(Re)imagining Reality

I recently participated in a virtual EdCamp for school leaders where we were asked to think of a “re” word that described our experience at the start of the school year: reboot, reexamine, rework, renew, etc. And it became abundantly clear to me that we have all been forced to participate in this same exercise of doing things “again” but by thinking and acting differently. I find myself in the act of revisiting everything from health and hygiene, to supporting faculty, to fostering community for students, to creating normalcy in abnormal circumstances. In short, I feel like we are experiencing reality in a uniquely different way. Reimagining.

Two examples, one historical and another personal, illustrate this thinking of mine. In 1515, the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci traveled from Italy to China in what would be a watershed moment on a number of levels. As the first westerner welcomed into the Emperor’s imperial court, Ricci had to adapt his European customs to meet what was expected of him as a foreigner. He had to meet the East where they were and suspend his way of seeing the world through the eyes of the West. In doing so, he not only helped author numerous Chinese maps and math curricula, he helped bridge what were once considered different cultural worlds. Revisiting.

A few years ago, Santa brought my son Gabriel a Lego Star Wars ship that was over 1,500 pieces with strict instructions not to break it apart (cf., the ending of The LEGO Movie). Of course, ignoring Santa’s letter he proceeded to slowly dismantle the ship and it became a joke between us that he’d never get one like it. Fast forward to a few months ago when Gabriel told me he was going to try to reassemble the ship from his collection of (no lie) thousands of Lego pieces rebuilding from scratch. Reconstructing.

We should never accept the notion that redoing something is a sign of defeat or failure. Rather it represents the very fabric of who we are as moral beings. Skills, habits, and customs are not innate operations that we are born with; they are learned through trial and errors. Embrace the opportunity to reimagine your own reality: careers, relationships, feelings. It doesn’t have to necessarily lead to changing anything or jettisoning your beliefs or commitments. But it should give you solace to know that we are always able to renew ourselves and it doesn’t cost us anything!

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

The Irreconcilable Paradox

Around this time of year I relish the gradual change of seasons to a cool and crisp autumn. It’s my favorite season but there’s nothing special in saying that; it’s entirely subjective. We call weather “bad” when it’s rainy or too windy and remark how “nice” it is when the sun finally makes an appearance after a long stretch of storms. We usually desire the opposite of what we’re experiencing, e.g., during a harsh winter we like to imagine being in a tropical setting.

Emotional states are not entirely different in that we often yearn for the weekend come or try to convince ourselves that we’ll feel better once we get past a difficult patch in our lives. The phrase “once [insert event] is over” is how all too many thoughts begin. And yet it makes sense given the fact our minds have evolved to redirect our feelings to a natural equilibrium of calm and familiarity. Psychologists would see this as our natural bias to rationalize or believe certain things while being unwilling to change or adjust our mindset out of a sense of self-preservation. The current pandemic provides a cultural crucible to meld conflicting beliefs about what we were used to and what we struggle with and how so much suffering comes from this desire to “return to normal.”

One aspect of this normalcy is that we are drawn to people like us and ideas like ours; in short, similarity breeds familiarity. But in our minds, hearts, and neighborhoods, we struggle with the conflict that is an irreconcilable paradox, a tension that reflects a more authentic appreciation for differences and one could say life itself. In the Western world we tend to eschew conflicting or clashing beliefs or desires, ignoring dualities of good/bad, light/dark, joy/pain. A common symbol in Asian philosophy, the yin-yang, represents harmony coming from seeing these binaries as one: not avoiding pain in the search for pleasure or desiring warmth in the cold, for example.

So while this wording of irreconcilable paradox may be mouthy or too philosophical or just straight up confusing, it is a call to remember that life does not present us with clear objective realities. This is another reminder to be mindful of joy when we experience joy and pain when we experience pain. Fight against the tendency to avoid one for the other or to hold onto another emotion as if that’s possible. Embrace the paradox of life and find the real bliss of life!

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

New Spirit Animal

At some point you may have been asked, “What’s your spirit animal?” Many of us have engaged in this game of totemism whereby you associate your personality with the likeness of an animal. An eagle may symbolize wisdom while a penguin could be associated with loyalty, for example. For some time, I’ve identified with sloths as my animal spirit with their seemingly permanent smile, kind disposition, and blasé demeanor; but I digress. Another “animal” has recently risen to the top for me and in many ways reflects the human characteristics needed to endure struggles, overcome hardship, and evolve continuously: tardigrades.

