My work, the one thing that I excel at, is to challenge people to see beyond their comfort zone. I make people scared. The purpose of education is to enlighten students, colleagues and one’s self, so as to introduce new paradigms into their reality. The challenge is to do so without destroying the feeling of safety. When the appearance of safety shatters, a person will withdraw from the connective act of learning. We all withdraw when the fire becomes too hot, when the flame becomes too brilliant.
What I do best, at least in my experience, is to push people to the very line of their limit before I stop. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I am not empathic enough and I push too hard. When that happens all is not lost, but rather, the trust needs to be regained through careful, gentle sharing. The mask of the scary monster needs to be shed to show that we are all just playing pretend; a great teacher knows when to become a simple man.
My work this week is to ask an overwhelming question: What is a human life worth? Like Socrates, I have no idea what the actual answer to the question is. Instead, I ask the question of my students, and through the act of questioning we come together to move closer to our answer. The questions I ask are not easy for young people: Why do we protect some things, but kill others? Why are some humans perceived as being worth more than others? What creates value in our lives? The answers are seldom what we expect; they often leave my students feeling sad, guilty, or even inspired to change. How they feel will depend on on scared I make them and where each boy began his journey from.
Perhaps what always, always strikes me most about this particular lesson is that what scares me changes from year to year. I begin the journey from a different point, a different paradigm, each year, too. What I value this year is my connection to family, loved ones, and the beauty of stories: the beauty of sharing my life with another person. What scares me most as I ask the familiar questions and the unfamiliar questions to new, open faces is that I will fail to push hard enough. I fear not pressing those who learn from me to the breaking point. I question whether I am strong enough to catch the scared student, weak from the process, as he free-falls in confusion like a dancers falling back desperately hoping to be caught by her partner. Fortunately, I am always stronger than I appear. I have to be.
This is my game. This is my show. This is my life’s work. If I am not good at creating the fear, and then offering comfort when it becomes too much, then I am lost and my lessons will no longer be magical. When I lose the power of the shaman, whose story-telling kept his village alive by balancing fear, joy, imagination and wonder, then it will be time to seek a new path. It will then be time for me to relearn what it means to be scared. So be it. Amen.