Monthly Archives: September 2014

Erleichda: Lighten Up!

Erleichda: Tom Robbins suggests, tongue in cheek, that this was the last word of Albert Einstein.  Robbins defines it this way: “The word was a transitive verb, an exclamation, a command, of which an exact English translation is impossible. The closest equivalent probably would be the phrase “Lighten up!”

Ben Zander calls his variation of this command  “Rule Number 6: Don’t take yourself so darned seriously.”  I began to learn this lesson on a dark, lonely night in 1978.  Here’s how it went:

In the mythology of my early family, I was the klutz.  I was identified as the bookish one, and my Dad and brother did their best to keep me from making a mess of things if I tried to hammer a nail or use a screwdriver.  It is amazing how often we buy into familial self-definition.  Becoming a pilot in my late thirties helped to ameliorate my self-distancing from things mechanical, but the journey to that point was long, and fraught with some funny stops along the way.

Back in 1978, I had agreed to help a friend by ferrying his small Datsun Honey Bee from Phoenix, Arizona to Burlington, Vermont. It was a journey of 2600 miles, and I loved to drive.  The first day went without a hitch. The next day, however, as I left Albuquerque, New Mexico, the accelerator became sluggish.   Even floored, I could only coax the car to do 50 mph.  It was going to be a long trip.

The third night found me in rural Arkansas, about 150 miles West of Memphis.  It was a pitch black night on an empty desolate stretch of road.  Suddenly, the accelerator had had enough, and quit altogether.  With what little momentum I had left, I managed to coast up an exit ramp, and come to a stop under what seemed to be the only street lamp within 50 miles.

A quick inspection showed me that the accelerator linkage had separated.  I was proud that I could even see the problem, and then with seemingly supernatural inspiration, I rummaged around in my suitcase, found a coat hanger, and twisted it straight.  My confidence building by the second, I used the hanger to join the two loose parts of the linkage together, and sure enough, the car roared into life.  “Roar” was the appropriate word, because now the only control I had was full throttle, and to slow down or stop, I had to depress the clutch. This caused the car to scream in protest.  Now instead of poking along at 50, I went zooming across the bridge into Memphis at 90 miles an hour.  I turned into the first motel I could find, and stopped in front of the office with such a din that the clerk at the desk went as pale as a ghost.  I explained my predicament.  “Leave the car where it is,” she said, “and take it to the Datsun dealer around the corner in the morning.”

At 8 am the next day, I attracted strange looks as my laboring engine heralded my arrival at the dealership.  I drove right into a bay, and gratefully turned off the engine.  A tall older mechanic from the hills of Tennessee ambled over to the car and raised the hood.  I stood by feeling ten feet tall, as I anticipated fulfilling a lifelong dream of being seen as mechanically competent.  Finally, I was about to come into my own.

The old fellow peered intently into the engine for a moment, and straightened up.  “Hell,” he said.  “It ain’t hard to see what’s wrong.  Some asshole has gone and wired your engine!”

Erleichda, indeed.


Aunt Alice


My father’s sister was born in a small town in New Hampshire to recent Irish immigrants. The year was 1896. With no more than an 8th grade education, barely able to read and write, this remarkable woman lived a life of clarity, integrity, and grit–all laced with a large dose of humor. Decades before the feminist movement, she embodied the ideal of a strong, intelligent, and independent  woman. I want to share a couple of her outstanding traits with you, traits that I am still trying to emulate.

Alice was 9 when my Father was born, in 1905, and shortly after that their father disappeared from the picture. I never did get that complete story, but Alice became a surrogate parent, quitting school at age 14 to begin work in the local shoe factory, and ultimately sending my Father to university.  In her early and middle years she found solace in the formulas of the Catholic church, and this, combined with her direct and unadorned communication, put her at odds with my Mother, who was a proper midwestern Protestant.   Neither woman was “wrong,” but boy, were they different.  Out of loyalty to my Mother, this tension led me to pull away from Alice for many years, but the graceful turnings of life reunited us in bonds of love during her later years.  She worked at the local high school on the lunch counter until she was 91, and died in 1991, just shy of her 95th birthday.  She lived independently almost until the end.

