Thursday, January 26, 2012

What's it all about, anyway 13?

Memories of the Past

Almost anywhere, at any time of day or night random memories come to us unbidden.  Some chance encounter sparks a memory, some unexpected happening another and so on.  I have already mentioned many times before in these pages the theory that perhaps we are no more than an intricate bank of memories.  Today as I crossed the school yard I bumped into Fr Peter McVerry, SJ, tireless worker on behalf of homeless young people in Dublin, our capital city.  He was in to address the the staff and parents of our primary school.  I just chanced to be crossing the schoolyard and bumped into him while walking his Jack Russell dog.  I greeted him and welcomed him to our school.  It was my first meeting with this wonderful man.  I talked to him about people I knew from Milltown Institute (A Jesuit run third level college) where I had studied for some three years.  We spoke about the director of my thesis and other lecturers whom I was privileged to have back in the early to mid-eighties.  We also spoke about dogs and teaching.  He quipped that he loved his work, and if anything it kept his provincial from sending him into the classroom to teach science.  We spoke as if we had always known one another.  Such is always the way with committed workers for justice and equality.  You can read all about this wonderful Irish Jesuit here and find links to the two main books he has written: PMV Trust

Unfortunately I was unable to attend his talk as I was on my way to meet my brother to go to the gym.  Still this random encounter sparked off many memories of old places and former friends and acquaintances.  But time flies - tempus fugit and sic transit gloria mundi etc.  Somewhere between all the daily concerns: this misbehaving student, that EBD Asperger's boy, this difficult parent, the Student Council Bookshop, trying to re-acquaint myself with mathematical procedures learnt years ago and all the relevant and irrelevant banter in the Staff Room my memory banks were jogged and memories came streaming from the past.  Mere chance collisions of neurons in the brain or something deeper and more mysterious I ask myself.  It's a good question to which I do not have the answer, though I firmly believe in the something more.  I cannot define or pin down that something more, but it leads me onwards to live life as best as I can and in the most authentic manner that I can attain.  Once again, words I had read in Shakespeare's The Tempest which the dramatist puts into the mouth of Prospero come to my mind here, because the Bard of Avon spoke of the human condition before the word existentialist was coined.  Moreover, he spoke of the human condition and some of what he wrote could indeed be classed existentialist and angst-ridden.  Now for Prospero's wonderful words:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

(The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158).

These words are worth pondering and reading aloud to let their import seep into our heart.  Shakespeare is here reminding us of our mortality and indeed the temporality of all things, including our little world: The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,//The solemn temples, the great globe itself,//Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve.  Indeed, then the four words "and our little life" make for a mantra to remind us of our sheer unimportance in the scheme of things.  Such angst-ridden thoughts are the heart of the existentialist sensibility.

I want, I want, I want

Yet another Jesuit scholar comes to my mind here, viz., Fr. Michael-Paul Gallagher S.J. whom I had the pleasure to have as a lecturer in both English literature and Theology.  It was he who introduced me to the books of the great Americanm novelist Saul Bellow.  We read Henderson the Rain King and Herzog with Michael-Paul way back in the late 1970s.  I remember the above title from the antihero of that book, Henderson, he who wanted his life to mean something.  Hence, throughout the book "I want" appears as a sort of modernist mantra for the deep desire yet emptiness that lie at the heart of so-called modern culture.  Here also are two short quotes from that novel to give you a taste of what it is about:

"Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it got even stronger. It said only one thing, I want, I want! And I would ask, 'What do you want?' But this is all it would ever tell me." Chapter 3, p. 24

“And I prayed and prayed, ‘Oh, you…Something,’ I said, ‘you Something because of whom there is not Nothing. Help me to do Thy will. Take off my stupid sins. Untrammel me. Heavenly Father, open up my dumb heart and for Christ’s sake preserve me from unreal things. Oh, Thou who tookest me from pigs, let me not be killed over lions. And forgive my crimes and nonsense and let me return to Lily and the kids.’” p. 253

The More We're Striving For

When I was defending my Master's Thesis on the method in theology in the works of John Henry Cardinal Newman, I remember one of the panel of examiners asking me (in reply to one of my answers which opined that there was more to life than scientific materialists like Huxley dreamed of) what was the "more" in life.  I had replied that that, of course, was the grace of GOD, the very gift of his Son as Redeemer of the World.  At the time I staunchly believed that.  At this distance in time what I said then is for me now no more than a theological formula.  I suppose I have outgrown my need for religion, but that is okay.  Others have a need for it, and that is okay, too, in my book.  All stances in life are equally valid once they do not hurt another sentient being.  That's my basic ethical  and moral vision anyway.  However, I'm still striving for the more, whatever that may be.  I'm open on this question.  Like Henderson I want, I want, I want...MEANING!

