“Tempests are calm to thee; they know thy hand,
And hold it fast, as children do their fathers,
Which crie and follow. Thou hast made poore sand
Check the proud sea, ev’n when it swells and gathers.”
George Herbert, “Providence”
It has been a week of study. I have spent the week composing two nine page papers on two separate topics, all but capping off my fifth semester at Yale Divinity.
The anticipation of this study, of these assignments, as with so much anticipation in my life as a student, produced considerable anxiety and a sense of being overwhelmed. The world begins to appear in the form of the imaginary taskmasters which plague the mind as you begin to feel more and more inadequate to the task the closer you get to the due date. The preaching task becomes shadowed in the anxiety of the writing task.
It certainly does not help matters to come down to Connecticut to a community of peers who are even more overwhelmed. Anxiety becomes mingled in the molecules of air alongside oxygen and carbon dioxide. Various expressions of frustration and panic can be seen zipping up and down the halls of the campus. And brief moments of relief after handing in a paper or finishing an assignment become abundantly celebrated as if it were graduation itself. The human mind and heart are capable of curious extremes.
It’s no wonder that school produces such anxiety in the student. It is a deeply ingrained part of our emotional selves and bound up in many ways to our sense of worth or worthlessness. This is why I worry about the students in today’s school system. They are inheriting a system which is beset by perfectionistic standards and fears of failure or not reaching the top. It is a system which breeds, in theological terms, a works-based righteousness. “Teach for the test” becomes the implicit modus operandi if not the explicitly understood one. Efforts of teachers to fight free of these constraints and teach from the heart, teach for the person, are met with bureaucratic backlash. I fear that we will create works-righteous and works-failed students and fail to nourish their human flourishing, the natural wonder, the curiosity, the divine instinct to search after the beautiful and the good.
And higher institutions of learning are not exempt from this. More and more the liberal arts ideal of the well-formed human being is being replaced by the person who will be profitable.
Isn’t this the great error of our day, that human beings are so easily formed into abstractions and as abstractions put into formulas of x=$. Isn’t this the reason that people are poorly paid for their labor?
This Advent, let us not wait in the shadow of the anxiety which the market breeds. I think the most important way this can be resisted is through meaningful engagement in community. And I don’t think this means talk more. I think it means listen more, sing more, dream more, work together, offer to help one another, pay attention to the redness in another’s eyes and the unnatural tension exhibited in the cheek bone when someone smiles. Attend to relationships, to other persons, practice the art of human community. Because everything in our economy trains us to consume for ourselves and to satisfy number one.
I don’t think it’s possible for me to find peace of mind and heart on my own. I think when I experience unrest, it is in large part a result of feeling utterly alone. It is when I receive words from a friend that attend to fear in my eyes. “You seem like you are having a hard time.” Peace is built in community by people who are willing to resist the forces of atomization ingrained in us through market propaganda. We have to practice solidarity with one another and with those who are suffering in our midst.
It takes a village to raise a child, and a teenager, and a young adult, and a middle aged adult, and an elderly person. It’s not that we should attend to relationship because that is the good thing to do, we need to care for our relationships because that is who we are, part of a whole, part of a community, an ecosystem, from which we cannot and should not be abstracted.
It is in abstraction that we violate the created design. It is in attending to the particular person, the local place, it is when we are attended to by another in all compassion and sincerity with no cheap or false motives, that we realize that we were made for this. We were made to be with one another and in those small moments of community honestly shared and peacefully redeemed, we rebel against the forces which wreak such destruction through equating human persons with numbers. And we practice being human. We practice awareness of the world in its wholeness, the design built into it by our creator whose attention to the particular has no bounds, and whose revulsion at abstractions litters the pages of the prophets and the apostles.
This Advent I want to resist the abstractions of the market. This Advent I want to attend to human persons in my life and in my community. And I want to reclaim my own humanness even as I begin to realize theirs. This Advent as we continue to remember the incompleteness of God’s healing of the world, I want to seek first that healing and remember always that to be anxious is to believe in a false reality which is not the world which issues forth from the abundance of God’s love.
For “in him we live and move and have our being.”