Here are two stories that demonstrate her direct approach and stunning emotional honesty.  Since we lived 200 miles apart, Carolyn and I could only visit her about once a month.  We would sit for hours at the dining room table drinking tea, while Alice regaled us with stories about her girlhood and the history of our family.  One day, Carolyn nonchalantly reached into her bag and continued to knit a sweater she was working on.  Silence descended, as Alice fixed her eye on the clicking needles.  Then, in her heavy new England accent, she said “Deah, did you come heah to knit, or to visit me?”  The needles disappeared, and the conversation continued without a trace of ill feeling.

The absence of emotional residue is what I find inspiring and humbling.  Eckhart Tolle tells of the ducks who, when they “get into a fight, it never lasts long – they soon separate and fly off in opposite directions. Each duck then flaps its wings vigorously several times. This releases the surplus energy that built up in him during the fight. After they flap their wings, they fly on peacefully as if nothing had ever happened.”  Alice was so good at this, she didn’t even have to flap her wings!

Here is another example:

A lovely young couple lived next door to Alice and they took wonderful care of her in our absence.  They often did her shopping, and made sure she was feeling well.  One evening, they asked Carolyn and me to stop by their house to discuss Alice’s situation.  We had a lovely chat for about an hour, but on returning to Alice’s house, we found all the lights off, and Alice nowhere to be seen.  Concerned, we began a search, and finally found my aunt in her bed, lying quietly in the dark.  “Alice,” I asked, “are you OK?”  She lit into me with considerable heat:  “I know you have been down the street talking to my neighbors about me–Behind My Back! I won’t have it!  I am not a little girl, and I will not be treated so disrespectfully.”  I felt a gale of emotion whistling past my ears, that both scared me and filled me with tremendous admiration for her self-awareness, and for the honesty with which she was able to express her feelings.

Thankfully, grace allowed admiration to win over fear, and I responded, “I understand exactly what you are saying, and I think you are 100% correct.  It was wrong to talk about you behind your back, and I give you my solemn word it will never happen again.”  Without missing a beat, Alice gave me the warmest loving smile, hopped out of bed like a teenager, and said, “All right, then, let’s go downstairs and have some tea.”   And we did that.

To this day, telling this story warms my heart.  This lovely, stalwart human being, my Aunt Alice, was a living embodiment of the Zen teaching that the feelings we cling to are simply clouds floating past the moon.  I have no need to wish that she rest in peace.   In spite of, or perhaps because of, her occasional storms of emotion, she had the most peaceful center of anyone I have ever known.



Making Friends with Life: The Coefficient of Adversity


Yikes! Look out for that wave!

Those folks in Hokusai’s boats are about to experience unavoidably the reality of the phrase that Jean-Paul Sartre borrowed from Gaston Bachelard: the Coefficient of Adversity.   That rather ponderous elocution (he says ponderously) carries within it a powerful clue to a recurring theme on this blog: making friends with life.  Things from lousy weather to an unkind word to a traffic accident can catapult us into victimhood, and enroll us in the “bitch and moan club.”  Eric Berne’s Games People Play featured the game “Ain’t it Awful,”  and it seems that often the conversations one hears are simply strings of complaints.   I sometimes imagine that if some people did not have their list of complaints, they would be absolutely mute.

So how does recognizing the inevitability of a coefficient of adversity temper one’s adversarial stance toward life?  I can think of three avenues of reflection.

