A different kind of blog post this week.
Last week, I spoke to the Grade 7 - 12 students at Havergal College (Link), the independent girls' school in Toronto where I taught for twenty-four years before retiring in 2014. Havergal was founded in 1894 as an Anglican school, a connection it maintains to this day, although the students who now attend represent a diverse rainbow of faith traditions. Three mornings a week, students, faculty, and staff gather for Prayers in the school's heart, Brenda Robson Hall. Prayers was one of my favourite occasions at Havergal - a time to be mindful of blessings, hear superb music, and listen to a wide range of speakers. It was also a reminder of the importance of community, a source of Havergal's strength. Although this is my fifth year of retirement, I still miss Prayers.
I hope you enjoy reading about the three gifts that I talked about in my presentation.
by Larry Tayler
Havergal College Prayers
Thursday, October 11, 2018
Well, my friends, I have three gifts for you this morning. Actually, they’re three qualities – qualities that I believe can help you navigate through life. I know...the last thing you want to hear is another adult telling you how to live your lives, but bear with me. I’m only going to talk for about twelve minutes, then you can get on with your lives.
First, let me tell you a bit about my writing process. I have been a Post-It note kind of guy for many years. I use Post-It notes to help organize my life, which I recognize might sound a little lame. ‘Post-It Note Central’ for me is the large mirror in my bathroom. And I hope that’s not too much information. There are dozens of multi-coloured Post-It notes in a rainbow arc that looks like a swarm of Monarch butterflies gathering for migration. When I commit to a writing project or a photography project, I start jotting down ideas and quotations and putting them up in the bathroom. As the projects evolve, so do the Post It notes, so that by the time I’m ready to start writing or photographing, I’ve got this archive of ideas to inspire me. It’s also really interesting reading those notes while I’m shaving or brushing my teeth. It really gets my brain turning over. So last year when Miss Robson asked me to speak to you today, I started a Post-It note archive of ideas. And it was amazing to read through those notes when I began writing this presentation. For one thing, I realized that it wouldn’t be just me up here talking, because I want to introduce you to the thoughts of other people as well, so this morning, you’ll be hearing from two psychologists, a poet, an astrophysicist, a community activist, and a 4th century Christian theologian. I’m not up here alone – I stand on the shoulders of people who are way brighter, way braver, and way more articulate than I’ll ever be. But that’s how life works, isn’t it? We’re never alone; we always stand on the shoulders of those who came before us; and others will stand on our shoulders when their turn comes. With that as a long-winded introduction, let’s get to your gifts.
Gift #1. I’d like to grant each one of you the gift of discernment. Now discernment is the ability to evaluate a situation and make a wise decision. If you have the gift of discernment, you are not easily fooled. Each of us is exposed daily to overwhelming waves of information, hype, online posturing, and sales pitches. The New York Times estimates that in North America, people in urban areas are exposed to over 5,000 marketing messages per day. A lot of people want your attention, they want your money, and they often want your anger. You have to find ways to filter through all that stuff that’s flying at you. And that’s where discernment can serve you very well. It’s really all about sorting – what stuff is worth acting on, and what stuff do you ditch? What’s genuine and what’s fake? Who has your best interests at heart and who is just trying to separate you from your money? Who’s trying to make you angry? And who’s benefitting from your anger? These are difficult questions, especially today given the sophistication of merchandisers, social activists, political parties, and nasty online trolls. You need a discerning eye, my friends, to navigate your way through everything that’s thrown at you.
Now notice that I am saying discernment, but not cynicism. The cynic is distrustful of everything and assumes the worst in every situation. Those with discernment, on the other hand, sort and evaluate intelligently. And discernment needs to be nurtured and guided. Most of us aren’t born with it; we need to be surrounded by loving and honest mentors to help us. Alas, cynicism rarely requires wisdom or nurture – it can metastasize far too easily all on its own.
So, Gift #1 for you is the gift of discernment.
Gift #2 – A Sense of Awe and Wonder about the world around you.
