Sacrifice is Love

“I don’t know.” There may have never been a time when the entire globe felt the same way. We don’t know what to make of empty storefronts, masked neighbors, and an uncertain economic future. We want to know when it will end, when normalcy will return. We simply don’t know.

But I know what I know. I know that we need family and friends to thrive. I know we don’t need much to survive when food, water, shelter, and clothing are available. I know our psychological well-being is essential to remember that this is all we need. Most of us are encountering a radical confrontation with (and consequent shattering of) privilege; namely, the expectation that our wants will always be met on our timeline. The other day at the grocery store, they only had 2% milk available. Privilege. I have a house large enough to shelter my mother-in-law, wife, two boys, and dog. Privilege. I am trying to donate more to my parish. Privilege. I can’t physically visit with colleagues, friends, and other family members but instead call, video chat, and otherwise socialize online. Privilege. Being aware of this creates the space in our hearts and minds to allow for greater sacrifices as acts of love.

The sacrifice we are all enduring is an appropriate act given our commemoration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, marking the start of Holy Week. Symbolically, this marks the beginning of the (penultimate) end. The sorrow of Good Friday leads to the patience of Holy Saturday only to be transformed by the grace of Easter Sunday. The darkness always passes by just as grace appears to be fleeting. It is the waiting that is most difficult. But in remembering the loving nature of our individual and collective sacrifices, we can all the more appreciate the warmth that Sunday morning will bring to us.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Blurred Clarity

This year was supposed to be different with the perennial illusion of new beginnings. Every year begins the same way, really. But this year is entirely different altogether. COVID-19 is now part of our historical lexicon in the same way we can’t ignore the sheer gravity behind the numbers 911. It is not a change anyone made a resolution for but one that descended upon us. Eerie, strange, surreal, and bizarre all speak to the shared global experience of seeing closed storefronts, empty lots, and an acute awareness of the oxymoron “social distancing.”

At the risk of coming across as naively confident, we will emerge from the struggle that comes with solitude and the unknown. It’s perhaps fitting that in this season of Lent we celebrate Laetare (meaning “rejoice”) Sunday this weekend being the 4th Sunday of Lent. And while I realize joy may not be at the forefront of our collective consciousness, we should know that it is coming. Personally, these past few days have brought me much joy among the angst: pictures and notes from families reinforce the beauty of the human spirit even at its worst moments.

As we adjust to a normalization of working and schooling from home, we should remain mindful about our what is essentially essential to our lives. Wants and desires already feel so antiquated. But there is joy in the mundane. The oft-quoted line from the epic Latin poem The Aeneid (Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit) roughly translates as “perhaps it will please us one day to remember these things.” In the story, Aeneas’ crew has just been shipwrecked and all hope was lost–at that time. We should all remember that there will be a time when that joy returns knowing it will be refreshingly sweet like the sun glistening on our face after a turbulent storm!

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Being Vulnerable

Vulnerability often carries the connotation of weakness or frailty. It is a cultural antonym to what appeals most to our sense of strength and courage. And yet in numerous ways, nothing could be further from the truth. Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability highlights the many ways in which this trait is paramount to successful leaders and their constituents.

Yet as I write this, our world is facing a pandemic of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) which has escalated our physical and psychological awareness about what it means to be vulnerable in a very raw way. Social and athletic events are being postponed or cancelled altogether; travel is reconsidered or restricted; and we are reminded about some of our most vulnerable populations in the elderly and homeless. In short, it has upended how we perceive what we understand about the common good for all. In his encyclical Mater et Magistra (1961), St. John XXIII wrote about this core value of Catholic Social Teaching and its relevance to our collective lives:

To this end, a sane view of the common good must be present and operative in men invested with public authority. They must take account of all those social conditions which favor the full development of human personality. Moreover, We consider it altogether vital that the numerous intermediary bodies and corporate enterprises—which are, so to say, the main vehicle of this social growth—be really autonomous, and loyally collaborate in pursuit of their own specific interests and those of the common good. For these groups must themselves necessarily present the form and substance of a true community, and this will only be the case if they treat their individual members as human persons and encourage them to take an active part in the ordering of their lives [Italics mine] (no. 65)