First, it is a fundamental tenet in the philosophy of Plato that this material world is one of imperfection.  Whether one wants to follow him out of the cave into the light of perfection is a question for another essay. It does, however, seem clear, as he says in Book V of the Republic, that there is nothing in this world so perfectly beautiful that we can find no element of ugliness; nothing is so good that we can find no negative vantage point.  Combine this with John Stuart Mill’s insight that a part of happiness is “not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing,” and it yields a healing perspective.  “How good does life get?’ leads to “How good do I expect life to get?’ and then “How good do I expect myself to be?” Realizing that a coefficient of adversity is built into the very fabric of life trims the sails of my expectations, and lets me see more clearly the wondrous miracle of what is.  As Wittgenstein said, “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.” Seeing that it is, as it is, can help to liberate us from the illusion of perfection, and to embrace life with its many textures.

Sartre offers a second insight that brings the discussion to a deeper level.  He sees (in Being and Nothingness, Bk 4, Ch 2) that every adversarial element in my life is created by my own perspectives, values, and intentions (in his words, my “self-project”).    For example, I am stuck in a traffic jam.  He calls this a “brute fact,” neither good nor bad.  But if I am on my way to collect a lottery prize, and that is important to me, then the delay can be unbearable.  If, on the other hand, I am on my way to be executed, then the traffic jam becomes a god-send.  Clearly, my life so far has not been filled with lotteries or executions, but even on the mundane level, we can see that a shift of values or perspective can alter the coefficient of adversity in any given situation.  I might find myself seething in a traffic jam, and realize that the ten minutes I lose are not worth a roiling stomach.  My project then shifts from being on time to creating peace of mind, and the coefficient of adversity eases.

This leads to the third reflection: even if I cannot ease the present resistance, Sartre urges us to accept the fact that every coefficient of adversity in our lives is self-created, and thus freely chosen.  The living of life is a package deal, and the art of living consists in weighing the costs and benefits of any given situation.  If the costs are too heavy, we can do our best to change them, or failing that, to leave.  If we do not leave, then our attachment to the benefits is more valuable than the pains, and the only mature option is to buy the whole package with its mixture of sunshine and shadow, blessings and a coefficient of adversity.  This is why Sartre says,  “it is senseless to think of complaining since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, what we live, or what we are.”   Complaining doesn’t change a thing, but claiming responsibility for one’s life opens a luminous path beyond victimhood to a powerful freedom that expresses itself in an unwavering gratitude for life as it is; for life as we are creating it.  As Rumi says, “Be grateful for your life, every detail of it, and your face will come to shine like a sun, and everyone who sees it will be made glad and peaceful.”

Libra and the Equinox

libra 2

September 23, 2014.  What an auspicious day, when the Autumnal Equinox, with its perfect balance of night and day, opens to the balanced scales of Libra.   As we move into cooler weather, it seems a good time to practice cooling the mind a bit, and nurturing the evenness of soul that brings peace of mind. Balance, harmony, and inner peace are all summed up, I think, in the Buddhist virtue of equanimity (upeksha in Sanskrit).  I think of this as “making friends with life.”

Meditation and yoga are wonderful practices for stilling the turbulence of the mind, and evening out some of the more extreme reactive swings from high to low.  I also think that some wise perspective helps.  This morning,  I would like to reflect upon three interwoven facets of  living a balanced life.

The first is to remember that this dappled world of our’s is indeed a play of light and darkness.  The second verse of the Tao Te Ching states this clearly:

“Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.  All can know good as good only because there is evil.  Therefore having and not having arise together. Difficult and easy compliment each other. Long and short contrast each other; high and low rest upon each other; voice and sound harmonize each other; front and back follow each other.”

The realization of our dappled world leads to a second aspect of equanimity: a reflection on the alternating rhythms of life itself, as outlined in the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to reap;  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”

Recognizing this flow of life, then, leads to a third aspect of inner harmony: “taking it as it comes” as the TM folks used to say.  There is a story from Ancient China that illustrates this beautifully:

A poor farmer had all of his meager wealth in one magnificent stallion, but one stormy night the horse escaped from its corral.  The next day, all the neighbors came around to commiserate with the farmer’s terrible misfortune.   “Let’s wait and see,” is all he said.  Two days later, the stallion returned with four heathy mares in tow.  Now the neighbors were loud in their rejoicing.  “Let’s wait and see,” said the farmer.  The next day, the farmer’s adolescent son was trying to ride one of the new horses, and he fell and broke his leg.  The neighbors were desolate, but again the farmer said, “Let’s wait and see.”    And the following day, the army came through the village to draft all the young men to fight in a vicious war, but the farmer’s son was spared because of his leg.