Think about our planet, this wondrous blue marble that revolves around the sun in our little corner of the Milky Way. If you have ever snowshoed at night – as I have – across a silent Northwestern Ontario lake, canopied by an infinitude of stars, with only the moon and the light of a distant cabin to guide you, you’ll understand how absolutely awesome and spectacular our planet truly is. Similarly, if you have ever cradled a new-born infant, fresh from their mother’s womb, you’ll also understand how absolutely awesome and spectacular our human bodies truly are. Our planet and our bodies are filled with genius, beauty, miracles, and pulsating life. If we approach our planet and our bodies with awe and wonder, respect and love, care and compassion, think about how much healing we can bring to this earth and to its inhabitants.
Let me tell you about two people who are immersed in awe and wonder in their professional careers and their private lives.
The first is Dr. Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at the University of California Berkeley, who studies the science of awe. Imagine that – the science of awe! To quote Dr. Emma Stone in the April, 2017 edition of Psychology Today, “[Keltner’s studies] exploring this complex emotion have discovered compelling connections between the experience of awe and enhanced critical and creative thinking faculties, improved health, and an increase in pro-social behaviours such as kindness, self-sacrifice, co-operation and resource-sharing.” Or, in Dr. Keltner’s own words, “What the science of awe is suggesting is that opportunities for awe surround us, and their benefits are profound.”
Next, I want to tell you about Dr. Natalie Batalha. She is an astronomer and astrophysicist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA. She is the lead scientist on NASA’s Kepler Mission, which is on a multi-year odyssey to discover earth-sized planets in our Milky Way. TIME Magazine named her last year as one of the One Hundred Most Influential People in the World. She is absolutely at the top of her game. And she says, “At the nexus” – the intersection – “of spirituality and science is wonder.” “At the nexus of spirituality and science is wonder.” She gets it! That sense of awe that Dr. Keltner studies? Dr. Batalha embodies it at the heart of her humanity and her status as a global citizen. If I had time, I’d riff more about her spirituality, her poetry, and her keen sense of social justice. Look her up, especially if you’re seeking an inspirational role model for living on this planet. She knows about awe and wonder in spades. And she inspired me to offer them as my second gift to you this morning.
My third and final gift to you is the gift of hope. Not the whiny kind of hope that says, “I hope I can get that stain out of my cashmere sweater.” No, I’m talking about radical hope – the singular determination to NOT give into despair when your world – or THE world – seems to be falling apart. Because I have to tell you, the kind of person who throws up their hands at the first sign of adversity or when things don’t go the way they wanted, doesn’t have the resilience for the long haul. Despair is the easiest thing in the world – it is addictive, it is self-fulfilling, and it is corrosive. It drags you down, and it drags everyone else down with it. Hope, on the other hand, can be radical, and dangerous, and transformative.
I’m going to quote you the words of two people whose verbal power far exceeds mine to make my point about hope.
The first is the poet Jack Gilbert in his poem “A Brief for the Defence” of which this is an excerpt:
“We must risk delight.
We can do without pleasure but not delight...
We must have the stubbornness
To accept our gladness
In the ruthless furnace of the world.”
For me, Jack Gilbert’s invocation of gladness and delight is what I refer to as radical hope.
It is also what the community housing activist Virginia Jones refers to when she says, “Hope can confront. It does not ignore pain, agony, or injustice. It is not a saccharine optimism that refuses to see, face, or grapple with the wretchedness of reality...Hope is the act of conviction that despair will never have the last word.”
And I can tell you that’s it’s not easy to embrace this kind of radical hope. When we are in the depths of depression and despair, when nothing seems to be working out for us, when we feel abandoned and betrayed, the act of hope can seem obscenely counterintuitive. But – spoiler alert! – we all go through those dark nights of the soul. But risking hope is worth the risk. Otherwise, where do we find the energy and the resilience to transform our world?
Remember the profound words of St. Augustine, the early Christian theologian: “Hope has two...daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
So my three gifts to you – discernment, a sense of awe and wonder, and a willingness to risk radical hope. Use these gifts wisely, my friends. At the very least, your lives will not be dull! Thank you.
Footnote: I encountered many of the people mentioned above in Krista Tippett's excellent weekly podcast, On Being. (Link) It is weekly nourishment for the soul.