Hope I Can Believe In

Please don’t slam the door. This is not a political message. I wouldn’t do that to you at this stage of things. That would be like throwing snow balls on top of you while buried under an avalanche (of incessant mailings and recorded phone messages).

You’d enjoy visiting either of my Pacific Lutheran University Writing 101 sections titled “The Art of Living” because each has developed a fair amount of trust and they’re pretty darn thoughtful when discussing challenging, consequential, open-ended questions like: Does one need a philosophy of life? Why is it so difficult to maintain a sense of gratitude for what we hold most near and dear? And what’s the relationship between wealth and happiness?

I like teaching writing which makes me an outlier. Most of my colleagues probably don’t because you have to read a lot of papers of uneven quality and there’s no formula for teaching someone to write. Also, it probably wouldn’t be much fun if you lacked self-confidence in your own writing.

I like it because learning to write well is transformative. I would have written “life changing”, but as a writing teacher I have to avoid cliches. Also, Writing 101 faculty get to choose their own themes and 18-19 year olds are at a fascinating stage of life—neither child nor adult, neither dependent nor independent. First years have to make a steady stream of consequential decisions mostly by themselves.

That realization inspired my current course, “The Art of Living”, which is based on a series of weighty questions upon which reasonable people disagree. The course consists of the following subtopics—Philosophies of Life, Gratitude, Education, Vocation and Money, Family and Friendship, Wellness, and Aging and Death.

During one class activity, I shared that I’m the King of Nicknames, which immediately led one student to request one. As is often the case after bragging, I was off my game and resorted to a weak formula, first initial, first syllable of last name. Understandably, KMitch wasn’t overly impressed, but as it turns out, there’s some WRIT 101—11:50a.m. greatness contained in that formula—EBai (pronounced EBay), KBum, EJack, and ALutt (pronounced A Lute, PLU students, for reasons I doubt I’ll ever understand, are referred to as Lutes)

KMitch, EBai, KBum, Ejack, and ALutt have a choice for paper four. They can agree or disagree with Krznaric’s paragraph to ponder highlighted in my last post or describe a personal, week-long experience with voluntary deprivation. From the syllabus:

Irvine advocates voluntary deprivation or periodically forgoing opportunities to experience pleasure because it has a dark side. In his view, we should sometimes live as if bad things have happened and embrace hardships like not having enough money for life’s essentials. That way we harden ourselves against misfortunes that might befall us in the future. That way we extend our comfort zone, reduce anxiety about future possible discomforts, and learn to appreciate what we already have. Absent self- control, we’re unlikely to attain our life goals. Irvine also suggests that forgoing pleasure can itself be pleasant. In preparation for writing this paper, practice voluntary deprivation for a week or longer. Repeatedly forgo some opportunity to experience pleasure (e.g., warm showers, three daily meals, wearing shoes, being connected to the internet). Next, reflect on your experience and explain what you did, why, and what you learned from it. Also explain whether and why you’re more or less convinced of Irvine’s recommendation that people periodically practice voluntary deprivation.

I didn’t know if this class would fly. I wondered if the students would get into the texts, William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life and Richard Krznaric’s The Wonderbox. And would they make time to think and then share openly and honestly with one another? Fortunately, on both accounts, most have, most of the time. I probably benefit from how few weighty questions are posed in standardized test-crazed secondary schools today. And by how few dinner conversations crack the “news, weather, and sports” surface. The students seemingly appreciate the opportunity to think aloud about substantive stuff and to learn what their peers are thinking.

When it comes time to communicating substantive ideas on paper their two greatest challenges are using specific nouns in place of vague ones (the favorite is “things” and variations of it, something, everything, anything) and writing more concisely. My goal is to help them grow vagueness and wordiness antennae.

It’s a privilege to work with young people who give me hope in the future.

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5 thoughts on “Hope I Can Believe In

  1. I love Irvine’s notion of “voluntary deprivation or periodically forgoing opportunities to experience pleasure”. The fact that many of us have to do this voluntarily reflects a lifestyle today that doesn’t know how most of the world really lives under serious deprivations that we take for granted. In fact our culture is taught via the marketing mavens that we need not suffer any deprivations for just so much down and a small monthly payments of …?

    There was the time as I was entering adulthood that “deferred gratification” was expected and that you needed to work long and hard to achieve success and material gain. It was something we all excepted, albeit grudgingly. Today, through easy credit and our parents’ eager willingness to eschew the “pain of wanting”, many kids today expect things too easily that they often haven’t truly earned.

    It never dawns on most us that going without really may benefit us and that constant consumption will eventually destroy us.

    I wish you great success with the class Ron and hope most of your students learn to appreciate that less is indeed more in so many more ways than economically.

    • Thanks Larry. I don’t know if you saw the 60 Minutes segment on Congress last night (you should have watched that instead of the Cowboys game). I’m sure it’s available on the 60M website. Makes me wonder when will there be any kind of bipartisan embracing of “deferred gratification”. Despite Krugman’s anti-austerity arguments, I think we’d all benefit from genuine fiscal conservatism, not the rhetorical kind offered by so many Rs.

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