Beyond Thanks

This time of year we are reminded to give thanks to those around us and to be thankful for what we have. At its best, this can foster a deeper awareness of our many blessings; at its worst, it is nothing more than an autumnal refrain. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t protest against a second slice of pie or a generous serving of cornbread stuffing. But if all we do is heighten our awareness of “haves” and “have nots” then do any of us truly change for the better?

We know that the word Eucharist comes from the Greek meaning “thanksgiving” and yet we all struggle with living out what receiving the Body of Blood of Christ actually calls us to be. So why not try something new? Make a commitment to be life giving this holiday season. Give it through your actions and not your rhetoric. Go public with praise and be private with criticism. Get offline and go in person. Search out sources of joy and recognize they will always outnumber what can be faulted.

This time of year let’s challenge ourselves to not just know Christ but to be Christ for others. [In fact, this is the very mission of our parish which comes from our new advisory council]. In a beautiful phrase attributed to St. John Chrysostom, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.” We cannot simply list blessings, we must become them for others. We must manifest hope in our treatment of the stranger, the person we disagree with at work, and those we love, all the same. To be beyond thankful calls us to model the way as Christ would ask of us—not just “this time of year” but with every breath of every day. Don’t make thanksgiving part of the holiday season. Make it part of who you are.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Unity

The featured track from the metal band Tool’s new album is titled “Pneuma,” which means “breath” or “spirit” and the opening lyrics reflect a particular biblical motif of unity:

We are spirit
Bound to this flesh
We go around one foot nailed down
We’re bound to reach out and beyond
This flesh become Pneuma
We are will and wonder
Bound to recall, remember
(We are born of)
One breath, one word
(We are all)
One spark, sun becoming

Word-Flesh. Immanent-Transcendent. These theological and philosophical pairings are not intended to be abstract constructions but rather serve as a way of framing the human condition. As Teilhard de Chardin, SJ reminds us, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” In a meta-cognitive kind of way this reminds us of how we recognize what is recognizable about ourselves as individuals and as part of a collective entity. Many communities speak to having a unified front or an authentic sense of togetherness despite numerous differences, the way an athlete overcomes a career threatening injury. Likewise, families themselves are a microcosm of “unified chaos.” They emulate the way numerous obligations, agreements, and conflicts somehow overcome the challenges of time to emerge as a unified whole, however imperfect and flawed. But that’s the nature of relationships; they’re messy and complicated, like sausage-making. The quest for unity is not linear or simple; it is fraught with detours, distractions, and doubt.

I often describe my approach to school as a “systems thinker,” most likely a reference to Peter Senge’s work in organizational learning. Since most of my academic background is in systematic theology, I tend to view things in a way which recognizes the potential influence of each aspect of an organization. In a theological discussion, for example, you can’t talk about God unless you talk about human nature and you can’t talk about human nature unless you talk about the impact of freedom and sin, etc. So too we can’t talk about the unity of oneself or of a community without its parts, without the challenges and flaws that make it a uniquely distinct entity. In short, it’s not reasonable to conflate unity with agreement. Unification does not mean that conflict or disagreement have somehow dissipated into the ether of community-building but rather views this mosaic of differences as a collective whole.

“One breath, one word…” go the lyrics from “Pnuema.” Breathing is a habit we are usually unaware of. We are rarely fully aware of our breath unless it is shortened after rigorous exercise or in need underwater. But it requires intake and output, giving and taking, critiquing and supporting. To be unified about any issue or problem is more complex than we realize. But there is a grace in knowing the journey toward it is a priceless spiritual investment in ourselves and those around us.

Foxes and Hedgehogs

I recently finished reading “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by the journalist David Epstein who argues for the value of acquiring a deep breadth of knowledge over the hyper-specializing in one discipline. The central motif in the book is base on the idea posed in an essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin (and previously by the Greek poet Archilochus, d. 645 BCE) who offered an intellectual exercise saying people can be sorted into two categories: foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing; or, to put it another way, those leaders who excel at seeing the granular details of projects and others who can see the big picture.