This story, of course, could go on and on, but the point is clear.  Embracing the “time to mourn” not only balances, but engenders the “time to dance.”  As I look back on the passages of my life, I see them as just that: passages leading to more ample and brighter vistas.   As a young man, however, there was no way I could “just wait and see.”  A horrible loss or a shameful failing–the thin line between success and failure in life–seemed all consuming and all-encompassing.  Even now, on the far side of middle age, distrustful anxiety is sometimes a temptation.  It seems so easy to talk about love and trust, but then to live distrustfully, as though life were dangerous and vicious.  Joseph Campbell once said that “we live in one world, and babble about another.”  What is it we truly believe?

We are, however, not alone in this human schoolroom. We are continually given lessons.  We come to see the suffering that our fearful actions bring to ourselves and others, by experiencing the pain of our own mistakes,  And with time, we come to learn, not through pain and suffering, but through light and love and wisdom. We follow the tracks left by wise women and men over the centuries.  We are warmed and supported by the love of family and friends, and we are surrounded by the lessons of Nature’s recurrent equanimity–as long as we pay attention.  In this lovely poem dedicated to the sun, Mary Oliver celebrates the play of light and darkness, while warning of the danger of turning away from life’s graceful balance:

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?



On Turning 76


Yup, today I am trailing 3/4 of a century behind me.  The word “surreal” comes to mind.

I have always thought September 20 was a cool day for a birthday, so close to the equinox. And now on this autumn day, I can no longer avoid the realization that I am entering the autumn of my life.  But as in the Nature around me, my life feels filled with bright colors and fresh, crisp air.  My wife, Carolyn, and I are blessed with perfect health (we walk 2-5 miles every day, and enjoy a neat yoga routine), a beautiful family, wonderful friends, and lots of shining dreams.

Although I retired from full time teaching just two years ago, at age 74, life continues to be vibrant.  In just a few weeks, Carolyn and I will be returning to Spain to continue our love affair with the country and her language.  I so enjoy enrolling in language schools in the countries we visit. It is a joy being a student again, reveling in the thrill of learning and becoming a part of a community.  Rather than simply being a tourist gliding over the surface of things,  this feels more fulfilling for me and more respectful of the culture,

I taught my first university class in 1962 at the University of Detroit, and so completed 50 years as a professor.  Apart from  a few sabbaticals, that means close to 100 semesters of intense and lovingly intimate dialogue with thousands of wondrous students, who taught me far more than they will ever know.   To any who might read this,  “thank you” doesn’t begin to express my gratitude.

At the beginning of the Republic, Socrates says to an old man, “And now that you have reached an age when your foot, as the poets say, is on the threshold, I should like to hear what report you can give and whether you find it a painful time of life.”  This “foot on the threshold” bit is a little creepy.  With luck, I have another 10 vigorous years.  Death, however, is not the most impactful realization.  Finitude is; and that makes every day precious.  I find myself echoing the old man in the Milagro Beanfield War: “Thank you, God, for giving me another day.”   I recommend that little prayer to everyone.

As far as pain goes, I think the most difficult part of aging is the loss of the friends and family who die before us.  The absence of each treasured loved one alters the fabric of life in significant ways, leaving holes that never fill, but also bright threads that weave patterns of joy and love that only deepen with time.  We have all come through dark valleys and over shining hills to arrive at today, and with a modicum of attention, learning and growth do happen.  I can honestly say that life just gets better and better with each passing year.  Maybe there will come a point of diminishing returns, but somehow I don’t think so.  Life continues to be “wild and precious” as Mary Oliver has it, and so I raise my morning glass of orange juice, and say “l’chaim.”

