Monday, September 29, 2014

Teachable Moments

"We are always on a journey from darkness to light."  -- John O'Donohue*

"If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn't there a chance that what we are running from is God?"  -- Barbara Brown Taylor

A few weeks ago, I taught an ESL class for adults, substituting for the teacher for the day.  I used to teach math, and so usually substitute for math teachers, not English teachers, but I thought... Why not?  I do, after all, love to read and write.  Besides, I would have lesson plans to follow.  Thankfully, the lesson plans were very thorough and gave us more than enough to do for the three-hour class.  It was a lot of fun, too, for the teacher had provided us with many learning games to play to get us thinking of English words and their usage.  She also wrote in her lesson plans: "Be open to teachable moments."   I'd say, in hindsight, that any time the students got stuck, made mistakes, or had questions, those were teachable moments.

Shortly after this, I finally got around to watching a new television show called "Utopia."  It's about 15 very diverse strangers who are confined to an isolated, semi-developed compound for a year and asked to form a cohesive, sustainable community.  It's not pretty.  Almost immediately, it's clear that these 15 adults are at varying stages of maturity.  Some rise to the top, staying out of the fray, and some sink to the bottom, creating the fray, when faced with any sort of opposition or adversity.  And others are somewhere in between.  These in-betweeners are the ones who make mistakes, but learn from them.  They're the one I relate to the most.  When one of them asks another, "Are you teachable?" it struck me as a somewhat odd thing to say, but really, when you think about it, that's what's makes it or breaks it in life; and, that's what ultimately distinguishes a child from an adult.   

Are you teachable?

None of us are born wise.  We are born with a certain level of intelligence, yes, but whether we grow in maturity is something altogether different.   That takes, first of all, a will to learn, a desire.  Secondly, it takes a readiness to learn, a certain level of mental or physical maturity to begin with.  And, thirdly, it takes the ability to learn, the freedom and opportunity to learn.  We have to be ready, willing, and able to learn in order to learn.  If one of those components isn't in place, we won't learn.

Having the freedom and opportunity to learn is not always up to us.  Having the desire to learn is a part of our personality, and differs from person to person.  For example, I, for one, have no desire to learn about cars, and never have, so it's not too surprising that I know very little about cars.  On the other hand, I have a great desire to learn about God, and have throughout my life.

So, I wonder why has it taken me so long to learn about God.  I've written before about how, although I've gone to church for as long as I can remember, for most of my life, my understanding of God grew only in rare moments of crisis.  It wasn't until I was thirty-six years old that I started asking questions about God, and even then those questions came slowly.  Why did it take so long for me to start asking questions?  The desire to know God was there from an early age.  The opportunity was there, as well.  But clearly something was missing.  Was it just that I had to be at a certain level of maturity?

I see a similar lengthy learning process with parenting.  When I became a mother, I didn't even know how to change a diaper!  So, I took whatever advice I could get and read loads of books about parenting, wanting to be the best mother I could be.  After a couple of years, feeling confident with one easy-going child, we had another, who was so different from the first, it was like starting over from scratch.  The third was equally as different as the other two.   Unfortunately, there's no parenting manual that fits every child.  However, with lots of opportunity to learn about parenting, and a keen desire to do so, maturity has come in baby steps.

Maturity, like wisdom, is not something we are born with.  It comes gradually, over time, as the need arises, from having the opportunity to get stuck, to make mistakes, and to be confused, combined with the desire to learn, to get unstuck, to do better, and to ask questions.  These "teachable moments" come one after the other, hopefully, for as long as we live.

I wonder if God waits for "teachable moments," also, and gives us just what we can handle in the moment, no more and no less.

As a parent, unlike God, I have wanted to shield my children from difficulties, to prevent them from making the same mistakes I have made, to prevent them from making any mistakes at all, if possible.  And while some of my protection has been warranted, most of it just creates in them an overactive sense of caution, or sheer obstinacy, depending on the personality of the child.  Neither one are desirable.

In "The Return of the Prodigal," Henri Nouwen writes that the fulfillment of the spiritual journey is for us as individuals to move beyond acting like the prodigal son who rebels or the elder brother who always does what he is told, and to become like the wise, compassionate, and generous father -- this father who lets his sons make mistakes, get stuck and ask questions.

We know that the prodigal son learned.  Darkness and difficult times are perhaps our best teachers, our only teachers, as Barbara Brown Taylor beautifully describes in "Learning to Walk in the Dark."  For, in these dark nights, there is a special kind of light to be found, one that only shines in the darkness, if we can but see it.

But what about the elder brother?  His darkness was hardly noticeable, the bare hint of a shadow, in an otherwise light-filled life.  Unfortunately, it's sometimes very hard to see shadows.  It's hard to notice them on others when the light seems to shine so brightly on them, and it's hard to see our own shadows.   However, it's the students and "Utopians" who never think they make mistakes who are most likely to crash and burn.  Since the elder brother did not recognize his shadow -- at least, not as far as the parable of the prodigal son reveals -- can he even learn?  Can we learn if we are never aware of being stuck, of being in darkness?  I don't think so.

At least, not unless we have a teacher who is willing to come and point out our mistakes -- like Jesus did.  Or, a substitute who is willing to follow the lesson plans.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


* from "Anam Cara:  A Book of Celtic Wisdom," by John O'Donohue (Clift Street Books ed, pg. 4)

** from "Learning to Walk in the Darkness," by Barbara Brown Taylor ( Harper One ed. pg. 57)

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