Most of our experience in life tells us that experience itself is the key benchmark for discerning how to make decisions. [We’re all familiar with the employment tautology of jobs requiring experience: How does an applicant without experience get experience so they can be experienced?!]. What we fail to recognize is that being an outsider looking in can have a great advantage beyond those who are deemed insider experts in a field. When I entered the fundraising profession after years of being a teacher, I didn’t have the typical credentials to justify how I perform in the position. I had no direct experience and development was most certainly not in my wheelhouse. Yet I knew that being in administration would require me to have some background in this given the challenge of many private schools to raise capital while achieving long-term strategic planning goals. What I did have was an understanding of cultivating relationships (pedagogy) coupled by an appreciation for the psychology behind the emotional impact of philanthropy: giving literally feels good!

When I was department chair hiring theology teachers, candidates would often tell me, “I specialize in the New Testament,” or “I would like to teach a seminar on St. Paul,” to which I would reply, “I need you to do everything.” As an educator, being adaptable is the antithesis of being specialized. You can’t just focus on 2nd grade Language Arts; you need to be proficient in phonics and science and religion and so much more. The work of psychologist Phil Tetlock underscores this point in his work on forecasting and predicting. We may presume that political scientists are best suited for predicting polling results but sometimes that specialization can obfuscate the answer that’s right in front of us. In his research, generalists tended to fare better in their predictive abilities because they were able to examine a case from multiple positions. Our focus quickly becomes our proverbial blind spot.

So while this animal representation of leadership styles and approaches to decision making may be a fun topic for your next cocktail party, it does hold important implications for how our society influences and inspires the next generation of scientists, educators, and entrepreneurs. Do we allow for greater intellectual space to explore new ideas or do we simply replicate previous achievements? Are we more excited about the young sports prodigy (e.g., Tiger Woods) or the person who writes their magnum opus well into their middle ages (e.g., Julia Child)? We are all guilty of this “achievement impatience” whether it be for ourselves or our loved ones, especially our children: excel now and succeed today are common sentiments. Instead we may be better served by allowing the fox inside us to explore with more freedom and the hedgehog to ponder more deeply. Maybe then we can begin to learn to take the short and long view of things hand in hand.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Proud of Death

When my dad died three years ago, I knew he would not be forgotten but I did wonder where he was. Despite my background in theology, I was at a loss as to how my life would be impacted by his absence. A deeply religious man, he was an imperfect model of grace, guided by virtues he lived more often than spoke about. The “Fall Triduum” of Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day confronts our thinking about death, loss, and new life; it is the religious and cultural trifecta of seasons, death, and judgment. John Donne’s (d. 1631) famous sonnet “Death, be not proud” frames this difficult topic in a more hopeful light:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

The way we process losing someone in our lives is as complicated as it is transcendent insofar as we confront our own existential grasp of what it means to no longer be. While we may undergo the classic five stages of grief outlined by the great psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (d. 2004), we are nevertheless faced with a much deeper crisis of identity. The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich (d. 1965) aptly titled one of his books “The Courage to Be.” In it he examined how human nature is faced with a true moral dilemma: how do we face the threat of nothingness? How do we define ourselves in the face of no longer being? Tillich contended that this threat can either define us or paralyze our way of thinking about what it means to be human. Our personal and collective identity as members of the human race is more than a singular memory or experience; it is the totality of creation anticipating its final call to go beyond a life plagued by war, disease, and conflict.

By choosing to title this entry “Proud of Death,” I am not making some morbid assertion but rather hoping to raise awareness about the gift of life and the gift of memory. Perhaps it would be better to say, “be proud of death no longer having power over us.” This is the challenge of the cross and resurrection: to witness that death no longer reigns over us and that new life awaits us. Perhaps Donne and Tillich are arguing along similar lines that death itself remains a reality but its grasp and power (and hold on shaping who we are as individuals made in the likeness of God) no longer applies. It is a dimension of who we will become but it does not have the last word; our family and friends who have passed already know this all too well. By holding up our loved ones in prayer we do keep them alive. The emotions we experience are testimony to this and the mantle we are charged to take up is one of remembrance and hope.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Culture of Life

In 1995, then Pope John Paul II issued one of his most significant encyclicals of his papacy entitled, Evangelium Vitae, “The Gospel of Life.” He draws the contrast between a culture of life and a culture of death to raise our consciousness about the the various ways a consumerist and relativistic society can lead to the death of truth and an objective morality. Recognizing the challenges that face us, we are called to greater acts of charity that honor the dignity in individuals throughout the course of our lives:

At the first stage of life, centers for natural methods of regulating fertility should be promoted as a valuable help to responsible parenthood, in which all individuals, and in the first place the child, are recognized and respected in their own right, and where every decision is guided by the ideal of the sincere gift of self… When life is challenged by conditions of hardship, maladjustment, sickness or rejection, other programs-such as communities for treating drug addiction, residential communities for minors or the mentally ill, care and relief centers for AIDS patients, associations for solidarity especially towards the disabled-are eloquent expressions of what charity is able to devise in order to give everyone new reasons for hope and practical possibilities for life… And when earthly existence draws to a close, it is again charity which finds the most appropriate means for enabling the elderly, especially those who can no longer look after themselves, and the terminally ill to enjoy genuinely humane assistance and to receive an adequate response to their needs, in particular their anxiety and their loneliness (Evangelium vitae, no. 88)

During the month of October, the Church asks us to remember the dignity of life from conception to death echoing what Joseph Cardinal Bernardin called the “consistent ethic of life.” This phrase captures the numerous ways our faith calls us to serve the needs of others at every stage of life: when we see others hungry, or imprisoned, or without shelter we recall the corporal works of mercy in the spirit of calling each other “neighbor.” It is also helpful to consider how our words can cause death to values such as honesty. To be affirming and strength-based builds a culture of life; to gossip and insinuate can lead to a culture of death. When our words and actions are directed at particular segments of our society, they can take on a new challenge altogether.

In some ways, arguing for the rights of the unborn and the dying can be morally straightforward: both groups are society’s most vulnerable and demand a voice. By living out our baptismal promise to thrive in community with one another, our social support programs can be tested when faced with dignity of life challenges to the child who deserves an education or a single parent who is entitled to a just wage or the prisoner who deserves a new trial. All of these are culture of life issues that call us to remember that “pro life” is not limited to a singular moral issue; rather, it is to promote and model what St. John Paul II wrote about almost 25 years ago. To cite the words attributed to the early Church Father St. John Chrysostom (d. 407 CE), “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”

If we work to find dignity in everyone, in every stage of life, then perhaps we are well on our way to building a culture of life that honors the diversity inherent in being made in the image and likeness of God. Perhaps by starting with great acts of charity, we come to know God through our neighbors who do not look, act, or speak “like us” but rather point us to live lives of true holiness.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Looking Back…Already

“The Ship of Theseus” is one of the oldest philosophical thought experiments (500-400 BCE) to explore the dilemma of what gives an object or person its identity. It proposes that a warship sailed by the Greek hero Theseus is eventually stored in a warehouse and, over the course of a century, has the various parts and wood structure replaced which begs the question, “Is it the same ship?” The motivation behind using this example is not to navigate the intellectual nuances of what gives an object its identity but to apply the paradox (or tension) to education. Is a school the same today in 2019 as it was back in 1950 or 1980? Has the profile of a student changed? Can a school be the same as it was when it was established and also constantly changing?

With any new administration, the standard metric of “the first hundred days” seeks to address how proposed goals and outcomes have played out: To what degree have you been successful? What short term goals need to be met? What evidence do you have for showing these benchmarks? As such, I felt it was important for my own growth and development, as well as a way to be transparent in our community, to reflect briefly on where I am in my role after one hundred days as Principal.

1) Personnel: Having met with every faculty member over the summer, I have a greater appreciation for the institutional memory at our school: the history, culture, and expectations from the community. Schools are all about relationship building and there is no greater resource than those who have served this great school for over 400 collective years of experience. As agents of change, it was also important to me to be present and supportive of teacher initiatives while encouraging space to explore new curricular ideas and innovative pedagogical approaches.

2) Resources: After numerous conversations with committee members and key stakeholders, we have a solid grasp of the physical plant needs of the school and parish bearing in mind numerous overlapping goals of enrollment, pedagogy, social-emotional learning, and financial stewardship. We have also secured funding to support quality research and evidence based professional development in Responsive Classroom techniques with teachers, Second Step middle school counseling curriculum, and new instruments for our expanding music program, among others. All of these improvements underscore our mission of educating the whole child while providing the necessary resources for students to flourish in secondary school and beyond.