From time to time, I still stumble into fear and forgetfulness, but I find hope and reassurance in this lovely poem by Hayden Carruth:

So often has it been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away – I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love.





Rules are meant to be followed.

Rules are meant to be broken.

I think both of these folk sayings are true–but not always.  The trick is to know if and when, and perhaps why, one takes precedence over the other.  In fact, sometimes a rule should neither be wantonly broken nor rigidly followed, but applied with great care. Let us consider rules as they are found in games, courtesy, art, and morality.

Games                        Rules for games are usually arbitrary, although they often make sense within the context of the game.  Once set, however, they are as solid as granite.  Three strikes and you’re out!

Courtesy                   Rules for courtesy also seem arbitrary, and dependent upon the culture in which one finds oneself.  These rules seem to be more deeply rooted, however, in the soil of humanity’s social nature. Martin Buber is famous for his distinction between treating other people as objective things, or as conscious subjects.  When I treat a person as a thing, I objectify both her and myself.  Buber urges us to live in a world of I/Thou, where the gross use or manipulation of another human being becomes a travesty.  I also find this insight in the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative of Immanuel Kant: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only…”

We might call this the principle of inter-subjectivity, and I think it provides a beautiful context within which to live with each other.  It would clearly preclude egregious betrayals, such as lying, stealing, or murder.  But, for me, it also carries great weight in three areas of courtesy.  In each of these three areas, I think that the rules of courtesy can be either empty formulas, or profound spiritual practices.

First, in everyday exchanges.  By simply saying “thank you” to a service person, one is  acknowledging her humanity, rather than seeing her as a “change-producing machine.”

Second, I think it is terribly important to learn the forms of courtesy in foreign cultures.  Saying “Gracias” when leaving Spanish shops, or “Itadakimasu” before a Japanese meal, is a way of recognizing both the human depth of the culture, as well as of the particular persons with whom we are interacting.  The weave of the social fabric in Japan is so tight, in fact, that my students would invariably tell me that their first moral rules were table manners.  We Westerners do not often see the moral implications of courtesy quite so clearly, but I think this Oriental attitude affords an important window into the gracious unfolding of daily life.

Third,  I would underscore the importance of courtesy with our family members and friends.  It is so easy to take our loved ones for granted, and remembering the simply courtesies helps to maintain mutual recognition and respect.  I am thinking of Archie Bunker yelling to his wife “Get me another beer, Dingbat!”   The creators of the show were obviously showing the importance of familial kindness by demonstrating the ugliness of its opposite.   It is a lesson I try to take to heart.

Continue reading

Jesus Wept—For a Friend

Jesus wept.  There are many erudite and inspiring interpretations of this, the shortest verse in the St. James Bible (John, 11:35).  While giving due respect to exegetical scholars, I find it helpful to reflect on the human side of Rabbi Jesus.  As I noted in my essay Jesus and the Fig Tree , the episodes that display Jesus in a fit of pique (the fig tree), or anger (the money changers), or frustration (often with his disciples), or grief (for Lazarus or Jerusalem), give me comforting reassurance that even the most highly evolved among us share our human vulnerabilities.  I find it instructive to take these stories at face value, and use them as a springboard for thinking about the wonders and the mysteries of ordinary life.  One of the greatest of these wonders is friendship.

I find it very beautiful that Jesus would weep at the death of a friend.  Ralph Waldo Emerson observed,  “A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.”  C.S. Lewis, however, offers a cautionary note:  “to the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”   My experience leads me to shy away from this last sentence.   I can honestly say that my  life’s journey would have have been very different without loving friends to weep with me through the darkness, to laugh with me through crepuscular awakenings, and to dance with me through the light.

Perhaps, however, Lewis is partly correct.  During the busiest times of our lives, it seems we only have room for “socializing,” and not for deep friendships.  Dinner parties or watching football with some buddies and some beers temper the stresses of modern life, but the respect, comfort, and trust that blossom into the love of friendship calls for discovery and creation, care and nurture.  These friends are as rare as they are precious.  They are bound to us with hoops of steel,  and being with them is an essential part of life.

