It’s customary at this time of year for us to wish one another “Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men,” but though we say it every year, I look around and see little changed by it. It’s as if we think that simply wishing for peace is enough… Or perhaps, as I once did, we see peace work as something that we do part time, as a job or a hobby in which we fill out petitions or practice civil disobedience, and then go home. We have not learned that peace must become a part of everything we do, as integral to our selves as our own skin, breath, and bones.
Learning this lesson has been at the heart of my spiritual journey, and of my efforts to bring my spiritual life into all parts of my day.
I have been a Pagan for most of my adult life; when I became pregnant with my now-grown daughter, that embodied experience awoke in me a reverence for the embodied presence of spirit in all things. Both my body and the Universe suddenly seemed alive and full of soul to me, and I reached out to Wicca and other forms of Paganism in order to experience that more fully.
In doing so, I learned to listen inwardly for my own intuition, and for the voices of gods and spirits in the world. It was because of that inward listening, then, that on September 11, 2001, reeling from the news of the destruction of the World Trade Center, I not so much suddenly felt a deep spiritual Presence, that picked me up from my then-position of liberal realpoliticks and simply set me down in a peace testimony.
I became a member of my Quaker meeting two years later… but I date my identity as a Friend from that moment when I felt in my body the impossibility of managing human conflicts through warfare and violence. Though I retain my Pagan theology and practice, finding ways to live out the traditional Quaker peace testimony has been my journey ever since–and it has been a journey that has surprised me over and over again.
I thought at first that living my life dedicated to the Spirit of Peace would involve a lot of marching in protest rallies; I didn’t understand how much transformation of my self would be involved. In the end, though, the ways that the peace testimony has reshaped me have been much more about how I walk through life than about walking through life with a picket sign in my hand.
What I have been learning is that peace, if we practice it faithfully, is a kind of “every minute Zen”–it informs every part of our existence, waking and sleeping.
For example, I make my living as a high school teacher in a public school. Now, every teacher has a few classes from that challenge their patience, but a few years ago, I had a run of several really, really tough classes, kids who were not just uninterested in academics, but whose lives outside of school included jail, violence, and in one case, a commitment to white supremacism.
I’d had difficult years in the classroom before, but when I received my class rosters that year, I knew it was going to be more challenging than anything I’d done before.
Before that year, I’d thought of teaching as a job. I tried to be professional and ethical about it, don’t get me wrong… but I also thought of it as something separate from my “real life”: my family, my friends, and my spiritual practice. When things got hard in the classroom, I used to try to smother my anger, thinking of my life outside the classroom: my garden, my kitchen, or the peaceful silence of my Quaker meeting. It had never really worked well, but it was what I knew to do. Sometimes, I would manage to distance myself from the provocations around me in the classroom. Sometimes, failing that, My temper would snap, and I would bark out orders, slam my classroom door, and issue ultimatums to my students–ultimatums that rarely improved their work, but which I saw as “setting limits.”
The summer before the Awful Year, I looked at the class lists for the students I would be teaching, and I knew that none of the strategies I’d used before were going to be enough. As I thought about it, it came to seem to me that in my work life, the part of my life I’d allowed to think of as outside my “real life” of spiritual practice and the Peace Testimony, I’d relied an awful lot on anger and intimidation to get my way.
Maybe it’s because I love dogs. Maybe it’s because I teach English, and I love a good metaphor… or maybe it’s because I have my own quirky take on the notion of a “power animal.” But for some reason, it occurred to me to think about my presence in the classroom as if I were a breed of dog. What sort of animal was I being with my kids?
It seemed to me, as I thought about it, that I’d been approaching making my classroom a safe place the way a Rottweiler might–trying to force peace and goodwill into my classes through sheer strength and occasional bursts of outright intimidation. It almost didn’t matter that my intentions were good; what my students were seeing was completely consistent with every abusive authority figure they’d ever known, however pretty my words and philosophies might be.
I don’t mean to disrespect Rottweilers; I love large dogs, and I love and enjoy strength for strength’s sake. But while my “inner Rottweiler” came to me naturally enough, she was clearly the wrong dog for the job. What, I wondered, would the right dog look like? If I were living my peace testimony in my whole life, faithfully, and 24/7, what would that look like? If I imagined the ideal set of teaching skills for the students I had (rather than the ones I wished I had) what personality traits would I need?
Stubbornness, yes. That was a given. No change on my part was going to make the upcoming year’s students into little angels, and it was unlikely we’d have any teacher-movie breakthrough moments that would make all things easy for any of us.
Humor. Oh, damn, yes. Don’t forget the humor–because if the teacher isn’t having fun, the students aren’t having fun. And while they’re used to it, misery won’t help them learn.
Courage. This was not going to be an easy job. And I’d need to come back to it fresh every day, no matter how challenging the day before had been. It’s not much fun to be the rule-minder in a class of kids who are consistently angry, nor to take the risks that go with being present and real and invested in difficult people. I would need plenty of courage. And warmth… and kindness… and incredible mental agility, to be able to stay one step ahead of ever-threatening chaos.
As I thought about it, I realized that, while it had never been a part of how I’d seen myself, in order to succeed that year, I was going to have to dig deep… and find my inner Corgi. Because, seriously–have you ever seen those little guys move? They can herd anything: sheep, yeah, but a herd of cattle, an angry bull… they have no issues with that work, either. Some big, angry animal aims a hoof at their head, the Corgi just gets out of the way of the hoof, perks its little ears up and charges right back in, nipping away at the creature’s massive heels, turning it by slow degrees to go exactly where the herd needs to go.
Corgis are awesome. Stubborn, funny, joyful–and with their minds totally on business. They may be peaceful, but they’re sure as hell not passive.
Corgis. I decided to take for my model the small, fearless herding dog with the bottomless sense of humor. I was going to teach with joyful persistence, and see how that worked for me.
Now, I’d like to tell you that coming to that realization completely turned the tide for me as a teacher, but I did warn you: real life education is not much like a teacher movie. There were no moments where my students climbed up on their desks for me, no swelling music as they handed in first-ever award-winning essays. But we held on together, my class and I, and we made our way to June. Some of those students would remember me fondly, and others wouldn’t. But one girl wrote a Walt-Whitman inspired poem in which she praised “the teacher, stubborn and sweet.” I did help two students produce really moving (though somewhat painful and sad) short memoirs. There were successes along with the challenges.
There always are. But that year, I wore them with greater grace. In the language of Quakers, “we had many Openings.”
Most of all, what I learned that year was not so much to bring my work home with me, for all good teachers do that. Rather, I learned to bring my spiritual life to work. I learned to teach with my roots deep in my peace testimony, and it made me a better teacher that year, and with every year since.
But best of all, learning to teach from my inner Corgi has deepened my spiritual practice, and my understanding of what it means to live “in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.” I am learning to be the change I want to see in the world; I am learning to teach with my heart low, and open.
Maybe you are a teacher. Or you may be a community organizer, a waitress, a computer programmer, or a chef. It doesn’t matter: Some of the time, Peace requires us to sign petitions, protest, carry signs, and practice civil disobedience. But I have come to realize that all of the time, Peace requires us to live consistently with the values that nurture that peace. Our spiritual lives are embodied, not just in our senses, but in our every action, whether we call our acts spiritual or not… and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can begin to release our inner Corgis.
There is a whole world to love–and to move toward justice. We do need to stay ahead of the hooves… but it’s actually OK for us to enjoy doing it.