Dr Michael Downey
Consultant, Author ,Workshop Presenter, Retreat Leader, & Teacher
Dr Michael Downey
Consultant, Author ,Workshop Presenter, Retreat Leader, & Teacher
“It’s a hard time to be human.
We know too much, and too little”
(The World Has Need of You by Ellen Bass)
In The Curly Pyjama Letters (by Michael Leunig), a young adventurer and explorer, Vasco Pyjama, asks a wise elder, Mr Curly, "What is worth doing? and, "What is worth having?"
With the stressors that have complicated life over the last couple of years (Drought, Bushfires, Pandemic, Social Disruption, Flooding Rain etc), I know a lot of people, young and old, who have been asking these same questions.
The response to these questions has been called, "The Great Resignation" because so many have changed what they are doing, and how they are doing it. My observations from moving in and out of workplaces and listening to people is that "The Great Resignation" is the "Tip of the Iceberg", the bit that is most visible.
Below the surface, another great resignation is taking shape. It is being resigned to being stuck; a lack of fulfilment; not having visible options; restlessness; dissatisfaction and lingering unhappiness. These things are soul-destroying.
This is why ongoing Formation is so important in spite of everything else that must be done. Formation is a deliberate, structured engagement of the questions that, persistently and inconveniently, gnaw at us. Engaging with these things is the pathway to refining our purpose and finding meaning in what we do with the work of our lives.
Formation is a great investment in discerning "What is worth doing? and "What is worth having?"
You know that old saying, “You can’t see the wood for the trees”? A couple of lines from a poem by Francis Weller made me think again:
“But in the wood is the dream of burning - of flames,
heat and tongues of orange/red - leaping up into
the night, warming those who come close by”
Our word, “recognise” literally means, “to think again”. As I prepare some Formation as Professional Development with colleagues working together in the coming weeks, I am mindful of the necessity to stop and “think again” to kindle the fire that dreams in each of us.
The time in between Christmas and the New Year is a good time to ponder. I have been pondering how happy my grandchildren are, and the gratitude this provokes in me. They are lucky to live safe and secure in the loving embrace of an extended family. They are also lucky to live in community on a very beautiful mountain top hamlet. Our beautiful environment grows beautiful things.
A friend arrived to visit for a couple of days. Sharing a glass of wine before I prepared dinner, he said, “Wow, you are so alive and happy”. I already felt this, but his observation still caught me unexpectedly.
There is an ancient principal, Anima Mundi, which means “soul of the world”. Ancient and traditional peoples, and Archetypal Psychologists, all understand that our own spiritual well being involves the connection to the Anima Mundi. It’s not loud and dominant, but we too easily lose this connection in our constant over-busyness. It’s what Richard Louv calls, Nature Deficit Disorder.
Luckily, the remedy for this is effortless. Really! We don’t have to “do” anything. We just need to slow down and relax in the arms of Nature. Here’s to holidays.
I was caught completely unawares when talking about career paths with student teachers I was supervising, a couple of years back. I was told more than once, by promising young teachers, that they had no intention of becoming a teacher after they graduated. They would use the skills expertise and for something else.
In each case I thought the young person had some promise and I told them so. As it turns out, the workload, the administration demands, the pay, the stress and the lack of appreciation teachers lived with, just didn’t make a teacher’s life attractive.
Ironically, these young people also recounted how rewarding they had found their experience working in schools.
While I was saddened by this, I also admired their clearheaded pragmatism. I wondered if their unfolding life journey might one day bring them back to a classroom.
These young people had understood some of the things that contribute to good teachers burning-out in their work.
With Covid restrictions easing, I have been talking with school leaders about Formation programmes for the coming new year. What these leaders see as significant challenges reminded me of my student teachers. The last two years have added to the stress, complexity and intensification of teachers work.
Formation is about nurturing and sustaining those who use their gifts in the service of education. Ongoing Formation creates opportunities for teachers to flourish. Their work is good and noble. It’s important to keep perspective.
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.
Dr Michael Downey is an Author, Teacher, Consultant, Retreat Leader & Workshop Facilitator. ,