Still, it seems to me that our friendships, our loves, surround us in concentric circles.  My wife and children and grandchildren live in the innermost circle, surrounded by the sisterhood and brotherhood of intimate friends.  The next circle is enriched by those souls that we recognize and love for a lifetime.  So many men and women from my past, so many students,  have taken up permanent residence in a warm place in my heart. I was recently with a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years.  As our eyes met, my heart melted into joyful, trusting love.   I could see the same was happening with him.  It was a wonder not only to love each other, but to be aware of that love and to rest in its embrace. There are so many people, hundreds perhaps, with whom I share this love in varying degrees. Further still from the center, we can find human solidarity with a waitress or a service person or a person we pass on the street.   Martin Buber said that if we listen, we can even hear the call of I/Thou in the voice of a railway conductor.

Continue reading

God’s Kindly Wallops

Tired of Speaking Sweetly


Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.
If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.
Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth
That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,
Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.
God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.
The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:
Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.
But when we hear
He is in such a “playful drunken mood”
Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town.

Do you remember a time when the very framework of your world collapsed?  When all the moral, religious, political and social verities that had sustained you tasted like ashes in your mouth?  In my case, the deaths of my parents and of my first marriage dismantled the world I thought I knew.  It felt as though the sun had gone out.   St. John of the Cross speaks of going forth into the dark night without a lamp or a guide, save for the light that burned in his own heart (sin otra luz y guía, sino la que en el corazón ardía). For a long while, that light in my heart was hardly a sputtering ember.  Dorothy Hunt describes the feeling of being ” left alone in all the world,without a map, without a path, without a point of view.”  I remember standing alone in an alley in the rain, absolutely bereft, spiritually naked. I felt so many tears inside that I was sure I sloshed when I walked.

I find it difficult to express the grace of that time without lapsing into cliches. It is perhaps fashionable to talk of the trials of life, the dark nights, as being a passage into warmer light, but those of us who have been there know that those tears were showers of grace.  The waters of my melting heart were leaking through my eyes, and that dark and luminous alley became a sacred place of turning.  It was time to build a new world, less certain and more wildly adventurous, less giddy and more joyful,  less taken for granted and more precious, less ‘nice’ and more loving.

Continue reading



When I passed my flight test to become a Certified Flight Instructor, the FAA examiner turned to me and said, “OK, John, you are all set to go. Now your first 10 students will teach you how to fly.” The same has been true in my university career.  It is a cliche that teachers learn as much or more than their students, but there is more than a modicum of truth in this. A provocative question or a lively discussion can inspire ideas in me that I had never known before, and in many classes I heard myself saying things that I found surprising. I have often thought, “Where in the world did those words come from?” Sometimes I even found myself rushing back to my office after a class to take notes on what I or my students had just said before I lost the ideas. I have already written about the daily gradual illumination that teaching offers in this blog’s essay on Teaching as Improvisation. In this essay, I would like to share a few thunderclaps that changed how I taught, how I thought, and how I was in the world. Interestingly, the experiences I am about to relate left me with stimulating questions rather than answers, and these questions have remained with me as vital catalysts during my subsequent 45 years of university teaching. It is my hope that you might find these experiences and insights transferable from the classroom to the everyday living of life.

What and Why am I Teaching?
I began teaching at St. Michael’s College in Vermont in 1967. My early attitude toward teaching embodied what Paolo Freire calls the banking method: I had knowledge the student didn’t have; I deposited it into the student’s mind; the student regurgitated it on a test, and I rewarded him or her with a grade. One of my earliest and brightest students said one day that I was not teaching them Philosophy. I was teaching them how to play the game called student. I felt a jolt of recognition and an almost desperate longing not to be that kind of a teacher. My external behavior might not have immediately changed, but my internal landscape was shaken. I began seriously to ask myself what I thought I was doing when I entered a classroom. What was my intention? What would make the next 90 minutes valuable for my students and for myself? I continue to ask these questions today, as they nurture an ever-deepening awareness of the meaning of teaching.

