Tabs Open #29: The Mountain Trembles, Or Do I Tremble On It

Choosing words for any occasion is hard, even if you practice a lot, something I had cause to remember recently. On Saturday I officiated the wedding of a childhood friend; he and his wife are both teachers and they asked me to include a quote about teaching in the ceremony. I initially found it difficult to tie teaching to marriage, but both at their core are acts of love which are full of far more work and headaches than anyone first getting into either is able to imagine. (I ended up excerpting Rita Pierson’s speech about every kid needing a champion.)

Teaching and marriage also both require acts of grace, given and received. Grace, or kindness you didn’t do anything in particular to “earn” or “deserve,” is a way for us to be reminded of our own worth and humanity, and that of those who give it (or who we give it to). Recently I came across the transcript of a speech about this given by a teacher, Francis Su, a math professor at Harvey Mudd College. Such speeches are by nature always a little hokey and over-prescriptive, but I think Su really hits on something when he says, of a memorable professor he had:

The semester I took a class from him, my mother died and I needed an extension on my work.  I’ll never forget his response: “I’m really sorry about your mother.  Let me take you to coffee.”

I remember thinking: “I’m just some random student and he’s taking me to coffee?” But I really needed that talk.  We pondered life and its burdens, and he shared some of his own journey.  For me, in a challenging academic environment, with enormous family struggles, to connect with my professor on a deeper level was a great comfort.  Yes, Persi was an inspiring teacher, but this simple act of kindness--of authentic humanness--gave me a greater capacity and motivation to learn from him, because we had entered into authentic community with each other, as teacher and student, who were real people to each other.

It sounds silly, but for me it is nice to be reminded to check in on myself and on my attitudes toward my students, to try to act upon the knowledge that each of them is a real person with a rich internal and external life. To remember that I can show each and every one of them grace, which is not contingent upon their earning or deserving it. Naturally this can be extended and expanded outward to encompass the realization that everyone is a real person, as real as yourself, and because of that you are granted the opportunity to extend them grace, too. Not a requirement, certainly, and I don’t think you need to be troubled extending that grace to people who have power over your life—the cops or Jeff Bezos or the CEO of your health insurer, or whoever. But in general it’s a good practice to maintain, I think.

Of course this is not to say that not deserving grace should mean not accepting it. Annie Dillard, champion of winnowing down the human condition to its barest truths, reminds us that thinking that way would create an excuse for living a life that’s barely a life at all.

There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. 

I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

As such I greatly admire the people who recognize that omni-directional wildness in their daily practice. One such type of person we have here out West is the fire lookout, a job that is threatened by ubiquity of surveillance technology, like so many others. I’m at a point in my life—married, and enjoying being a pesky union agitator—that puts a solitary job like fire lookout out of the range of possibilities for me. But I quite like knowing that it is a job that one could have, and it brings me a degree of comfort I can’t describe to know that in some 300 fire towers across the West, there are people spending the summer, looking out for the rest of us. And some of those people bring a sense of poetry to the job which I think is sort of a prerequisite for doing any kind of outdoor work long term.

So yes, there is poetry and grace to be found and to be created. If you still don’t believe me check out these tremendously beefy guys running around in the snow.

Take it upon yourself to extend somebody some grace today. And commit to loving yourself enough to accept it when somebody does the same for you.

I’ll catch you next week.