Category Archives: Development of Western Civilization

Dogmatic Ben Franklin

The blasphemy that attaches to monotheism is the blasphemy of certainty. Richard Rodriguez

Every time someone claims that we live in a country founded on “Christian principles,” I think of Benjamin Franklin. autobiographyHis Autobiography is often a text at the appropriate time in the interdisciplinary program I teach in—it’s short, pithy, no nonsense and quintessentially American. Exactly what I would expect from Ben. He doesn’t say a lot about organized religion other than to express his distaste for and rejection of it, turning his back on the Presbyterianism of his youth because the ministers’ sermons were primarily “explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect,” clearly designed to create good Presbyterians rather than good citizens. He describes himself as a “thorough Deist” just as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were,three amigos believing in a creating God who has little to no direct engagement in the world, who is best worshipped by “doing good to man,” and who will in some manner “certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.” DeismNo miracles, no incarnation, resurrection or revelation. And no organized worship.

Ben was surrounded by religion in eighteenth century colonial America but remained as secular as they come throughout his life. He observed concerning a saintly Catholic woman who had spent her life in service to others while living in a one-room garret with only a table, bed, crucifix and picture of Saint Veronica that he was amazed “on how small an income life and health may be supported,” while being most impressed with the ability of George Whitfield—one of the primary preachers during “The Great Awakening,” a remarkable religious revival in 1700s New England—to project his voice across a large open field. He was particularly intrigued by the Dunkers, a small Baptist sect (who “dunked” the newly baptized) that would become the Church of the Brethren a couple of centuries later. With a name like that, they could have given our favorite New England donut and coffee establishment a run for its money. One of the Dunker leaders complained to Benjamin that, as often happens when religion is concerned, other religious groups frequently accused the Dunkers of “abominable practices and principles, to which they were utter strangers.” brethrenBen sensibly suggested that the Dunkers should publish “the articles of their belief, and the rules of their discipline,” thus reducing the opportunity for misunderstanding and slander. To which suggestion the Dunker leader made a remarkable reply.

When we were first drawn together as a society, it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression . . . we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.

creedI like the Dunkers’ attitude. Doctrine bothers me because it so easily turns into its evil and rigid twin, dogma. As I recited the Nicene Creed with a dozen or so other 8:00 service attendees a couple of Sundays ago, I made more effort than usual to pay attention to what this close-to-two-thousand-years-old affirmation of faith is actually committing me to. There’s some pretty weird stuff there. Not long ago I heard someone mention that she is comforted by the fact that the words she is saying when reciting the creed are the very same words Christian believers have recited for close to two millennia. I’m not sure why that’s something to be comforted by. On the Sunday in question, I rather was wondering what makes any of us think that what fit the bill two millennia ago is still a perfect fit. I was reminded of something IWiman read from Christopher Wiman’s My Bright Abyss the other day: “Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance.”

I understand the immediate and obvious pushback from many circles, of course. I grew up in a religious world in which all of the images of belief involved stability, immutability, inflexibility and certainty. Truth does not change. If you are not stable and secure in what you believe, how are you going to be able to defend it against the inevitable onslaught of change, unbelief, secularism and relativism? We sang “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand” and that we were “standing on the promises of Christ my king.” We would not have recognized ourselves in Christopher Wiman’s unflinching description:

Dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches.

But that was us. Wiman continues:

The minute any human or human institution arrogates to itself a singular knowledge of God, there comes into that knowledge a kind of strychnine pride, and it is as if the most animated and vital creature were instantaneously transformed into a corpse . . . The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone.

people of the bookThose who follow the great Western monotheistic religions are often referred to as “People of the Book.” What the Dunkers realized is that writing something down, “setting it in stone,” so to speak, creates the very real possibility that worship will turn toward the book rather than focusing on what inspired it in the first place. Doctrine and dogma are just two of many ways in which human beings try to make encounters with the divine safe and predictable. And of course, the more I turn my attention toward expressions of what I believe rather than to the open spaces where the object of that belief resides, the more defensive I get. BBTAs Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

Human beings never behave so badly as when they believe they are protecting God. . . . If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape.

So there’s a New Year’s resolution for you: Be like the Dunkers. It’s no way to run a successful religion—but then, Jesus wasn’t interested in doing that.

no tech

Computer Sabbath

If multitasking is the enemy of reverence, which I’m quite sure it is, then I’m in trouble. Me, a week ago

seventh dayAnd on the seventh day God rested. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s decision to take a day off after six days of hard work was intended to serve as a model for how human beings should structure their lives. If the Big Guy thought it a good idea to take a break from the usual “creating the heavens and the earth” grind, then perhaps mere mortals should also schedule regular breaks from their usual routines. Hence the Fourth Commandment:

fourth commandmentRemember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. . . . For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

To which the general contemporary American attitude is “Whatever.” You can’t run a business or a career that way—it’s not clear that a modern life can be lived that way either.

But I’ve had the first cousin of the Sabbath—sabbatical—on my radar screen for a while. The early books of the Hebrew Scriptures have a lot to say about how the newly liberated children of Israel are to organize their communities once the Promised Land is occupied and the pesky inhabitants are killed or thrown out. sabbaticalOn a once-every-seventh-year rotating basis, slaves are to be set free, fields are to be left fallow, debts are to be forgiven—behold, all things are become new. The Sabbath/sabbatical idea incorporates some sort of divine insight into how things work; fortunately, in my profession the opportunity for sabbatical is still available for the fortunate few. And I am one of them—my third sabbatical, the first one to last a full year, will begin on July 1. To my non-academic friends and family who believe that I will be on a year-long vacation doing nothing, I respond that sabbatical is not about doing nothing. It is definitely about doing different things, but even more is about doing things differently. And so, I suspect, is the core Sabbath idea. The point is not to stop doing things one day out of seven. The point rather is to include in my life a structured reminder to see, think, and act differently than usual. Doing that on a weekly basis is far more challenging than planning for a once-every-seven-years extended sabbatical.

In last Monday’s blog post I revealed that my one New Year’s resolution is to be a more reverent person in 2015:

Freelance Christianity: One Thing

I’m sure that this decision is a confluence of thinking about sabbatical and reading BBTBarbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World in which she writes engagingly about how important taking a true Sabbath every week has been to her in the years since she stepped down from the manic energies required by being the rector of a thriving Episcopal parish. As I thought about what reverence might mean outside the confines of its usual religious implications—what “secular reverence” might be, if you will—I kept circling back to a negative definition: Reverence is the opposite of multitasking. If being reverent means paying careful attention to the tasks, persons and items in my life as they show themselves, it also means not dividing that attention fifteen different ways.

As I sat in our lovely little library room before dawn last Saturday morning, the first morning after choosing reverence as the focus of my one New Year’s resolution, I wondered “What is the thing most likely to suck me into multitasking?” The answer was obvious—my greatest temptation to non-reverence was (and is) my beloved surface 2Surface II tablet, recharged and waiting for my use, laying on the bottom shelf of the table next to my chair. And I had a “What If?” moment. What if I tried to spend twenty-four hours without turning my tablet (or either of the other laptops in the house) on? What if I deliberately removed the greatest temptation to multitask and lived in a “tablet-free” zone for twenty-four hours?  What if, in other words, Saturday January 3, 2015 was a “Computer Sabbatical”?