3) Communication: Multiple channels call for more intimate and robust ways of communicating with parents and parishioners alike. Our transition to Google Classroom has served as a technological bridge between classroom face-to-face teaching and greater frequency of collaboration with classmates. This very blog serves as an example of efforts to reach more families, alumni/ae, and the greater school community. With almost 1,000 views in the first month alone, it appears some people are reading!

While it’s helpful to look back and take a mental and spiritual inventory check from time to time, it is paramount (and quite possibly more difficult) to embrace and engage in the present moment. The prayer “Patient Trust” by the Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ is appropriate meditation on the seemingly chaotic and hurried nature of our lives at times:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

As I look back, I am mindful of what lies ahead for me. But in the present moment, as I type these words and reflect on the good work we have accomplished and what has yet to be done, I appreciate the grace that abounds and overcomes the minutiae of everyday life. I am grateful to be surrounded by colleagues whose care and concern goes beyond the classroom walls and for parents who desire the best for their child. I look back, if only for a moment, to remind myself that building the Kingdom is slow but incredibly rewarding work.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Preaching to Animals

Today marks the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi who once said, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary, use words.” It’s a powerful reminder about the power of actions and the limits of language. This became all the more apparent during our “Blessing of the Animals” prayer service today where children bring their pets to school running the gamut from stuffed animals and pictures to turtles and barking canines.

The beauty of this prayer service lies in its simplicity. Blessing and remembering animals reminds us of the unconditional love (“agape”) in our lives; in one way, it is the model prayer service par excellence. Other forms of love (physical “eros” and friendship “philia”), by definition, are conditional. They rely on a mutual exchange between individuals but are limited somewhat in their capacity to lose oneself in another. We can recall the words of St. Paul (also a reading from our wedding day), “Love is patient, love is kind…It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7). Animals are a window into this infinite rippling pool of relationships.

Since we “speak” with animals through behaviors, it makes sense that we are limited in how we communicate this love for them. The Latin phrase spectamur agendo translates as, “Let us be judged by our acts” and reminds us that our actions teach us more about loving others than words can. We are reminded of this in the way our world calls us into relationship through the abundance of life God has created: a beautiful day, a cool breeze, and the sights and sounds of creatures we live with. Let this feast day remind us about our relationship with the non-human world and how it should reflect the way we care for one another.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Enjoyment and Use

Every day when I walk around school to see how lunch is going and watch the latest iteration of tag played by students on the asphalt, I wonder how young minds think about enjoyment. And if I asked them, “why do you like playing that?” they’d likely respond with, “I don’t know. I just do.” It’s a sentiment more than a reason and that’s to be expected. Enjoyment in things stimulate our body’s endorphins which in turn help regulate mood, pleasure, and even our inclination to show empathy toward others. When students play they are in fact able to be their own best friend! When other students are using a tablet app or researching for a project, I wonder about how they use things. Some may abuse it to cyberbully other students but that same technology can help promote innovation in the classroom and build collaborative group work with peers. For both enjoyment and use, there are right and wrong applications for each.

St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430 CE) wrote about the distinction between these two important moral actions of enjoyment (frui) and use (uti). The right orientation of enjoyment and use is to direct it toward its proper end or goal. An example from Augustine would prove useful here. For him, the three goods of marriage are procreation, fidelity, and the sacrament. To bring children into the world who are raised in the faith to represent the indissoluble union of the couple is the proper alignment of both enjoyment and use. Conversely, we can also enjoy and use both things and people in misguided and disingenuous ways: words can hurt, alcohol can be consumed excessively, and people’s good will can be exploited. But to honor and value something or someone for the sake of who they are or what they represent speaks to the dignity and reverence that we are called to witness.

