Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Start with Joy

Craig Bernthal

This weekend in Berkeley, I got four separate messages about joy from four separate sources. They came in, unannounced, from different directions, and appeared on my radar screen as a Mars Hill Audio Journal clip, a You Tube video from Word on Fire, a sermon from Fr. Bruno Gibson, O. P., at St. Mary Magdalene Church, and a talk with my son, Luke. When this happens, I get the sense that Someone is trying to tell me something. For readers with no interest in Catholic or Christian matters, I will put the least religious message at the top of the list. 

Lesson 1: Cheer Up, Dad

            My son, Luke, is in his third year of law school at Berkeley. I practiced law myself for five years and interned as a “Rule 9” deputy prosecutor in the state of Washington, but it’s been thirty years, now. It was pleasant to listen to him talk about things like suppression hearings and holding companies, and “piercing the corporate veil” and find that I remember enough to understand and ask non-stupid questions.

            Luke is also in the process of getting his fair share of beginner's knocks and young lawyer hazing as he starts to gain experience through internships which entrust him with real cases and put him into court. In the summer he was in Washington, D. C. with the Department of Justice, in the fall, he interned with the San Mateo County DA, and now he’s with the Contra Costa County DA.

You know the worm has turned when your son starts giving you better fatherly advice than you give him. While the two of us sat on the roof of the Triple Rock Brewery in Berkeley and drank beer, Luke made four points:

1.     Calm down and don’t take university politics home with you;
2.     Enjoy yourself;
3.     We’re not in the business of making people like us—we only care if the jury likes us.
4.     You can’t win’em all; you just have to do your best and walk away.

Thirty years ago I could have given myself this advice, but I’d forgotten it. It is a big mistake for anyone to think, however important our jobs are, that they are the most important parts of our lives. Pat the dog, stroke the cat, weed the garden, and if you think you are surrounded, watch Justified and see how Raylen Givens deals with the situation.

Two, we ought to be cheerful warriors, enjoying ourselves. Academic Senators and professors: there are very few battles that have the moral clarity of this one. We don’t have to second-guess ourselves on that score. In addition, there is very little anyone in the administration can do to retaliate; I know that this is a fear from talking to people, but colleagues, this is the only good reason the state gives us tenure. Its raison d’être is to give us the security to speak up in defiant ways when that is required. Finally, battling for the right thing is exhilarating. We are going into what will be the best, most significant fight of our careers. There is joy in this.

Three, teachers like to be liked. We like to be liked by colleagues, administrators, and students. Our mantra might be, “Be Nice.” This is a failing. We are not here to be liked by anyone, not even our students. We are here to teach effectively. Some of the most effective teachers I’ve had, in law school and in science, were not “nice,” but a lot more like Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. It is uncomfortable to confront people. But it’s not that uncomfortable, and it gets easier with time. When people are hiding the truth or shading it, confrontation can be quite satisfying. Our opponents are not more formidable because they wear suits.

Four, Boethius says, “Abandon hope and fear.” No matter how hard we try, no matter how good our intentions, we’ll probably make mistakes, and we may lose. We can’t control outcomes. But we can do our best to prevent Fresno State from becoming a joyless, bureaucratic slagheap of education. We can fight to keep the joy in teaching. That's worth something in itself.

Lesson Two: Start with Joy

In the following video, Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire ministries talks about the most necessary ingredient in evangelization: joy. Evangelization, he says, proceeds from friendship, to joy, to sharing.

I will let Fr. Barron speak for himself, but I want to add that much of what he says is just as applicable to teaching, and that is why we can't let the joy go out of it. To force professors to teach to a pre-ordained syllabus and play book will annihilate our passion. Turning teaching assessment into a competition for student accolades will kill teaching as well.

I have used Kingsfield as a fictional example of a great teacher who would be destroyed under the system forming at Fresno State. Here are three real examples. 

When I was a geology major at Michigan Tech, we were required to take physical chemistry, and it was simply the most difficult subject I have ever tried to understand. P-Chem was taught by a short man with stubby fingers named Leslie Leifer. Prof. Leifer, when he wasn't scribbling equations on the blackboard, liked to pace in front of the class and point his stubby index finger at students while he fired questions. I prayed he wouldn't zero in on me. If a student didn't have the answer, a situation usually indicated by petrification, he'd say, "You can be replaced by a monkey with a banana," and move on. He suggested other things we could be replaced by, but it's the monkey with a banana that stuck with me.