Immediately a swarm of questions and concerns swept over me like locusts over Egypt.locusts

  1. But what if I want to work on some essays today?
  2. What if an answer to one or more of the cosmically important emails I sent out yesterday comes in today?
  3. How am I going to be able to track how my blog numbers are doing?
  4. I was going to finish the syllabus for my upcoming Philosophy of the Human Person class today.
  5. Should I tell Jeanne what I’m doing?
  6. Would using my cell phone count as a violation of computer sabbatical?
  7. How am I going to print off the essay I wrote yesterday that I’ll be using at Living Stones seminar tomorrow after church?
  8. Most importantly, how am I going to find out when the Friars game this afternoon is?

As the above concerns flooded into my awareness (all within five minutes of my declaring the day “computer free”), I scribbled them down in a yellow pad of paper. Which immediately answered concerns 1 and 4 above—there is a remarkable invention, almost as amazing as tablets, called “paper” upon which one can record one’s most profound thoughts even when no computer is available. I did indeed write a new essay last Saturday; I dutifully typed it into my tablet on Sunday. I also finished off a few syllabus-related items in long hand. I had forgotten how horrible my handwriting is.

I’m not sure how #5 ever came up, since the sight of me without my tablet surgically attached everywhere I go would have alerted Jeanne that something was up. I did tell her what I was up to as soon as she arose because I needed her wisdom concerning #6. androidDoes my computer sabbatical apply to my phone (which isn’t technically a computer after all)? “Yes it does apply,” she immediately said, “since you use your phone like a computer instead of a phone.” True enough. I hate getting phone calls, but love checking my emails and blog numbers on my phone. Which focused my attention on #2 and #3. On Sunday morning I found out that although about twenty-five emails came in on Saturday, none of them were the responses I was looking for; I deleted all but two of the twenty-five without even reading them. Which tells me, I guess, that perhaps the emails I sent weren’t cosmically important after all.

As for checking my blog numbers, this was a big problem. I had no idea how often I do this habitually until computer sabbatical day. I have taught logic classes before and know all about the post hoc“post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (“after this, therefore because of this”) fallacy, but I have been convinced for a long time that the number of visits to my blog during a given day is directly proportional to the number of times I check my blog numbers. And guess what? Computer sabbatical day proved my theory to be correct. Last Saturday was my worst blog activity day in close to a year—obviously because I didn’t check the numbers all day. By the way, I found out when the Friars game was when I remembered I had a calendar in my backpack with all of the college sports events for the year listed by day and time. I shouldn’t have bothered. They lost.

I did make it through the day without turning a computer on or messing with my phone. Instead I took down the Christmas tree, wrote a new essay, finished An Altar in the World, listened to the Friars lose on the radio, watched a bunch of TV (only some of it worth watching), ate more than usual, and sort of felt like I didn’t get that much done in the day. But the evidence of baby steps in reverence was there. For instance, I am in the habit of noting in the index the chapters of any book I am reading that I especially like or find insightful. Was it a coincidence that three of my four favorite chapters in altarAn Altar in the World are chapters that I read without tablet interruption on Saturday morning? And when Jeanne told me early in the evening on Saturday that I looked “extremely content” sitting in my chair in the living room, I concluded that maybe the computer sabbatical experiment is worth repeating every Saturday for the foreseeable future. As regular “no computer” days become habitual, I hope to notice that at least once a week less multitasking means more reverence. And as to #7 above: I did not have print off a hard copy of my new essay for Living Stones on Sunday morning after all. I just brought my tablet to church and read it off the screen.


Nice Work If You Can Get It

The new semester begins in a week. I was interested a few days ago to read a Huffington Post article summarizing the results of what a bunch of anthropologists found out concerning the daily work habits of university faculty.

What Do Professors Do All Day?

After spending two weeks with a non-random sample of sixteen faculty of different ranks at boise stateBoise State University, the researchers found out that on the average the faculty worked 51 hours during the work week and 10 hours on the weekend at a host of different tasks. Amazing. It took a study to find out that teachers have full-time jobs after all and actually do work-related things on the weekend (although the numbers for both week and weekend seem a bit low). I’m wondering how to square these remarkable results with an article I read a year ago claiming that “University Professor” topped the list of “Least Stressful jobs of 2013.” Of course I had to respond . . .

Those who read this blog regularly or even occasionally know that I believe I have the greatest job in the world. For those who are finding this out for the first time, let me repeat—I have the greatest job in the world. As a matter of fact, it is so great that I don’t consider it to be a job at all. For me, teaching is a vocation rather than a job, something that I truly believe I am called and was born to do. Convocation_2007_16I raise eyebrows occasionally on the campus of the Catholic college at which I teach when I say that I consider teaching to be a vocation for me just as much as being a priest is the vocation of the guys who walk around campus in white robes. But even though I love what I do to an almost unhealthy extent, I taken aback when I learned from a colleague via Facebook that “University Professor” is listed by at number one in its top ten list of “Least Stressful Jobs of 2013.”

The Ten Least Stressful Jobs of 2013

Really? Or as one of my colleagues commented on Facebook “Bullshit!!! [pardon my advanced degree French].” I guess I must have failed to notice how non-stressful my job is during my 25 year university professor career.

Every person who teaches in higher education has a virtual file full of stories about how difficult it is to get a non-academic friend or family member to understand exactly what is involved with being a college professor. pic_short_teaching_courses_londonMost difficult is getting someone to understand that this is not a part-time job. For instance, Cousin Bob finds out that the typical teaching load for a faculty member at a teaching college or university is three or four three-credit courses per semester (or perhaps five at a two-year college), meaning that the faculty member is in class at most fifteen hours per week. Must be nice to make a full-time salary at a part-time job! Cousin Bob remarks. Early in my career I often patiently pointed out to the Cousin Bobs in my family that a good rule of thumb is that a teacher spends three to four hours outside of class (preparation, reading, grading, meeting with students, etc.) for every hour spent in class. “Really?” Cousin Bob replies. But he clearly is not convinced, since as we all know, easy working hours is the main reason that a person becomes a teacher.

Then, of course, Cousin Bob wonders about all of the weeks of the calendar year that I am not in the classroom. Christmas break, Spring break, the summer—teachers apparently get at least twenty weeks per year off.images Must be nice to make a full-time salary at a part-time job! With what begins to feel like infinite patience, I explain to Cousin Bob that teaching is only one part of a university professor’s job. In order to advance through the ranks of promotion and, more importantly, in order to get tenure, one must research and publish on a regular basis. For most college faculty, the time and focus required for this aspect of the profession is not available during the semester, so the “breaks” are all about research, writing, and praying for publication. But I’m not in the classroom, right? Must be nice to make a full-time salary at a part-time job! You get the idea. A colleague once told me about his frustrated response to a relative after one too many such conversations. Upon hearing Must be nice to make a full-time salary at a part-time job! one too many times, my colleague replied “It actually is really nice. If you were smart enough you could have a job like that too.”

CareerCast’s explanation of why University Professor is the least stressful job of 2013 has more than a whiff of Cousin Bob behind it, just expressed in a slightly less aggressive fashion. For instance, the article explains that

University professors are at the pinnacle of the education field. Their students are largely those who choose the classes they attend, and thus want to be in class. Unlike elementary and secondary educators, the performance of college professors isn’t evaluated based on standardized tests. 15rfd-image-custom3University professors also have the opportunity to earn tenure, which guarantees lifetime employment.

