Super Saturday: When Eternity Finds Its Way Into Today

In recovery, eternity and the present seemingly merged for me.  It seems like my accident was a lifetime ago but it was a little more than five months ago. When people visit me, I can say “it’s been a lifetime since I’ve seen you” and mean it literally. This post was originally published on November 9, 2011.

I’m deathly afraid of eternities and infinities. My brain likes it much more when I have a finite amount of things left to do.

I used to be a philosophy major. It was a hard time in my life. I think I used to like philosophy. It’s hard to remember that far back, but I think I did, once. I started to second-guess my major at the same point in my life that I began to consider it as a life-long career.

The problem with being a life-long philosopher is that your job is never really done. There are always critics to argue against. There are always new ideas to explore. There are always more books to read, more systems to overthrow, and more logic to do.

That scared the hell out of me. I don’t know if I could have been a philosopher. Maybe I don’t have what it takes. But I do know that I would have been burnt out before I had gotten through grad school. I would have been focused on the following sixty years of my career. I would have been thinking about the next thing always. That’s tiring.

For a while, dropping my philosophy major made my life easier. I don’t plan on making an academic career out of my studies in literature so the endless amount of academic work in the field doesn’t intimidate me. But now I realize that infinity, the future, eternity sneaks up on you. It finds you. And pretty soon, you realize that you are never going to be able to read everything, see everything, meet every person important in your field. Then you have a choice.

You can either let it intimidate you. You can let it ruin you. You can let it stress you out.

Or

You focus on the task at hand. You can approach your present challenge as if it is the last thing you will ever have to accomplish. And you can do it.

Goliath

I recently finished Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. Every chapter is another example of a David and Goliath situation. Gladwell argues that it’s precisely because of David’s disadvantages that he finally has an advantage.

The fact that David is so much smaller than Goliath causes David to reject the rules for one-on-one combat. Goliath’s advantage was actually a disadvantage. Goliath’s size was due to a condition called acromegaly.

Recovering is my Goliath. I blow doctors away with how fast I’m progressing. At some point, the fact that I’ve been through all of this is going to have advantages. I’ve already written a post about some of the things I’ve learned during recovery. Some of them, in the right situation, might be advantageous.

People typically only have one metaphorical encounter with Goliath. I suppose I’m lucky with how early in my life this Goliath happened.

It’s encouraging that David was not defined by his battle with Goliath. He went on to become king, of course.

A Teacher Regenerates

I have written about policy mainly on this blog, but talking about education reform requires a lot of reading outside of the blog and I’m not at that level yet. It also hurts my ability to talk about education reform because the fact that I’m not in the classroom influences my inability to comment on education policies. Being a survivor of a horrific car accident in October of 2013 has got me thinking about using this blog in another way: as a way to document my recovery. My parents are super cool in helping me to think positively. I hear constant congratulations from my parents when they congratulate me on my improved decision-making and other things that show recovery. The visitors I’ve had have taken an instrumental part in my journey. Recently, I made a decision about how happy I am to be alive and re-chasing career/life goals. This inspired congratulations from my parents. It’s incredible how the shift into happiness has affected my social encounters. They are much better. I’m making a lot of other changes. Something that is not a change is my fandom of Dr. Who. I watched a lot of Dr. Who recently, and I made a recent tweet that said I must be in the middle of a Regeneration. And I think I am. My body has changed. I’ve gained a little weight since the accident. I weigh more than I did before the accident. And this blog will surely become something else as I move into recovery.

Thoughts about some things have also changed. Phrases that contain the word “death” or bring thoughts of it are annoyances. They didn’t bother me so much before the accident. I bought an Eminem album recently in a certain mood.  The phrase “Imma kill you” is prevalent in the album and annoyed me. The annoyance stems from how excited I am to be alive.

As people have remembered on Twitter: I made a permanent decision a considerable time back to get the following tattooed to me: “I am the dust of the earth. The world was created for me.” It’s scary how much my life came to fulfill that first sentence and how hard it is for me to stay focused on the second sentence.

I have earned my life back. “The world was created for me” begins to seem more believable. Sometimes, I talk about a future tattoo I might get. But I don’t need another tattoo when I have a scar.

What people don’t know (some may have seen my dad putting a picture on Facebook) is that while in Dodd Hall at Ohio State University Hospital I wrote on a white board beside a piano that I was playing—I was playing the song you think about when you read the lyrics — and my therapists saw the sentence “No mountain high enough.” My recovery and journey back to the classroom has totally taken that theme. Another theme I’m trying to remind myself about is the Detroit motto “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.” I hope for better things in my life.

