Subject: Over 70: lessons learned
From: Wolf Kirchmeir
Date: 28/10/2011 11:05 AM
Hello, David Brooks,
I won't bore you with all the platitudes, which are true: you do learn that aggression doesn't pay, that love matters most, that family and friends are what make life worth living, and so on.
One thing I've learned looking back is that many times what I thought was important at the time turned out to be unimportant; and what I thought was merely another hum-drum choice turned out to be life-changing. Often, you can't even pin-point the choice: it was just another more or less reasonable response to the situation you faced.
For example, choosing a car seems shatteringly important at the time: it has to be the right make, the right model, and not too much of a second choice compared to what you really, really wanted but couldn't afford. But in the end, it's just a box that takes you from here to there.
Our decision to move from Alberta to Ontario to take a one-year contract at a university didn't seem very serious at the time. We could always do something else in a year or two. I needed a job, and this was the one that came up. When it was done, I could have gone to post-grad school for a Ph. D., but I took a job as a highschool teacher, because I was tired of being a poor student, our children were growing up, and I knew I could teach. I planned to teach for three or four years, saving my pennies, and then pursue that Ph. D. But teaching high school English became my career. Despite its many frustrations, it was very satisfying.
Most satisfying was meeting former students, often years later, and finding out what a good life they had made for themselves. Some of them told me of something I'd said in class that changed their life, because it made them see things from a different angle, or confirmed something they knew about themselves. I was always surprised at what they remembered: Often, I couldn't recall it at all. It was just a throwaway line uttered as part of a larger, oh-so-important point I was making about Life, Literature, and the Universe.
Once at the mall in the nearby city, I met a youngish man who'd been in my class some 20 years earlier. My former student had a good job at the mill, was married, and happy with his life. He was carrying a paperback book. I remembered him as surly at having to read all that junk he didn't like, at having to read at all. But he had become an avid reader of history and historical fiction. "You said that when we would find out what we liked, we would start reading," he said. Did I? I probably did. It's a teacherly thing to say. I couldn't recall. But I think for this man this remark confirmed something about himself, his love of the past.
Some years ago, our priest asked if I would become a lay reader, as he had two points, and wanted someone to read Morning Prayer while he presided at the Eucharist at the other parish. I agreed, he said I should preach a sermon, too. OK, why not?
And so I embarked on a journey that has led me from a fairly conventional mix of Lutheran and Anglican belief to the insight that God, however you imagine him/her/it, dwells within us. All religions teach this. How you express this insight doesn't matter. What matters is that it has meaning for you. We become more fully human to the extent that we recognise the Spirit in ourselves and in each other. And because we are all, as the phrase goes, vessels of the Holy Spirit, it is utterly evil to do any kind of violence to another human being.
Blind River, Ontario