Being Uncomfortable, Student and Teacher

I would notice The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer every time I visited my favorite bookstore. I didn’t picked it up… I am not a teacher. In my mind, teachers are those brave souls who stands in front of students in a school, or in front of the congregation of a church and present a well structured, well scripted stream of information that enlightens and enlivens the audience. I have periodically found myself in a situation where I was called on to formally teach, but only because there was no one else available, not because I am particularly gifted or felt a great desire.
I don’t remember what ultimately led me to pick up The Courage to Teach, but I am glad I did. Rarely has a book so resonated with me. As I read Palmer’s book, I realized that teaching isn’t restricted to something done in front of a crowd of people. Teaching can also be a collaborative activity in a small group, or even one to one. I realized I aspire to be a teacher in improvisational settings: talking with a coworker about a hard problem they can’t solve by themselves, with my daughter exploring a life choice, or in the aisle of REI discussing the effectiveness of various insect repellents based on scientific data.

Some teaching is light and easy, little more than passing on information. While this can be enjoyable, I love teaching that can be transformative, that has significance. There is a section of The Courage to Teach which talked about how deep truths that bring about transformation are often paradoxes. Hard to understand, and uncomfortable to sit within. Palmer starts this section saying:

Holding the tension of paradox so that our students can learn at deeper levels is among the most difficult demands of good teaching… understand that the tension that comes when I try to hold a paradox together is not hell-bent on tearing me apart. Instead, it is a power that wants to pull my heart open to something larger than myself.

I find myself reflecting on this process, and find that today, I am more a student than a teacher. I am an impatience man. I don’t like paradoxes. I don’t like unanswered questions. I don’t like a multitude of opportunities. I like the definite: decisions, direction, in a word, closure. The more important the issue, the closer an issue is to my heart, the more quickly I want resolution. Resolution rarely come as quickly as I wish. If we are blessed, this movement of the heart might be accomplished in a few hours, but often it’s days, months, years, sometimes even decades.

Over the last several years, I have hoped to make a vocational change. To find a way to spend more time focused on people, and less on products and technology, to be a teacher in a small setting. This transition has seemingly been blocked. I wonder if this was because I was not ready to be a teacher, rather I needed to first learn to be a good student. Through the lose of Libby God has been teaching me how to be quiet, how to listen, how to be patient, to be a student of life. I still have much to learn, but at least in my own life, I am learning not to rush through things too quickly, even when it’s uncomfortable.

I hope to be a good teacher some day, but I know I have a long way to go. A good teacher is willing to suffer along side the student as the learning process unfolds. In fact, a good teacher often needs to help the student by helping them stay in an uncomfortable place. While I have become more willing to sit in these hard places in my own life, I struggle greatly when people I care about are suffering. I want to “fix the problem”. I will tend to rush them because I am uncomfortable, not because it is what will be the best for them. I pray that I learn to sit with others in those difficult places, to listen in silence while those hard paradoxes opens hearts, to support them in love while their hearts struggle and then finds true healing.

Last Monday I would have said that I am making progress, that maybe I am starting to learn what it takes to be a good teacher. That afternoon I chatted with a good friend and found that I still have so much to learn. I had a expectation that I would be helping my friend. Instead I didn’t listen, and said things that were completely unhelpful, exposing how off I was. The critique “Waiting your turn to speak is not the same thing as listening” strikes very close to home. After the conversion I found myself wondering if there was any hope, would I ever learn to listen? Could I help others? Thankful, I believe there is hope.

First came a question the next day. “When you speak before listening is that the end of it, or do you recognize your mistake and step back?” The previous day I had thought myself to be ready to teach and share something useful, but I completely missed what was happening in my friend’s life. Yet, the story didn’t end there. I was able to recognize I was missing something. I was able to recognize that rather than being a teacher in that moment, I was a student being taught through my friend’s life and words. In the end, I believe I was able to offer some encouragement and help while I was learning from them.

Next came an essay at the end of the book Spiritual Formation which discussed Henri Nouwen’s view of spiritual formation. Nouwen saw spiritual life is a journey, as a series of spiritual movements from this quality to that, from things that enslave and destroy to liberation and life. Nouwen’s books often articulate these movements and highlight that the transformation is brought about by the Spirit. This suggests that just recognizing the immediate movement and responding to it is sufficient. I found this comforting, because it’s more about being in the moment that building of one thing on top of another. The following was the description of how Nouwen’s approach to spiritual formation changed:

In his early years as a priest who offered spiritual direction and supervision to seminarians and members of religious orders, Nouwen counseled others to follow the classical disciplines in order to climb the ladder of divine ascent in progressive stages of unification. Climbing Jacob’s ladder, step by step, toward spiritual perfection is a common image and motif in classical stage theory. Nouwen had read John of the Ladder, the sixth-century ascetic who sought perfection in the desert, and Nouwen despaired of ever reaching the top. By the time he arrived at Notre Dame as a professor of pastoral psychology, he had turned the ladder of ascent on its side and taught spiritual formation as a series of horizontal movements of the heart, back and forth, that require daily devotion and discipline, with the goal of human wholeness rather than divine perfection.

The third encouragement came the following day from a TED video by Brian Goldman entitled Doctors make mistakes. Can we talk about that?. Goldman is calling for a radical change in the medical community: to acknowledge that being perfect, that never making mistakes is not possible. That the community should embrace mistakes and learn from them, and find better ways for people to work together as a team. Goldman’s talk made me think of a conversation with a dear friend who is an extremely gifted counselor. In talking about the counseling process she said “It’s not a set of skills, techniques or formal education. More important that any skill is to love the person in front of you, and to listen with an expectation that God is speaking into the situation.” She often tells the people she is not concerned about being right, rather she is concerned that together, they can find what is true. She has great confidence that this can happen, because God is in the room, providing light and love.

Finally, as I was driving home I found myself listening to the song A Different Kind of Happy by Sara Groves which speaks about how good it is to look honestly at life with someone else, how sharing together transforms lives and relationships. When I listen to this song, the first thing that comes to mind is Libby and how much I appreciated sharing life with her. Libby is gone from this earth, but I still experience the sharing of life. The Bible talked about how all who follow Jesus are part of the “Body of Christ”. That a hallmark of true faith is loving one another. I am so grateful to have experienced this profoundly in the last few months. Much of the love and support has come from people who are part of my local church, people who live in the bay area. But there are people who live more distantly that have helped me experience that different kind of happy. Dear friends who called / visited from Columbus, Phoenix, Boston, DC, and Anaheim. Timely words from friends spread across the world. A text message, Skype or email that came when I most needed help. Words from Russia, China, Taiwan, Singapore, India, and Thailand.

My take away? There is hope. It’s possible or be a student, a learner, a teacher, because God is good. He cares for us and will lead us to truth and wholeness if we humbly turn our eyes to Him.

But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. — James 1:19-20

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