I like to remind colleagues that it’s not the “what” but the “how” that is important in building relationships. How we speak with someone is often more important that the subject of what we are discussing; it frames the respect needed in any relationship. How we recognize and cultivate an appreciation for the beauty that emanates from this world reminds us that we are made in the image and likeness of a God who calls us into relationship. How we grow in our ability to use things like power, wealth, and prestige to be in solidarity with the most vulnerable members of society is an invaluable metric for how far we’ve come as a civilization. And there is nothing more enjoyable than knowing that a life of virtue is one worth living.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

On Right Habits

For many of us, habits are often associated with undesirable behaviors like chewing with our mouth open or poor driving skills. Developing good habits is a process that requires a conscience effort and will to continue despite obstacles that may arise among feelings of doubt. If we want to lose weight, we might struggle to avoid the birthday cake in the break room or feel as if results don’t come quickly enough. But when we strive for greater consistency in our life, we slowly begin to correct poor attitudes and behaviors which develops better life skills and eventually a deeper sense of satisfaction and happiness. It is the work of building character and what we expect from ourselves and one another. In the Catholic tradition, these habits take the form of virtues, character traits that allow us to live a more harmonious and joyful life. But living out the virtues are more than just unconscious behaviors or reactions; they are a moral blueprint for a life imbued with genuine happiness.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (famed tutor of Alexander the Great) argues in his great work on moral philosophy Nicomachean Ethics that the person who possesses true character excellence does the right thing, at the right time, in the right way. The goal of life is to pursue eudaimonia, a Greek word meaning well-being or “human flourishing.” For example, Aristotle thought that the person whose desires were in the correct order actually takes pleasure in acting moderately. In social settings, one should not be reclusive or obnoxious but find the “Golden Mean” or middle point of proper behavior. Just as our bodies benefit when we eat balanced meals and exercise regularly, so too our moral compass becomes stronger when we perform good deeds because they give us a deep sense of joy. Today there is an entire body of social science research showing the correlation between good actions for others (altruism) and improved physical and cognitive health. Habits do not simply benefit the person; they make a more robust community.

While we usually try too convince ourselves to start new habits during typical milestones like New Years Day or “next Monday,” it’s useful to consider starting one now. Today; not tomorrow. Smile more. Complain less. Offer help to everyone. Say “thanks” with greater frequency. Virtues can give the impression of being unattainable or lofty but building habits is gradual, taking one step forward. Over time we may not become paragons of virtue, but we will be doing our best to improve ourselves and each other. Even the desire to cultivate virtues is in itself a courageous act! So let’s all work to begin something new…now.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!


Mindful of Many Things

This year our guidance counselor, in collaboration with school administration, chose “Mindfulness” as the school theme for promoting the well-being of our students. While some may conflate this with some new-age movement promoted by Hollywood elite, it’s important to remember that it is an invaluable tool for fostering greater awareness in a world that is driven by the speed of our wi-fi and the myth of multitasking which often results in doing little (if anything) well. Mindfulness echoes the “Growth Mindset” articulated by psychology professor Carol Dweck which recognizes the need for students to be aware of how they approach difficulties in the classroom by utilizing different approaches to learning. Of course many of us have “fixed” mindsets about certain things in life ranging from how we like our coffee prepared to expectations of work colleagues. But when it comes to education we can defer to language that doesn’t promote the best in our students, e.g., “math may not be your best subject,” or “we can’t all be athletes.” In short, a growth mindset isn’t just effort; it is being mindful of how we develop and grow as learners.

I often reminded new teachers I was mentoring that when class begins, the students in front of you are the most important people in your life. That is mindfulness. Even as you read this post you may be thinking about what you’re making for dinner tomorrow, or how busy your weekend it going to be, or how relaxed you’ll be after paying your bills. Whatever it is, in doing so we neglect being mindful of the people and events that are in front of us, here and now. When I am home playing with my boys, I remind myself that I am in fact playing with my boys and not thinking about enrollment numbers, or that driver that cut me off, or if we can afford taking that vacation. Mindfulness is a call to model the virtues of patience and humility in every moment of every day.

Within the Catholic tradition, mindfulness is evident by many of the great thinkers throughout time: Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, and Hildegard of Bingen, among others. Their lives are powerful testimonies of what it means to be practitioners of mindful practice, to immerse oneself in prayerful reflection by meditating on the great truths of life. The Mysteries of the Rosary is the quintessential mindful practice of Catholicism. By calling us to prayer, we are invited to be present and aware of our minds and hearts, how we reason and how we feel. Placing ourselves into the vignettes of Jesus’ life and resurrection and that of the early disciples, we gain a greater appreciation for the daily miracles (and challenges) of our own life. In short, by becoming mindful of mindfulness we begin to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the beauty that is imbued in even the most mundane of acts and the simplest acts that surround us.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!