The Arts of Liberation

"Recently, I spoke in the philosophy department at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, on the subject: What is Liberal Arts? After all these years, after the many ways experience has worn my tongue, I come to this with a belief in the arts of liberation. For me, underneath all attempts at education is the question: How do we live together in our time on earth? What does it mean to be alive? And what are the deeper skills — the ways of seeing, being, holding, knowing, feeling, and perceiving — that help us through the miraculous and dangerous corridor it is to live a life on earth?

"One of the professors asked with pain and sincerity, 'How do we open the minds and hearts of young people, unsure if they can go where they are opened?' He paused a long time, then said, 'I'm concerned about leading people into places that will undo them.' But this is the crux of it, the wonder of it, the pain of it: To be alive, in every way, is both astonishing and full of peril. It can be abundant and collapsing. And nothing else matters but gathering the resources to make it through these paradoxical and poignant straits. We must be honest about this. Seeking what matters is an adventure that will inevitably undo us. And I believe every discipline — be it dance, botany, math, or psychology — every path of knowing has something to offer to the journey of being alive and being undone.

"Several of us talked further into the night through dinner and a bottle of red wine. At last, we stumbled into the deeper notions of faith — faith that when people are invited more fully into the light, that experience makes resources available that can help us negotiate the dark. So, though the prospect of pure being — of seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary — can take your breath away, it will show you eternity. Though loving everything until your heart feels it might burst at the sight of rain can make you think you will vanish, it will cleanse you of all that is false. Though watching a mother dog lick her stillborn pup will make you cry out in silence, 'I can't take anymore!' — it will steam away all pettiness. Though the passages are not always fun, there is a bedrock of calm that they can return us to.

"I am more concerned with those who don't open enough. As Rilke said in one of his more strident poems, 'I am alone but not alone enough to make every moment holy.' This is the razor's edge between suffering and loving the world.

"Just what, then, is the realm of the responsible teacher? If you squeeze a drop of iodine into a glass of water, it will color the entire glass. So let's not talk about teaching only to the mind. Whatever drops we carefully place will stir through the entire beings before us. And what are we to do with that? How are we to hold them? How near is appropriate? How far away is criminal? True education is messy, never clear, and the lessons shift and the boundaries change.

"So much of what we're called to do for each other is to simply listen and tend; to hold up as a mirror the shape of what the other is thinking, and to echo back with clarity and compassion what the other is saying. The job of the noble teacher or loving friend is to guide someone so thoroughly to their own center that they, in hard-earned innocence, become the teacher."