Tutorial For Three

As I have many times said in these pages, I am a Special Education Teacher.  Once a week I take three of our second year high achievers for a class in philosophy.  These young boys at at the top of their class and have attended the DCU Centre for Talented Youth: see here. We have discussed much in our forty minutes weekly class from mathematics and science to literature and philosophy.  I am teaching them to think, but mostly I listen to their ideas and try to sharpen their questions.  Philosophy is more a way of thinking than learning off a raft of ideas, even though we often do so to get a handle on the subject in question.  Nevertheless, the real philosopher, mathematician or scientist is the guy or girl with the inquisitive mind and the incisive questions.  At the end of yesterday's class I left them with the thought that the most precious thing ever in their lives will be their desire to know, and that with that desire to know will come real power over their own lives, and that if they live their lives in pursuit of authentic truth and knowledge they will have added to the human store of wisdom.

Iam venio ad finem

These were the words of the late Pope John Paul II, when he was a Auxiliary Bishop Of Krakow, Poland at one of the meetings of the Second Vatican Council.  He was being hurried along as he was going somewhat over time, and he stated "Iam venio ad finem" : "I am soon coming to an end."  It is the same for me here: "Iam venio ad finem" : "I am soon coming to an end."  What's it all about, anyway is indeed a good question.  The great religions are one way of providing an answer to this question for their followers.  However, even within these great religions there are varying strands of belief too, e.g., the many different Christian churches and the various strands of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam and so on and so forth. Outside that, there are many others with varying convictions and varying answers.  Each person to his/her own.  "Chacun a son gout," as the French say!  Or as my uncle John from San Francisco says (he's 92 this year), "live and let live!"

This will be my last in this serious of autobiographical posts.  It is time I turned my attention to another concern. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What's it all about, anyway, 12?

Finding a Direction and a Compass - Again

Self, Late 80s, early 90s
I've long given up the idea of the straight line with respect to personal development.  Both in my personal and professional life progress is not made in steady increments in a forward direction; even in small increments in a forward direction (only).  Personal development seems to happen in a spiral fashion, rather like a spiral staircase either up or down.  Working in the Asperger's unit we keep good files on the personal, social, moral, intellectual and emotional development of our charges.  The ones on whom we spend most of our time are those with EBD problems, that is, those with Emotional Behavioural Disability.  It is a slow process, so slow that sometimes it is hard even to determine if any progress has been made at all.  You think you have made a step forward only to find the student has taken two steps back, or so it appears.  However, we persevere as a team and progress is made, often in millimeters as one visiting tutor from the SESS told us.

Likewise, in my own personal development with issues which I wish to tackle like my weight control, my Blood Pressure, areas of my mental health, I often find myself undoing the good I may have done previously, or at least, that is the way it appears to me.  Oftentimes, I have found my development to be rather circular, rather than in a straight line.  Hence, my reference to circular movement, and yet circular movement isn't good enough either for me.  That's why I have suggested the metaphor of the spiral staircase because although it seems you are going round in circles you are in fact moving either up or down.  This personal metaphor - I haven't seen it written about anywhere, but no doubt it is, because I believe there are precious few new insights under the sun - often consoles me because when I find some seeming regression, I say to myself: "perhaps we have gone deeper or higher, and let's be patient because movement is not quite apparent now, but it may be later."  This is how I console myself with regard to my sense of my own personal development as well as my sense of my professional developmen,t and indeed the personal and educational development of my pupils.