A full response would require something more like a book chapter than a blog post. Suffice it to say that the author of the article (1) has apparently never heard of core requirements if he thinks that college professors face “students . . . who choose the classes they attend, and thus want to be in class,” (2) is not aware that despite the (usual) lack of standardized tests, college teachers are evaluated by their peers, answerable for the results of student evaluations, and are under regular scrutiny in every aspect of what they do, and (3) needs to learn something about the tenure process (assuming that the faculty member is fortunate enough to be teaching at an institution that uses the tenure process).

Tenure. Such job security is certainly unusual in today’s job market and tenure is an attractive “perk” of the academic life. Once one earns it, that is. one-does-not-simply-become-an-adjunct-professorTenure-track positions are hard to come by in academia, more and more so as many institutions opt for hiring year-to-year adjunct professors or special lecturers then proceed to treat them as well-dressed slave labor (don’t get me started on that one). Should a teacher be fortunate to land a tenure-track position in today’s heavily buyer-skewed academic marketplace, the stress she or he will experience in the next several years leading to the tenure decision will be sufficient to last a lifetime. As is undoubtedly the case in many workplace environments, the tenure decision is often as much or more about internal campus politics as it is about the qualifications of the candidate and those things that she or he can control. “The opportunity to earn tenure” is indeed that—an opportunity that, unfortunately, for many talented and qualified teachers will never be available.

Then there’s the money. The article author points out that

csreport_header02_r1_c1_s1Harvard University pays full-time professors $198,400, with a 7:1 professor-to-student ratio, while University of Chicago professors receive $197,800 per year with a 6:1 ratio. Among public universities, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) is highest paying, with an average wage of $162,600 for its full-time staff.

Really? All of them? At all levels? In all disciplines? Such “statistics” are useless without context, about as useless as telling a lawyer in a public defender’s office working 80-100 hours per week and struggling to make ends meet that the senior lawyers in the top firms on Wall Street often make seven-figures annually. Here’s an anecdote from the real world. At least a dozen years into my teaching career, still paying off the loans from ten years of college in order to earn the PhD required to teach at the college level in my discipline,business-ethics it occurred to me one day that the second semester seniors in my Business Ethics class, most of whom would be entering the work force shortly after graduation as entry-level persons with undergraduate business degrees, would be starting at a monthly salary noticeably higher than my own. As I once told a younger colleague when I was chair of my department, in response to his complaints about how little he was being paid, “if you became a teacher for the money, you’re a moron.”

1385581_616281185091038_1215320450_nI have reached the level of experience and rank (a tenured, full professor) at which one could expect that maybe stress levels might reduce and ultimately disappear. But persons such as I are those who are tapped, appropriately, to significantly commit themselves to the third leg of the academic stool (along with teaching and research): service. After four years as chair of a department of 25 faculty and now in the middle of a four-year stint as the director of the core academic program at my college, responsible for 80 faculty and upwards of 1700 students at any given time, I realize that one sort of stress just gets replaced by another.

And actually that’s fine, since it is all part of the vocation I was born to inhabit. There are many attractive features to the life of a university professor. I can think of no other profession in which one’s creativity is required more often or in which one has more autonomy and flexibility. But it is anything but stress-free. A teacher never leaves the office. Your work goes with you everywhere. I realized at one point early last December that, other than Thanksgiving Day,  I literally had not had a day off since the middle of August. This is why I have recommended the teaching profession to no more than a half-dozen of my best students in more than twenty years of teaching. If you are looking for a profession that will fit nicely with your family obligations and other interests, don’t become a teacher.nice-work-if-you-can-get-it-1180 If you want to make a living wage at a stimulating 40-45 hour per week job, don’t become a teacher. If you want to “work to live” rather than “live to work,” you probably should not become a teacher. If you think of teaching as one among many equally interesting career possibilities, don’t become a teacher. But if you are incurably obsessed with the life of learning, if the dynamic of new ideas exhilarates you, if you suspect that you might have the heart of a teacher and nothing else will fulfill you, then this highly stressful but highly rewarding vocation might just be for you. It’s nice work if you can get it.

moving on

Moving On

“Get a picture of yourself ten years from now in your mind,” I said to my eighteen-year old freshmen. “Your job, whether you’ll be in a permanent relationship, whether you will have kids or have considered having them, where you’ll be living, graduate school or not. The works.” Most of them had smiles on their faces as they constructed their future selves in their imaginations. We were studying the Stoics, so I suspect they were wondering what this exercise had to do with the day’s material. “Got the picture?” I asked—they all nodded. “None of it is going to happen, or at least not at all in the way you think.” life is what happensThis appeared to be a surprise to some of them—at eighteen it is still easy to believe that much of your future is within your control.

We have all heard the related truisms: “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans,” “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell her your plans” and so on. Anyone past a certain age—say thirty—nods bemusedly when hearing them because unlike many bumper sticker summaries of the complexities of human life, these sound bites are completely true. Sometimes the unexpected changes are welcome, other times we are surprised by events so challenging and disturbing that we doubt we’ll survive them. under constructionBut we do. The persons we are and will become have been and will be constructed out of what we never saw and won’t see coming.

I’m fifty-eight, well established in a profession that I deeply love, happily in love with and married to my best friend, living in my favorite part of the country—Jeanne and I have carved out a life that seems comfortable, predictable, and stable. She observed positively upon returning from visiting her family and the latest drama in New York a couple of weeks ago that “we really live a peaceful life.” Exactly as we want it. But on this New Year’s Eve I am on the brink of a year of significant change and am reminded that even within the boundaries of apparent stability, things never stay the same for long.

I am entering my final semester of directing a large academic program on my campus, a task that has consumed and defined my life both on campus and off for the past four years. When July 1 of next year arrives and I hand the reins over to my successor, I DWCwill have spent eight of my last eleven professional years as both an administrator and teacher (four years as department chair, four years as program director). I did not go into the teaching profession to be an administrator; although it’s part of the academic life to play administrator on occasion, I’m looking forward to finding out what it’s like to be just a full-time teacher. And yet . . . in a strange way I’m going to miss being a program director. I’ve learned a lot about myself as I juggle scheduling, faculty herding and student management on a daily basis. There are many indications that the program has become better over the past few years—and I sort of like being in charge. But all things come to an end, including this.

The timing of my stepping down from directing this program is intentionally coordinated with the beginning of my next sabbatical next July 1. sabbaticalThis will be my third sabbatical. I wrote a book during my first one, my life was changed during my second one, so who knows what this one will bring? It will be my first full-year sabbatical—I’ve told everyone that I wanted to have one full-year sabbatical during my career, and this is the time. By the time my next one comes around, I may be too decrepit and crotchety to appreciate it. I have a plan for what I want to do, but where it will happen and how is totally up in the air. Proposals have been sent, contacts have been made, feelers have been extended—and I won’t know how things will be shaping up for at least two or three months.

Outside of work things are also in flux. Jeanne’s job was eliminated a couple of months ago—who knows when or if someone will be smart enough to recognize what an asset she will be for them?Trinity Everything is moving on at the church we have attended and been involved with for the past four years. Our good friend Marsue, who is the reason why we started going to the church has retired (at least for a couple of weeks) and a new rector has been hired. Marsue used to turn the pulpit over to me about once every three or four months to give the sermon—I’ve probably given my last sermon at Trinity. A couple of months before Marsue’s retirement a full-time music minister was hired, which means three years of frequent, interim organ playing—one of the loveliest surprises that has come my way in many years—are at an end. Everyone at Trinity knows we started attending because of Marsue—will we be staying? Jeanne and I have answered regularly that it depends on what Big Bird is doing. The wind blows where it will, and no one can tell where it’s coming from or where it is going—so it is with all things Big Bird.

