About 10 years ago a friend showed me the brainpickings website (www.brainpickings.org) . I must admit that I don’t always get time to read the weekly offerings, but whenever I do I am rewarded. Sometimes I learn something new. Often I am made to think and regularly, I stand back and ponder the awesomeness of an insight.
Today I read the most wonderful quote from Henry Miller, who when writing of the wonder and mystery of the universe wrote, “that we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it.”
The website’s author, Maria Popova went on to say, “Paradoxically enough, the fragment of the universe we seem least equipped to grasp is the truth of who we ourselves are. Who are we, really, when we silence the ego’s shrill commands about who we should be, and simply listen to the song of life as it sings itself through us?”
”Listening to the song of life as it sings itself through us” is what Formation is all about. ,
I have aspired to good work. I realised early on that in doing so, I was at my happiest. I need my work to have value, meaning, purpose and some sense of accomplishment. When this happens, I feel at my best. It affirms my talents and competence, and my creativity flows. At times, I have had work that lacked these things and I have found myself below par, restless and generally unhappy.
Whenever I have had conversations about this, anywhere in the world, I have found that this is something that resonates profoundly with others.
This human phenomenon seems simple enough, but it is not. The connection we make between work and happiness can be complex and confusing. Anyone who has striven for, and abstained, “the dream job” knows how quickly the “shine” can fade when the daily reality sets in.
Regardless of which job I had, wrestling with this has been the real “work of my life”. Along the way, I have come to appreciate two key questions. I first remember these being my mother’s constant refrain in my childhood and adolescence. At the time, I had no understanding of their deep and lasting philosophical significance. These questions are touchstones to which I keep returning. They are crucial to wrestling with the mystery of work, happiness, meaning, purpose, identity and more.
I hear these questions as clearly within, as clearly as a child I heard my mother’s voice:
Making time to reflect and wrestle with these questions has resulted in finding work that I have loved. For the last twenty years, I have been lucky to share this quest with others across Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the USA and the UK.
I think I am on to something.
My viewpoint is simply my view from a point. As I look back from this point, I notice something. It’s a recurring pattern of Toms.
My first influential teacher was named Tom. He was an Irish priest and he was tough. However, when he spoke, I was sure he was speaking directly to me. There was something about his gaze as he spoke to the class. I felt seen and known by his words, and his silence. Back then, class sizes were between fifty and sixty. Looking back, I am impressed. He taught me for at least one class in each of my high school years.
When I finished school, I got a job a thousand miles away from home. Not long after starting my new life, I was told that Tom was no longer teaching but working in a parish in my new town. I went to see him and we became friends. We kept in touch, on and off, and I was glad to introduce him to my own children. At the time I wasn’t conscious how important it was for me to have him see that I was a good husband and father.
Now that I am no longer daily working as a teacher, it has dawned on me how significant it was for me, as a teacher, to let each student, in each and every one of my classes, know that they were seen and known by me.
In 1971, I was sixteen and lost in uncertainty and ambiguity. Tom sensed something in my adolescent angst and gave me a book, “No Man is an Island” by Thomas Merton. I wasn’t much of a reader, but I couldn’t put the book down and I have come back to it many times since. This Tom (Merton) has been a touchstone to which I have returned constantly in the almost fifty years since our first encounter. On each occasion, I am often struck by how timely and appropriate his wisdom is in my own particular time, place and circumstance. I used to marvel at the wonder of this. These days I simply appreciate the gift.
About twenty years ago another Tom entered my life. A friend gave be the recording of a talk he had given at a conference and thought I would appreciate it. I did. I had previously read something by Tom Zanzig, so I was aware of him and his writing. At a time when the internet and email was just becoming a ‘thing’, I decided to email his publisher and ask for his contact details in case he was interested in a conversation around some of my many questions. As it turned out he was the Senior Editor at that publishing company and he emailed me back the following morning keen to dialogue. (He thought I was someone else, but that is another story).
We quickly discovered that we had many things in common. We became friends and I felt I had found a brother. As well as dialogue about meaning and purpose, we spent a lot of time sharing our amazingly similar struggles with parenting. We have spent many hours in conversation pondering “matters of great importance” over the years, and my life is much richer for his generosity, wisdom and friendship.
It’s almost a year since the fourth influential Tom has entered my life. He is my youngest grandson. I am fortunate to live close by and see him daily. I love his daily reminders that “awe and wonder” are everywhere. I am lucky to have a constant prodding to be curious about everything. Most of all I love the way that his first response to everything is to smile. I want to be more like that!
Four Toms, a coincidence? Or a recurring thread indicating the significance, and the blessing, of having a mentor, an inspiration, a friend, a companion and a reminder to smile. These are the good ingredients for lifelong learning.
Dr Michael Downey is an Author, Teacher, Consultant, Retreat Leader & Workshop Facilitator. ,