The other morning before school, I found myself looking at the faces and reading the stories of the people who were killed in Texas last week. I typically try to not to dwell on tragedies like this; a soul handles only so much sorrow before it numbs, and ours is a time awash in cause for sorrow.
But that morning, I looked and I read.
I saw the faces of the most precious children. I read remembrances that could have described my own kids at home: sweet, kind, bright, warm, curious, confident. I imagined these children's eagerness for the coming summer break.
I saw the faces of two colleagues, Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles. All year long, right beside you and I, they did the work of teaching. I looked at their teacher webpages, picturing them as they sat however many years ago in a computer lab with their colleagues, learning how to create a teacher webpage. (We've all had that PD session, right?) I pictured them, two years ago, figuring out Canvas or Google Classroom or Zoom or Meet; I pictured how they felt the first time they saw all their students without masks on.
And finally, I saw the face of the young man who brought this tragedy to that classroom. I read what his governor said about him — “the sheer face of evil itself” — and then I read what people who knew him said. I imagined a little boy picked on for his stutter and the intervening years of mirk and mire that produced a young man who chose these actions.
My God, my God.
Colleague, I hope you know that I'm not one to dwell on the negative, nor do I find value in virtue signaling.
But as the Teacher wrote millennia ago in the Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything.”
And this morning, feeling the weight of these faces and their stories on my soul, I thought it right to give a moment's reflection.
For what they're worth, here are my thoughts.
First: ours is a culture opposed to the dignity of the human soul.
Instead of dignity, we obsess on power and self. This obsession looks like: I want my legislation; I want my rights; I want my view supreme; I want my way; I want my career; I want my new product; I want X group to get out of the way so that Y thing can happen because if only Y thing could happen then things would be so much better.
I'm not saying we shouldn't care about legal reform at times like this. I believe we should be open to all paths toward a solution.
But I am saying that I place no hope in the passage of laws or the maelstrom-esque currents of political power in the United States. History and philosophy teach me this: whenever a people's aim is power, whenever their fuel is self-righteousness, misery propagates like an untended wound.
So I say, pass whatever laws will help — but place no hope in them. Preserve or modify whatever rights we need — but think not that these will save us future heartbreak.
Because power isn't the master move; love is.
Seek power, and with time even the best intentions lack in love.
But seek love, and given enough time you'll have the power to shift a culture.
Love — that is, the earnest seeking of another's good — is the surest and most practical path to healing a culture and the souls within it.
It's not that love is opposed to political activism; it's that love can never serve it. The most enduring and humane forms of political action we've seen in the past century have been rooted in what Dr. King called “the strength to love” — not the strength of power.
Dr. King often called it “neighbor-love.” I first came across his use of that term in a collection of his writings, and of course his rhetoric reaches back to what we all call the Golden Rule: love your neighbor as yourself.
King, being a Christian minister, likely came to his fixation on the Rule through that moment in the Gospel accounts where Jesus is asked, “Teacher, what's the greatest commandment?” And Jesus responds that it's two things: first, whole-soul (physical, mental, emotional, social, volitional) love for God, and second, loving your neighbor as if they're you (Matthew 22, Mark 12, Luke 10).
And as skeptics of Christianity would be right to point out, Jesus isn't the first or the last in world history to teach an idea like this:
- The Jewish scriptures, in the Middle East (Leviticus 19:18);
- Calypso to Odysseus, in the Mediterranean: “I'll be as careful for you as I'd be for myself in like need. I know what is fair and right;”
- Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, in South Asia: “There is nothing dearer to man than himself; therefore, as it is the same thing that is dear to you and to others, hurt not others with what pains yourself” (Dhammapada, Northern Canon, 5:18);
- Confucius, in East Asia: “Don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you.” (Analects 15:23);
- A leader in Herodotus' Histories, in the Mediterranean: “What I condemn in another I will, if I may, avoid myself” (3.142);
- Early Jainists, in South Asia: “A monk should treat all beings as he himself would be treated.”
