoping for something else, and tomorrow I’ll be wishing I could have it back.

How many presents go unopened?

What if the sun comes up tomorrow morning and plays in the curtains again – but I’m no longer here to witness it? It won’t be chunked and framed, and it won’t be around for me to remember later. What if I’m not around tomorrow? What if this day is my last? What if this moment is the final present I have a chance to open?

Truthfully we can never know, can we? And that realization will either drive you insane with anxiety or call you to present-minded wonder and appreciation. If all there is is right now, then right here is where we need to start digging. Or maybe that’s already too willful and aggressive. Close your eyes and just relax into being.

The opening of reality to me in this moment coincides with the opening of my attention to the present mystery – or perhaps they are really the same. This moment is for me in the sense that the mystery presenting itself is made present as I give my attention to it.

But what am I supposed to do with it – this precious gift of time? I can’t simply gush all over it with sentimental acknowledgment of its fleeting character, grabbing up as much as I can before it slips through my fingers. Life can’t be lived perpetually in a stoned haze, gazing in stupefied amazement as it vanishes in wispy rings above our heads.

Maybe it’s the “harsh realities” of daily life – all the deadlines, appointments, and concerns – that push me to an opposite stance, where I’m perfectly willing to squander the moment in distraction or worry.

This could be what’s behind the worldwide tendency in religion to postpone what really matters to a later time, a distant paradise, on the other side. While the soul longs for authentic life now, mystical communion here, and deep peace in this moment, my ego-in-charge is too busy trying to hold its own and make progress against the steady drain of time. Having the assurance that I’m all set for life everlasting excuses me from fully investing in life here and now.

What if this is all I have, my only “at bat,” my exclusive opportunity to open up to the Real Presence of mystery. Do you pity me?

Please (and respectfully) save it for someone else.

Today I will begin receiving guests into my life and saying goodbye to old friends, knowing that this may be our last or only chance to touch the divinity in each other.

Tomorrow morning, if I am offered a gift of the sun dancing in curtains, I will notice, open the present, and give thanks.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on February 21, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The Narrow Gate

Kierkegaard: “Only the Eternal is … always present, is always true. Only the Eternal applies to each human being, whatever his [or her] age may be. […] If there is, then, something eternal in [an individual], it must be able to exist and to be grasped within every change.”

One of the critical mistranslations from New Testament Greek to modern English happened when aionios (Greek, eternal) became everlasting. From that fateful moment, upon a careless decision – or was it intentional? – of the translator, Christianity lost its original concern for the real presence of mystery and became – or rather degenerated into – a religion of the afterlife.

Jesus had been deeply focused on that moment of disillusionment when the really real (he called it God-power or the reign of God) breaks through our illusions of separateness and superiority and reveals our essential oneness with our neighbor. Christian orthodoxy not long thereafter began to move the primary objective of salvation out of this world and into the next.

Eternal simply means “timeless.” In time we are always living on the invisible threshold between a past and a future. Everything up till now has conspired to give shape to the ego and its personal world; everything after now can only be sketched out along a scale of probability, following the trajectory of momentum carried over from the past. What we call an individual’s character is only the part of the personality that has been so conditioned by his or her genetic and personal past as to be fairly predictable and enduring.

When we observe the past and future from where we stand, they seem to fit and flow seamlessly; what is called “the present” is elusive and impossible to pin down.

But it is precisely the present that is timeless, transcendent to the flow of past and future. The present is ineffable, since whatever word you may use to render its meaning is itself the product of a previous effort. You think you have it? Look again: you are holding only a relic of the past, however recent.

This is why my preferred reference to ultimate reality plays creatively with the terms “presence,” “mystery,” and “reality” – as in (1) the present mystery of reality, (2) the real presence of mystery, or (3) the mysterious reality of presence. It is about what is really real, what is elusive and ineffable, and what is here and now.

Kierkegaard says that the Eternal is “always present, always true” – and here true refers not to the accuracy of a statement but to the reality or authenticity of something. True, in this deeper sense, is not the opposite of false but of fake, counterfeit, illusory, unreal. (By the way, this is why Nietzsche refers to a doctrine or theory as an “untruth” – because it sets up a screen between us and the reality we are attempting to describe.)

A recovery of concern for the eternal over what merely lasts forever marks a transforming moment in awareness. Because so much of religion and religious orthodoxy is preoccupied with the project of getting the soul out of its body and into the next life, the possibility of a living faith in this present moment has been displaced by a frozen set of doctrines one must believe to be saved. In its deeper and original sense, however, faith refers to a mode of awareness and life that connects us to the present mystery of reality.

This is what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of our need to enter God-power through “the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13). A living encounter with divine presence is only possible in this moment. Our tendency as individuals to miss the moment and dwell instead on the past or future is only amplified by tribal religion, where sacred tradition or apocalyptic expectation can conspire to distract an entire society from the present mystery. We scurry back and forth across this vibrant threshold countless times a day, and the blood we shed in defense of our tradition or to advance our mission is poured out – always – on holy ground.

Eternity, then, is not after or outside the flow of time, but “within every change,” as Kierkegaard observes. Although he hasn’t used the word yet, I suspect that he also regards faith as something like a primary attitude of existence whereby an individual opens his or her life to the real mystery of presence.

The distinction between ego and soul (explored in my previous conversation with Nietzsche, Watts and Heschel) is especially relevant here. My cultural identity as a member of this tribe, a person with masks to wear and roles to play, is conditioned by a past and oriented toward a future. Ego is always in time – but is just not able ever to be on time, fully in this moment and free of “me-and-mine.”

Meanwhile, my grounded presence in reality, here and now – which is to say, the soul of myself (rather than “my soul”) – simply abides. One part of what I am waits for the other part to slow down, drop in, and let go.

The first movement of faith is letting go.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,