Teaching is perhaps one of the most difficult and effective spiritual paths. The one that will test you to the hilt on the whole “love thy neighbor” idea. Of course, most people’s version of school has nothing to do with love, but from my vantage point, it’s at the center of the whole enterprise— or should be. As Dickens so eloquently put it:
“Thank you, Mr Rokesmith. You love children.”
“I should hope everybody does.”
“They ought,” said Mrs. Boffin., “but we all of us don’t do what we ought, do us?”
The school year starts with great hopes and expectations that every child will be lovable instantly. But they’re not. And some will make us crazy with their behavior. If we remember that “behavior is the language of children,” we needn’t take it personally. They’re telling us things like “This subject is so incomprenhensible to me and it’s so confusing that other kids seem to get it that I have to do something here to survive.” Or “I haven’t had breakfast in three days” or “My parents are fighting” or a thousand other things. It takes a while for us to notice these patterns and how they interrupt our perfect lessons and we start to get exasperated and angry and either alone in our thoughts or checking it out with fellow teachers or out loud to the child him or herself, we say, “What is wrong with you?!!” with the full force of frustration and judgment.
Though the tone is wrong above, the question is a good one. If the answer has a scientific name, like Dyslexia or Autism or Asperger’s, it changes everything. Judgement turns to understanding turns to compassion. If the answer is a humane one— like a pet or grandparent dying or difficult issues at home— we also lean in further to affection and loving gestures. It is our ignorance—and sometimes the child’s as well— as to what’s going on that keeps the patterns of exasperation and harsh judgment going, that puts the italics in “wrong” and the exclamation points after the question mark.
As with children, so with everyone. How many of the people who piss us off and drive us crazy might be seen in whole different light if we took the time to ask, “Tell me your story.”? Or if their behavior had a commonly accepted diagnosis like “obsessive compulsive.” Suddenly we’re an inch more understanding when they keep moving everything we put down somewhere else.
If we’re ever going to move this “love your neighbor” thing beyond a convenient soundbyte platitude and make it real, that’s the kind of work we’ll have to do. And while the stories can evoke compassion, they can’t be used as mere excuses in a victim mentality kind of way. We are all responsible for moving beyond our stories to improve our behavior and take responsibility for our actions and the way they affect others.
• Step one is noticing and asking the question.
• Step two is asking again after removing the italics and exclamation points.
• Step three is listening and re-framing once you know more. Leaning into understanding and compassion.
Where things get really thorny is when you’re trying to love your neighbor while they’re dumping their trash in your yard or throwing loud parties with live heavy metal bands at 2 in the morning. And they’re not interested in hearing your story about why you might find that upsetting. The people I’ve had the most trouble loving are those who have intentionally sought to harm me. That’s a whole different ball game.
But I’ve been told that I have “too-many-ideas-in-one-blog-Syndrome” so I’ll leave it at that.