Dr Michael Downey
Consultant, Author ,Workshop Presenter, Retreat Leader, & Teacher
Dr Michael Downey
Consultant, Author ,Workshop Presenter, Retreat Leader, & Teacher
I was listening to a radio interview about the possibilities trying to emerge in a reformed a post-COVID world. The thought that the present difficulties may be the labour pains of a more wonderful society coming to birth, fascinates me. It seems that the difficulties of 2020 have very many people wrestling with the questions, “What is it all about?” “What really matters?” and “What is truly worthy of my efforts?”
It is not just philosophers who are wrestling with these big questions. Having to slow down, operate in a frequently changing social dynamic, and negotiate the uncertainties, have so many people both thinking and talking about these “Matters of Great Importance”. All we need is a guide.
In 1321, poet Dante’s guide led him to “see now how the light that never ends shines in your mind: light which seen to appear, alone and always kindles love” (Divine Comedy, Canto 5, trans. Clive James).
Asking, and wrestling with, the right questions is indeed enlightening. It is what Formation is all about.
I spend a lot of time with my grandchildren and I love it. I also spend a lot of time in my garden or walking on my beautiful mountain top. All of these things get me thinking.
I find myself regularly returning to Viktor Frankl’s idea of “Life Circle”. He said that how well we (ful-)fill our specific “life circle”, determines our meaning and purpose.
It occurred to me that my "life circle" is a lot smaller in reach than when I was Assistant Principal of a prestigious high school of 1000 kids. Back then, it was always easy for me to be mindful of the significance and meaning of my (life’s) work because of the reach, scope and consequences for the unfolding lives in my charge. I was always grateful for having such noble and profound work. I loved it. Although the stress of it often got to me, and as much as I knew success, I always harboured doubts about my efficacy, regardless of the affirmations.
As a “hands on” grandpa of two very young boys, my life circle is a lot smaller, but as I have come to realise, no less significant. Frankl says what matters is how well we fulfil our specific circle, rather than the greatness of the radius of our actions. This is what gives meaning to our existence.
Before my consultancy with school staffs came to an end with the COVID shutdown and isolation, I regularly began by half-jokingly saying that my life working in schools with thousands of kids was prefect preparation for being a grandpa. I think Frankl’s idea of Life Circle and its affect on meaning and significance, has clarified this for me.
Being an Assistant Principal and spending much of my life working with thousands of kids, really was the right preparation for being a grandpa. Formation involves different approaches in the ongoing journey of discerning what life is calling each of us to as we grow and evolve.
How's your "life circle"? One silver lining of the present moment, is the opportunity to review, reflect and discern what your life is calling you to fulfil.
Philosopher, Eric Hoffer, saw that unlike the perfection he saw in nature, humans remained “permanently unfinished”. We are always a “work in progress”. I like the image used by both the philosophical John Dewey and the theologian Karl Rahner who labeled each of us as “unfinished symphonies”.
Life at times can seem a little discordant. As we largely have no script for the particular complexities of our time and circumstances, it is important to intentionally take time to slow down and reflect on what we are doing and how this affects what we are becoming.
A cardiac professor demonstrating a procedure told his students “at this point in the operation, you have only 60 seconds, to tie off the artery, or the patient will die. He then added, “This is why, you must slow down and take your time”.
Formation is the process of exercising deliberate attention to what we do in alignment with who we are, and what we are becoming. In chaotic, stressful and uncertain times, it might seem like a luxury. It is not a luxury. It is essential. It is about taking responsibility for our unfinished symphonies.
In 2004, I spent a week at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan, thanks to the generosity of the Sisters of Chariry (RSC). While there, I caught up with a dear friend made new friends who I soon recognised as kindred spirits. On different levels the time was rich and rewarding.
In one of our last sessions, Joel Elkers, a retired professor Johns Hopkins spoke briefly. He spoke of losing his family in the holocaust while he was overseas, studying to be a doctor. He said that he had learned that “If the darkness is coming, we will all need to learn how to garden in the dark”. These words were so obviously profound that they were met with silence and reverence.
Over the years, I have randomly recalled these words and pondered their meaning, always thinking that I was missing something. Covid19 and the unraveling that accompanied it has been like “darkness descending“ for much of the world. In recent weeks I have become aware that many people I know, have taken to gardening with the opportunity this uncluttered time has given them. This in turn, has pointed me to reflect further.
In the richly blessed land of Australia, forewarning, shutdown and isolation meant that we “dodged a bullet” and did not suffer Covid19 like Italy, Spain, New York and many other places. The current challenge is to recognise this with ongoing gratitude. They danger is that we think that it wasn’t a big deal after all.
It is awesome to think of the enormity of what could have so easily happened and appreciate that it did not happen. To be honest, I remain “in the dark” regarding the true immensity of this.
My grandson is right, “we Never stop learning”. At this point the question pressing us is how do we put our new learnings, and perspectives, to good use? The greater good has been waiting for us and the right moment. What is being revealed needs us to be present and to participate. We cannot, must not, underestimate this.
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.
One of the key features of Martin Seligman’ brilliant work in Positive Psychology centres around the questions of how and why, when something bad happens it causes, some people to be desolated and other people to flourish. He sought to explore what exactly it was in the response of those who flourished, that caused them to flourish. Seligman wondered about the possibility that anyone could learn from those who flourish, and practice what is learnt to enhance their resilience and quality of life.
