A Community of Compassion

Where conventional education deals with abstract and impersonal facts and theories, an education shaped by Christian spirituality draws us toward incarnate and personal truth.” — Parker Palmer, To Know As We Are Known, 14

I have always found the phrase, ‘the real world,’ both perplexing and damnable. It is perplexing because of all the worlds we may think we inhabit there is none more real than the one we all live and move and have our being in. And before the phone lines light up—yes, caller, I am aware of metaphors and analogies and similes. Still, the force with which those three words are usually hurled at someone—“Wait until you have to survive in the real world, then you’ll see!”— suggests the hurler believes the reality of this world transcends figures of speech. 

The phrase is damnable because it cordons off a group of people, usually students, and then condemns them for being isolated from the world. The students I teach are well acquainted with the real world. Many of them hold two jobs, take a full load of classes, and care for a child. Some of them play sports in and out of state, while maintaining their classes and work. All of them know the depths of disappointment in striving oneself to weariness and still falling short of goals and expectations. So it is not a phrase I use on students in particular nor most people in general. 

There’s no question that we are in the world; the real question is how we are to be in the world. For Christian teachers and students this is the central question they must answer every day.

Recently, I’ve had reason to question what the advantages of an Adventist Christian college education might be for a young person over one in a ‘secular’ college or university. This is a recurring question for me, a kind of diagnostic to be run in those times when the church as the body of Christ seems pocked with disease, to say nothing of being blind and lame. 

It’s not in the buildings, the landscaping, the amenities, or the sports fields. Most North American Adventist colleges were built near the turn of the 19th century and cannot keep pace with state or even private college campus facilities. On the other hand, I’ve taught on a campus where some buildings pre-date the war—the First World War—and yet students and faculty cheerfully go about their days working around the charm of an infrastructure that was new not long after Oscar Wilde was released from the Reading Gaol. 

It’s not in the endowments, the gifts outright, or the scholarships. Nor is it in the tuition rates, the sports teams, the residential halls, or the food service. 

It’s not in the research facilities, the government and military contracts that bring in millions, nor in graduate assistantships and grants. Most Adventist college professors are too busy teaching four or five classes each semester, plus working on committees, and engaging in service to the college, the church, and the community, to do any research except that directly related to the teaching of their disciplines. 

And it’s not even in the ‘star’ quality of the faculty, although many of the Adventist college professors I know could walk into any college classroom—from community college to Ivy League—and teach as well, if not better, than current professors. 

Where it differs, sometimes dramatically, is in what Parker Palmer calls “a living and evolving community of creativity and compassion.” He goes on to say, “Education of this sort means more than teaching the facts and learning the reasons so we can manipulate life toward our ends. It means being drawn into personal responsiveness and accountability to each other and the world of which we are a part (To Know as  We Are Known).” 

That kind of community, one that draws in students, faculty, staff, and administration, takes time and nurture and care. It develops when the community weathers financial crises together, when difficult decisions about people, programs, and purposes must be made. It can only develop when there is trust and trustworthiness. And if it is formed in the crucible of hard times, it survives because “truth is not a concept that ‘works’ but an incarnation that lives. The ‘Word’ our knowledge seeks is not a verbal construct but a reality in history and the flesh (Palmer, 14).” 

A community like that will not lack talent and expertise in its teachers. They are guided every day by the overwhelming desire to see their students become ‘thinkers and not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts.’ 

But a community like that is built up over time. It is not the result of data sets, market relevancy, or alignment with fleeting strategies. It comes about when people sacrifice for the purpose, gladly and well, because they know they are in this together. 

If, as a leader, you should find yourself fortunate enough to belong to such a community, walk modestly and listen well. It can all be torn away in a day. 

An Education in Transcendence

“An education in transcendence prepares us to see beyond appearances into the hidden realities of life—beyond facts into truth, beyond self-interest into compassion, beyond our flagging energies and nagging despairs into the love required to renew the community of creation.” — Parker Palmer, To Know As We Are Known

That we are alone in this world is a fact which is confirmed by movies, reality shows, advertising, and economic self-help theories. That this is, in fact, false is something we must learn. 

I don’t mean alone in merely a physical or social sense. I once had a colleague, a recent arrival from China, who went to a public gathering on the 4th of July in Baltimore and felt a sense of panic because she was in a crowd numbering only a few thousand. It’s all in what you’re used to apparently. 

This kind of aloneness is not that of the weary commuter on the train gazing without seeing as the stations blur past. Not even Philip Seymour Hoffman, dying on the floor of his bathroom, a needle stuck in his arm, was alone in the way we are told is the norm.   

This kind of aloneness is deeply American, although other cultures are sensing its allure. It’s a strand of ideological DNA which causes moral palsy in some: the hand outstretched to help twitches, the cup of cold water crashes to the floor.

