Missionary Positions

A friend and I occasionally joke—and by “joke” I mean commiserate, laughing at ourselves—about our being reluctant windmill-tilters. I’ve spoken before about this tendency of mine toward passion-driven crusades, this compulsion to dream impossible dreams. The reluctance comes into play with my textbook introversion and general aversion to conflict.

DonquixoteEven taking a bold, controversial stance, appearing to know something with some assurance, is a challenge, which makes it a wonder I found myself in a career where I promote an unorthodox (I prefer the term “cutting-edge”) model of education. That said, this paradox has been an unmistakable, recurring pattern in my life: I’m a private person, yet I reveal a great deal online; I’m self-conscious, yet I often fling myself into the limelight of musical performances and public speaking.

This split personality has its liabilities, for sure. For example, the past couple months I’ve taken up a daily Twitter habit, venturing boldly into that arena of self-assured soundbites. Even more frequently than with Facebook, here I find myself cringing and/or deleting posts that seem too strident, sighing with exasperation at the umbrage and audacity of others. Every day, it seems, I dance this endless tango of assertiveness and self-restraint.

Fortunately, my well-developed diplomatic side tempers the missionary zeal to which I’m prone. In the seventeen years I’ve been associated with Sudbury schools I believe I’ve become considerably more reasonable and pragmatic: more capable of respecting divergent perspectives on what, to me, is a vital issue; less likely to press my convictions on those with whose views I profoundly disagree.

This wasn’t a quick or easy process, however—and it wasn’t without costs. For those who don’t already know, I began my career teaching in the public schools of Columbia, Missouri. As devoted an advocate of education as I’ve been, my disillusionment with the prevailing, conventional model was particularly painful. Finding that I could no longer justify what I was doing to my students, and accepting that the stress of that environment was (almost literally) killing me, I left—not knowing of Sudbury schooling, and thus drifting for a time.

Once a former student pointed me to the Sudbury Valley School website, however, I experienced a life-altering epiphany…and/or infatuation. Much as when you meet your eventual life partner, I knew almost instantly that I was going to be with this type of schooling for a long, long time (all these years later, it seems I was right).

What I had yet to learn was that being “right,” or at least profoundly self-assured, sometimes isn’t the most important thing. In particular, my early ravings about my new professional love alienated my best teacher friend from my first career, someone with whom I’d felt an unusually deep affinity. Of course, moving away from that city would have attenuated most connections (especially in the olden times, before the advent of social media), but in one of my more significant life regrets, my early missionary zeal surely undermined what had been a very valuable friendship.

It’s also possible that Zen has also enhanced my capacities for empathy and compassion, my ability to remain balanced. Yet here too, with my meditation practice, I’m occasionally haunted by the fear of others’ reactions, as I venture into territory many consider beyond the pale. For better or worse, not only do I seem drawn to unwanted confrontations; some of my passions lie in areas where people are easily triggered. I may have acquired greater equanimity and poise over the years, but I have a ways left to go.

While I still miss my old friend, perhaps it’s simply part of being human, accumulating life lessons whose value is equal to their cost. More than the charged, occasionally even hostile online exchanges into which I periodically stumble, this experience taught me that true conviction is secure enough to extend the same respect I accord Sudbury students to everyone I encounter. This still leaves room for respectful confrontation, the sort in which pointing out flaws in someone’s premises or evidence doesn’t lead to angry dismissal of their choices. Yet it’s also more conducive to building and maintaining connections.

Funny, isn’t it, how the paths of promoting radically humane and empowering schooling and cultivating wisdom and compassion could include such pitfalls. All the more reason, I suppose, to give up missionary zeal in favor of mindfulness, to balance fervor and empathy.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Missionary Positions

  1. Kim

    I’m curious how sure Buddha was of his teachings. I think, what’s wrong with me? … I’m sure of so little. Practically nothing. What is going on? We know that some people were absolutely sure of something and later discovered that they were wrong. I hear that the great Torah commentator Rashi wanted at the end of his life to rewrite everything that he had written. In fact, there are various versions … but we go with his first.

  2. I’m very sure only about a very few things–and even then, qualifying any particular assertion seems inevitable. Right Effort, Right View, etc., seem increasingly the way to go–an invitation to fully engage in each moment, to bring discipline, flexibility, and openness to bear. Is a strong word or a gentle glance the right answer in a given situation? It depends!

    Also, yes, written works are never truly completed, merely set aside. I’m pretty sure some wise person already noted that.

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