I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.
– Jesus of Nazareth –
A turning point in my career as a teacher came many years ago when I learned that a former student of mine committed suicide. This girl had been in my religion and homeroom classes for 2 years. I remember her as a pretty and intelligent girl but somewhat of a loner who had a somewhat troubled home life. At the age of 21, having just graduated from university, she drove herself to a quiet park, locked the doors of her car and ended her life.
Tragedies such as this, can lead us to ask questions about the education we are offering the young. It often seems as though the education we provide does little to prepare our students for the real issues, decisions and dilemmas that they will face during their life journeys.
What does it matter that we teach young people to read, write and do arithmetic, when we can’t teach them vital lessons on life’s sacredness, meaning and purpose? To what avail were my religion lessons when this girl didn’t pick up a sense of the beauty of her own personhood?
We run the risk of teaching everything in the world to our young except the most essential things: how to live, be happy and find peace. We assume that young people learn this by osmosis. But when we look around at our fragmented world, it doesn’t appear to be working that well by osmosis alone.
Where is the knowledge that is lost in information, where is the wisdom that is lost in knowledge?
– TS Eliot –
In a crowded curriculum, how do we prepare the young to live fully, to be happy and to use their freedom for the good of all? How do we prepare them to make their contribution to future, not just as cogs in a cycle of production and consumption, but as citizens, lovers and nurturers? These are the BIG questions that should guide our education systems.
The education we offer the young should not only prepare them for a complex and changing world, but also how to relate to other human beings. What about faith and inner calm? What about happiness and enjoyment of living? What about courage and the conquest of fear? What about peace of mind, the ability to give and receive love? What of confidence, self-respect and self-discipline? What about dealing with suffering? What about hope for the future and contentment in later years?
The following is attributed to a survivor of the Holocaust who became a school principal. Addressing the staff on her first day at a new school she said:
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes have seen what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers and children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and killed by high school and college graduates. Oh, I am suspicious of education. My only request is to help your students to be human. Our efforts should never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing and spelling and arithmetic are only important when they serve to make our students human.
Our kids will be only half educated unless they have acquired a sense of human dignity and worth, an appreciation of life, the knowledge of how to use their limited time wisely, and the determination to leave the world a better place for them having been in it.
Ours is a time when purposelessness, disconnection and loneliness abound and define the lives of many. Our world is so connected electronically but can be so lacking in human relationships. Instagram, Facebook and mobile phones enable us to stay connected, yet in all probability, we live in a time in which human beings have never been less connected. It can be a bleak world if one is subjected to incessant, unfiltered media and is focused on keeping up with others.
The land of too much information is where wonder often goes to die!
– (Someone wise) –
Education should help young people to identify what is of lasting importance and usefulness in their lives. It must distil life wisdom from the incessant, unfiltered cascade of information which bombards us and seeks to keep us restless.
Carl Jung once said: ‘The point of human life is to shine light on the darkness of mere being.’
The Gospel teaches that it is possible to find meaning and purpose in what can at times be a bleak and painful human existence. It diverges from the message of many of our dominant cultures by saying that we find the essence of this meaningful existence by looking outside our individual needs and concerns. It teaches that life is most meaningful when it is lived for others; that purpose in life is most profoundly experienced through contribution to the common good.
Many people sacrifice their health in order to make money. Then they sacrifice money to recuperate their health. And then they are so anxious about the future that they do not enjoy the present. As a result, they do not live in the present or the future; they live as if they are never going to die and then die having never really lived.
– The Dalai Lama –
Wise people tell us that, while everyone dies, not everyone really lives. We get only one chance at life and nothing is really ours but time: now, the present moment.
Our greatest fear as human beings, is that we reach the point of death only to find that we have never really lived fully. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore expressed this fear when he lamented, “I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung.”
We pray that we will be spared the great tragedy of only living half-lives, wasting the one opportunity that we have. We want to engage in life as active participants, not as passive observers. Don’t not wait until faced with a dangerous health prognosis or the loss of family members and friends before reflecting on our limited time on earth and the need to make the best of it.
The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside of us while we live.
– Norman Cousins –
The book Tuesdays with Morrie is about a man who, after leaving university life and building a career, rediscovers his favorite professor, Morrie, in the final months of the older man’s life. Every Tuesday, the former student then visits the dying teacher to learn another lesson about life from this man who has lived so richly and completely. A real-life account, the lessons Morrie offers during these moving Tuesday sessions include: how to avoid a life of regret, the value of family, the importance of forgiveness, and the meaning of death, where he makes the powerful remark: “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live”.
We are told that no one on their deathbed wishes that they had spent more time at work. People who have faced death tell us not to postpone doing the things that we should do and being all that we aspire to be, since time is short and we only get one shot at life. How beautiful to be able to say at the point of death not ‘please give me more time’ but ‘thank you’; just as a guest thanks her host when she is at the door about to leave after a wonderful celebration.
An Indian Maharaja would engage in a bizarre morning ritual: Every day, immediately after waking up, he would celebrate his own funeral, complete with music and flowers. All the while, he would chant, “I have lived fully, I have lived fully, I have lived fully”.
What this Maharaja is doing is connecting to his mortality every day and his life so he will live each day as if it were his last. His ritual is a very wise one and reminds him of the fact that time slips through our hands like grains of sand, and the time to live life greatly is not tomorrow but today.
As golf legend Ben Hogan said, “As you walk down the fairway of life, you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round”. In the end, when we look at our life, perhaps the questions will be simple:
Did I live fully?
Did I love well?
Ancient Egyptians believed that upon their death they would be asked by the gods two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife. The first question was, “Did you bring joy?” The second was, “Did you find joy?” These goals then become a sacred charge in life and the only way to obtain eternal happiness.
Once again, our example is so important. As a parent and an educator, I am challenged and terrified by the words of Carl Jung when he said that: ‘Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their children, than the unlived life of their parents.’ (And for today, let’s include educators)