We are taught to be unique at an early age. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an essay entitled “Self-Reliance,” drummed the message in with eloquence and fervor: “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” And, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” And again: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.”

There is something thrilling in these lines, and in many others that Emerson writes. He hated the mob, the unthinking crowd so easily swayed by demagogues and charlatans. He wanted people to think for themselves, to see themselves as individuals. 

What the nation needed in 1841, he thought, was a sense of the present, not the past. Europe was the past: for all its intellectual glories it could not be the template for America. The country needed to build itself from the ground up and the way to do it was to boldly go where no nation had gone before. A nation of individuals, each one pursuing his or her course with a sturdy vigor, was the ideal. 

But somewhere along the way that centrifugal honesty snapped its line and arced away. What we see now is not Emerson’s neighborly self-reliance, but what Parker Palmer calls an endless power struggle between the self and the world. Each self is convinced it is in a battle for survival, with dominance over the world the only possible goal. 

Palmer has been a teacher for decades, a Quaker by choice, and a thoughtful critic of an educational system that trains people for arrogance rather than service. 

He suggests that our hunger for knowledge arises from two sources: curiosity and control. Curiosity for its own sake is amoral, a need to know that shrugs off any restraint. Control “is simply another word for power.” Together, curiosity and control can generate knowledge that leads us toward death, not life. 

But there is another kind of knowledge that contains just as many facts and theories as the knowledge we now possess, but that springs from something other than mere curiosity and control. “A knowledge born of compassion aims not at exploiting and manipulating creation but at reconciling the world to itself (To Know as We Are Known 8).”

This is not a sentimental warm fuzzy kind of love, he notes, but a tough love—“the connective tissue of reality”—and we find it most often in community. 

Palmer talks about “community” a great deal, a word that splays out in so many directions these days that it’s hard to grasp what it means. I can sense that it’s a good thing, though, and as spiritual qualities go, it tops any wish list I could draw up. I’m just not sure how it comes about.

Palmer ties it to transcendence, a word often misunderstood. We need to think of transcendence as not being drawn up and out of life to an eternal realm, but as a sideways impulse, a breaking in of the Spirit which breathes hope and trust into us. That’s the kind of transcendence which happens in community, a practical notion of love with its feet on the ground and its heart aflame with Jesus incarnate—God among us.

I get a much clearer sense of what ‘community’ can mean when Palmer speaks of a “discipline of mutual encouragement and mutual testing, keeping me both hopeful and honest about the love that seeks me, the love I seek to be (To Know as We Are Known 18).”

At Sligo I have found community in the study group I belong to, Believers and Doubters. For years we have prayed together, argued together, studied the Bible and books about it together, laughed and suffered together, and suffered the loss of members together. I would not trade it for anything. It has been an “education in transcendence.” 


“Throughout history the exemplary teacher has never been just an instructor in a subject; he is nearly always its living advertisement.”  Michael Dirda, Book by Book

I leapt at this phrase when I first read it in Dirda’s spry little ‘commonplace’ notebook.  It fit my Puritan work ethic and it assuaged the residual guilt that plagues most teachers. This could be the answer to that recurrent nightmare, the one where we are exposed by our students as imposters, pipelines simply carrying the information, subject to any crank that wants to interrupt the flow with a question.
Of course, the analogy to the teacher as advertisement is not without its problems. Advertisements are there solely to sell us stuff that we don’t want and certainly don’t need. Advertisements lie—that is their modus operandi—and they are almost always flogging trivial stuff like mouthwash, Doritos, and Lincoln Navigators. Advertisements clog the airwaves, occupy every visible surface, and reduce the wisdom of the world to slogans. Teachers are not advertisements. 

But there’s another way to regard this. Years ago cultural critic and media theorist James W. Carey wrote a seminal essay in which he distinguished two historical views on communication. One was the transmission model in which communication functions to loft messages long distances and exercise power over others from afar. It works well when we text message our friends or fire a missile or take out an ad in the Washington Post. It is at work when we channel the textbook in our classes or lecture without regard for where the shells we lob are landing. 

The other form of communication is ancient; it predates literacy and springs from the impulse to commune with others. It gathers in rather than disseminates, pulls us into a circle of stories around the fire instead of blasting the masses, and works from the inside to the outside. Symbolic, ritualized, it is the way a society defines, maintains, and sustains itself. It is thought embedded in action, the Word made flesh. The message is not simply carried in the shell of the advertisement: it is rather—to ruffle McLuhan’s hair—the message as the medium.

Thus, when we imagine ourselves professing before our classes, do we see ourselves as these exemplary sages who at the very least convey an enthusiasm for the subject that can enthrall even the back rows? Probably not, and rightly so.