A couple of Sundays ago I was lector at church and read the Old Testament lesson from Second Samuel. After cementing his rise from shepherd to king through a series of struggles over many years against challenges both internal and external, David is ready to enjoy his middle-age years as monarch and to turn his attention toward God. arkHe tells his prophet advisor and sidekick Nathan of his plans to build a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, a place for God to settle down and enjoy himself just as David plans to. Given that God’s dwelling has been a tent or movable tabernacle for centuries, Nathan approves of David’s plans. Until God sets Nathan straight in a dream, that is. When did I ever say I wanted a permanent place to live? God asks. Do I look like someone who want to settle down? I haven’t stopped being a nomad since I delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt and don’t plan to stop now. If you want to hang out with me, don’t get too comfortable and be ready to move. Then this wonderful promise passed on to David through Nathan: “The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.”

WimanIn other words, God already has a house—Us. You and me. That restless spirit of change that permeates everyone’s life? That’s God. As Christopher Wiman writes in his wonderful My Bright Abyss,

To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.

This, Richard Rodriguez suggests, is what monotheists get for believing in a desert God.rodriquez

The desert’s uninhabitability convinces Jew and Christian and Muslim that we are meant for another place.

Which means that trying to confine this restless deity in buildings, dogma, or certainty is a mistake of cosmic proportions.

Desert is the fossil of water. Is dogma a fossil of the living God—the shell of God’s passage—but God is otherwise or opposite?

For those not inclined toward religious belief, feel free to come up with your own explanation for the contingency and uncertainty of human existence. You don’t need a pillar of fire to convince you that it’s all about moving on.moving on


Too Soon

Thanksgiving Break last week was a bit less relaxing than usual for Jeanne and me because, even though we are the old people in our immediate family, we did the travelling this year. We met on the day before Thanksgiving twenty-seven years ago; because of court ordered travel to their mother’s house for Christmas (the wonders of blended families) Thanksgiving was the one holiday we knew we would have my sons in house, so Thanksgiving has always been “our holiday.” It still is—people come from far and wide to make sure we are in one place at the end of November—but usually our house is the place we all gather. 002Last Thanksgiving we agreed to travel to my son and daughter-in-law’s in Florida the next time, last week was the next time, so for only the second time in recent or not-so-recent memory we were not home for Thanksgiving. We had a great time as always, although Jeanne and I agreed that for the foreseeable future we are playing the age card and having everyone revisit the tradition of coming to us. It’s a long trip for just a few days, and finding canine-care for our three four-legged daughters over a holiday was not easy.

I was committed to not checking my Facebook or email accounts while away, but of course utterly failed to honor my commitment. At around 11:00 PM on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my phone gave its “you have a new thing to look at on Facebook” beep and I took a look. I found, to my dismay, a Providence Journal news update posted by a colleague from work reporting that Siobhán, a much-loved and respected member of our college community, had been killed in a car accident on slippery Rhode Island roads a few hours earlier that afternoon. The thread of comments from my campus colleagues—“Oh no!” “Oh my God!” ross-siobhan-headshot“This is terrible!” “I’m shocked and numb”—reflected my own immediate response. I felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me with a punch in the solar plexus. I had just had a brief email exchange with Siobhán a couple of days earlier setting up a meeting time the week after Thanksgiving when she could provide me with some tech advice—and now she was gone.

If someone asked me to provide a list (which would be a very short list) of people, from among the thousands of students, faculty and staff on campus, who everyone liked, Siobhán would have been at the top of the list. She would most likely have been the only person on the list. Siobhán was the college’s Instructional Technology Development Program Coordinator, a position that put her in charge, among other things, of bringing the faculty into the twenty-first century technologically (after guiding them first through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). Over the past few years I had dozens of interactions with Siobhán both in person and via email, sometimes asking for help with something that a two-year old probably would know how to do, other times asking for advice concerning what new technology might be useful and user-friendly for the faculty in the program I direct. She always had the answer, delivered both in language that I could easily understand and without a hint of condescension or impatience (even though I undoubtedly deserved both). Often Siobhán provided solutions for the next eight problems to follow that I didn’t even know about yet. Siobhan 2She was gracious, creative, generous, funny, and had a smile that lit up every space she entered. I pride myself in responding to emails quickly, but Siobhán was the fastest I have ever encountered. I once complimented her on her immediate helpfulness; she responded “That’s because I like you!” I asked “What do you do to people you don’t like?” “I make them wait a week.”

I wish I had known Siobhán outside of work; my guess is that she was a wonderful friend. I found upon returning to campus last Monday that everyone continues to be stunned, struggling with her passing. The following comments copied randomly from one of the many Facebook reminiscences that have popped up over the past few days are a testament to what a hole has been torn in the fabric of our academic community by the untimely loss of this beautiful colleague and friend:

I’m in shock at the news – what a profound loss for the PC family. We’ll always love that smile…

She was such a beautiful presence on campus. Unbelievable.

Siobhan on bikeSiobhan was someone who always knew how to help, and she really got what it meant to be a student at PC. I will miss her a lot.

I am shocked by the news–she was perhaps the most patient and generous person I knew. I’m still having trouble processing the news.

I’m just hearing this news now —just devastating- she was a wonderful woman

This is so devastating. Siobhan had such positive energy, always with a smile and always willing to think creatively about helping students learn… She will be missed immensely.

Oh no–this is heartbreaking news! Siobhan was one of the most generous people I knew. Her positive energy always lit up the room and lifted the spirits of those around her.

This really hurts. I served on many committees with her. We shared a passion for alternative approaches to learning. Even when I had no “business” with her, I often stopped into her office to talk. What a loss.

I didn’t know her well, but from the short time I knew her, I could tell how much love and energy she carried with her and shared with the world. I had really hoped to get to know her better and become friends.

There will be a memorial service today on campus for Siobhán; I know that my teaching teammate and I are not the only professors who have cancelled class in order to attend. The chapel will be full. There will be a number of beautiful things said about Siobhan’s impact and influence on everyone privileged enough to have known and worked with her—all of them true. SiobhanThere will also be many things said about life after death, about God’s plan, about comfort in knowing that we will see Siobhán again, about Jesus having said “I am the resurrection and the life.” Somebody said that the angels must have really wanted Siobhan badly to take her so soon. I do not know what Siobhán believed, whether or not she was religious, or whether she believed in God at all. But such words are more for those who remain than for those who have died—and I must confess that they really don’t help very much. I profess to believe all of those things but haven’t a clue at the moment about what they ultimately mean other than serving as comforting platitudes. The fact is Siobhán is gone, taken decades before her time, and I’m not sure that I am—that we are—ready to “feel better.”

But I do know what helped a bit. Last Tuesday afternoon a colleague on campus organized an impromptu gathering for Siobhán’s friends and colleagues since—as the VP for Mission and Ministry said—we didn’t want to wait until Friday. At least seventy-five people gathered in a space designed for half that many; after an opening prayer there were several moments of silence. In twenty-one years at the college, I have never seen a gathering such as this one. Faculty, administrators and staff from all over campus, people who might go a whole semester without seeing each other or speaking, all in one space to express their sadness and gratitude. One by one various people began to tell brief stories and vignettes. Many were funny, all were touching—there were few dry eyes in the room. One woman told of a time when Siobhan was helping her with a tech problem and said that what she loved about Siobhán was her ability to not make you feel like an idiot—even when you knew that you were an idiot. “The nugget that Siobhán left me with is to always meet people where they are at, then raise them up from there.” Thanks for the take away, Siobhán. Rest in peace.



