Hey there, colleague,
First, I want to say thank you for a break that I needed. The last couple of weeks I have been resting, thinking, praying, and enjoying the simple gifts of life. I've got some blog posts in the hopper ready for you this month, but I didn't feel that sending them over break made sense. In the last 24 hours, that senselessness of sending along my posts on teaching deepened.
So second, there are these pictures from yesterday afternoon's events in Washington, DC that have made me feel things I don't have a name for. And I was reminded this morning while reflecting on this that it's not the first time in the last year that I've been faced with pictures or video that render my heart and mind dumb. I don't know what to say when things like this happen and the noise around them is louder than ever. I don't know what to say to my students. I just sit in wonder at the folks who write or speak well as events like these unfold.
But! I did want to send you this note, despite my aversion to quick-takes, because the coming weekend means we get time to ourselves. I wanted to share with you what I'll be thinking about.
When in our hearts we diminish our neighbors, we lose. Whether you're politically left or right or centrist or agnostic, the disdain of one's neighbor is a cancer to the flourishing life. It is personally dangerous — it weakens the soul itself — and it is socially dangerous — it weakens society. Last summer I wrote an article on this idea, called “The Spectre of Moral Disengagement: What It Is and Why It Matters.” The ghost I wrote about there hasn't stopped haunting us, has it? While in the article I arrive at no tidy answers, I do (I hope) illustrate the inherent problem with dehumanizing or over-simplifying (the same things) any person for a given sample of their actions or beliefs.
I mean it when I say that we lose when we dehumanize. The strategy — if it can be called that — is a sure loser. Caricaturing groups of people has always been and always will be a bankrupt strategy. The pages of history and philosophy are rife with examples of and arguments for how this does not work. Despite the neomania that sedates our culture, not everything happening to us is new. “An eye for an eye” is an old story. “I win, you lose,” is an old story.
One passage from that article I wrote bears drawing out. This is from Martin Luther King Jr., in Chapter 5 of his Strength to Love:
“We must recognize that the evil deeds of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy. Each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against ourselves. A persistent civil war rages within all of our lives.” (p. 45 of Strength to Love)
(Note the language of “enemy-neighbor.” That is the genius of a teacher.)
King advocates here for the cultivation of a virtue that older philosophers would have called “charity.” It's love with muscles and love with a brain — a love experienced not as flighty emotion but as a honed and settled state of the will. Like the other moral virtues — such as humility or honesty or forgiveness — charity is not a thing you get by hoping. You don't “decide” in a moment to be charitable. You don't write an email or post a meme or attend a protest. You practice charity; you practice love. (And don't for a minute think that such practice entails acting lovingly toward someone you agree with. Don't for a minute think it's treating with kindness the students who treat you well. Everybody does those things, but not everybody has mastered charity.)
So look, spoiler time: I'm not the easy-answer guy on this one. The path to a society of morally engaged people is obscured to me. I think it unlikely to be some big event that does it. Instead, it's probably a billion small decisions enacted by a hundred million people: small, daily efforts at the practice of a loving, enemy-neighbor-seeking life.
And you know what? There's not a single better group of people to exemplify such a life of love to a watching world than you and me. Why shouldn't it be educators? We could really be something if we loved like that, couldn't we?
Take some time this weekend to walk or think or pray or fast.
More on teaching and schools next week.
Best to you,