Saturday, November 26, 2011

In Gratitude for Random Acts of Kindness

One of the things I teach my world religions students is that the basis of most indigenous religions is gratitude. These traditions evidence an underlying awareness of the many aspects of the natural world which are required to create and preserve life. Humanity exists because of the generosity of nature. Indigenous people never forget that and their spiritual lives are based in gratitude for those many blessings. Among them are the people the Puritans and their European cousins largely made extinct, replacing them with a world in which human beings have come to find their identity in being consumers. 

In a consumerist world we human animals see ourselves as the center of existence. We tend to focus on what we want (or at least what we’ve been hoodwinked into believing we need by consumer advertising and their media cheerleaders) but we often fail to be grateful for what we have. As a white male of the first world who has had ongoing opportunities to see what living on $2/day or less looks like up close on multiple occasions, I am aware of the privilege I enjoy as a matter of course in my daily life. I take none of it for granted (not the least of which is the opportunities to make those journeys). Nor do I not see my privilege as an entitlement. Rather, I recognize it as little more than the luck of the draw in what Warren Buffett calls “the ovarian lottery.” And with that privilege comes responsibilities.

On Thanksgiving Day each year, my list of those aspects of my life for which I am grateful becomes a little longer even as I recognize it is inevitably incomplete. But, this year, an unexpected gift of a random act of kindness dominates my list. To appreciate this gift, I must put it into context.

Context: 297 days until retirement and counting

For those who have read many of my blog postings, it’s hardly any secret that I increasingly find teaching college undergraduates in the impersonal factory setting where I work to be trying on a good day. I work like a slave, bringing to bear the educational attainment of three graduate degrees and a lifetime of highly varied life experience around the world in an effort to help students become educated human beings. I make little money to show for it. Indeed, my goal these days is to make enough money to pay off my student loans by retirement so it will not decimate my meager pension, assuming our governor and legislature have not reneged on that promise and taken our retirements away by then.

Of course, I knew when I became a university instructor that I would not get rich nor did that particularly bother me. If I’d simply wanted to rake in the cash without much concern for how it was made, I would have remained in the law business. But it’s not the lack of compensation for my work that troubles me. What does bother me is the steady stream of ingratitude - if not outright abuse - for the poorly compensated hard work I regularly offer the people of Florida. It seems no good deed goes unpunished.

Among many (though not all) of the students at the factory, it appears as a deadly combination of an inordinate sense of entitlement to good grades along with an inordinate aversion to any semblance of hard work which would make such grades meaningful. That sense of entitlement sometimes translates to public postings on online sites on which disgruntled student consumers make scandalous, highly personal statements about their instructors. There is absolutely no requirement that the statements be true nor do faculty members have an opportunity to respond.

Among the corporate bureaucracy of the university, it often appears as a mindless obsession with credit hours (think sales) and ratings on consumerist surveys confused with faculty evaluations (think customer satisfaction). There is far too often little concern for quality as an obsession with quantity predominates. Though these technocrats ostensibly run an educational institution, pedagogy is low on the totem pole among their imperatives.

Among the supposed leaders of our state, it comes as an ongoing polemic against public servants who are regularly constructed as somehow overcompensated and seemingly inevitably incompetent. It comes in attempts to kill our largely impotent public worker unions which are the only thing standing between public servants and absolute corporate tyranny. More recently it has appeared as attempts to reduce the pensions of workers nearing or already in retirement, a rather frightening specter for those of us with more work days behind us than ahead of us. Nothing like sticking it to folks unable to defend themselves. Little wonder these boys want to get rid of the courses that raise questions about values and behaviors.

Finally, it has manifest in the mindless ranting of a governor who would destroy any semblance of liberal arts education in higher education in the pursuit of business imperatives - assuring a steady supply of obedient and largely mindless worker drones. Such inevitably occurs under the cynical and intellectually dishonest guise of concern for jobs. Ironically, the governor himself provides an unparalleled teaching moment regarding jobs –a testament to the power of wealth to avoid responsibility for white collar crime (medicare fraud) and to use the profits to buy elections.

I can take the lack of compensation that often marks the ingratitude of a public which always relies upon the service of public workers but consistently takes their service for granted. When it comes to public service, everyone expects a free lunch. That is particularly true regarding public education. Indeed, in a culture with as low a value for education and as high an animosity toward intellectuals historically as our own, that probably should be expected.

But when the failure to be paid the wages that one’s credentials and hard work merit is added to personal public defamation by students, never knowing if one’s job or retirement is safe and enduring demonization and the tinkering with one’s pedagogy by demagogues, the situation becomes increasingly untenable. Little wonder that this veteran of nearly 30 years in higher education can tell you exactly how many days in the classroom he must complete until – hopefully – he retires. As of Thanksgiving Day, that number was 297.

"I would like to thank you for that."

This is the context that makes the unexpected gift from a former student days before Thanksgiving so touching. In my university email last week, I received the following:

tried to send this to you on linkedin but couldn't because we are not yet friends...

I took two semesters of humanistic traditions with you at UCF. One semester you had a particularly large class, about 75 students, and it was clear you devoted a large amount of time preparing for each class. I recall you mentioning to me that initially you were worried because of the class size, but you ended up enjoying teaching that class more than any other that semester. It was very apparent that you were passionate about the discussions and it was clear to me that you held yourself at a higher standard than any other professor I've had. Five years later, I still continue to benefit from your lesions in psychological projection, cognitive dissonance, and comparison between eastern and western theologies. I’m an engineer by trade but ironically no professor facilitated my growth more than your classes.  I would like to thank you for that.

I am hoping that the reference to “lesions” is simply an ironic typo or a pun. No doubt, the cognitive dissonance my pedagogy is designed to induce can be painful. Critical thinking about ideas you thought to be settled which - drawn into the harsh light of reason, empathy and responsibilities to others - are not so obvious and self-evident anymore can indeed inflict lesions on the mind if not the soul. But, this student found a way to realize the benefit of the willingness to delay gratification, wrestle with hard questions and endure the pain of cognitive dissonance that M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Travelled) recognizes as necessary for growth. And four years after attending the last class with me, this student found a way to say thank you.

In turn, I found my own way to say thank you in return, sending the following response on Thanksgiving Day:

On this day of giving thanks, I am thankful for students like you, who are willing to wrestle with ideas and work up to your potential. It's students like you that keep me going in the face of an awful lot of whining and resistance.

Thank you for taking time to send me this. Hope you are having a wonderful day. And I hope the lesions have healed (that's either a rather ironic typo or a pun).     :)

It is hard to estimate how much simple acts of random kindness can impact the world. If the Ripple Effect is true, an ongoing pattern of random kindness would certainly make this world a much better place to live. In my own case, coming amidst a week of grading a mountain of lackluster essays and meeting classes half empty from students leaving early for Thanksgiving holidays, this totally unexpected note from a former student lifted my spirits immensely. And on Thanksgiving Day, I found myself giving thanks for this very trying career which, despite an ongoing tsunami of vexation, allows me the privilege of touching the lives of people like this.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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