Caring and Being Careful
Yesterday I was asked to be part of a session in which we were supposed to talk about our work and the context of our work. That sounds like a simple request, but it proved more difficult than I thought it would be. My work centers in spirituality. And many would argue the context of that work is the classroom. I would not disagree. But when I reflected further, the classroom is only one context for my spirituality work. There are many other venues where my work is also is engaged.
At the superficial level, there were the obvious answers. I teach religion. In most instances I walk into a classroom and proceed. I talk about ideas; I cajole them to reflect on and also talk about ideas. I ask them to begin what many have never done, namely, talk about their experience (if any) and to begin to formulate that into their own belief system. Most of them find it difficult, especially at first. And I agree with them; it is difficult.
One cannot live superficially and reflect deeply. Now I am not accusing my college students of living superficially, but it is likely that most of them have not yet begun to reflect deeply. They are too much in a hurry to figure out major, play sports, be in musicals, etc. Their lives are busy and that is not bad. But being busy is not the same thing as having meaning or purpose. Being busy does take up much time. But it is not automatic that being busy gives any meaning to time.
So I decided that my work might not be primarily as it seems. Of course, I teach religion classes and I enjoy that. That gives me purpose and makes the time I spend quite meaningful to me. But I cannot assume that it does the same for the students. I was being taken to a deeper level.
I realized that my work could be summarized in a simple phrase. My work is “caring and being careful.” When I thought about it, those words literally rolled off my tongue. I would not claim to be inspired, but it was a vocational ah-ha experience for me. I knew I had given some words to a deeper place that I take into my work. Caring and being careful describe that deeper place in me that inspires and energizes me for the task. That is the reservoir from which I am drawing every time I walk into a classroom.
Of course, I am there to impart some knowledge if I can and if the students are open and receptive. But I now know that I am also there with a deeper mission and message. And I smile when I realize that message typically is delivered with no words! I am caring and being careful without announcing it verbally.
So my deeper work is caring. And I execute that as carefully as I can. Sometimes, I do it with words, for sure. But I do it with smiles, with eye contact, and with a variety of other non-verbal cues. Without words I am saying encouraging things; I exhort without words of exhortation. Caring is not a one-time event. It is a process. Usually it is not complete even when the student completes the degree.
Caring is not classroom specific. I exercise that work all over campus. My work context varies in remarkable ways. I do it in the cafeteria, in the Recreation Center and, even, in the locker room. I exercise it on the sidewalk. The context is presented every time and in any place I encounter a student. Seldom in those contexts am I teaching spirituality.
But then it hits me. Maybe every time I extend care to a student, I am teaching spirituality! I would argue that any time anybody cares for someone, that person is doing a spiritual thing. Spirituality does not begin with doctrine. Spirituality begins in experience. If I care for you, that is an experience. It is an experience for me and for you. Either one of us or both of us can theologize about it. But it is primarily an experience.
And caring can become a habit and, indeed, a way of life. It can become a hallmark of my spiritual path and my spiritual journey. In this sense it is appropriate to say that my spirituality is a commitment to being careful. In this vein the context for my work is any place I can exercise my commitment to being careful---full of care.
The wonderful thing about this is the realization that everybody can be spiritual in this way. It is not specific to Christianity or Judaism or any major religious tradition. You don’t have to be an adult to care. You don’t have to be perfect or have “your act together!”
Having realized this, I can’t wait to go to work!