received_1027144970649322Listening to On Being, on the way home from work today: Jean Vanier talks about the wisdom of tenderness. He talks about St. Francis of Assisi, who said that his encounter with lepers brought a “new gentleness” to his body, and his spirit. To his body, and his spirit.

If you aren’t familiar with On Being, the question that drives the podcast is, “What does it mean to be human?”

The answer for Vanier is bound up in reality, and for him, that means the body. He mentions the joy and freedom he has found ageing in his body. How his ageing body solicits new, and different responses from the people around him. He’s hugged more often.

Maybe that is something that comes with the wisdom gained by moving through the world, this gentleness of the body and spirit. More hugs.

I am still working out the connection between the body and the spirit. Between the spirit and the phenomenological, day to day reality of the body acting in the world. The tongue articulating, the fingers producing symbols that force other people’s perceptions into existence, right or wrong.

The counselling textbook I’m reading claims that, according to existential theory, our “essence” is the product of our actions. I have problems accepting this. For one thing, an essence must be unchanging. An essence, by definition, determines character. Character determines the choices we make. How can we grow if our choices are (pre)determined by an unchanging, true self? If our choices and actions create our essence, at which point is this essence fully-formed?

It seems to me existentialist would have to drop the idea of essence all together. Didn’t Sartre?

I am probably missing something; I’ve forgotten my Kierkegaard. But I am wondering if it would be a wise use of my time, at this point, to go back and attempt to rehash the old, one-sided arguments I’ve had with dead philosophers.

The fact is, I don’t believe that any of us have an essence, a real “I” that will be discovered, uncovered or freed through an epiphany of any sort. I recognise the person I was ten years ago. Thirty years ago. Two. But I’ve changed, in ways that defy an essence (though, granted, people who’ve known me throughout those years may not perceive what I know are a series of sea changes).

If a mean, little god were to take me, as I am now, to any time period in my life and drop me there, I would experience shame in regard to my actions. It seems simple to me: if I were the product of those actions, if those actions created my essence, I would not be ashamed of them.

Unless the essence of my being is bound with shame in some way.

But I’m beginning to understand that shame is not an essential part of me. Only now, heading toward 50, I’m beginning to look at the person I was and let go of shame, in favour of sorrow. I am learning compassion. And  I think that compassion is probably what St. Francis meant when he spoke of gentleness.

There is a dialogue repeated on twitter in various forms:

“How should we treat others?”
“There are no others.”

We may just as reasonably ask the guru how should we treat ourselves. Compassion is all-encompassing.

There is an interesting project called “What’s Underneath“. Women of all ages answer simple questions while undressing. There is nothing provocative about it. Not in the way that word is usually used.

These women are demonstrating compassion towards their humanness. What it means to be human. To be a body. In the world. And, often, one of the questions is “What is the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?”

I used to think the greatest risk I ever took was moving from my home country. Traveling alone. Getting in a car with a stranger. The women in the project have some very interesting answers.

But I think we are all wrong.

I think the greatest risk is bound up with self-compassion, with gentleness, with forgiveness. It’s stripping down to the human essence that transcends any one of us: the mortal body. And walking around in the world without shame.

It’s an inspiring project.




IMAG0793Progress. It’s a human need, according to more than a few gurus’ lists. We have a need to feel that we are making progress our lives.

It’s probably why I bristle whenever a former student asks me if I am “still” teaching. I feel a stab of shame. Shame, even though my primary identity – in my own eyes – is not as a high school teacher. If there are days when I feel that I’m running with my forehead against a wall, it is generally not because of my day job.

I love my job. The doing of it. I am lucky enough to experience “flow” in the classroom.  Often.

But I’m near to burning out now. It’s not the students, but the well-intended pressure from the administration (although, lately, in a rather Orwellian turn, we’re asked to call them “leaders”, not “administrators”). While I admit that I’m not a great teacher: there have been students who graduated convinced I’m a terrible person for one reason or another. But I do learn from my mistakes. I am a good teacher, and I know there is “always room for improvement”.

Some days I wonder though, if I worked at a fish factory, would I have to spend part of my work day analysing my performance, making a prognosis for my potential, developing and implementing a system for improvement? A new one every few months? A new area for critique, while I’m still sorting through the jargon applied to the last one, figuring out what it means in terms of real being-in-the-world behaviours on my part.

Is this a privilege of having a job with a greater amount of self-determination? This continual task of finding room for improvement?

To be honest: I find myself in that room all the time. I stumble into it every day. I beat myself up for it – before I have to take it to the workplace confessional. Generally, I’m dealing with my secret shortcomings in one area, while someone is asking me to identify and address my shortcomings in another. I carry a lot of shame back and forth from the classroom to the meeting room.

In regard to my job, I’m not having to aim on my own  – the wall is hitting me.

There are other areas of focus in my life in which I aim for progress, too: Parenting. Fitness. Mental health. Writing. Publishing. Friendship. Partnership. I’m still doing all of those things, too. Still making prognoses in terms of my potential. Aiming. Striving. Sometimes running with my forehead against the wall.

Would it be okay if I just took a couple days to stand still and breathe? Is it possible to find a room that doesn’t have a nagging space for  improvement, and to be there, for just a moment or two?


One of the funniest people I know, who also happens to be a former student, suggested that the next time someone asks me if I’m still teaching, I should tell them, “Yes. But I’m wearing new shoes.”

I haven’t mentioned that there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to my fashion sense, as well.