What do I Think I Know?
My formal training had been in Greek and Medieval Philosophy, and my first teaching covered the years from 400-1400 CE: St. Augustine to William of Ockham. For a good five years I taught the words of these great thinkers with confident authority. One day, however, I was teaching St. Augustine’s explanations concerning predestination. Essentially, I understood him to say that God knows the future because His reality is eternal Presence, but that does not determine the future. After listening for a while, a student said, “I don’t get it.” I was shaken by my next thought: “Neither do I.” I had been mouthing these words for years, and I suddenly realized I had no idea what I was talking about. It sounded like nonsense to me, and I realized that I had been teaching students and grading them on ideas of which I had little grasp. Moreover, I also realized in that moment that I really didn’t care about these ideas. That traditional Western God had become more and more abstract, dry, and remote. He was way too masculine and intellectual. My soul longed for a gentler, kinder experience of Divinity.

I therefore began to ask myself why I was teaching what I was teaching. Why should I teach ideas that made no sense and held little meaning for me? Why should I require students to read books that had no fire for me? Why should I require students to memorize answers to questions that neither they nor I had asked?

These questions have informed my teaching for over four decades. My interests shifted away from the medieval period and back to Plato and the Greeks, forward to Existentialism, and to the Eastern philosophies of Taoism and Zen. (In fairness, there are fine thinkers, such as Matthew Fox, who write about St. Thomas Aquinas with sensitivity and intelligence. My point is simply that I personally find more “juice” in other ways of thought.) At any rate, I think it was in that class that I began the slow process of becoming a lover of wisdom.

Lightning Strikes
After  a few years of teaching, however, I was honored with a grant from the Carnegie foundation.  I was to have one of my classes video-taped, and then bring it to Boston for a week’s seminar with 10 other honored teachers from around the country.  Throughout the week, I saw many examples of magnificent teaching.  On Friday morning, it was my turn.  I had chosen a lecture on Sartre’s play “The Flies,” one of my favorite platforms for waxing eloquent.   But 30 seconds into my video, I could have died. I wanted to crawl under the table. There I was for all to see: “Mr. Hotshot Professor.  Mr. Ego.”  I can’t express the pain of that moment, as I saw myself so clearly self-involved as a flashy performer, but a truly lousy teacher.  The experience was so painful for everyone that the leaders of the seminar mercifully turned it off after just a few minutes.  Everyone was most kind, but equally clear that I had some changing to do.

That was the last straw.  From that very day, as I crossed the threshold of my classrooms, I reminded myself in a nearly audible whisper, “It’s not about me. If Love is missing, this will be a waste of time.”  I’m pretty sure that things started getting better.

Shoddy Virtues



In his Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck writes these iconoclastic lines:
“Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver. Nearly always, giving is a selfish pleasure, and in many cases it is a downright destructive and evil thing…It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding.  Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.”

The notion of “shoddy virtues” is at once unsettling and resonant. Steinbeck clearly has a point. Jesus taught that it is better to give than to receive, but Steinbeck is adding that giving is also easier. We have all experienced how difficult it is to allow someone else to pay the check at a restaurant, or even to open the presents given to us at Christmas. It does take great humility to receive with grace.

In modern times, the notion of virtue has become restrictive and dull. Virtuous people are kept from doing things they would like to do, mostly sexual. It has sometimes been used as a subtle denigration of women. Have you ever heard of a man of easy virtue, or of a man losing his virtue? For all the lip service we give to virtue, the truth is that many think of it as bland, boring, and unprofitable. Joseph Campbell once said that “we live in one world, and babble about another.”

