My grandson, who will turn four in a couple of months, impressed me with something he had learned to do. I expressed my delight and he told me, quite seriously, “Papa did you know that you NEVER stop learning?” “Yes, I know that. I am still learning new things all the time”, I replied.
Pondering this, a memory surfaced from 1998 and my sabbatical in Turkey. It was just before three in the afternoon. I was wandering the streets, looking, smelling aromas, marvelling at ancient buildings and streets of the Sultan Ahmet district in Istanbul. It was relatively quiet. I was becoming quite adept at avoiding carpet sellers, but I looked up at a man standing in a doorway.
“You are a teacher”, he said more as a statement than as a question. “I beg your pardon?”, I responded. “You are a teacher”, he said again. “How did you know?”, I asked.
He answered that “Many people come for souvenirs or to take photos. Some people come to see things. But teachers are always learning something”. He continued, “I watched you walk up the street and I could see that you are learning, trying to understand”. I hadn’t realised this until he spoke. I was so absorbed in the wonder of these ancient streets and I was lost in curiosity. In fact, I was so distracted by my curiosity that I really didn’t know exactly where I was.
We spoke for about twenty minutes or so. We drank tea and I asked him how to get back to my motel because I wasn’t sure exactly where I was. He laughed and said, “Only a good teacher isn’t afraid of getting lost when learning something”. He pointed me home and we parted. In the years since, I have delighted in watching my students lose themselves when absorbed by ideas. The carper seller taught me that my role was not to provide the answer, but make it safe for them to get lost in the wonder of learning.
As the Buddha taught, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. This thought is fascinating when held with my grandson’s assertion that we never stop learning. Whether it’s a carpet seller in a far off land, a good book, an interaction, or three months of COVID isolation, the teacher appears. We just may have learned something worth learning in the process.
I have long been fascinated with the writings of the first century Middle Eastern tent maker, Paul of Tarsus. I find much of his writing thought provoking, regardless of how often I have pondered it. It contains sage advice and gives me inspiration when working with others. One passage I have been pondering recently keeps me thinking,
“… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Formation is the ongoing process of reflecting on our life, our work and the context in which we find ourselves. This is necessary in order to appreciate the dignity of our work, and to encourage us to appreciate the gift and value of that which is ours to do. In the process, we are nourished and sustained.
When engaging in formation with others, leading them to reflect on their work in the world, I always finish by reminding them that using their gifts and talents faithfully, is noble and honourable.
It’s easy to be cynical, and negativity is insidiously seductive in uncertain and ambiguous times. Intentionally focusing on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable is a healthier alternative. Paul was on to something.