Thursday, February 12, 2009

"What Teachers Make" (WARNING: Explicit Content)

This is my favorite poem by my favorite poet. The poet is a guy named Taylor Mali and the poem is entitled "What Teachers Make." Before you watch it, I should warn you that there is some mild language, but the truth of the poem is so potent that I had to post it. I find that a lot of people tend to determine how successful/valuable a person is based on their net worth and never consider the question, "What do I contribute to the world?" This poem is a response (an angry response) to that impulse.


Friday, February 6, 2009

Curiosity Kills the Closed-Minded

To quote John (Cougar?) Mellencamp, I was born in a small town. There are a lot of great things about growing up in a community with a relatively small population. For instance, as a kid, I very rarely needed a ride to go somewhere; I could just as easily walk to a friend's house as ask my parents to drive me. Also, I have experienced the benefits that are described in the phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child." I realize now that, as I was growing up, I was watched after and cared for by people all around me. What I'm trying to say is this: there are wonderful things about growing up in a semi-rural community, and I would not change a thing about where I was raised.

However, as I grew older and approached my high school graduation, I felt an ever-increasing ache to get out. It's a pretty common thing for kids in small towns to feel this way, but I've never really been able to articulate what, exactly, I was trying to escape. At least, not until recently, as I read Chuck Klosterman's Fargo Rock City (which I've mentioned a couple of times in blog form). In the book, Klosterman explores his own experiences in a small rural community in North Dakota. As he explores the various facets of his growing up and his eventual move to New York City as a journalist, he writes something that opened my eyes to my own experience:

"What the culture lacked (and still lacks) is an emphasis on ideas--especially ideas that don't serve a practical, tangible purpose. In North Dakota, life is about work. Everything is based on working hard, regardless of what it earns you. If you're spending a lot of time mulling over the state of the universe (or even the state of your own life), you're oviously not working. You probably need to get back to work. And when that work is over, you will either watch network TV or you will get drunk (or both). Even in moments of freedom, you're never dealing with ideas" (38).

He continues to say...

"We are products of our enviornment, even if we like to pretend otherwise. So let's say you are the smartest sixteen-year-old in town; let's assume you're creative and introspective and philosophical. You still have a finite number of social tools to work with. You're only going to apply those espoused intellectual qualities to the redneck paradigm that already exists. You may indeed be having 'deep thoughts,' but they're only deep versions of the same ideas that are available to everyone else."

When I first read this, I felt like I had had some sort of great breakthrough. Speaking as someone who grew up in a small community, I can say, without any reservation, that Klosterman is 100% correct. And, the more that I have discovered about myself, I realize that this was (for the most part) the source of my desire for a quick exodus.

I am insatiably curious. I have a serious problem of wanting to buy every book that I haven't read (this is also the reason that I can't afford new clothes); I subscribe to over 60 different podcasts; I want to see (almost) every movie that comes out; if someone that I know has an interesting experience, I have to hear every detail. I'm currently in graduate school and, while I complain about having to go to class and doing the homework, the truth is that I've grown to actually love the educational process. I love the act of going somewhere that my only responsibility is to learn something new.

I'm not saying anything about my own intellectual prowess or aptitude (I'm actually lacking quite a bit in that department); what I am trying to say is this: I love a new idea, and the greatest levels of frustration that I have experienced in my life have been a result of a stifling of this impulse.

I wonder how many of us have lost our curiosity. I was watching an episode of the televised version of This American Life (which, if you're not aware, is basically a program that consists of miniature documentaries about various people in the U.S. and around the world). This particular program centered around an Iraqi citizen who had moved to the United States for the purpose of going to school. At some point this man had an idea: he would travel the country and set up a booth that hosted a banner that read, "ASK AN IRAQI." The idea was that people could just walk up to the booth and ask this man what his life in Iraq had been like and to get an Iraqi citizen's perspective on the current war. As I watched I was impressed with people's curiosity and open-mindedness. I was also amazed at how closed-minded some people could be. One man actually spent over thirty minutes lecturing the Iraqi about the conditions in Iraq and how great the American presence was for his country. He asked no questions and sought no common understanding; he only wanted to speak his mind and move on. He had no curiosity.

This can be very problematic when it comes to our ideas about God. I would argue that fundamentalism is born out of this same impulse; that when we stop being curious and questions are no longer a part of the conversation, then we get very rigid and closed off very quickly. When we stop being interested in new and unfamiliar ideas, we are at risk of becoming out touch with the God who is, by any estimation, greater than our own understanding. I wonder how many religious people we've encountered who, at the very mention of a new idea, might become very uncomfortable, to say the least. I wonder how often I've been this type of person.

The great Jewish mystic Lawrence Kushner (who has been quoted a few times on this blog) writes this:

“Again and again we trade infinite wonder for a handful of statue; we barter the limitless…for the short-term bird in the hand. And when the deal is done, we have become what we serve: things rather than children of light" (from God Was In This Place, And I, i Did Not Know It)

We have become so uncomfortable with the mysterious that we have actually grown hostile to it. The idea of a new idea actually frightens us. We have made ourselves at home in our small communities of limited ideas and have grown quite leery of anyone who might suggest something new.

Often, we forget how small we've allowed God to become in our own eyes. We have allowed fear to conquer our curiosity, and so much of the wonder and beauty and mystery of God has tragically been left unexplored. And when we stop asking questions, we can no longer grow into the people that God has ultimately made us to be.

May you reclaim your insatiable curiosity.

And may you be empowered to explore and be totally confused by the endless beauty and mystery that created the universe.