Now, my heading refers to finding a sense of direction and a compass - be it personal or professional.  I have written before in these pages that my direction was always towards teaching, either at second or third level.  The last few pages indicated that I veered some little bit away from that direction and then veered back again to that main direction.  It was as if by taking a scenic route or a diversion here or there to assure myself that I was on the right course was at play in my life as I look back like the traveller who has reached the top of the mountain and views his seemingly meandering ascent.  In fact my belief in my vocation as a teacher has deepened if anything.  While I may teach Mathematics, SPHE or Meditation, Communication and Language Skills, I believe that it is the encounter with the student as other that is the primary focus of my teaching.  A good teacher is a teacher who connects with his/her class, establishes a rapport or a relationship of care with them; in other words has a presence in the class.  Now this is the context.  Indeed, today after some thirty two years in the profession I'd argue that it is the only context in which any teaching worth its salt can take place at all.  The task of education is a triple one: We seek to (i) inform (ii) form and (iii) transform our students in order for them to reach their full potential in life.

And Death walks hand-in-hand with Life

Self, sometime in the late 80s
To be a living being is to be a dying being in reality.  Plants and animals all die.  It's hard to believe that any plant or animal can or even should go on forever.  That would defy logic and commonsense.  All the little set-backs and failures we experience in life are really little deaths which we have to undergo if we are to make any personal movement towards self-integration or individuation as Carl Gustave Jung put it.  Anyway, the next ten years of my life after I had left Religious Life saw the deaths of many uncles and aunts and of my father, Thomas Quinlan, who died a wonderful death at the age of 79.  He took a minor stroke after having undergone a routine operation and lasted just about two weeks.  My mother, my brothers and I used to go in to feed him during his last days in Beaumont Hospital here in Dublin.  Anyway, before he was taken into hospital for his final sojourn there I can remember his being very upset and confused, and his confusion was his fear of dying because he felt he might have sinned too much in life.  The poor man had lived a very innocent life in fact.  What had bothered him was the negative, judgemental and guilt-ridden Catholicism with which he had grown up.  Thankfully this style of Catholicism is long since dead and  gone.  Anyway, once he was in hospital he settled down and an amazing calmness came upon him.  I believe it was the acceptance that it was his time to leave this world.  A couple of days before he died he kissed each one of us goodbye and told us he loved us.  None of us was there when he finally passed away.  A young nurse who was very upset at his passing as it was her first experience of losing a patient, told us that his final words were, "It's a lovely day."  He died on the 13th Feb. 1993. 
1993 was a turning point for me as I had now lost my father, a huge link with my past.  I knew instinctively that middle age was ahead and that I should make the most of my middle years.  I was 35 when my father died.  As the clay poured down over his coffin, I found myself saying to myself, "I must put that S.T.L. to rest by finishing it.  I have mentioned this post-graduate degree before.  I had it more than 2/3 finished when I had exited the Augustinian Order and had achieved very high results in the course work, 100% of which I had completed, the only part not finished was the thesis.  I remember driving out to meet Dr. John Macken, S.J., wonderful scholar and one time president of Milltown.  John agreed to my completing this degree, and he facilitated this personally by supervising my thesis himself.  I dedicated the work to my father.  The final examination for the S.T.L. which is a pontifical/Roman degree is a two part oral examination where (i) one sits before 3 lecturers, one your thesis supervisor, the other the reader, and the third the extern who question you on the syllabus of courses which you studied for the degree - the taught element of the course, (ii) again one has to defend one's thesis before the same three individuals.  Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was duly awarded the degree of STL in October 1994 with first class honours at the age of 36 (See here Theses).   To this day I attribute my successful result to my father.  My argument here essentially is that something had moved or changed in me allowing my mind or heart to be clearer about what I really wanted in life

Death is a reality we all have to encounter inm our lives.  Alas, poor Dr. John Macken, S.J., who was made president of Milltown Institute of Philosophy and Theology shortly after my conferral was to die all too young within a year of his appointment to that role.

What's it all about, anyway, 11?

Into the Desert

Self with fellow students in the Augustinian Order, 1985. Not one person shown stayed!
I have already alluded to the fact that the metaphor of journey is a central one in all cultures and literatures.  There are many related metaphors, of course, like being stuck, being lost, going astray etc.  There is also the existential image of wandering in the desert.  This is an obviously Biblical motif, both from the Old and New Testaments when the Israelites wandered for forty years as a nation in the desert which prefigured Christ's forty days in the desert in the New Testament.  One could say that the classical version of this desert motif is that of the descent into Hades, the land of shadows.  That spiritually and existentially many of us go down into the pit of despair, the Slough of Despond as John Bunyan put it in his classic Pilgrim's Progress is without doubt a central part of the human condition.