In Detroit, I’ve learned a lot about education, students, and life. I hope I will be given a place to tell everyone that wants to know these things. This blog is my take of that place. Dr. Joseph Bianco, my thesis advisor at Ohio University sent me a book about a nurse who helped Vietnam veterans with their last minutes of dying, a lot of whom had been survivors of near-death experiences. They were in Hospice, getting ready to die, and the nurse helped them see their personal inner heroes. That’s the kind of attitude I want to bring into the classroom. Teaching is simply helping students discover their personal inner heroes.

Most recently, I’ve been praying for Detroit (and getting the chance to go back there as well as for all the students and teachers who are currently there) and thanking God for saving me and praying for my continued recovery. He told me something in my moment that was amazing. I listened in the time.  For the rest of my life, I’m going to continue to believe in God because I’ve seen Him. My relationship with God before the accident was rocky. I didn’t always believe in Him. I am so thankful He ended up keeping me alive.

The list of things I tell my parents I’m excited for and the list of things God will certainly put in my life since He has given me my life:  being in charge of a classroom again, returning to my job, interacting with friends, being able to drive to their events, and being present at the important times in all of my friends’/family’s lives, and having similar times that I get to invite people to. My brother Tyler who has been crazy fun to interact with in my recovery is thought of here. I’ve been a huge joy to him as he is to me while I’ve been recovering. I went out with him when he practiced kicking. He’s his university’s football team’s kicker. I retrieved footballs for him. He got the biggest grin on his face when I would throw them back to him.

God’s last words to me were “I have to go, but I have a plan for you.” “I have to go” was one of the scariest things to hear in a near-death moment because I thought He wasn’t going to help me and those words have been the source of much of my confusion. It’s why I thought I was dying. It’s why that supposition has returned several times. God seemed out of it, in the moment, but in reality, I was the one out of it. Now, I realize “I have to go” was referring to my survival and that He had given the skills to emergency responders and doctors that would ultimately save my life. But “I have a plan for you” seemed more than a little crazy because I wasn’t ready to think that God’s plan for me was brand new. As I have discussed His words over with many people, they have helped me to realize that God’s plan for me did not have to be different than His first one. My first God plan was definitely to educate, think, and love people I was around. That’s what His current plan seems like, which means the life I’m currently living is not my own — an idea that is hard to swallow; the scar is a good reminder. Other people will gain life from it. It will be a life I devote to service-type things like teaching, loving, and learning. I am frustrated almost daily because I’m not actively meeting all parts of His plan. The support that I’ve received is all about heading back to the classroom.

Today is the welcome of 2014. I count on it being a great year where I manage to make it back to the classroom.

Why Not?

I.
“Why?” she asks.

Her name is Emily. I met her five minutes ago. Her first question was “Do you like to dance or do you love to dance?” That turned into “Do you love to dance or are you in love with dance?” That turned into “If you are in love with dance, would you marry it?”

Now we are talking about my future. I tell her I’m going to be a teacher. And now we are here.

“Why?” she asks.

I mumble something about TFA offering me a placement. She seems content with this. Our conversation continues. When it threatens to die:

“Why?” she asks.

I appreciate what she’s doing. It makes a more interesting conversation than the typical party fare.

II.
In three months, I will graduate from college (Lord willing that I finish my thesis first). I enter the shortest commitment I’ve ever made with my time. Two years teaching. Many of my peers will have shorter commitments than that if at all. It’s weird.

I want to plan the rest of my life right now. I want to lay down a plan. I want to have an end goal and I want to plot the path that will lead me there. I want to figure out exactly who I am. Who is the “real” Spencer? What does he like? What does he do?

III.
In high school, I had a girlfriend, I played golf, and I was a practicing Christian. These things took up most parts of my identity. But I also did stupid stuff. I spent too much time on the computer, too much time watching television, too much time playing video games, too much time thinking life was hard.

When I went to Bible studies, though, we would talk about giving our lives over to God. But we hardly ever talked about television, video games, or the computer. Instead, the leader would turn to me and say “Spencer, what if God made you give up your girlfriend or golf?”

The conversation has evolved since then. No one puts it into quite those terms. We still talk primarily about the same thing, though. When we talk about wisdom, for instance, we correctly note the difference between wisdom and academic knowledge, but then we draw the wrong-headed conclusion that some academic knowledge, because it is not wisdom, is useless.

IV.
I want my life to have meaning. I try to achieve that through faith. If there are bigger ideas tugging at my soul like justice and peace and love, then it is easier to forget about the things that don’t matter. The problem is that, as a human, I must slog through the “thing that don’t matter.” I cannot instantly achieve justice, peace, or love. I must work at these things. I must chip away at the stones in my eyes that keep me from seeing them.

