“We are in a race between education and catastrophe.” —H.G. Wells
“ The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity…” W.B. Yeats
I went to a talk by mythologist Michael Meade and left with his book Why the World Doesn’t End: Tales of Renewal in Times of Loss. I was in need of some reassurance that hope still has muscle and breath and that there is a spiritual dimension behind the unfathomable acts of insanity that will prevail and see us through. His thoughts that “this will get worse for some time to come” were anything but an easy reassurance, but his perspective that the Soul of the World can be renewed and re-awakened in a time of darkness was enough to re-light my own faltering flame of active faith.
The unbroken string of human disaster marches on. Trump, vying to be the leader of a powerful nation, publicly mocks a disabled reporter and his followers casually excuse it. The doors of Walmart open on Black Friday and people who just ate more food than they needed on Thanksgiving rush in and fight with each other to buy junk goods at discounted prices. Police keep killing black youth and college students in Texas are legally allowed to carry concealed weapons to class. Not to even mention the desperation in the Middle East that draws young people to ISIS. It reminds me of the old Pogo cartoon quote:
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
All of us. We are all embroiled in an atmosphere of fear and well-founded at that. Climate change, easily accessible assault weapons, nuclear threat, economic instability, terrorism is real. Fear sends us down to our reptilean brain and we go into survival mode. And in that state, we are more vulnerable than usual to fanaticism, fundamentalism, one-track ideologies, apocalyptic nightmare visions and promises of rewards in the next world, unfounded hunger for stuff, notions of “them and us” and more. We close our minds, shut down our hearts, turn off the light of the authentic imagination in favor of quick-fix salvation fantasies. And the more we run to those false gods to save us, the deeper and more real the fear becomes.
What we need in such times is deeper thought, wider hearts, higher forms of imagination. Nuance and complexity and subtlety and both/and thinking cannot reside in the lower brain stem. All the rooms there are taken by fight, flight, freeze. We need to crawl out of that hole and make the effort to ascend to the summit of the neo-cortex, where there is a larger view, better light to see by and a more complex ecosystem of thought. As Meade says:
“Ideologies intensify when genuine thought is absent, when doubt is not allowed, and when true imagination has been excluded.”( p. 28 in above book)
I like that list and it’s not a bad summary of what I’m after as a teacher. To promote genuine thought, to give space for doubt and uncertainty and mistakes, to fire up the imagination through the crafts of music, dance, drama and poetry. I didn’t need catastrophe to convince me that this is what attracted me to teaching and work with children. But in hard times, my conviction in and commitment to these things is stronger than ever. The children in my school and the children in my class are encircled and protected by love and care and thus, free to access genuine thought, follow their doubts and exercise their imagination. An alum recently recalled her time at our school some 20 years back and commented, “I have never felt more cared for or ‘safer’ than during my time at the school.” ‘Safer’ doesn’t only mean free from violence and hunger and social marginalization and vicious racism/sexism/classism/homophobia, but also simply safe enough to fail in front of peers, to express a different and unpopular opinion, to try out a new thought, to sing or dance or play a solo in faith that the right note will appear. In this atmosphere, the best in us begins to grow Yeats’ missing conviction, not the absolute certainty of fundamentalists, but the faith of the artist that the intuition in search of truth and beauty will not disappoint.
That’s today’s thought about why I teach. Hoping to create a generation of people who can think, feel, express beauty and stay home to sing with the family and neighbors on all the Black Fridays to come. Is that too much to ask?