Get Thee Behind Me, Santa

Today is Black Friday, on my shortlist of candidates for the stupidest day of the year. Would that there had been lines outside the polling places a few weeks ago as long as those lined up outside Walmart, Target, Toys ‘R’ Us and other cathedrals of capitalism this morning. A bit over a year ago I reflected on related issues. Enjoy, and happy day after Thanksgiving!

Autumn is my favorite season, and this year’s version in New England has been even more beautiful than most. But all things must unfortunately come to an end, and now in mid-November the leaves have just about all fallen. Even for our small postage-stamp yard, this means raking of leaves. images[2]Last year, in a purported nod toward the fact that I am in my later fifties, but really because I thought it would be fun, I purchased a leaf-blower. And it is fun, so much so that yesterday I found it easy to be a good neighbor and take care of the leaves in our neighbor’s half of the driveway that we share as I was blowing a pile of them from our half toward the road. I’m not sure that I would have been as neighborly had I been armed with a rake rather than a blower.

This was my third, and probably final, leaf-blowing-and-bagging event of the season and I realized before the event that I needed another package of large paper bags for bagging purposes. Upon entering the neighborhoodLowe's Sanford Store #3608 Reopening Lowe’s and heading for the place where blowers, bags and rakes were two weeks ago when I bought bags the last time, I was immediately disoriented. Autumn leaf-control tools and accessories had been replaced by mass quantities of the worst that commercial Christmas has to offer. Fake trees, gaudy and tasteless lawn decorations and tree ornaments had taken over the right front quadrant of the store, supported by the ever-offensive strains of Xmas muzak in the background. WHAT THE FUCK!!!??? I thought, as I do every year about this time when I am smacked in the face by the Ghost of Capitalist Christmas for the first time in the season. Halloween was just two weeks ago! Thanksgiving isn’t for another ten days! Thanks for making me hate Christmas all over again, Lowe’s!

This experience brought a recent email exchange with a colleague to mind. As the director of a large interdisciplinary academic program, and as the chair of several college committeesdeakin_large[1], I am often forced to remind various colleagues who report to me that deadlines are not suggestions or optional. Here is a recent email exchange:

Me: Are you going to be able to get your reviews up on the website by the end of the week? Please say yes—that’s the deadline, you know.

Colleague: I know, Vance, I know . . . I was in Maine for a funeral over the weekend. I will definitely get everything in by Friday, if not earlier. When I got back I read your reminder email to everyone from last week and felt very guilty and ashamed that I hadn’t even started my reviews.

Me: Good. Part of my job is to indiscriminately spread shame and guilt everywhere like some evil Santa Claus.

Colleague: Get thee behind me, Santa!

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not aligning myself with the forces resisting the supposed War_on_Christmas[1]“War on Christmas” that certain folks annually claim is being fought by political and social liberals such as myself as part of a continuing effort to make atheism the religion of the land. The most recent salvo in the war against the war on Christmas is Sarah Palin’s Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. I won’t be reading this book, but I’m quite confident that I know the general thrust of her argument, if she bothers to have one.good-tidings-great-joy_zps3892bf56[1] Liberal atheist grinches are out there trying to steal our crèches, monitor our language so that we will be embarrassed to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” or “How are you doing during this lovely Holiday season,” and make it a thought-crime to think about the baby Jesus. I find this paranoia amusing, sad, or maddening depending on my mood. If one’s faith is rattled by such matters, one has larger issues to confront than the possibility that not everyone shares one’s faith. The Incarnation that I celebrate at Christmas is at the center of what I believe concerning God—whether an oversized fake baby with a halo and pious expression gets to lay in a manger while observed by imagesCAWOLV2Cother pious statues and animals on the front lawn of city hall doesn’t have much effect on that belief.

No, my WTF? annual response to Christmas crap in early November is not about protecting Christmas from the evil, liberal atheist hordes with whom I probably share a great deal more in common than with those resisting the imaginary war on Christmas. My interest is in pushing back against the evil designs of Santa. This is a scary guy who continually finds ways to invade my physical and mental space uninvited. Think about it:

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you are awake

Big Brother? The NSA? CIA? IRS? No—this is SantaimagesCAV5HLBR, the most persistent stalker ever. According to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the jolly fat elf has even appropriated moral authority over us: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!” Who gave him that authority? For that matter, who gave him permission to monitor my sleeping habits? As a kid I was entirely in favor of Santa Claus’ generosity with presents once per year, and was in awe of his amazing ability to almost be omnipresent, visiting every abode on the planet in one short night. But I found his interest in my bedtime routine and my moral behavior to be disconcerting and creepy.

The Christmas tune aside, I no longer think that Santa Claus is my moral judge, nor do I believe that he monitors my sleeping habits—for many those concerns have simply been transferred to the cosmic image[1]Santa Claus called God. I have had continuous confirmation from various classes this semester that in the minds of many persons, Santa Claus and God have become indistinguishable. And what more insidious undermining of an adult, vigorous, intelligent faith could there be—the divine turned into a fat guy with a beard who can be bribed by good behavior into fulfilling even the most trivial desires? A jolly elf who effectively seduces millions of people every year into believing that and behaving as if the best place to celebrate Christmas is in one of our Providence-Mall[1]contemporary cathedrals of worship—the shopping mall. Get thee behind me, Santa, indeed.

The war on Christmas has been underway for a long time, waged not by liberal, politically correct atheists seeking to undermine traditional values, but rather by the insidious and inexorable pressure to trivialize and commodify everything. The heart of Christmas is no more present in lawn ornaments, “Put Christ Back Into Christmas” slogans, and “Merry Christmas” lapel buttons than it is in the extravaganza of holiday paraphernalia that screams at me every time I drive down the street or walk into a store between Halloween and New Year’s Day. The heart of Christmas is in the silent mystery of the Incarnation, in the strange and beautiful ways in which the divine chooses to enter our world in human form on a daily basis. There are many ways to connect and resonate with the heart of Christmas—Santa is not one of them.evil_santa[1]

the other

I Was a Stranger

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a story of one of the strangest love triangles imaginable. Acis and GalateaTwo points of the triangle make sense—Galatea, a sea nymph and Acis, the son of a sea nymph—but the third point makes things interesting. The story of Polyphemus the Cyclops is well known from Homer’s Odyssey, but Ovid’s story involves Polyphemus in earlier days—solitary, huge, hairy,  one-eyed, and hopelessly in love with Galatea. Galatea, who tells the story, isn’t having any of it: “I could not say whether love for Acis or hatred of the Cyclops was stronger in me.” But Polyphemus is not deterred. He combs his hair with a rake, trims his beard with a scythe, suspends his habit of destroying passing ships and eating the sailors, playing musicand settles down on top of a hill with a homemade instrument made of “a hundred bound reeds” to try his hand at musical composition and performance.