When I left Religious Life I spent nearly two months literally in this Slough of Despond, in this personal Hades, in the Desert.  This is a far more desperate place to be than the experience of being lost.  Indeed, to use a very facile mathematical image, it is like being lost raised to the nth power.  That experience is akin to how the Gerard Manley Hopkins felt in the Terrible Sonnets or the despairing psalmist felt at stages in the Book of Psalms or how Josef K felt about his torment in Kafka's novel of despair, called The Trial

This is the heart of existentialism - the angst of lived existence, and only those who have been there, experienced some despair can talk about it.  Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, to whom I have referred a few lines back knew this black despair as he wrote:  "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.// What hours, O what black hours we have spent//This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!// And more must, in yet longer light's delay."  These are the first four lines of the Terrible Sonnet No. 45, and later on in the same angst-ridden poem he gives us this wonderful, if angst-filled line to ponder: "Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours" and opines that all other lost souls, or rather despairing souls "are like this, and their scourge to be// As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse."

Night sweats are indeed often part of the depressive's night as I can attest from my personal experience.  Being in the desert is a lonely experience, and one cannot just decide to exit from it at any time one wants.  One goes with the experience till it ends, whether that be by medical intervention or quite simply when the period of depression burns itself out, or when any particular sickness runs its course.  It is truly the Slough of Despond as one does not know when the dwelling in the desert is going to end.  In the midst of the desert there is the sheer blackness of unknowing and this, too, adds greatly to the physical and mental suffering.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Self, teaching in the Gaeltacht in more recent years
However, thankfully, as most of us who suffer from clinical depression know, bouts of that dreadful mental illness do come to an end.  Hence, there is light at the end of the tunnel.  Moreover, as many sufferers from depression can attest, sometimes it takes far too long - often years - for some medical practitioners to diagnose it.  In my case, I was attending the doctor for some twelve years before it was properly diagnosed.  Now the fault does not lie solely with the medical profession, who are picking up more of it, but also with general knowledge among the public at large about the symptoms of depression, especially of the clinical variety.  With me, the situation was that I had been enduring sleepless nights for say a week at a time over a period of some twelve years, yet this mini-desert experience would abate and not return for several months.  I wrote it down to just insomnia and/or worry.  However, as I am recounting this narrative in a fairly sequential or chronological fashion, suffice it to say that after two months of recuperating after exiting Religious Life, I got a job teaching Mathematics and Religion in St David's Secondary School , Artane.

Teaching with Renewed Vigour and Energy

It was as if I had been tested in a furnace; that I had journeyed in the desert; that I had been to Hades and back, and had survived.  I had come through, and had emerged wounded and broken maybe, but not crushed or left for dead.  I found that I had a new confidence in class.  I was now no longer as idealistic as I had been during my first period of teaching.  I remained in St David's for two years where I taught Mathematics, Religion, History and English.  Once again, the range of subjects in which I was qualified was no little help and my general knowledge was always wide.  This time round I made precious few mistakes in disciplining any class.  In fact, I was pretty good with all classes and had little or no trouble during my two years in the hallowed halls of St.David's, Artane.  I loved my time teaching there, and did a lot of Meditation work, in which I had built up a certain expertise over the years, with the pupils there.  Indeed, I worked closely with a former Provincial of the Christian Brothers, a Bro. Timothy Claver Leonard, CFC in leading meditation sessions in line with Eastern and Christian practice.  I also qualified, under Tim Leonard's direction, in presenting and assessing the MBTI, an indicator which seeks to determine, or, at least allow the candidates, to determine their character type.  This was interesting work from which I learnt a lot about human behaviour.

Also, while in David's I met one of my life-long friends, Tom Gleeson, and I engaged in team-teaching or co-teaching and observation of classes with Tom.  We learnt a lot from each other as to what teaching could and should be.  Over the two years there, I grew in confidence as a teacher and felt that I had a store of practical wisdom to share with my pupils from all my own experience of living.  Bear in mind that I had done several months of pastoral experience while in Religious Life - two months in Meath Street where I co-ordinated a Summer Project and I also did a month of visiting the sick.  Later I was to spend a month in Galway where I worked in a drop-in centre called Tagaste House.  While there, I worked with reformed alcoholics and drug addicts.  All of this practical experience, coupled with my academic studies and my descent into Hades had strengthened me and given me a deep insight into life which I could share with my charges.