In mineralogy I had an ancient Bulgarian fossil named Kiril Spiroff, who also taught the six-week summer field geology course. In that course, students paired off with each other to form mapping teams. The class went to various places, often in copper or iron country, and mapped the site, offering various explanations as to "what was going on, here." One mapping team was composed of a brilliant, but very shy and self-effacing student and a very loud, self-confident student whose C- grades did nothing to weaken his self-regard. He had a way of talking his much smarter partner out of solutions and into mistakes. After one exercise, Spiroff asked to see the map this duo had composed, registering the blatant erasure of the right solution and its replacement with the C- version. Spiroff took the clipboard, slammed it on the ground, and began to jump up and down on it with both feet, screaming in what his students could only assume was Bulgarian. There were assumptions, but no proof, as to what he was saying. Spiroff was teaching that shy student a moral lesson; have confidence in yourself, stick up for your convictions, do not give way to fear.

My last example is revered University of Washington Law School professor Cornelius Peck, who was my Kingsfield, and ran his torts class like a Socratic torture chamber. We may not have liked it at the time, but whenever I ran into a judge or lawyer who wanted to run me over, I thanked Corny Peck for getting me ready.

I was lucky to have all of these men as my teachers. They taught me a lot. Their students respected them. They had great passion for their subjects. These kinds of teachers have all but disappeared under the totalitarian regime of "niceness," and that is a tragedy. They had great joy in their disciplines, and they communicated it.

Now for Father Barron:

Lesson 3: G. K. Chesterton: A Defiant Joy.

This lesson came via the latest Mars Hill Audio Journal, Volume 110, which I listened to on the way to Berkeley. Ken Myers interviewed Kevin Belmonte, author of two recent books on G. K. Chesterton. These are Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life and Impact of G. K. Chesterton, and The Quotable Chesterton: The Wit and Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton.

G. K. Chesterton takes the prize for the literary genius most ignored by English literature professors. He had an astounding output of work, including brilliant books and essays on politics, religion, theology, literary criticism, and philosophy. He wrote poems, novels, and short stories--most famously, his Father Brown mysteries. He started his career not in literature, however, but in art. At the Slade Art School in London, when he was 19, Chesterton went into a severe depression which was partly in response to a greater depression in European culture, the 19th century fin de siècle reaction to what seemed an inescapable nihilism. Chesterton came through this, embracing Christianity, and finally the Catholic Church, becoming one of its most vibrant defenders in debates with his friends, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. That story is one that I want to explore in the future, but for now I will just offer one quotation from G. K. C.:

"The perfect happiness of men on earth (if it ever comes) will not be a flat and solid thing like the satisfaction of animals. It will be an exact and perilous balance; like that of a desperate romance. Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them." 

Lesson 4:  Fr. Bruno’s Sermon

My one sentence summary of Fr. Bruno’s sermon: Jesus was a cheerful warrior.

Today's Old Testament reading, by itself, doesn’t promise cheer. It is Leviticus 13, 1 –2, 44 – 46:

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘If a swelling or scab or shiny spot appears on a man’s skin, a case of leprosy of the skin is to be suspected. The man must be taken to Aaron, the priest, or to one of the priests who are his sons.
‘The man is leprous: he is unclean. The priest must declare him unclean; he is suffering from leprosy of the head. A man infected with leprosy must wear his clothing torn and his hair disordered; he must shield his upper lip and cry, “Unclean, unclean.” As long as the disease lasts he must be unclean; and therefore he must live apart: he must live outside the camp.’

On the other hand, the New Testament reading shows that God’s primary concern is human connection. Lepers are not to be cast out, but to be healed and brought into the community, the kingdom of heaven; Mark 1: 40 – 45:

A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees: ‘If you want to’ he said ‘you can cure me.’ Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. ‘Of course I want to!’ he said. ‘Be cured!’ And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured. Jesus immediately sent him away and sternly ordered him, ‘Mind you say nothing to anyone, but go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering for your healing prescribed by Moses as evidence of your recovery.’ The man went away, but then started talking about it freely and telling the story everywhere, so that Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived. Even so, people from all around would come to him.

How does this get to Jesus as the cheerful warrior? Fr. Bruno was mainly concerned with “connection,” but he smuggled in another gospel passage about spiritual warfare: Matthew’s account of Jesus’ struggle in the desert with Satan, which harkens back to another struggle, Jacob’s wrestling match with the Angel of God in Genesis. God comes out of eternity, leaving his divine prerogatives behind, enters into the heat and dust and strife of this world; as a human being, he meets the devil, stares him down, and tells him to go to hell. That is the joy of heaven coming into our lives. We are soldiers in this cause, along with St. Paul, fighting "the good fight." Today’s Psalm was 31, and the refrain was: You are my refuge, O Lord; you fill me with the joy of salvation.

I'll sum this long entry up with one more Chesterton quotation. It is about the joy of fighting for what's right: "The full value of this life can only be found by fighting; the violent take it by storm. And if we have accepted everything we have missed something--war. This life of ours is a very enjoyable fight, but a very miserable truce."

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