There is a refreshing logic to this. It echoes back to the ancient philosopher, Epictetus. He thought that it was not our problems that were our problem. He insisted that our problem was in how we thought about, and responded to, our problems. I found the best evidence for this in the writings of Victor Frankl who emerged from a Nazi concentration camp at the end of Word War 2 as something much more than a survivor. (I first read Frankl’s, “Man’s Search for Meaning” in my final year of high school and I continue to find it insightful, profound, enlightening and encouraging).
How we respond matters. It shapes us. In turn, we shape our future.
It has been refreshing to see the generosity of spirit emerge is so many people in recent weeks. There have been other responses that disappoint and embarrass but the responses of compassion, thoughtfulness and looking out for others – especially the vulnerable, matter most.
What I have learnt from my Formation work is that Seligman’s intuition was correct. Everyone can respond to adversity and flourish. For some it comes naturally. For most of us it requires intentionality and effort. We begin by making a choice.
Ever suffered from jet-lag? I have. It leaves me depleted, disoriented and out of synch. The older I get, the longer it seems to take to get over it. My late friend and correspondent, Fr Ed Hays once wrote that we moved so constantly and fast that we suffered “Soul-Lag”. He was right. As a result I have made an effort, only sometimes successfully, to simply slow down and be still when I could.
Likewise, Nietzsche wrote in “Schopenhauer as Educator” (1873) that “it is something to be able to raise our heads but for a moment and see the stream in which we are sunk so deep. We cannot gain even this transitory moment of awakening by our own strength; we must be lifted up”.
These ideas of “Soul-Lag” and “raising our heads for a moment to see” lie at the heart of my formation work with so many good people who go about doing a very good job planting seeds and shaping the future. These perspectives also explain the phenomenon of the moment we find ourselves in.
Raising our heads, we see some things that we have become, we don’t like. We also see acts of kindness, generosity, self-giving and humour.
As the wave that is moving across the world is giving us time and space to slow down and be still, it offers us the chance for the soul to catch up with us and shed its light on what we see and what we can be.
I’m backing kindness, generosity, self-giving, humour and community.
I love to daily walk my neighbourhood with my youngest grandson in his stroller.
I live on a mountaintop and as I walk, I pass the entrance to a rain-forest and then look down the slopes to the coast and out to sea. One of the reasons I like to walk this walk is that I can’t help but be grateful. I have much to be grateful for: a safe and beautiful place in which to live, the closeness of my family, and the wealth of free time just to be with my grandchildren. These things are the most obvious to me, but there is much more that flows when I “count my blessings”.
From this vantage point I notice things and I am intrigued by them. For example, Nietzsche in “Schopenhauer as Educator” (1873) wrote:
“…if the future gave us no hope for anything--our own existence now must encourage us most strongly to live according to our own laws and standards: it is an inexplicable fact that we live precisely today, and had an infinite time to develop--nevertheless, we possess only a short-lived today to show why and to what end we evolved”
Crises and dysfunction in the environment, politics and a fragmented world easily deceive us into thinking that there is no hope – but there is hope. It comes down to us. That is why Nietzsche encourages us to “most strongly” live by our best lights. After all, we only ever have a “short-lived today”.
There is hope for the future. It is us. Our thoughts, words and actions - how “we live precisely today”, is all the evidence our children and grandchildren need.
“For every complex problem, there’s a simple solution, and it’s always wrong”.
While it’s been a long time since the columnist H. L. Mencken made this observation, it rings true today, particularly when it comes to the endeavour of education.
The recent PISA results regarding student achievement have provoked some comment and debate but nothing much will come of it all. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, it’s late in the year and attention is shifting to Christmas, holidays and the New Year, not to mention bushfires and matters of economy. By the new year, something else will surface for immediate attention. Secondly, education is complex.
In response to the PISA results some rightly point to the place, status, pay and expertise of teachers. Others have commented on the curriculum, NAPLAN testing, technology and Gonski. These are all matters of importance. They need to be addressed but ultimately they miss the point.
The solution to unlocking and encouraging good education is relationship. In fact the ecology of relationships needs to be understood. Otherwise any reform will only continue to do damage.
In the classroom the relationship between teacher, student and subject is what matters. It determines the outcomes. Understanding this and what affects it is crucial.
Too many people who think they know what should be taught, and how it should be taught, have undue influence on the curriculum. Whether they be politicians, business people, commentators or academics, if they aren’t teachers, they need to listen and hesitate to speak. Only the professionals in the classroom have real understanding of student learning. I can’t remember any educational reform being driven by teachers, let alone teachers being seriously listened to.
Educational bureaucracy can too easily undermine teachers work before they enter the classroom. Bureaucrats need to be in the service of education. To be in the service of facilitating learning, enabling, supporting, encouraging and recognising good teaching would be a wonderful thing. Too much bureaucracy is in the service of bureaucracy and bureaucrats.
Teachers are they key to good education. They need to be better compensated. This is not simply about pay scales. Too many teachers are too overloaded too much of the time. Teachers work needs to be de-intensified, uncluttered and unencumbered. Teaching is demanding. Most teachers love their work and care for their students. Preparation, planning, marking, reporting and co-curricula activities are only the top of the iceberg for teachers. While these things are out of sight, their effect on teachers needs to be front of mind when reforming teaching.
Too many important decision makers and influencers either have no real understanding of the classroom or they are refugees from the classroom.
Teaching is a calling. Most people don’t become teachers because they are not cut out for it. Teachers have gifts that fit their calling to teach. Teaching is not a just job, it affects students lives for a lifetime. The work is good, noble and honourable as are most of the teachers I have worked with across the country and all over the world.
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
― David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World
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Dr Michael Downey is an Author, Teacher, Consultant, Retreat Leader & Workshop Facilitator. ,