I often recall a time when discussing Formation with Parker Palmer at his home in Wisconsin when he illustrated the importance of reflection. He said that “just because I’ve said something, doesn’t mean that I know exactly what it is that I’ve said”.
My oldest grandson reminded me of this as I was driving into our driveway this morning.
Noticing his Nana’s car in the driveway, my youngest grandson exclaimed, “Nana is home!”. My wise five year old replied, “Nana doesn’t have to go to work any more, she’s over-tired.”
I stopped myself from correcting him and had a smile. Sometimes we make meaning. Other times, meaning is revealed when we notice something and reflect on it.
Sometimes a phrase jumps out at me. I was reading an essay by Aldous Huxley from 1964, reflecting on the poetics of life. He said that we act out “a series of strange and improbable events”. It struck me once more, that much of my life has been a series of strange and improbable events.
For example, most of those who taught me at school would have considered it most unlikely, and definitely strange and improbable, that I would have spent most of my working life as a teacher. However, being a teacher was work that called me and I could not resist its gravitational pull.
As I prepare to facilitate professional formation, time for teachers to reflect on their vocational calling to teach, it occurs to me that “strange and improbable” is more the way of things than we might often expect.
There are several lovely walking tracks not far from my home. I walked one recently with my son and his sons. My youngest grandson, who is two and a half, found the walk challenging after awhile. Still, he was determined to make it to the lookout where we cross a creek as it drops over the edge of our mountain top. Before we started, my son and I both suspected that we would have to take turns in carrying him as he tired.
The lookout is about 1.5 kilometres from the carpark. I’ve stood on that bridge and looked over the creek to the horizon before. I asked my grandsons if they liked this spot. They said yes. My eldest grandson was obviously so happy to watch the creek disappear and appreciate how high we were above the land below.
I told him that it was an effort to walk here but without making that effort, we would never be able to enjoy this perspective. We got to see what we wanted to see, but our journey was only half done. We now had to go all the way back again. As the walking track is a circuit, we got to choose. We could go back the way we came, or we could keep going forward. It was the same distance either way. He chose to keep going in case we might see something different.
We did, and we did.
Once more I was struck with the parallels to groups I lead in Formation. We have to make the journey to appreciate the perspective we can only appreciate by arriving at that place Formation leads us. Then we continue our journey. We benefit from making the effort, and we benefit from journeying together. It can be more of an effort for some than for others and sometimes we need to support each other home.
Still as The Fox said to the Little Prince, “some grownups will not understand why these things are matters of great importance”.
Sometimes a question of great importance is asked of us. When working with seniors on retreat last week, I channeled Mary Oliver and asked, “What is it that you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life?”
At turning points of significance: leaving school, graduation, deciding to get married, choosing a career, changing jobs, moments of profound loss or disillusionment, or that rare windfall of great opportunity, I have felt that life was asking an important question of me. Discerning what exactly I being asked was the challenge.
Sometimes, asking the question, is what we are called to do. In the ancient Grail Myth, the hero, Parsifal’s task was to ask the question. As a young man, he failed to ask and as a result, spent the rest of his life searching.
I like Krista Tippett’s assertion that “questions elicit answers in their likeness”.
I am continuing to think that this COVID moment, pivot, or turning point, is both asking significant questions of us, and providing us the opportunity to ask our own question. My question may be quite different to yours.
What is it? What is your question at this moment? Asking it may define what’s next.
The newsreader said that COVID restrictions had been eased. We could relax and move about, even gather in groups. But social distancing was still necessary. The various levels of isolation, were harder for some than for others, and not just because of the level of restrictions mandated.
In our highly extraverted world, where constant frenetic activity, outputs, results, achievements and definite answers have been the generally accepted norm, many assumed that this was simply the way of the world. COVID caused a pivot, or turning point. Perhaps pondering and asking questions is more useful to us at this moment?
This week, I began some formation work with teachers by asking them what they learnt from COVID and 2020. Some responded that employers discovered that they could trust their workers to work from home. Some observed that they missed contact with those that they love. Some said that living with uncertainty was a new experience and demanded a different mindset from the usual. Perhaps what resonated most deeply was learning that we are vulnerable.
Gently holding this insight reveals that not only are we vulnerable, it is an illusion to ever think that we are not vulnerable. Its easier not to think about it and just get on with life, work, family and “the whole catastrophe” (as Zorba the Greek would say).
In this wonderful “wide, brown land down under” the heat and drought which led to 2019’s devastating and wide-spread bushfires, forced us to think about ourselves in our physical world – a relationship under significant stress.
2020 forced us to think about how we move and connect in the world. We found that we had to think about how we worked, how we keep connected and what really matters.
There seems to be a pattern here. I wonder if 2019 & 2020 were preparation for what is coming next.? Not necessarily for the specifics of what is coming, we just might be being prepared for more changes in how we relate and connect to each other, and how we relate, connect and move through our world.
If so, what we have learnt over the last year or two could prove to be invaluable.
What did COVID and 2020 teach you? What did you learn?
After doing the afternoon Kindy pickup, I was sitting in the garden with my, four and a half year old, grandson. I asked him about his day, what he did at Kindy. “Nothing. I just played”, he replied.
Formation is very effective. It needs to be ongoing, intentional and effortful. It can be as simple as noticing what nourishes and sustains us and taking the time to be blessed by it. The silver lining of having the “normal” routines and practices disrupted is having a few moments each day just to sit and be.
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.
Dr Michael Downey is an Author, Teacher, Consultant, Retreat Leader & Workshop Facilitator. ,