The Cyclops’ hilarious love song reveals his inexperience at wooing sea nymphs, as his descriptions of Galatea range from “more radiant than crystal, smoother than shells polished by the tide” to “meaner than a pregnant bear . . . more vicious than a snake that’s been stepped on and kicked.” Toward the middle of his ode, Polyphemus gets down to business: “If you really knew me, Galatea, you’d be sorry you ran.” Understanding that a hairy giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead is not your typical match for a sea nymph, the Cyclops emphasizes what he brings to the relationship table—polyphemussurprisingacisandgalatealots of sheep and goats, a nice cozy cave, all the fresh fruit one could want from his orchard, as well as excellent family connections through his father Neptune, the god of the sea. What’s not to like? “Tell me why, when you turn your back on Cyclops, you love Acis, and why do you prefer his embrace to mine?” Polyphemus’ frustration rises to the boiling point when he catches sight of Galatea and Acis making love in the forest; he tears the top off a mountain and drops it on top of Acis while Galatea dives into the ocean in terror. throwing a rockAcis’ blood seeping from under the pile of rocks turns into a river as Acis is turned into a river-god, yet another metamorphosis in Ovid’s strange collection of stories.

The tale of Galatea and Polyphemus was one of many I discussed in seminar with twelve Honors freshmen last Friday. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, various suggestions ranged from a comparison of civilized with barbarian people to a morality tale about the dangers of unrequited love. “But why doesn’t Galatea take Polyphemus’ advances seriously?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “The Cyclops has a lot to offer—a nice place to live, a comfortable lifestyle, property, great family connections—he’s even captured a couple of bear cubs so Galatea can have unusual and interesting pets! What’s not to like (other than his being a hairy giant with one eye, that is)?” Why does Galatea prefer Acis, who is a nonentity with nothing to offer other than being good-looking? In the middle of a number of very amusing comments from my students, one young lady thoughtfully hit the nail on the head: “Polyphemus is just too different, too unusual, too scary for Galatea to take him seriously.” the otherUndoubtedly true, which raises an important larger problem: The Problem of the Other.

Human beings are hard-wired to form the strongest connections with those who are most like themselves, dividing naturally into groups of “Us” versus “Them” according to dividing lines both natural and imaginary. The Problem of the Other covers all manner of challenges and fears, from those who look different through those who think differently to those who do not share our values. The Other is often the person or persons who I choose to ignore or pretend does not exist, those who I choose to treat as invisible. But just as Polyphemus could not be ignored, neither can the Other. Furthermore, yesterday’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, those who we would just as soon ignore are the very persons who are to be the primary focus of our concern. 6a00e54ecc070b88330177444f3010970d-320wiAnd our spiritual survival depends on it.

Yesterday’s passage from Matthew 25 is the familiar apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment, with those judged being separated into the sheep and the goats (sort of like Polyphemus’ charges) and sent to eternal bliss or darkness. More interesting than the possibility of reward or damnation are the criteria used to make the judgment. Explaining to the sheep on their way to the heavenly kingdom why this is their destination, Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And we don’t need to wait for Jesus to show up to act this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” obamaThe greatest challenge of the life of faith is to recognize the divine in the most unlikely places—and in those people who are the most invisible.

In his prime time speech on immigration reform the other day, President Obama closed with a rewording of a passage from Exodus 22: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers . . .” I fully understand that public policy should not be shaped according to religious principles, but there is a psychological truth in these passages that transcends the various choices concerning religion that one might make. The moral health of an individual or a group is revealed by how they choose to treat those most unlike themselves. small victoriesThe outsider, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the poor—all of the various manifestations of the Other. For at heart we are all strangers seeking a home. As Anne Lamott writes, “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full.” To refuse a home to the stranger, to reject those who are unlike us, to imagine that different means less important, is to imagine fellow human beings as Polyphemus—too strange, too different, too scary to be included, appreciated or loved. But just as Polyphemus, all of us need the same things. And we are called to be those things for each other.sheep and goats

Hedda and Paul

t. Williams“There is a famous anecdote about an out-of-town tryout of the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Thornton Wilder was in attendance and remarked afterwards to Tennessee Williams that he thought Blanche DuBois was too complex a character for the theater. Tennessee is said to have replied, ‘People are complex, Thorn.’”

I read the above anecdote in the program notes as Jeanne and I waited at a local theater for Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to begin. hedda gablerWhat I know about the great Norwegian playwright has been gathered over the years from teaching in a team-taught course where my literature teammate has occasionally chosen one of Ibsen’s controversial and fascinating plays for the students to grapple with, ranging from An Enemy of the People to The Wild Duck and A Doll’s House. Ibsen’s penchant for ripping the veil off late nineteenth-century bourgeois Norwegian society, pushing his readers’ and audience’s face up against topics that decent people would just as soon not consider, and especially his willingness to populate his plays with female characters who explode the stereotypes of dutiful wife and devoted mother caused his plays to not only be banned in several countries during his lifetime ibsen(he was nicknamed “Ibscene”) but make them sound to a twenty-first century audience as if they were written yesterday. I probably read Hedda Gabler as an undergraduate, but this was the first time I had the chance to see it on stage and only the second Ibsen I had ever seen performed; reading in the program notes that the role of Hedda has been described as the “female Hamlet” raised my expectations even further.

Over the past few months I have been immersed in things Norwegian as I read through Jo Nesbø’s mystery series set in Oslo and environs. Nesbø is the hottest writer to come out of Scandinavia since Steig Larsson; I started his ten-volume-and-counting Harry Hole series in early summer and am currently plowing through Phantom, the ninth entry in the series. Were it not for my usual commitment to reading everything an author has written in the order written once I have discovered their work, I might not have made it this far—phantomNesbø’s incredible popularity has caused him to crank out books at a pace that outstrips consistent quality—but when he’s good, he’s very, very good. As with all of my favorite authors of mystery series, I particularly enjoy how the repeating characters become more real from book to book as I learn incrementally more about their history, their peccadilloes, their shortcomings, their successes, their relationships, their failures, their inner lives—in short, I enjoy observing them become more and more recognizably human. Because Tennessee Williams was right. People are complex.

Nesbø and Ibsen both prefer shadow to light and seldom go far before revealing something dark and sinister lying beneath the surface of even the most banal and pleasant persons and circumstances. Hedda Gabler, a newlywed just returned from her honeymoon with her husband George, a newly minted PhD (philosophy, no less!) expecting a plum appointment at the local university, finds herself situated in a large new house ready to be furnished with whatever furniture she fancies. George is clearly infatuated with his beautiful new wife, who everyone describes (to her increasing annoyance) as “glowing.” Hedda 2But appearances are deceiving; only a few minutes into the play we find that Hedda is complicated to the core. Another short essay in the program guide reports that Hedda has been described by critics as “sinister, degenerate, repellent, lunatic, a monster in the shape of a woman, with a soul too small even for human sin.” A bit over the top, perhaps, but she actually is just about all of that. But she is also charismatic, has a razor-sharp wit, crackles with energy, and as if by magic causes everyone in the room to dance to her tune.

As I watched the play unfold on the stage fifteen feet away, I realized that Hedda is not necessarily a bad person bent on the destruction of everything she touches. In this performance she was brilliantly played with the energy of trapped animal, like a tiger or lion in a zoo cage pacing back and forth restlessly, looking everywhere for a way to escape, and devouring everything unfortunate enough to fall within her reach. She finds herself in a world in which the only acceptable roles for a woman are roles that she not only would reject if given the opportunity but that she also knows she is completely unsuited for. caged tigerIn a twisted version of Socrates’ observation that some lives are not worth living, Hedda strikes out more and more desperately as she feels the walls closing in. When there is no more room to move or breathe, she makes the only choice available and dies rather than living under these circumstances.

