In one way that might seem threatening. To be aware of the much larger world runs the risk that we minimize ourselves. In retrospect, I know that I was very provincial growing up as a little Indiana farm boy. I could not help but be provincial. Of course, I would not have thought that I was! In my eyes I am sure I was perfectly normal. I would have assured you that I had choices: to remain on the farm or go to the city. Of course, going to the city would probably have meant some other city in Indiana!
I grew and my world grew, too. I went to other states and, finally, to other countries. I flew half way ‘round the world, expanded my horizons by expanding my experiences. I remained the Indiana farm boy and, yet, I morphed into an entirely new guy---a global citizen. I learned about life on a totally new scale. But it never took away the need for me to figure out and, then, live my own life. I could pretend to be someone else. But finally, our only choice is to be “me.” Thomas Merton would have said: “you can be your false self or your true self.”
There are sages and good models out there in the world to help us see our options. Some sages are well known. Mother Teresa has been one such model for decades. Nelson Mandela is another. Neither hails from Indiana, so they help us all become globally aware. But there are always the unsung folks---people we never hear about or wind up very lucky to hear about. I met one such person in a recent newspaper article.
The guy’s name is David Menasche. He was 34 years old in 2006 when he was diagnosed with brain cancer and fully expected to be dead by now. He was a high school teacher in Miami. He loved teaching. He did not want to die. All this seems perfectly normal to me. David Menasche became a teacher for me when I read some of his account. We will never meet, but we don’t have to meet.
The story becomes particularly poignant when David observes and, then, interprets his situation. He said, “The cancer had finally succeeded in taking me out of the classroom, but I wasn't ready to let it take me out of the game. I wasn't afraid to die. I was afraid of living without a purpose.” Two things struck me powerfully in this quip. David says that the cancer took him out of the classroom, but not out of the game. What a great distinction. I want to hold on to this.
The second thing he said really struck me. He tells us he was not afraid to die. I suppose every living human being hopes he or she can get to this place. It would make life so much easier to live! It was the second piece of that sentence that riveted me. “I was afraid of living without a purpose.” The classroom had been his purpose for living. That had been taken from him and he was now afraid---not afraid of dying, but of living without a purpose.
So David found another purpose. He wanted to know whether his work with students, who had long-since graduated, had made any difference? So he began traveling the country to meet with many of them. This is his report. “As I had hoped, they recalled favorite lessons and books from class, but, to my great surprise, it was our personal time together that seemed to have meant the most to them. Those brief, intimate interludes between lessons when we shared heartaches and vulnerabilities and victories were the times my students remembered.” I’m not surprised. He had made a difference, but perhaps not in the way the educational system would expect.
Intimate interludes. I wonder how many jobs provide these opportunities? Then I realized that is not the right question. The right question is whether I and others can create our own intimate interludes in the midst of whatever jobs we are doing? If the answer is no, then perhaps we need to look at our jobs or ourselves. Intimate interludes seem like a fancy way of talking about being spiritual.
We could stop here, but there is a final observation from David Menasche that I want never to forget. He observes, “My students had taught me the greatest lesson of all. They taught me that what matters is not so much about what we learn in class, but what we feel in our hearts.” So much of education concerns the head---knowledge. There is nothing wrong with that. Knowledge is valuable and, often, spiritual. But that is not all.
What we feel in our hearts is key. I am not sure the Buddha or Jesus would have put it much differently. This brings me squarely back to “me,” to my true self. Whatever it is, the true self is connected to my heart. To become spiritual is to become aware of our hearts, to know our hearts, and finally to share our hearts in intimate interludes.