But what I hate about my faith is that it falls prey to the same things that the world falls prey to–namely, prescribed narratives. There are things in the Church that we assign importance to with no real explanation–mission trips, having a family, leading a ministry. We put up with the minutiae of our day-jobs and educations in order to be a part of these things. But these things, in and of themselves are not meaningful. Mission trips can sometimes do more harm than good. Families fail when members think their purpose on this earth is that family. The Westboro Baptist Church is a ministry. We lose justice, peace, and love for the American Dream. Or for the Christian sell-everything-you-have-and-walk-barefoot-around-the-world Dream.

V.
I believe that God has an intimate relationship with me. I believe He is talking to me even when I’m not listening. And it is for this belief, that sometimes, I gain enough courage to trust.

VI.
Emily walks away. I’m glad. She is fun, but the question “why” is beginning to become annoying.

I begin to walk around the party more freely, not afraid to talk to groups of people I only marginally know. When the iPod stops playing, I know that I want to turn on music that I want to listen to. Informed by both my own tastes and those of the people at the party, I turn on Aaron’s Party.

Emily, who has left the room by now, comes back to dance. This time she does not ask why.

The Journey From a Bitter, Disgruntled Eighth-Grader To an Open-Minded Man: What Love’s Got To Do With It

“Also, there is the feminist thing. It started off good, but now girls think everything is sexist, and boys are supposed to be kind to them, because they might be going through a ‘change.’ So, as a guy, I must assume that every time a girl is depressed or gives me a hard time it is because they are going through ‘a change.'”
-From the journal of an eighth-grade me

Spending time in my childhood home always makes me reflect–both on who I was then and who I thought I was going to be now. A constant theme running through my journals through high school is a belief that I was losing integrity–that as I grew older, I also grew more nefarious. Upon having a few of those same thoughts recently and rereading some of those old high school journals, I’ve realized that there probably wasn’t a time of maximum integrity. A continuous looking back to some golden age of Spencer morality probably does more harm than good.

But while some things have remained constant, many other things have changed. I no longer believe, for instance, that feminism “started off good, but now girls think everything is sexist.” It’s even a little bit shocking that I am the same person as the boy who wrote those words. Change is strange.

***

I watched Cory Booker’s 2012 commencement speech to Stanford University today. If you have 45 minutes, I recommend sacrificing watching another episode of your favorite television show and watching this instead. (I watched it instead of watching another episode of The West Wing.)

Booker talks about a “conspiracy of love.”  He argues that true change, true innovation happens when individuals refuse to give up hope, faith, and love. He talks about a man who drove past graffiti on his way to work every morning. Rather than complain about it or grow cynical about it, he left for work a little earlier one morning, bought a can of paint, and painted over it.

I don’t think like that.

I don’t believe in things or causes or even other people. I believe in myself. If something, some cause, or some person does something I strongly disagree with, I leave. I “take my business elsewhere.” But I don’t think that’s how it should be. I think we should change from the inside. I think the world would be a much more interesting place if everyone was forced to join the religion and political party of his or her family. It would force change. Real change. Dynamic change. Meaningful change.

I heard a story today from a woman who was scared to tell her grandmother that she was gay. Her grandmother often railed against Ellen DeGeneres for her sexuality and so the woman thought there was no way her grandmother could ever accept that her own granddaughter was a lesbian. But when the woman told her grandmother she was gay, her grandmother accepted her perfectly and amazingly. Her grandmother even became the first in the family to reprimand family members if and when they told bigoted jokes (Smyka, The Moth).

Obviously, the woman has an amazing grandmother. But I think the reason this story had a happy ending is because there was real love between the grandmother and her granddaughter. What finally broke the grandmother’s bigoted views was not factual argumentation but a loving relationship. Because she loved her granddaughter unconditionally, she had not choice but to accept her granddaughter’s sexuality.

***

I try to remember the exact path that took me from the boy in my eighth-grade journal to the man I am now. I can’t remember the exact twists and turns anymore. But I know this: I was never swayed by an argument telling me I was wrong. In my mind, I had facts, stories, ideas, and people smarter than me to back me up. And I know how to argue. What ultimately changed me were people. People who loved me. Friends who had to have recognized my wrong-mindedness but loved me anyways.

I have convictions–ways I would like to see the world changed. Too often, the way I go about spreading those convictions is through arguing–on Facebook, on Twitter, in real life, or on a blog. But, I think I have to learn how to love that eighth-grade boy first.

In Which Sparks Are Found

1. Judaism has a magnificent term–tikkun olam. It means “repair of the world.” It was humanized in a 16th century myth. In the myth, God sends light to the world in ten vessels. The vessels, too fragile to hold the light, break on their way to Earth. In order to get the light back, God creates humans. Humans, then, are charged with tikkun olam. They must repair the light of the world by finding these holy sparks.