For the record, this recognition of virtue’s dual nature has a long pedigree. In the Republic, Plato says “The most surprising fact of all is that each of the gifts of nature which we praise tends to corrupt the soul of its possessor and divert it from the love of wisdom. I am speaking of courage, sobriety, and the entire list [of virtues]” (Rep., Bk. VI, 491). Plato thought that materialistic cultures are incubators of a perverse caricature of true virtue. Professions that offer money, prestige, or power have the ability to seduce the truly talented away from careers that serve the spiritual growth of oneself and others. He is especially decrying the profession of Philosophy, or University Professors in general, who are often fifth-rate poseurs who have little true Love of Wisdom. Cleverness poses as Wisdom, authoritarianism poses as courage, and self-righteousness poses as integrity. If ego drives our natural and acquired gifts, they do indeed become shoddy.

In the East, Lao Tzu makes the same point with his characteristic simplicity as he distinguishes between higher and lower (shoddy) virtue in verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching: “1. Superior virtue is unvirtue. Therefore it has virtue. Inferior virtue never loses sight of virtue. Therefore it has no virtue. 2. Superior virtue is non-assertion and without pretension. Inferior virtue asserts and makes pretensions.” I read this as saying that virtue, aware of itself, is self-inflating and therefore ultimately self-defeating. Jesus talked about the person who gives money at the temple only when he is sure of an audience. “Look at me. Aren’t I good?” Inferior virtue, to be sure.

It seems to me that Steinbeck, Plato, and Lao Tsu are all saying that our most beautiful gifts of mind and heart can be diverted to the service of the ego and thus become powerful tools of self-centered, self-congratulatory selfishness. It is quite easy to see how such attitudes as Giving, Forgiveness, Temperance, and even Sexual Restraint can feed a rigid superiority, full of pretension and assertiveness, if not aggression. The self-righteous often speak warm words that ride on cold breath.

William James noted that the human being is “a bundle of habits.” These habits are channels worn into our minds and hearts and bodies by our quotidian choices and actions. Habits of thinking, feeling, and moving become ingrained, and either imprison us in fear and ignorance, or open us to autonomy and growth. Sadly, the habits that most of us carry into adulthood are narrow and distorting, and inhibit the flow of life. Like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, they make the mind and heart two sizes too small. The ancient Greeks called these crippling habits “vices.” Because of them our minds and hearts are literally caught in a vise, and the smallness of our resulting worldview produces suffering for ourselves and others. The mark of the fool, Socrates taught, is that he is ignorant of his own ignorance. He is a “know-it-all” who stagnates in the backwater of his cognitive illusions. In perhaps his most powerful image, Plato depicts humankind as chained by fear inside the cave of its own disordered (or overly-ordered) and rigid mind.

For Plato, the purpose of human life is to undertake the dramatic journey out of the dark cave of the closed mind. It is a journey toward a mind open to wonder, aware of the provisional nature of what it thinks it knows; and it is a journey toward a courageously vulnerable heart. On this journey, new patterns of thinking and feeling are assimilated into our nature (Aristotle calls this ‘second nature’) by repeated choices and their attendant actions. These new channels that enable us to be the people we long to be–wise and brave, kind and compassionate–are what Plato calls the “Virtues” (arete in Greek). The English word comes from the same Latin root as the word ‘virile.” It means to be strong, powerful, independent. In sum, the virtues are qualities of mind and heart that empower us to live life with vigor and joy. The virtues, the qualities that allow us to function at our best, are in fact prisms through which one’s love flows into the world. Shoddy, ego-serving virtues go by the same names, but they dam the flow of love.

I want to take care, therefore, that the soaring ideals of religion and philosophy do not themselves become self-serving. The virtues of wisdom, compassion, courage, and equanimity are truly real only if they are conduits of love in the ordinary, daily unfolding of life. If I can be kind to my children, supportive of my friends, and truthful with my wife; if I can honor the Divine light in everyone I meet; if I can cherish the inexpressible beauty of the natural world, then perhaps I might be approaching true virtue. I aspire to live the Taoist ideal of gracious action without any sense of being “virtuous.” In the realm of higher virtue, as Hayden Carruth observed, “Now I am almost entirely love.”