Radical Care

I remember driving in the old Chevrolet with my Dad behind the wheel, going to pick up some kids for church when I was about 8 or 9 years old. And while my father had a compassion for the family we were connecting with, I remember that I did not. For some reason, I didn’t like the little girl belonging to this particular family. Didn’t think she smelled right, nor did I think she wore the right clothes. Just didn’t like the look of her. And I sure as heck didn’t want to go to her house and pick her up. Something about her just rubbed me the wrong way. And I got my ‘back up’. I decided she wasn’t someone I needed to be kind to.

So I wasn’t kind.

Throughout the years, I have never forgotten that girl. Never forgotten the uncalled for dismissal of her in my mind. And perhaps because of her, I now as an adult have decided to be more deliberate and intentional in my choice to show kindness.

But I have noticed something all the while and throughout this learning process: there are some people to whom it is hard for us to be kind. For whatever the reason- right or wrong. They set something off in us; and those emotions push our buttons. Or maybe it is that they don’t really like us either, and that creates a tension all its own. Perhaps it is something longstanding that has come between two people that has been left unresolved. Or maybe it is just one little hurt after another that has built up a wall of disappointment and fear.

It’s not easy being kind to those we love. How can we ever hope to be kind to those we don’t love- those we don’t care for much at all?

And why should we anyway? Do we really need to love and care for everyone in our life? Surely not our enemies. And what about our ‘frenemies’? Do they deserve our care?

Watching the news, one doesn’t have to search far to find dislike and tension between groups. Currently, around the world there are four ongoing armed conflicts that have resulted in 10,000 or more deaths in the current or past year, there are eleven armed conflicts that have resulted in 1000- 9,999 deaths in the current or past year and there are twenty armed conflicts that have resulted in 100- 999 deaths in the same time frame; seventeen with fewer than 100 deaths (Wikipedia). These stats do not take into account ongoing civil unrest or violence against protestors not resulting in armed conflict. These stats do not take into account tensions that are mounting between cultural groups in North America as well as around the world. These stats do not take into account personal conflicts or private conflicts that fall below the radar that are still disruptive and disturbing- even here in Canada. These stats don’t take into account familial and interpersonal strife.

What these stats do tell us is this: it’s hard to get along. And they give us a hint at what this world needs so as to even begin hoping for a transformation. What we need in this world is radical, transformative love.

Radical kindness. Radical love. Radical compassion. It is what we need in this world to make a change.

I write a great deal about care, kindness, love and compassion. And when I send my writing out into the larger media ring (the national news circuit) for consideration, I have found that kindness is a topic that doesn’t interest many. The response of the public readership is rather blasé. They’d rather read about something controversial, something that ignites a strong reaction. Kindness is just too sweet.

But what the world doesn’t seem to know about kindness yet is this:
“Within our human connectedness, what matters the most is something so simple it can almost be overlooked. Something so ordinary in its application that its intense impact can be disregarded. It is simple, but not easy. Unpretentious, yet so difficult to maintain. That’s the thing about kindness: it seems basic. Yet its impact is astronomical. And the ways in which our interactions are affected by its absence are profound. In this life, amongst all our human relationships both intimate and otherwise, what matters beyond all else is that we are authentically kind to one another. Kind, in each and every encounter we undertake” (Gard, 2015)

It takes courage and guts and stamina and backbone and grit to be kind. Each and every day that we are given breath in our lungs. Kindness isn’t always natural like breathing. It’s far harder. It’s like grasping out to hold onto a small twig as you slide down a cliff on some days. It’s like planting your feet securely in the waters as wave after wave of salt-water impact tries to knock you over. It’s like holding up the corner of a crumbling building with your bare hands when all that is in you is telling you to let go. It’s like a storm raging overhead while you crouch beneath it, determined to ride out the rains.

No, kindness is not always easy. Sometimes it is the hardest choice you will have to make.

I still have people in my life that I am willing to admit- they are hard to be kind towards. I can also attest to the fact that I am a person in other peoples’ lives that they feel exactly the same way.

What helps me is this: I cannot control what others do/say/think about me, but I can be aware and intentional in my response to them. Because at the end of my life, when I lie on my own deathbed and time slips quickly from my hand, what matters is how I have lived my life. That’s it. And if I have lived life compassionately — with caring and kindness EVEN TO MY ENEMIES — I have done life well.

