Diana and I got into a rather long and deep discussion at dinner earlier this week regarding the screen saver message I wrote about stardust!
I am sure you will remember that I challenged the Garden of Eden explanation for the origin of life on Earth and offered an equally far-fetched possibility of exploding stars in galaxies far, far away!
It was something rather poignant that she said, over glasses of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and in between our pasta e fagioli and the cotolette, that has prompted me to write today’s message. I have been brooding and contemplating ever since.
She asked me why I had to have an answer to such a question...
“Whether God made us from the dust in the Garden of Eden,” she said, “or whether we’ve evolved from the explosion of a star somewhere in the universe, the fact of the matter is we are here! Plain and simple, we exist! Why do you need more than that?”
To be honest with you, I did not have a quick answer or an intelligent response at the time. And I must admit, I found her illogic to be perfect logic. Her non-answer was complete unto itself.
Now I know my Diana well enough to know that she is extremely intelligent and introspective. She never shies away from a challenge with me. I also know that despite her strong Christian faith, she too does not always take many of the Bible stories as fact or verbatim. She sees them mostly as attempts by people to explain the unexplainable to other people who must have answers to questions for which there may be none!
And so this got me to thinking. Why do we, as a species, feel the need to have answers or solutions to EVERYTHING we don’t understand? Is it the curse of having an over-developed prefrontal cortex? Why can’t we be more like the ‘lesser species’ and simply accept our existence and have that be enough?
Why is it that every one from Emerson to Dostoyevsky, Nietzche to Goethe, Einstein to Pearl S. Buck was not satisfied with simple acceptance? Why did they insist on discovering meaning and purpose?
I think the answer is as simple as Diana’s non-answer. I think we are hard wired to seek purpose...it is in our DNA!
I read a story not so long ago about a young high school teacher in an inner city classroom. It had been her life’s dream for as long as she could remember to be a teacher...to teach young teenagers and be a shaping influence in their lives.
After graduation, she was lucky enough to find a job right away in the Detroit City School District. She found her first two or three years teaching there to be heaven...it was all she had hoped it would be.
But her prized dream quickly began to crumble when she was transferred to a different school with young teenagers who did not share in her dream! Many had absolutely no desire to learn what she was teaching and rejected at every turn, her desire to shape and influence their lives.
In all of her classes she found more and more disruptive, rebellious, un-shapeable students. She also discovered something about herself. She was ill-equipped to deal with them.
There was one young boy in particular who seemed to have made it his mission to break her.
One day as she sat at her desk before class, this young man stood in the doorway, arms and legs braced against the frame, shouting and carrying on, refusing to let anyone in or out. She was at first afraid to say anything. But the longer it went on the more she began to seethe and then to boil. Finally she stood up, her chair flying against the wall behind her and finally having had enough, charged right at him...
“It was my intention to kick him!” she confessed later to the principal. “I really lost it! I am so embarrassed. But thank heavens he understood how angry I was and took off running down the hallway!”
But she did not stop. She marched down that same hallway and right into the principal’s office. That is where she delivered her ultimatum...
“Either he goes or I do!” she demanded. “Your choice! It’s either him or me!”
The principal, understanding her frustration and not able to afford to lose a teacher, chose her. He expelled the disruptive student from school for three days and removed him from her classroom. Now he was someone else’s problem.
But instead of being happy, she became saddened and rather frustrated...
“I feel as if I have failed as a teacher,” she lamented to her colleagues in the teacher’s lounge. “I let him get to me. He is crying out for attention for some reason...but I ignored it. Now he is out of my class and I cannot help him.”
Another teacher looked at her and said something that made her at first think hard and then burst into tears...
“You are not the key to every door Susan,” he said. “For God’s sake, you are only human.”
Those words stung the young teacher’s ears and bruised her tender heart. But they were the same words that changed her life, and in turn changed the lives of countless disruptive students that would enter her classroom over the next twenty years.
“I was bound and determined to prove my colleague wrong,” she said years later. “It was my very human-ness that was my greatest strength!
Rather than pushing these troubled students away, I began attracting them into my life...into my classroom.”
She read every book she could get her hands on about teaching the defiant, rebellious student. She took copious notes on what she read...filling notebooks! She did teaching experiments in her class and studied the results of how the students were reacting. They were coming around to the new Susan...she was reaching them!
Soon, whenever another teacher would have problems with students they couldn’t handle, they sent them to Miss Haggarty’s classroom. She seemed to know exactly what to do with them!
Day by day, little by little, student by student, she began to understand her purpose in this life was to be the key to every door.
This is a profoundly important story because it demonstrates the importance and value of what I have come to know as transformative learning.
When this teacher allowed herself to rise to a higher purpose, she found the strength, energy and courage to venture far outside her comfort zone. And in so doing, she not only changed her own life, but the lives of the students she taught as well.
She was named as teacher of the year and was celebrated at the Governor’s Mansion. She went on to receive even more professional accolades, ultimately becoming the principal of the very school at which her awakening took place.
She has written several books on the subject of teaching difficult students and is considered an authority. Though now retired, she maintains a busy schedule of lecturing across the country.
Now I know the story I’ve just told you doesn’t answer the ‘origin of man’ question with which I began today’s message, but it does shed light on our innate need to ask such a question. We are hard-wired, pre-programmed if you will, to find these answers. The questions and their ensuing answers propel us to heights and pinnacles of self-realization that we would never reach had we simply accepted the status quo.
When we clarify our purpose, we abandon what behaviorists call an ‘external locus of control’...a position of weakness wherein we lose control of determining our own way and worry about how we are perceived or regarded by others.
By understanding and discovering this purpose, we transition into an ‘internal locus’ wherein we regain our control of self-direction and feel comfortable asking the difficult questions...challenging conventional wisdom, all with the goal in mind of knowing WHO we are, HOW we got here and WHERE we are headed.
When we give up our ‘self-interest’ goals, with which most of us are consumed the vast majority of our time, and focus our energy on ‘contributive’ goals, we begin to function differently.
This is a fact, not a supposition. Our thought processes change. Our learning accelerates. Even our biology changes.
We are shaped and influenced by our life experiences...the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, the destructive and the ones that build us up. And if we would simply take the time to reflect on those experiences, to understand the WHO, WHAT, WHY, WHERE and WHEN of them, slowly but surely a meaning to all this chaos begins to emerge and our purpose becomes clearer to us.
It was Plato who is quoted as saying, “A life unexamined is a life not worth living!”
We discover that when we find our purpose and meaning in one area of our life, it quickly spreads to all other areas. Things begin to change and definitely for the better.
I have no other answer to Diana other than to say we are DESIGNED to seek the answers to such questions as to our origin. And by so doing, we begin the process of defining our purpose.
We all can and should seek answers.
We all can and must clarify our purpose.
We all can and should strive to become the keys to all doors!
That is the ultimate goal...at least that’s the way I see it.