Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Lessons from Weil

Today for our class entitled Spiritual Formation and the Life of Study we were to have read Simone Weil’s Waiting for God. I had read it last spring in French and found that there were many wonderful ideas inside despite Weil’s tendency toward melodrama. I was excited to read it again and discuss it in class today. I was particularly eager to talk about her idea of developing attention through school studies, and how that attention relates to the activity of prayer.

Stephanie Paulsell gave some background on Simone Weil and then the class launched into a discussion of her mental state and their reactions to her seeming obsession with suffering, spending a lot of time analyzing her and discussing whether or not she was deeply troubled and whether or not that should influence our reading of her work. “Can we trust her?” Stephanie asked.

I grew angrier and angrier during our class—realizing that the aim of our studies (I’m seeing this more and more clearly all the time) is more to talk about the author, to analyze her life, to discern what kind of person she was and what was going on in her head, than to wrestle with the essential questions she raises in her work.

Stephanie made a comment at the beginning of class about how this book-a-week system is constraining. “Well, if it’s Tuesday, it must be Simone Weil.” I was thinking…”aren’t you the one in charge of the syllabus? Why are YOU complaining about a book-a-week?” Just more evidence of the “form” everyone is following—even the professor feeling ?obligated? to follow a certain structure despite realizing that it’s counter-productive.

That’s it for Simone Weil; One two-hour session about her mental state and whether we should trust her. God, there was so much to talk about! We’re missing so much—the real point of education, in my opinion! What we’re doing is reading four books a week impossibly. How would I ever develop the kind of attention Simone Weil talks about in her essay in the kind of environment I’m expected to learn in? Why can’t we talk about THAT? I feel like a flat stone skipping across the surface of everything, never plunging deeply into the wonderful essence of the books we’re reading. What is the purpose in that? What am I meant to gain, learn by doing things this way? We miss the essential questions that these texts can offer us.

I feel a distinct need to INGEST the ideas I’m most drawn to—to take them into myself, to mingle them with my own experience, to balance them against my own thoughts, to let them rest and fuse and synthesize down in there, to simmer and stew until they are alchemically transformed-- fused with something authentic to me, until it can be brought back out in new form, rebirthed, the synthesis of the idea and my own soul in new articulation. This is the process by which I can make my contribution to the world. What we’re doing in the Harvard classroom doesn’t look anything like this process. What are we being taught? To accept a very constraining syllabus, class discussion, way of speaking, thinking, analyzing. We’re not nurturing the unique contribution of each individual’s potential in our here and now. We are creating automatons insecure in their own thought—concerned that it might not measure up to the accepted parlance or PC philosophy of the day. What kind of factory are we running here? I want nothing less than to come away from here thinking and talking like everyone else. I want to scream at everyone to wake up!

Yet I think we’re all hungry for what it is I’m talking about. We just can’t put our finger on it. We’ve taken ourselves out of the equation. We’ve agreed somewhere along the way that we’re just here to learn about everything and everyone else and to work to be the best example of the model that’s put before us. We need to be perfect cookies from the cookie cutter. We just need to make ourselves into round pegs that will fit the round hole. I can’t accept this. I’m screaming inside for more. It’s right there in front of us. The engaging questions are in those pages we’re skimming over. I need the time to take them in deeply. I need the time for them to mingle and be transformed. I need help bringing them back to the surface and speaking them into the world. I need support in making my unique contribution to the world. We are being duped into believing that mimicry is the highest achievement, that conformity to the academic, scholarly norm should be our collective goal. Our friend Emerson warned us of this dangerous temptation…the easy road to mediocrity. Why do we want to be like everybody else? Why do people appreciate sameness and fear difference? We all have incredible potential to articulate those unique fusions of past ideas with active spirit-in-the-world. Why do we settle for dehumanizing models? Why do we willingly remove ourselves from our own education? What do we expect to learn, to become, by valuing all else above ourselves as current manifestations of life on earth?

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