Two sets of sixteen freshmen and I encountered another trapped human being the next day after I saw Hedda Gabler. These Monday seminars were the culmination of New Testament week, in which the students had already read Mark for a setup lecture; the assignment for seminar was Luke, Acts, and Romans. We spent the bulk of both seminars considering various passages in both Luke and Acts where the very clear requirements of following Jesus set the behavior bar so high that clearly no normal human being could reach it. Iris Murdoch once commented that it would have made sense if in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had said something like Iris“Be ye therefore slightly improved,” but he didn’t. Instead he said “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” My mostly parochial school educated freshmen, many of whom had been taught from a young age that the Christian life is about trying to be a good person as often as possible, were shocked and disturbed when they encountered what the texts actually say. Even at eighteen or nineteen years old, each of them had enough life experience with themselves and other human beings to know that the gospel standard is one that is impossible for the flawed creatures that we are to meet.

No one has ever described the human predicament more effectively than Paul at the end of Romans 7—I took the students there toward the end of seminar.

What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate . . . For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?machete

Hedda found herself trapped in circumstances in which she could not flourish, grow, survive, or even breathe. Paul finds himself in the same situation, but with much greater scope. Knowing what must or should be done and finding myself completely incapable of doing it. Bottom line, this is the human condition. No wonder we often strike out in frustration and anger at whatever is within reach. However we came to be in this predicament, we cannot work or will our way out of it.

Then in a masterful reversal of just a few lines, Paul provides a way out so compelling that it is hardly to be believed, a way whose energy coincides with the hope and promise that is at the heart of Advent that makes its welcome yearly appearance in a couple of weeks.

Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law could not do: by sending his own Son . . .Romans 8

For me, it is this hope and promise–fulfilled by the incarnation–that both uniquely defines the Christian faith and can keep a flawed, seriously damaged creature from descending into Paul’s despair or Hedda’s destructive rage. For every frustrated “I can’t do this!” there is an “Of course you can’t. But help is on the way.”Calvin and Hobbes


Death Is Nothing Terrible

We are all going to die! That’s just so awful. I didn’t agree to this. How do we live in the face of this? Anne Lamott

Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to engage with various groups of people in the classroom on occasional weekends. I’ve had a couple of these opportunities over the past three weekends. The topic is always the same–How to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world largely outside of our control?

As the centerpiece of my college’s extensive required core curriculum, the Development of Western Civilization Program that I direct is of great interest to many more people than just the faculty and students who are in the trenches of the course every day. Parents of prospective students, alums and donors, parents of freshmen students in their first semester—004all of these and more are interested in exactly what takes place in the program’s classrooms, experiences that are the signature shared experiences of all students at Providence College. This is a program so daunting as to generate horror stories of mythic proportions, yet whose importance is revealed by its being the center of pedagogical energy in our new humanities building.

In order to give these various constituencies a taste of the DWC experience, I often am asked on a Saturday afternoon to give a “mock DWC lecture” for fifty minutes to visiting grownups. These lectures are a lot of fun, because the room is full of adults rather than eighteen and nineteen year old adult wannabes. The people at these lectures love to participate, they get my jokes, and cause me to think that maybe I am a good teacher after all. This semester I have given mock lectures four times—twice on the afternoon of the dedication of the new humanities building, once for an Open House for prospective students and their parents, and one for images[1]Freshman Family Weekend. My “go to” lecture in such situations over the past few semesters has been an introduction to Stoicism, one of the Roman world’s unique contributions to Western philosophy, a lecture that I call “Death Is Nothing Terrible.” Why the esoteric topic and depressing title? Because Stoicism is a philosophy for grownups, for human beings who have been run over a few times by life, are a bit frayed around the edges, and are ready to converse briefly about strategies concerning how to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world that apparently lacks both. What better to talk about on a Saturday afternoon?

The most noted Stoics over a couple of centuries were not professional philosophers—their day jobs were remarkably diverse. imagesCALBM2ZLCicero was a lawyer and politician, Epictetus was a slave, and Marcus Aurelius was an emperor. What do a politician, slave and emperor share in common that might explain their attraction to the same philosophical framework? Each of them is a person who, at least in theory, lives a life that is primarily answerable to others, a person who is largely not in control of her or his own life. And this, the Stoics say, is actually the situation that we all find ourselves in.

Epicurus_bust2[1]Epictetus, the Stoic I usually focus the room’s attention on, was a well-educated Greek slave owned by a wealthy Roman landowner. Epictetus’s role in the household was to tutor and educate the children of his owner, a task he carried out so effectively that his master freed him in the later years of his life. Epictetus begins the Enchiridion, a short text that—according to legend—Roman soldiers on campaign carried with them while away from their homes and farms for years at a time, by asking us to do a brief thought experiment along with him. Make two columns on a piece of paper (or on a chalkboard). At the top of the left column, write “Within my control.” On top of the right column, write “Not within my control.” Start with the right column and begin listing all of the things that you encounter or interact with on a daily basis that are not in your control. At a lecture, people immediately start calling out

The Weather! No kidding!

When and how you die! The only thing we know for sure is that within 100 years, everyone in this lecture hall will be dead! But how and when—we don’t know.

Other people! “How much time do you spend in a day or week trying to influence what other people think or do?” I ask. “A lot!” “How’s that going for you?” “It doesn’t work!”

Your family! You may have participated in activities likely to produce a child, but you didn’t ask for this child! How often when younger did you think or say “I didn’t ask to be born into this family”? You were right!

Your health! You may spend a great deal of time exercising and eating right, then get run over by a bus this afternoon!

My gender! My race!

After a few minutes of information gathering and general hilarity, it is clear that many, indeed the vast majority, of the things that define and shape our lives are in the right-hand “Not in my control” column. Enchiridion-Epictetus[1]What’s left to go in the left-hand column? Someone will immediately call out something like “My attitude about everything in the right-hand column!” This person not only is correct, but has also identified the core insight than energizes Stoicism. “Some things are up to us, and some things are not,” writes Epictetus in the first sentence of the Enchiridion. We spend the vast majority of our time and energy messing around in the right-hand column, trying to change and control things that are not up to us. Better idea—transfer all of that energy to the left-hand column. I cannot control what hand I have been dealt in terms of gender, race, family, place and time of birth. Nor can I control or manipulate what other people do or the vast forces of fate. But I can (and must) take control of how I process these matters, how I will consider and shape my response to what jumps out of the right-hand column. My inner life is within my control. 002[1]The Stoic slogan is “from inner tranquility comes outer effectiveness.” By taking control of my mind, my emotions, my desires, my thoughts and my attitude I can respond to an out-of-control world from a place of serenity and peace. And that might just make a difference in the right-hand column.

Of course the proof is in the application and the details, which I spend the second half of the session with my “students” exploring. Epictetus ranges over family relationships, friendships, dynamics at work—just about everything normal human beings encounter from the right-hand column on a daily basis. But one of the greatest Stoic obsessions is with something that we generally don’t want to think or talk about. Death. This is not because the Stoics were depressing or morbid (although they often are caricatured as such). Rather, this is because the Stoics knew that despite all evidence to the contrary, the garden variety human being lives her or his life as if all the time in the world is available. We live our lives as if we are immortal. But we know, deep down, that human beings have a shockingly short shelf life. work on paper by Laurie LiptonSo why do we try to avoid this inexorable truth from the right-hand column?