2. There is a movement in psychology known as social constructivism. Its main tenet is that meaning is constructed rather than discovered. Meaning and truth are created through conversation and interaction. My identity is not so much a steadfast reality as much as a group of stories and characteristics that the people around me and I agree upon.

3. I’m beginning to wonder if the very act of language is intrinsically oppressive. The act of naming something sets it apart from other things. My frustration with words is that they are simplistic. When setting something down on paper, I cannot possibly fairly represent things the way they are in my head. Complex networks of ideas intersect in counter-intuitive ways. And I don’t think I am capable of explaining them.

4. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, the oft quoted Bible passage for weddings, reads:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I believe all these things. What this passage fails to mention, however, is that love is the quickest way to get all of these other benefits. Love is patient and kind but it also demands patience and kindness. Impatience and meanness have no room in love. Love forces its opposites out. True love makes us better. It challenges us. One of the ways I know my parents love me is that they hold me accountable when I make a mistake. 

5. When I am safe in my room, I cannot, for the life of me, understand why I would ever do anything I don’t want to do.

I Think I Want to Waste My Senior Year

In 24 hours, my college town will double in size. Every year close to 30,000 people come out for a Halloween block party. 30,000 twenty-somethings take over the main drag of Athens. The city shuts the street down. People wander in and out of the dozen bars on the street and bands are booked for different alleyways. It’s a great time.

Except last year, there were 50 arrests.

The year before that, there were 78 arrests.

I don’t think anyone comes here expecting to get arrested. Probably, the vast majority of these people are good kids in the wrong place.

But, I have an issue. We have created a world in which the end all of “blowing off steam” is participating in a party that is rife with illegal activity.

***

In 24 hours, religious zealots will descend on my liberal college town to stand in the middle of a block party to hold signs reminding people of hell. They will tell the costumed college students that fornication and drunkenness end in death.

I don’t think these zealots are hateful people. I just don’t think they’ve ever interacted honestly with a costumed college student.

And many costumed college students will come to the conclusion that God has nothing to offer them but death and punishment.

And all of this sucks.

***

Fifty miles away, in the heart of rural southeastern Ohio, is a 10th grader working on his homework. He is in a special education program. He loves to read. In fact, he has read the book his class is currently reading four times already. When asked about the book, he gets excited and can talk about it for near half an hour. Most of that half hour is summary, but it’s the most detailed summary you have ever heard.

On Monday, he will go to a school where teachers will applaud him for that rambling summary, believing that to be the precipice of his academic achievement. Meanwhile, the “normal” 10th graders will be asked to analyze symbolism and figurative language in poetry. None of this higher level thinking will ever be asked of our student in the special education classroom even though he obviously has the capacity to connect to a text in a profound way (since he has read a book four times).

***

A costumed college student at the OU Halloween party will be arrested. She will call her parents in the morning. After the initial shock and anger of their daughter being arrested, conversations will happen about why she engaged in the behavior that led to the arrest. She will site stress or peer pressure.

She might go to therapy for a while. When she is finally able to see herself as a “good kid” again, she will leave therapy. She will go back to hanging out with her old group of friends. She won’t get arrested again. But her grades will suffer. No more Bs; Cs and Ds now. She will graduate, won’t be able to find a job, and will move back in with her parents.

She will spend months, years complaining about information overload or “how busy she is.”

***

I am tired of having to hear about the costumed college student while the book-loving 10th grader is struggling.

My generation is wasting our time. We are wasting our time with “inspirational” blog posts and with quotes with cool pictures on Tumblr and with inventing things to complain about. There is plenty to complain about. When drunk drivers kill innocent people, for instance. Or when bullying and “slut”-shaming leads to suicide.

Or when half the country isn’t getting a quality education.

Or when your country uses drones to kill people from other countries.

Or when 20% of women report being sexually assaulted at some point.

But, instead, my privileged middle class peers and I choose to spend our time talking about how Facebook poking is cramping our dating game. Or how corrupt and evil everything is except our three closest friends. Or “blowing off steam.”

I have been told more times than I can count that I need to enjoy my senior year. Why? Why is that so important? I appreciate the sentiment, but with all due respect, I am only here because I had the privilege of growing up in a family that valued education and because I went to a public school that expected I end up here and because I am hardly paying a dime for my schooling.

And what is this enjoyment anyway? Does it really require that I go to a block party that was invented so that my peers could perform illegal activities without consequences? Does it require that I go to a small bar with my close friends and toss back a cold one?

Or can I, like, fix things? Would that be okay? Like, if I took all of that energy I put into trying to figure out how to make myself happy and spent it on figuring out how to save lives? Or would that be a waste of my senior year?