What this world needs now is love- radical love. And that loves starts right here.

Starts with me.

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Matthew 5:44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

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Where We Are Headed… Thoughts on Teaching in the 21st Century

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, p.13)

 

I am swabbing spots all over his chest with a Polysporin-covered Q-tip. Just moments before, he had come to me complaining of itchiness. His chest- sweltered with raw, open infected sores instigated by mosquito bites. A day prior, I had sent him home. The itchiness had been getting to him by mid-afternoon, and without anything to treat the infected spots, the two of us were at an impasse. So, his mother had come to retrieve her boy and mend his angst. As they were leaving, I looked at her and said, “Send along some ointment tomorrow, and I will do this for you.” I realized that this was a minor inconvenience for a busy mother- to pick up an otherwise well-child and take him home simply to apply medication. So, I offered to do it for her, so long as I had her permission and the medicated cream.

Later that evening, the mother wrote me a short message, and in a few simple lines, she conveyed to me her appreciation for my offer to act as nurse for her son. It was apparent that this was not something she would have expected from me, his teacher.

I thought to myself, as I read her short note: “I wouldn’t do anything less than care for this boy’s needs in the ways that he requires caring for: I love this child. I am his teacher. That’s what I do.”

But I wonder: even as my heart is calling me to care for my students in the very ways I care for my own four dear ones at home, is this what I can do realistically? As more and more of my time is being eaten up by demands that are outside my control?

A day later, I sat beside a dear friend in the front seat of her SUV, and I looked her in the eye when I lamented, “Perhaps I would renew my joy in teaching if I was able to simply care for my students, and worry less about all the other junk.”

The junk. That’s what is getting to me. Which is to say, the stuff that is weighing me down.

Junk/ Stuff. The stress over meeting outcomes and curricular goals. The stress over covering the curriculum. The stress over benchmarks. Stress in keeping records, both formal and otherwise. The stress in dealing with other stressed colleagues and students. The stress in planning and readying my classroom after hours, late into the night. The stress by way of new systems of monitoring and assessment brought on by our school boards. The stress in dealing with behaviours. The stress in dealing with unknowns: unknown diagnoses, unknown future job placements, unknown situations, unknown variables. The stress in participating in meetings and in realizing deadlines and living up to expectations. The stress of being all things to all people. The stress. All combined, these stressors have the effect of making us as teachers feel smothered and disabled in doing what we really want to do: care for the little and big people who face us day in and day out inside the four walls of our schools.

Because teaching is primarily about caring for people. Or it should be.

My work feels less and less sacred all the time. More and more rote and routine. More constrictive and prescriptive. More stressful and demanding than ever before. More top-down controlled. Which is not to say that it was ever easy- it’s just getting harder.

Teaching is a challenging career- and it’s not because of the kids.

It’s challenging because of all the other stuff we teachers have to deal with. And it’s challenging because we have neither the time nor the expertise to be dealing with some of the situations we are dealing with. What we really want to do is get back to basics. Teaching for life-long learning and then cushioning all that educating inside a generous portion of simple, genuine caring. Caring deeply for our students’ minds and the learning that takes place there, even as we care for their tender, fragile hearts and souls. Where the real living takes place.

The other day, I was finishing up my lunch when a colleague offered to take my class for a few minutes so as to allow me a couple extra minutes to eat my lunch. I took him up on his suggestion. As I was going back to my own classroom, I had stopped in the office to collect my mail when I noticed a line of children waiting for the secretary to take them into the staff room and heat up their lunch. Added to this group were others: waiting to use the phone and waiting to see the principal. I could see the anxiety building on the secretary’s face. It is a busy enough job to look after the administration of the day-to-day runnings of an office and school to add to that the role of nurse, cafeteria worker and counselor. I offered to take the students and teach them how to buddy up with a Grade 6 student who knew how to operate the microwave, thus alleviating the secretary of the taxing job of heating up lunches. That I was able to take the time to do this was thanks to my dear colleague who offered to take my own students for a few precious minutes during his own prep time. So that I could then be free to help the secretary.

As I again made my way back to my own classroom, the custodian abruptly stopped me while I was walking by the downstairs girls’ washroom: “Would you look at this!” she exclaimed rather brusquely. I peered into the stall where she was positioned over the toilet. There, floating inside the bowl, was a wrapped sandwich, a granola bar and a juice box. Fully intact.