The best teachers among us wear the mantle lightly. They seem innocent of it, as unconscious as breathing. When complimented they may be startled or slightly embarrassed or just a bit uncomfortable. This hints at the idea that teaching well is not a technique (from tekhne, ‘art or craft’) applied from the outside but the result over time of allowing our natural curiosity to partner with our desire for communion with others.  When we tell the stories around our particular fires with enthusiasm (from en theos, ‘in god’), we transcend our egos if only for a moment. We lose the weight of being ‘the teacher’ and we truly ‘profess’ what we know and love. 

This “innocence” is not something we can strive for, however. It arrives unannounced, a blessed byproduct of knowledge, love for the subject, familiarity with the process, and experience in handling groups of students.  In those moments we become the embodiment of what we say, a living word. On a cold Monday morning we can be so lucky.

Let Me Have Your Attention

“My mind to me a kingdom is,/Such present joys therein I find/That it excels all other bliss/That earth affords or grows by kind. . . .” Sir Edward Dyer (1550? – 1607).


In April, 1931, George Orwell wrote a short piece entitled “The Spike” for a magazine called Adelphi. In it he describes time he spent as a tramp. He became a tramp, a homeless person, partly of necessity and partly because he wished to understand the particular forms of suffering that tramps go through. One virulent irritation was boredom. Orwell came to think that boredom was the worst of a tramp’s burdens, worse than hunger and worse than the feeling of social disgrace. “It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel,” he said. “Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.”

Today, Orwell would be accused of elitism and would be made to tweet an apology to all his followers. But Orwell was nothing if not honest, and having lived the life on the street could speak with authority. One need only pass through any metropolitan area to see the homeless on benches, median strips, near metro stations, or on corners, many of them slumped against a wall, sleeping huddled against the cold or in a quiet corner of a coffee shop. Their days unwind with agonizing slowness, each minute trudging after the next. In this essay, Orwell recounts how he was saved from the ten hours of daylight boredom in the spike (homeless shelter) by the blessed reprieve of working in the kitchen. Even so, one suspects that with his powers of observation and his interests in literature, politics, and history, Orwell would not likely suffocate in boredom.

There are two elements at work here: memory and attention. Memory, because we are hardly human without it, and attention because it is necessary to learning. William James devotes a chapter of his seminal work, Psychology, to attention, describing it of two kinds. There is the effortless, involuntary and passive kind, and there is the active and voluntary kind. Involuntary attention occurs when we follow a train of thought that is interesting as a means to an end or when the mere association with the thought burnishes us with a sense of satisfaction.

Active, voluntary attention is that which we make a determined effort to accomplish by bending our minds to it. James remarks that it is a feeling which everyone knows, but which is indescribable. We sense it when we try to discriminate between sensory experiences, or attend to one voice near us against a babble of other voices. It is an effort whose accomplishment slips through our fingers like water. James says, “There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time (his emphasis).” James describes a process that sounds like the building, layer upon layer, of a pearl around a grain of sand. The mind, finding something interesting, comes back to it, turns it over and over until the novelty wears off, then drifts away, only to return for the feeling of both familiarity and the stimulation of finding something new. And here is the sentence that lit up for me like a Jumbotron: “No one can possibly attend continuously to an object that does not change.”

So, to focus the attention of students or audiences we must come back to an idea from as many angles as possible, first through a discussion, then perhaps a demonstration, now a clip from a film, and then the solving of a problem together with a partner. These are techniques intended to remedy our weaknesses, but what of the genius who can apparently sit alone for hours, deaf to the world and completely absorbed with the ideas streaming through her head? James says that its her genius that makes her attentive, not her attentiveness that makes her a genius. The difference between her and the rest of us is that she has a method of hooking one idea to another to make a train of thought, while we, poor inchoate butterflies that we are, simply flit about from one delightful flower to the next. The good news is, however, that “whether the attention come by grace of genius or by dint of will, the longer one does attend to a topic the more mastery of it one has.”

The practice of this in the classroom is simple and effective: find common ground between that which the student knows and the new concept, and ask the student to express his thoughts, first in written form and then verbally.

To put it in writing, creating a structure intended for clarity, is the first step. The student as a demanding reader of her own work consistently asks: is this word, this paragraph, this message, appropriate to my purpose? And the purpose, as Jacques Barzun says, “is always the same: it is to be understood aright.”*

The second step, presenting the written in verbal form, accomplishes two purposes. It first requires the student to recognize the difference between the written and the spoken word—reading an essay out loud is not at all the same as writing to be heard. And then the student will see that putting one’s ideas into another medium wondrously concentrates the attention.

This brings us back to Orwell and his terminally bored compatriots. An educated mind has something to play with: memories, images, associations, ideas not yet fully formed, questions, hopes. Waiting in a doctor’s office, loathe to thumb through a celebrity rag, we may yet travel through infinite and intimate spaces as we attend to our new and present sensations, relate them to the old and familiar, and say ‘What if?. . .’

Blake offered us “infinity in a grain of sand.” It’s there, if we but pay attention.

*Jacques Barzun (2001), Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers.

Photo: Redd Angelo, Unsplash.com