Personally Speaking/Why Do We Do It?

A few days before the school year began, I heard one of my colleagues remark: “A new semester is just about here. After that, I have a different project to complete or event to plan every single week until Christmas. Do you ever wonder why we do it?” It’s a good question, a telling one. It took root in my mind as the year continued on its way and the campus-wide stress level began to creep higher.

Why do we do it? Why do we choose to teach? Why do we dare to learn? For three reasons, I believe: We do it for ourselves. We do it for each other. And we do it to change the world.

We do it for ourselves, first, frankly.

That’s not always a good reason. If we lecture merely to attract attention, to elicit interest from our students, or to exalt ourselves, then we’re operating from mighty childish motives. If it’s only about us, or having more publications than someone else, then our egos have become bigger than the subjects we teach. When that happens, sooner or later the material will wither and die inside us.

But there are other ways in which we do it for ourselves that can be honest, if not entirely unselfish.

Submerging ourselves in a new subject sets us on a collision course with beauty, truth and meaning. It integrates mind and spirit, and has the potential to make us whole. It cuts across the boundaries of intellect and emotion and restores a degree of internal unity that enhances our mental health. We teach and we learn because it makes us happy when we do. We challenge ourselves because it makes us feel good, and there’s nothing bad about that.

That’s one reason we do it. We do it for ourselves. But that isn’t the only reason we teach and learn. We do it for each other, too.

We do it because “it is not good for the human-creature to be alone,” as the oldest story of all tells us. We do it because there is a hole in the human heart that is permanently “other-shaped.” We do it because we deeply long to be truly known and wanted, and deeply desire to matter and belong to one another. As we seek out the “other” in the great abyss of wisdom that surrounds us, the hole in our heart begins to heal.

When I watch one student help another with a problem, I know that we do it for each other. When I watch a small group come early to class to go over notes from yesterday’s meeting and make sure they understand the material we covered, I know we do it for each other. When I see my faculty colleagues listen louder than they speak, I know we do it for each other. It’s real, and it’s utterly impossible to miss.

With all my heart I believe that we were made for this exchange of teaching and learning. The ancients called it communio, by which they meant a deep, interpenetrating union of hearts and minds and souls. The conductor Robert Shaw put it another way: “There is no communication without community, and no community without communication.”

That’s why we do it. We do it for ourselves, and we do it for each other.

But there’s one more powerful reason we do it. We do it because it can change the world. Anyone who’s breathing and awake knows that we live in a broken world full of broken people. They drive past us on the highways. They stand in front of us at the checkout line. They walk past us in the hallway at work. They sit in our classrooms. They’re all around us. If we dare to be honest about it, we know they stare back at us in the mirror each morning. But that’s really not as bad as it sounds for, as the poet and singer Leonard Cohen reminds us, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

And who is it that creates the light? Who brings it to the cracks to heal the broken spaces?

We do. Every time we share something we have learned with one another, we do.

When we share the stories we’re given as truly as we can, we release energy that can heal the broken spaces. When we use those lessons to interact with the world in front of us with as much love and honesty as we possibly can, we literally can change the world, one act of sharing – of teaching and learning – at a time.

We know this is true. That’s why we do it.

April 17, 2015