We are both individuals and part of a community, independent and interdependent, private and public. Respecting the dignity of all peoples is most needed when we feel most vulnerable. And we shouldn’t shy away from using the word or feeling its effects. Vulnerability is not a call to retreat or withdraw but a time to deeply consider the needs of our respective communities. It challenges us to sacrifice in many ways, not simply for some generic cause of the greater good but for the betterment of every individual’s ability to flourish and grow together. Being vulnerable is bearing witness to the vulnerability of others in a way that empowers everyone. It is the radical awareness of our shared humanity.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Gathering Embers

The celebration of Ash Wednesday solemnly marks the start of the Lenten season. The dictum, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” reminds us of the need for penance and humility but also the grace that allows us to be forgiven. Ashes represent a symbol of our faith and serve as a reminder of the human condition. The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich describes these characteristics of a symbol:

It opens up levels of reality which otherwise are closed for us. All arts create symbols for a level of reality which cannot be reached in any other way. A picture and a poem reveal elements of reality which cannot be approached scientifically. In the creative work of art we encounter reality in a dimension which is closed for us without such works…it not only opens up dimensions and elements of reality which otherwise would remain unapproachable but also unlocks dimensions and elements of our soul which correspond to the dimensions and elements of reality…there are within us dimensions of which we cannot become aware except through symbols, as melodies and rhythms in music.

(Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957)

In a similar way, every Lent we gather embers as a way of inviting ourselves to ponder a reality that is beyond us while also reflecting on what is within our very being. Recognizing we are flawed sinful beings is not meant to be a form of psychological punishment; it is an affirmation of our faith and connection with one another. Like the cross at Easter or manger during Advent, ashes function as a powerful signpost on our spiritual journey. They remind us to take a spiritual inventory of where we’ve fallen short in words and deeds. But they also remind us what our shared humanity demands of us once when we wash them from our foreheads.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Beautiful Ignorance

In school settings, ignorance is not something one would typically embrace, let alone value. We teach through various methods of engagement with the goal of students performing at a high achieving level. They learn the art of asking higher-ordered questions while understanding content that challenges them to employ the skills they are taught. But ignorance? It should be removed from our collective educational psyche altogether, right?

The other day I stood at the school front door as our Kindergarten classes left for their field trip. Their excitement was palpable as it was the first time many of them had been on a school bus. When they returned, I asked some of them what they liked most about their trip. “The bus!” they emphatically yelled. “It was the journey,” I thought to myself. They were ignorant about the goal or purpose of the trip, i.e., visiting the museum, not in a deficient or pejorative way, but in a way that elicited a beautiful naivete which embraced the “how” of getting there altogether. It demonstrated a pragmatic indifference about the ends of the trip; it was the means that made all the difference.

In the well-known Aesop’s Fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” the Hare pokes fun at the Tortoise:

“Do you ever get anywhere?” he asked with a mocking laugh. “Yes,” replied the Tortoise, “and I get there sooner than you think.”

All too often in educational circles, the focus becomes solely about the goal or destination: scores, grades, certificates, awards. The journey itself is rarely commented upon: How did you learn about that? Why did you answer the question that way as opposed to another? Can you think of a better way of responding to your classmate? These types of questions engage the psyche on a deeper cognitive level. They also create space to allow for beautiful ignorance to envelop us and, much like the children going on the bus ride, enjoy the journey, the process, the messiness of authentic learning.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Making $en$e of Giving

Can you recall the first time you donated money to a cause? Do you remember why you did it? For most of us, this is like trying to recall what you learned in elementary school: you may not get many specifics but you do remember how you felt and perhaps who made you feel a particular way. I remember when I was in the 3rd grade and bringing home a Catholic Relief Service Rice Bowl to collect money for children in Africa. During the season of Lent, I remember giving part of my allowance each week toward this cause. What strikes me about this memory isn’t the cause or even the recipients. It was knowing I was making an impact and that it felt good to give what I could. Fast forward to 2020 where the technology in our world allows me to give across various platforms and know my (relatively small) donation is appreciated and put to good use; technology allows us to donate by clicking a button or simply sending a text. So if it’s not difficult, what prevents us from giving?

