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Teaching has renewed my sense of purpose


Teaching has renewed my sense of purpose. Although I am enjoying some leisure summer time off—catching up on reading, domestic chores, carrying the team by cooking week night dinners—I miss teaching’s strong sense of purpose pulling me from my bed each morning.

My college class is a bridge to life success and sometimes a rest stop from bossy old World’s demands.  When people ask what I teach I like to say, I teach Life, which is ironic since I have not nor will I ever master Life.  But I am inspired and enlightened each time I craft a class by ideas like the importance of a growth mindset, resilience, the astonishing power of gratitude, and other lifey things. 

In my classroom, I show videos, inspiring TED Talks and NIKE Motivational Moments, to expand my students’ ideas of what a successful and well lived life might look like.  They learn that one person’s idea of success may differ from another’s.  And to unpack what success really means, I want them to understand the differences between happiness and joy.

Too often we equate happiness with money.  My Grandma Mae used to say, “Money can do a lot of things, but it can’t buy happiness and it can’t buy good health.”  And she was right.  When you skin it to the bone, happiness is a fleeting, slippery thing.  We thirst for happiness, but when it finally shows up, it always leaves us too soon, and our glass half empty.  Success and Happiness invite us to go hand-in-hand on an occasional picnic together, while Joy and Gratitude are always there inside us, especially when life is not so picnic-y.  So, I’d rather have joy. 

I learned a lot about joy and gratitude while I suffered through chemo, surgeries, and radiation, the treatments I had to endure to save my dear old self from cancer’s icy grip.  Those difficult days were not entirely gloomy.  I still laughed.  The beloveds of my life stepped out of their day-to-day busy-ness to present-moment-share their love for me and pray for my healing.  I was surrounded entirely by love.  The small joys of life, tiny things, like butterfly sightings, became excruciatingly beautiful.  My emotional self felt enormous.  I had less filters and more empathy for others.  I laughed heartily and cried easily.  I spent much of my time in the life-affirming presence of Nature—the ocean’s glittery spray, the abundant life of a tidal pool, the curlicue world of a whelk shell.  Suffering is life’s best teacher.

Most of my students are just one summer past high school graduation, working part or full-time, reaching to meet their higher education goals.  They know their careers are limited without a degree because World said, “Get on the path, Kid.”   Many are unsure about which direction to take, and rightly so.  My class is designed to help them find their way to the path, to a meaningful career, and to help them see themselves as the architects of their own life.

I’ve found that my young students need more validation. When I showed them Susan Cain’s “The Power of Introverts” TED Talk, half of the students in my class visibly relaxed. Several thanked me afterward.   We watch Brene Brown’s Empathy vs. Sympathy video short (RSA Shorts), and I always see a few tears.  Empathy is a balm for suffering. 

Honestly, 18 is not an age I’d care to relive.  The occasional emotional hysterics, the late adolescent mind makes for some dark days.  Some of my students have shared as much in their reflection papers.  Even my twenty-somethings do not exude the “I’ve got the world on a string” euphoria that I think we sometimes mistakenly assume our young people are enjoying. 

We older folks expect a lot from these fresh innocents, and sometimes I think as much money as we throw into the fountain of youth—our misguided wish to be eternally young—we fail to remember our own awkward and uncertain juvenescence.  That’s irony right there. 

Perhaps I’ve not entirely forgotten the raw emotions, the lowest lows and highest highs, from my own late teens and early twenties years, my vulnerable fledgling self.  At eighteen, I wasn’t ready to make big decisions for myself.  So, I let Uncle U.S. Air Force do it for me. Fortunately, that worked out.  The pretty blue uniform provided me enough freedom to make life mistakes, like writing checks on a zero-bank balance, and a few extra rules and consequences to keep me somewhat reigned in. 

My students don’t have Uncle Air Force.  But they do have me. 

What I’ve come to realize is that there is joy in pursuing our potential.  Perhaps this is why I write.  I will never master writing just like I will never master playing the piano just like I will never master teaching---there’s so much more to know, to learn, to experience—which is what makes my idea of a life’s potential as endless as the sky.