On the first day of each semester, I am filled with anticipation of the new gift I get to open as I enter the classroom. What will the students be like? What new insights will they share with me that I have never considered? Who will share their stories that I crave to hear? Who will open my heart to incongruences I’ve never recognized? Who will laugh at my jokes?
I try to explain to students that they are offered an incredible gift in each class they take. They get to learn from a scholar who is filled with passion for the discipline. They get to witness teachers at their best doing their beloved life’s work. They get to meet people from all over the world, yet how many take the time to really talk to the shy boy from China or the serious girl from Saudi Arabia or the smiling exchange student from Germany? How many from Chicago ask the rural Indiana kids what it’s really like to grow up on a farm with daily chores of milking cows and weeding gardens? How many farm kids ask Chicagoans about hanging out in alleys and city parks or about the fear of sitting on the front porch in the heat of summer?
Philosopher Simone Weil wrote that the gift of attention is a miracle. Years ago, we studied her work in the freshman seminar course at Valparaiso University, and the conversations with students remain with me. Skeptical pre-cellphone freshmen would view me as an idealist when I would argue that miracles occur in conversation. As evidence, I sight our friends who adopted a child from China as a result of hearing a similar story at a dinner party. To reiterate my point, I argue that my husband and I would never have married if we hadn’t spoken to each other. I also ask what sane person would make a lifelong commitment to another if not for the intervention of a miracle?
Joy is a miracle. The birth of Christ is a miracle, and in it, the world rejoices. Joy is found in connection with others, with God, with nature, with art, with movement, with attention. At church a few weeks ago, the priest asked what gift we will give Christ this Christmas. I thought of the little drummer boy who thought he had nothing to give. That’s how I feel sometimes. How foolish is that? We’re blessed with opportunities to promote goodness just by being, not necessarily by doing. We have loads to give and it occurs in our interactions, our sharing of our talents, our quiet moments, and our attunement to others and the world around us. All of us have the potential to be there for one another.
My gift this upcoming year is to pay attention, to listen, to feel others, and to be wholly present. It is a practice, and it won’t be easy. I have a tendency to live my life looking in the rearview mirror. Any driver knows that you can’t drive that way without crashing. I also tend to live full-speed ahead in planning the next visit to see my children and grandchildren, preparing for the next party, considering the next syllabus or essay, or . . . in the old days, training for the next marathon.
What gift do you offer in 2020?