- Laozi in East Asia: “To those who are good to me, I am good; and to those who are not good to me, I am also good; and thus all get to receive good” (Tao Te Ching 49);
- the Persian poet Sa'di, in Gulistan, c. 1259 CE: “Human beings are members of a whole, In creation of one essence and soul. If one member is afflicted with pain, Other members uneasy will remain. If you have no sympathy for human pain, The name of human you cannot retain;”
- the Hindu songs of Kabir, c. 1400 CE: “One who is kind and who practices righteousness, who considers all creatures on earth as his own self, attains the Immortal Being; the true God is ever with him;”
- the early Sikhs of India, c. 1400 CE: “Conquer your egotism. As you regard yourself, regard others as well” (Shri Guru Granth Sahib, Raag Aasaa 8:134).
The uniformity across the ages is insane, right? And there are over a hundred more examples like this on Harry Hiker's page right here.
So, here's a question: Why do we see this “Golden Rule” again and again and again, all across the ideological spectrum?
Here's my answer to the question preceding this section: The Golden Rule is less a rule than it is a law — a fundamental description of reality. For an analogy, think of Newton's observations about gravity. Like Newton's statements, the Golden
Rule Law says, “This is just how things are; this is how reality works.”
Now at first glance, the modern mind, obsessed with power and self, gets bored with immutable laws like these. They resist our will to power. And so instead of thinking things like, “The most practical thing I can do politically and socially is to love my neighbor as myself,” you instead see us in droves thinking, “It's time to go post a diatribe on social media against the right or the left, against this group or that.”
But obeying our tiny, reality-ignoring attention spans is a sure path to frustration. We have the sages of the ages yelling across time at us, saying, “Love your neighbor!” but we instead elect to despise those who oppose us, to curse those who cause us harm.
We're sitting on top of a nuclear fusion reactor for lasting social and political change — that reactor is love — but instead of apprenticing ourselves to its right functioning we keep rubbing rocks together.
Partnering with reality
The law of gravity and satellites
Consider a modern example of partnership with reality — with the fundamental laws woven into the way things are.
Today above your head, a hundred or so satellites will pass. So, trivia question: How much energy will these satellites expend today to complete these thousands-of-miles-per-hour trips around the planet?
Answer: just about none. Why? Because they're basically just falling. (This video explains better than I can.) Once they got up there and properly situated, the law of gravity does the rest.
Let's make an equation:
A large amount of initial energy (the rocket the satellite was launched in)
an exquisitely designed partnership with the reality of gravity
the enormously powerful, life-altering phenomena of humanity's satellite network.
The law of love and a broken world
You see a similar equation in the realm of cultural and political change in the past century.
- Dr. King teaches a movement of millions how to neighbor-love, and this neighbor-love dismantles the century-old evil of Jim Crow.
- Gandhi teaches a movement of hundreds of millions how to satyagraha, and the British empire is humbled.
- President Sirleaf teaches peace and reconciliation following the Liberian civil war, leading to the rebuilding of a war-torn, hand-stained people.
Large Effort + Effective Partnership with Reality = Massive Power Over Time
MLK, Gandhi, and Sirleaf didn't obsess over the “sheer evil” of their others; instead, they obsessed on their deep dignity. It was counterintuitive and controversial; many contemporaries disagreed with Gandhi and King's approach, calling it passive or inadequate in the face of great evils. Sirleaf's critics called her weak and too feminine.
But launching billions of dollars of equipment into the sky so that they can freefall for decades… that's counterintuitive too, isn't it?
That's the thing with partnering with reality. It works.
Bringing it back to our work
So what's all this theory have to do with our work in schools and our work as citizens in the twenty-first century?
First, if you would have strength in this world, you must change your thinking. The person standing on the other side of the debate you're in is a human being wrought with dignity.
And this, dear colleague, is where I ended this article. It's unfinished. But I hope that what's done helps.