Also known as “water bears,” tardigrades are microscopic and, admittedly, not very cuddly. They belong to a group of organisms known as extremophiles, known for their ability to survive in extreme conditions and have attracted quite a pop cultural following. While this post isn’t meant to be a bad microbiology lesson, there are definitive values to be drawn from this fascinating species:

  1. Resilience: As a species, we are uniquely gifted with the ability to anticipate the future and plan accordingly. Yet we often struggle with the emotional toll of negative media, caustic relationships, and mental duress. Being resilient doesn’t mean avoiding pain or pressure but calls on us to recognize the strength in our vulnerability and the need to embrace a growth mindset that is open to change. With more workplace gurus citing the need to search for resilience, it’s important to make this value a priority in our lives.
  2. Adaptability: While we may have cornered the market on social adaptations in terms of neighborhoods and cities, we still force the square peg into the proverbial round hold by making our environment conform to our needs, as opposed to the reverse (e.g., the advent of heating and air conditioning). The (over?) use of the term “pivot” lately speaks to the need for adaptability and how we must be positioned to react rather than plan. This can be unsettling for some but it helps rewire our brains to embrace change, rather than actively resist it, and actually allows us to be calmer and more focused by realizing change is the universal constant.
  3. Perspective: This requires a bit of cosmic humility. The theologian John Haught has written extensively on Catholic theology and evolution and uses the analogy of book chapters to frame the age of our universe (and our infinitesimal place!): if 13.8 billion years of the universe was a set of 30 volumes of 450 pages each, humanity wouldn’t appear until the last page or so of the final chapter! Factor in our tendency to equate size/ magnitude with strength/longevity and you see that we are blind to so many examples in the natural world that do not conform to our expectations. (After all, how could a .01 inch organism survive multiple catastrophic disasters over the course of millions of years?!) This sobering fact should give us all pause about the arc of life in the universe but also serve as another reminder of our interdependency upon one another and how we have been privileged to live at this time and in this place.

These three values are nothing new to us. But our ability to find examples of them sometimes needs to be refreshed. The human species may never be able to go for three decades without food or water, live in a volcano, or withstand the vacuum of space on our own like our friends the tardigrades, but we can still take away invaluable life lessons from this unlikely new spirit animal.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

The Good Ol’ Days

We all romanticize the past. The way things were and the people we knew were second to none. Children today “don’t know what it was like” to live when we were younger. Undoubtedly, older days were simply better days. And yet when we see children today against the backdrop of global turmoil and an epidemic that has led to nothing short of an existential crisis for many adults, we forget to remind ourselves that for them the good ol’ days are now. Today. Not eventually or at some point. Now.

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote a collection of reflections in his work Pensées (French for “thoughts” or “reflections”). Written as a form of Christian apologetics, he explores humanist and theological concepts including our perception of time itself. In one of his more poignant lines he writes:

“We never keep to the present. We recall the past. We anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does…”

I often think of my own parents and childhood at the start of every school year, my own “wander about in times.” My father worked for the airline industry and my mother was a homemaker and worked in the food industry when me and my three brothers were all in school. They put the four of us through a combined 52 years of Catholic education. I often joke with parents that they believed in two things growing up: braces and Catholic education. As if a good smile and the sacraments were all you needed; in many respects, they were right.

But during my childhood, I never lacked necessities. We certainly weren’t what you would consider upper class or affluent but you’d never know it from our childhood and our “good ol’ days.” One of the graces of childhood is being immune to the worries and struggles your parents endure: making ends meet, mounting bills, and general parental anxieties. Only now as I raise my own boys can I experience this reality, that my worries and concerns are not theirs nor should they be. Their “good ol’ days” are now.

These days, it’s all too easy (and yet completely understandable) to recall a better past time when faced with so much uncertainty, confusion, and pain. But in working (dare I say fighting) to be more mindful of the present we retrain our mind to be calmer, focused, and quite frankly, happier. Mental pain stems more from our inability to be mindful than it does from the present itself. The way we allow ourselves to be comforted by a familiar past or in the perception of a joyful unknown future is the source of our anguish. By recognizing the glimmer that shines in even the murkiest of waters we remind ourselves of the overflowing grace that surrounds us at all times.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Hope

Today marks the feast day of St. Augustine, one of the early Church fathers and a prolific theologian who composed Confessions, often regarded as the first autobiography. In a quote often attributed to him (but in the spirit of academic honesty difficult to verify) he writes, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

The past several months have been marked by anguish, struggle, and change. I have felt anger and courage during this time in a seemingly endless cycle, a paradox of sorts. Policies changing daily; protocols varying across institutions; and a dramatic increase in tentatively worded communications. In short, nothing about planning for schools to reopen has been easy yet everything about the end goal of the process has been worth it. In our culture, hope can often be relegated to fantasy or wishing. But in the theological sense it stands as an infused virtue, a grace bestowed upon human beings as a moral compass which leads us toward new life rather than an abyss of anger and confusion.

As we enter this new school year, we are ever mindful of the constant that is change and the need to embrace hope as the eternal guiding light in our lives. We pray for the safety and well-being of everyone in our community and beyond. The COVID-19 epidemic hasn’t just disrupted our lives; it was unwoven the very fabric of society. And there is no exaggeration in writing that. But as Catholics who believe in the true incarnation, we recognize that hope will always appear naive to the outsider. To those who know, hope is what has always guided our hearts to be still regardless of whatever raging tempest stirs in our world.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

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!