It’s been said that anyone can raise money. From children soliciting door to door with candy bars to the most polished philanthropic advisors, anyone is capable of managing a simple financial transaction. But what differentiates fundraising from philanthropy is the cultivation of relationships and emotions. To say you can increase your own dopamine (chemical associated with reward and motivations) and serotonin (chemical associated with mood regulation) production borders on being quite the salacious offer. But in many ways, there is a real truth in this idea that charitable giving is more biological than financial. Emotions leave a powerful imprint on our collective memory; songs, words, and symbols can all evoke them. While we may not always remember a name or date, we are usually able to remember how some person or some event made us feel. We can recall the joy from our experiences in college while refraining from recalling more unpleasant memories. Our selectivity is important to consider here. For many people reading this, being part of the SMM community or another Catholic grade school was a positive experience. Many of those who have this shared experience may have even decided to make a gift at some point as a way of saying “thanks,” “I appreciate the experience,” or “I want to provide for future students.”

Giving is about our organization, your taxable income, our initiatives, impressing your friends—alright, maybe we can include the last one—making YOU feel good about the impact YOU make. As parents, friends, and potential donors, you are our best resource and spokespeople for what is unique about SMM in 2020. Part of my responsibility is to thank you for your contributions and communicate to you the impact of what you do for our students and faculty. Making sense about giving means shedding light on the power of an educational program; or the financial ease that comes with receiving financial aid to help with tuition; or seeing a renovated playground and library ensure ample study space. It’s at best odd and at worst defeatist to say fundraising isn’t about money. To better understand giving means realizing it doesn’t make sense to donate your hard-earned income; it is not a purely rational act. It is an emotional endeavor where you are given far more in return by knowing that your gift has a tremendous impact on our ability to provide a premier Catholic educational programming, enhanced professional development, and state of the art technological accessibility. By giving to the SMM, you help continue the work started 67 years ago by the Bernardine Sisters and Fr. Henry Miller, our first pastor. Because of you and your generosity we continue to stand on the shoulders of giants—those who have gone before us—in a spirit of gratitude and humility for our beloved school.

Let’s celebrate Catholic Schools Week by remembering our rich history while investing in our future on January 28. Join us and be part of our storied legacy in Wilmington!

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

To Lead is to Step Aside

The new year brings a multitude of resolutions, commitments, and a sense of things starting anew. (For me personally and professionally, this means my Amazon book list continues to grow like a literary hydra!) with topics ranging from psychology and sociology to economics and theology. But in particular, leadership books intrigue me. As one of my colleagues liked to remark, “Reading a book on leadership is like reading about baseball: you have to do it!” In many ways, he’s right. To just read about leadership on its own can be a mental exercise in futility unless there is a connection between theory and praxis, concepts and action.

School leadership in particular can be complex given the web of curriculum, laws, policies, enrollment, and funding needs, among others. In parochial schools, the principal or headmaster is seen as a gatekeeper, one who oversees everything from facilities to staff to curriculum. Yet this idea does more of a disservice to the numerous individuals it takes to truly lead a school, to support its constituencies, and to engage in a shared vision for the future. It’s like the belief that only a quarterback or running back can win the Heisman Trophy: we tend to ignore the peripheries in life. There are so many individuals that contribute to success within a school setting that we have the tendency to limit the recognition needed to thrive. Only hubris allows for an individual to truly believe that success is accomplished in isolation.

In our #Twitterverse world, we can engage another tendency to make brevity the norm for explanations. Bumper stickers can be memorable, but they can’t allow for nuance. Then again, not everything needs a 300-page thesis to get the point across. So here’s my sticker:

Lead by stepping aside. Ensure people are cared for, foster organizational excitement, and embrace risk. Frame the vision, build ownership, and respect differences. Repeat.

Leadership is about action. It is about empowerment. It is about serving those you are responsible for first. It echoes what leadership and management expert Simon Sinek means by the phrase “leaders eating last.” In committing to this, we can move beyond catchphrases and grow closer to tangible results that place us closer to building the next generation of leaders.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!