When I look backward into my youth – forward all the way to today – I observe an undeniable, constant strand: Part of my identity is that of being a learner and a teacher.
Of course, there are many ways to be a learner and a teacher (two sides of the same coin for me, anyway). Right now, in my life, for example, I a professional teacher, a college professor. However, I also learn and teach at church (as I did recently in leading a group on gays and the church), as a parent, and even sometimes as a friend. This blog post, in fact, is also an act of learning and teaching for me, as it involved reading, thinking, and now sharing. Others learn and teach in their roles as managers, coaches, crew leaders, volunteer leaders, mentors, and pastors. Learning and teaching are roles many of us play in everyday life.
I suppose it’s because learning and teaching are so core to me that I approach reading as I do. That is, I’m always reading something in order to gain a fresh perspective on life. And, afterward, I’m usually looking for someone to share this with. But, because of my interests in learning and teaching, I also attend to certain ideas more than others probably do in the process.
This became particularly apparent to me recently while reading Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book “Unsheltered.” To put it very simply, “Unsheltered” explores what happens when fear of change clashes with progress and new evidence. (This is done in chapters alternating between past and present, showing how history repeats.) However, when I read the book, I found myself most resonating with and reflecting on those passages dealing with learning and teaching.
1. To start, in one scene, two of the main characters, the scientist Mary Treat and the teacher Thatcher Greenwood, have an exchange about Thatcher’s high school class. Mary asks Thatcher:
“How are your pupils, Mr. Greenwood? Can you yet see a light within them?”
I absolutely love this question! Isn’t this the point of all forms of teaching?: To help spark someone’s light?
As William Butler Yeats once put it: “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”
What does it mean to help someone find their “light?” Perhaps many things, but I think part of this is helping individuals connect with their interests and passions, in ways that may be uniquely theirs.
2. Following this theme a bit more, in a later outing, Mary brings Thatcher to a forest where she does some of her research. She shares this observation:
“I am astonished at how little most people can manage to see.”
Surely is the case in our modern culture, as many distractions preclude learning and teaching. And, yet, there is something in many of us that yearns to be aware. Maybe this is why mindfulness has become such a popular practice.
I am reminded of the time Jesus was reported to be eating dinner with a group of Pharisees (Luke 7:36-50). A “sinful” woman came, weeping, eventually pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet as a sign of her desperation for mercy. Jesus eventually says to his disciple, Simon: “Do you see this woman?” How profound: People need to be seen.
The universe also provides marvels waiting to be seen, if only we would attend to them. As Henry Miller once remarked: “The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
3. Finally, and getting closer to the actual central plot of “Unsheltered,” Mary later advises Thatcher on his work with students:
“Teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it.”
Much of the book deals with this central task of discerning what is true. In the historical chapters, this concerns the conflict between fundamentalist religion and evolutionary theory. In the chapters featuring the present, this deals with falsehoods perpetuated by a politician Kingsolver calls “The Bullhorn” and the realities of the world.
How can people sometimes so blatantly miss the mark of what is true? As Kingsolver suggests, it’s probably often times because of fear. And that’s why we need to bravely face reality unsheltered.
Help others find their light, see that which is awe-inspiring all around us, think more critically, let go of fear, and face reality bravely. Herein lies a healthy vision for all who – in whatever capacity – seek to learn and teach. And live well.