“This has been happening almost daily,” she grimaced.

“I’ll report it to the principal,” I countered. “We’ll get to the bottom if it all.”

As I again started out, this time to find the principal, I started thinking that this was a problem, with a little time, that could be nipped in the bud. Just by way of a good old-fashioned detective eye.

I started into a classroom, asking if anyone was missing a lunch. Everyone was happily eating away. But the next room I happened upon, the teacher met me at the door and immediately communicated to me that she had a hunch it might be someone in her room. A certain person who had been missing their lunch for the last couple of days.

Sure enough, it was that certain person.

And this discovery made all because I had the time to pursue a problem and find a solution for it.

Time is really of essence. But so is love. When teachers have both time and love, powerful things happen.

Students are cared for in ways that they would otherwise not be cared for.

Students learn things they would otherwise not learn.

Problems are solved which would otherwise not be solved.

Answers are found which would otherwise go unresolved.

Children are happier.

Teachers are less stressed.

It’s a win-win for everyone. An absolute no-brainer.

Unless we allow teachers to get back to the business of doing their sacred work of caring for children and students, in ways that their teacher fore-bearers did back in the day, we will be set on a collision course to derailment.

Derailment of our teachers’ sanity.

Derailment of our students’ achievement, in more ways than just standardized performance testing.

Derailment of our classrooms, which will look less and less like learning environments and more and more like sterile testing laboratories.

Derailment of our very educational system.

We are on a collision course and what is set to collide are the expectations that the Powers to Be have for our schools with the health and well being of our teachers and educators. Something’s got to give.

It always does.

And if I were to surmise what that might be, what’s going to give: from personal experience, I’d have to say it’s going to be our teachers.

Heaven help us. That’s about the only hope we have left.

Thin emotions and rich grace

It’s been a thin week. A week of emotions rising quickly to the surface. A week of highs and lows. A week of frustrations, disappointments and in-betweens. And I find myself walking thin ice. Holding fragile feelings in shaky hands. Stepping on eggshells. Living life holding on, two hands grasping for something secure while always searching for steady ground on which to stand.

And I wonder sometimes, is it really grace which is needed? And does that rich grace come wrapped up in a cloak of forgiveness? In garments of compassion? Is it veiled or is it starkly visible? Elusive graces are so hard to hold in shaky hands.  But I am grateful tonight that mercy comes in so many different forms.  Both tender and tough. It’s face surprises each time it is encountered.  And yet. It’s always just what I need, showing up at the very hour I need it to come.

Tender mercy, tough love.

He reached for me last night. It was the smallest of gestures, a hand on the shoulder. But I came undone. And all the pent up stress, all the anger- came flowing out of me like a surge of water through a broken dam. I felt like I could finally breathe again. Felt tension release through tightened shoulders. I felt release. And although it was just the smallest of offerings, it was enough.

Sometimes that’s all it takes.  A gesture.

We spend our whole lives waiting for justice, for the balance to level. When what we really need to do is come undone. To find ourselves emptied. Off kilter a bit. So that we can be brought back to fragile equilibrium.  Emptied. Of all pride and anger and egotism and fear. So that we can then be filled again: with Love. Filled to overflowing. Allowing ourselves the sacred mystery that is the laying down- of one’s own desires and sense of fairness.  Emptied, so as to experience the fullness of grace that is offered in bountiful compassion. We can only share in this sweet offering by laying down our armaments. Setting aside our armor. Stripped of all that is covering that which is authentic to our true selves. So that we can finally be seen for the rare beauty that is the wild and messy underneath it all.

We are stripped bare and covered back up again with a garment of gorgeous grace.

It’s never easy to receive, that kind of rich grace that is so desired. So sought after. We covet it- and want to earn it.  At times, we wish to make someone else earn it. We want it to cost something- it is dear. So precious. And yet, grace that costs is never truly grace. It is corrupted in its price. Grace must be offered without conditions.  Freely.  Undeserved, it is liberally given. And then, accepted in love.

He reached for me last night- across the chasm, and I felt the ice begin to thaw. The ground beneath my feet gave way yet again. And I fell into the arms of love.

Unfettered. Broken. Yet wholly complete. Undone, but still intact.

Grace has that kind of way with me.