Epictetus suggests that what we are afraid of is not death, but rather our thoughts and attitudes about death. “Death is nothing terrible . . . but having the opinion that death is terrible, this is what is terrible.” And my thoughts and attitudes are in the left-hand column—shaping these is within my power. Rather than obsessing about how I will die and what might happen (if anything) after I die, imagesCA3Y08VLI might want to pay attention to the classic Stoic mantra: Carpe diem. Epictetus expands in a memorable thespian analogy:

Remember that you are an actor in a play of such a kind as the playwright chooses: short, if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, play even this part well; and so also for the parts of a disabled person, an administrator, or a private individual. For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

Don’t waste timeimagesCA2WWW18. Be the best that you can be. Seize the day. These are, in many ways, annoying caricatures of a very rich and complex Stoic world view. But I think Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius would be fine with bumper sticker expressions of Stoicism, just so long as they are reflective of inner work that is more than a molecule deep. Don’t wait another moment to get serious.

For how long will you put off demanding of yourself the best, and never to transgress the dictates of reason? . . . From this moment commit yourself to living as an adult . . . Remember that the contest is now, that the Olympic Games are now.

Postscript: After one of my mock lectures last fall, my lovely Jeanne came up to me and said “From inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. That sounds like prayer.” Hmm. I think there might be an essay in that.imagesCAKB0ODG

no complaining

Educating the Uneducated

An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly. Epictetus

 We have all had the experience of only realizing after the fact what we should have said in real time. This happens to teachers frequently—you want to tell the unvarnished truth to a student who badly needs to hear it, but circumstances don’t allow it. But every once in a while, one gets the chance to actually say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. DWCI had that opportunity in an email exchange early this week.

A quick setup—I direct an interdisciplinary program (Development of Western Civilization, known colloquially by faculty and students as “DWC” or “CIV”) in which at any given time eighty or so faculty are teaching close to two thousand students. If students are having difficulty in class I am the next resource after the faculty teaching their section. A few evenings ago I received an email from a student complaining about his professor; I gave myself until the next morning, then responded. The original exchange of emails, as well as those that followed, is below. These are entirely unedited other than to change the names (except mine).

11/3/14 7:24 PM Hello Dr. Vance Morgan my name is PO and I am a freshmen at Providence College.  This email is with regards to my CIV seminar teacher Dr. X.  Currently I have a D- in the class and I believe I deserve much better.  In high school I was in the top decile in my grade and history was my best subject.  We recently got midterm grades back and the highest grade in both of X’s seminars was an 82.  I received a 60 and after conversing with some of my classmates I found out that I had done better than a good amount of them.  He gave out very little partial credit where credit was due and he is very bias.  unhappy studentWe also have written 5 papers and I’ve only received back one so far.  Also, in seminar he goes out on tangents and hardly gives time for individuals to participate.  Also, he bashes anyone who has a “wrong” answer that doesn’t consist with his own beliefs.  I know that you are not Dr. X and you can’t speak on his behalf but I do all the readings and take notes in lecture and I do not believe my grade reflects my work ethic solely based on his system of grading.  When the highest grade in both seminar classes (and there are some very smart individuals in my seminar class) is an 82 that says something about his grading system and I believe it is unfair.  He makes his gradings based on if he agrees with the material one’s written.  I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining but I just want to know what you think I should do to do better in the class or if I should do anything else.  Tomorrow I’m going to talk to him about my grade but I doubt he will change anything.  Sorry for bothering you with this long message but I’m doing well in all my other classes and I don’t want CIV to completely destroy my GPA.  Let me know if there’s anything you can do to help or if there is anything I can do to get my grade up.  Thank you for your time and get back to me whenever you get the chance.  Sincerely, PO

11/4/14 8:21 AM Dear PO: After reading your email carefully, I have a couple of comments and a couple of suggestions:

  1. Your record in high school and how you are doing in your other classes this semester is irrelevant to how you are doing in DWC. So are the grades that other students are getting in DWC, which are not your concern. You may have been a successful student in high school and may be doing well in other classes here at PC now but you are not yet a successful student in DWC. If I were you I would also be concerned about my DWC grade and be concerned about how to do better. I would not, however, assume that my grade is something that was arbitrarily given to me by my professor, as you seem to have assumed. Your midterm grade is simply Dr. X’s recording of what you have earned thus far in DWC this semester.
  2. You may believe that eighteen or nineteen years of life experience and eight or nine weeks of college experience qualifies you to have an informed opinion about how a college course should be organized and taught, but you are mistaken. Dr. X is a fine and experienced DWC no complainingprofessor with a well-earned reputation for excellent teaching and a willingness to help students. Your rambling critique of various aspects of seminar and his teaching style is clearly aimed at finding every way possible to place responsibility for your poor performance in DWC this semester on someone other than yourself.
  3. DWC is a difficult course–no one is claiming otherwise. It is not at all unusual for midterm grades to be of the sort that you describe in your email. I had no midterm grades over an 84 in either of my freshman DWC seminars this semester. It often takes a while for freshman students to become acclimated to the rigors of this program and to adjust their usual studying habits to the greater demands of DWC. Things generally get better in the second half of the semester, but only if you use what has happened to this point wisely. The last thing you want to do now is start blaming your professor for your lack of success rather than seriously considering what you need to be doing differently in order to ensure success. Having a good work ethic, doing the readings and taking notes are all good places to start, but are by no means a guarantee of success.

That said, here are a couple of suggestions (since you asked):OAS

  1. Make use of the Office of Academic Services (OAS). The OAS, located in the library, has tutoring available for all aspects of DWC, including writing, note-taking, seminar discussion and preparation for exams and quizzes. They are anxious to be of assistance, particularly to first semester freshmen. Use their services.
  2. Meet with Dr. X. This is the one good idea that you include in your email. But, if you are intending to meet with Dr. X only to argue about your grade, then you are absolutely correct when you “doubt that he will change anything.” He won’t, nor should he. If, rather, you are interested in clarification about grading policies and (especially) getting advice for how to do better in DWC going forward, Dr. X will be happy to help you.
  3. Change your attitude. You say that “I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining,” but that is exactly what you are doing. Your email is nothing but an extended session of complaining and attempting to blame someone else for something that you are ultimately responsible for. attitude adjustmentIf you want to be successful in DWC and in college overall, it’s time to take responsibility for yourself. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (someone you might be studying later this semester) wrote, “An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly.” It’s time to stop doing that. Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 9:42 AM Good morning Dr. X: I thought you might enjoy reading an email that I received last evening from one of your DWC seminar students and my response this morning. . . Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 10:04 AM I apologize for complaining and I appreciate your help. I will do my very best to work harder in the class and use your words of advice to help benefit me in the class.  Thank you. Sincerely, PO11/4/14

10:28 AM Best of luck with the rest of the semester. Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 3:26 PM The young man who wrote you came to visit with me this morning, and seemed quite contrite.  He didn’t bring his exam with him, and simply asked how he might improve.  That was a big change in attitude.  This young man started the semester by putting his head down on the desk while I was lecturing.  He hardly said a word in seminar.  I saw him consulting spark notes before I began seminar last week.  I think you’ve taught him a lesson, Vance.  Time will tell; I’ll keep you informed. Dr. X

Time will indeed tell, as it always does. But in one exchange of emails (1) a student’s path has perhaps been slightly redirected for the better, (2) a professional relationship and friendship with a colleague has been strengthened, and (3) I got to say what every teacher want frequently wants, but seldom gets, to say. Not bad for a day’s work. :-)time will tell