The joy of walking in the mountains

One of my abiding memories of childhood was walking. Living the way we did in suburban Zimbabwe walking was not a part of our daily routine. Rather it was a pleasurable leisure activity. Occasionally there would be walks around the Hillside dams (conveniently at the bottom of the road). Most weekends we would walk in the Matopos. An area filled with ‘whaleback’ granite kopjies. But my memories mostly come from holidays in various parts of the country. Walking in Nyanga with its pine forests and trout filled dams. And walking in Hwange with the promise of close encounters with game. Of course, now when I reminisce with my siblings we inevitably recall my dad’s ‘short cuts’.

I don’t remember enjoying walking much as a child, so it puzzles me slightly that I find so deeply fundamentally restorative now. A good five or six hour hike in the mountains is worth about three days of pottering around at home.

There is something about the gentle rhythm. The pace is markedly slower than the pace I usually walk. It has a semi-meditative quality.

There is something about seeing new vistas. As you climb up onto a ridge and see a new world open up before you, there is hope for new possibilities.

There is something about the quality of the companionship. I have yet to find a person who walks regularly on the mountains who I find difficult to be with on the mountains.

There is something about the physical fatigue. As someone who is paid for my brain, doing something which is entirely physical is quite delicious.

But still, the sum is greater than the parts. At the end of such a day I feel mentally, emotionally and spiritually revived.

I am truly grateful to be living in a part of world where mountains are so accessible.

With gratitude to my mentors

I attended a talk some weeks ago by a retired philosopher, Augustine Shutte. As he developed his argument, he presented an idea of a particular quality of relationship which he termed the guru and novice. The essence of the relationship he was describing was one of an elder whose care for the younger allowed the younger person to become more fully themselves. This was not a relationship of indoctrination, or even necessarily, of apprenticeship in a particular way of life. Rather, the kind of relationship where an elder held the space for the younger one so that she could truly find herself.

The idea has stuck with me, not least because I am mentally preparing to teach on another course on the introduction to spiritual direction. The idea of this quality of relationship certainly resonates when I consider the people who have so generously served as my spiritual directors through my adult life. My spiritual directors have taught me a great deal, and have helped me to grow into myself. I know I would not be the person I am today if without these monthly conversations over the last 15 years.

But I have also been blessed by a number of elders. Some have been friends – some much older than I am. Some have been academic mentors. With most I have shared a common faith, but certainly not with all.

Perhaps most importantly, all have been people who are themselves growing and all have been willing to learn from me. The list is not particularly long – two hands provide fingers enough to count them off – but each one has been pivotal. Some have been part of my life for longer periods than others. Nonetheless, each has left an indelible trace on my being, and to each I am profoundly indebted.

I have had many mentors over the years, but not all fall into this particular category. The people I write of here are those who were willing to share their knowledge and way of being with me, without requiring that I necessarily will follow. They were not trying to induct me into a way of being, so much as they were opening the possibility to me. They have all been able to hold and appreciate the entirety of my experience – from the chemist to the spiritual director.

There is a tremendous gift in a relationship which clearly has a mentoring dynamic but which does not require a particular outcome or goal. It is almost as though they were willing to tend a flower bed, not knowing at all what would emerge. Perhaps the gift to me has been that they believed that there was something worthwhile in me; something worth tending to. Certainly, with one friend in particular who is well respected in her own right, the thought that she was willing learn from me gave me confidence in my own giftedness over time.

There is no way I can repay such a gift. All I can do is express my gratitude and endeavour to pass it on when occasion permits.

Wait for the clouds to clear

I love my job. The combination of teaching and research is both enjoyable and stimulating. I work in a young vibrant department in which we have a good balance between wisdom and a willingness for change to happen. In organic chemistry we work well together as a team, and I am blessed with generous and able colleagues. My research is slowly gaining traction. Most importantly, I really do believe that I am in the place most suited to my particular giftedness.

And yet, for the last few months I have struggled. I have felt tired and frustrated. I haven’t quite been able to isolate the source of my malaise, but as most of the niggles have been associated with my job, I have found myself wondering about that. Maybe the job isn’t such a good fit after all. This is not to say that I was seriously thinking about quitting and trying something else, but rather I engaged in a nebulous grappling with the idea that my perfect job was maybe not so perfect after all. Occasionally I would find myself thinking, if not this, then what?

And then, earlier this week I realised that the problem lay not with my job, it lay with me. The job isn’t perfect, but then I don’t think any environment is. My issue over the last few months is that I haven’t enjoyed the way in which I have engaged with the various tasks that I need to attend to. I have been a little off the boil, and feeling less than enthusiastic about my capacity to engage has left me feeling disappointed and frustrated. What I failed to notice was that my general disease was actually about myself in the environment. I presumed it was a function of the environment itself.

In the last week through two very different sources, I have been able to get in touch with my passion again. And that in itself, has been sufficient to energise me just a little. As I have attended to the ideas which were brought back into the light through those encounters, I have found yet more energy. I remember now why I love my job.

It was a shock to me to recognise that I was quite willing to blame my job for my sense of discontent, when the real source of discontent was myself. It makes me wonder how often I do that – how often I blame something in my immediate environment when really it is my internal process. It makes me wonder how often people do that: Changing jobs or relationships when the real issue is internal.

It reminds me of the wisdom of Ignatius – don’t try and make major decisions when you are in desolation! The time in the well of frustration is not the right moment to begin thinking about making a life shaping choice. Wait for the clouds to clear, find the even keel and then, if appropriate, make a change.

Teaching with technology – only as good as the user

Teaching with technology is like exercising with a heart rate monitor.

A heart rate monitor is a very useful bit of high tech kit. If you are training in cardiovascular exercise it can be great, but only if you know how to use it. (And by use it I mean more than simply strap on the chest strap and press the appropriate button on the watch). Simply wearing a heart rate monitor doesn’t improve the efficacy of your exercise program. You have to watch the feedback and plan your sessions. A heart rate monitor is also not a useful tool if you are into yoga or weight training. And finally, just because you own a heart rate monitor and occasionally use it doesn’t make you physically fit – you actually have to lever yourself off the couch and get moving.

So too, with teaching, just because you use technology in your teaching doesn’t mean that your students are learning any better. If the correct tool is used effectively, it can help learning, but it doesn’t do the job for you or your students! There is also no magic bullet, a one size fits all tech solution which can be applied to all courses (or even all science courses). It really depends on what the challenges are and how they can be addressed.

At the end of day learning is still hard work, there is no short cut. Just as physical fitness requires effort. Using technology may make you feel ‘with it’, and it fits in with your style of teaching it is probably a good thing, as congruency between your personality and teaching style improves the experience for everyone. But be careful not to equate the feel good factor and actual learning.


Dealing with conflict

My instinctual response when faced with conflict is to withdraw into myself, pull up the drawbridge and to simmer gently in the juices of my own self-righteousness. This response is partly the natural response of an introvert, but it is perhaps exacerbated by childhood experiences and the fact that I live on my own. The problem though is that it is entirely self-referential. My perspective, which includes my thoughts, feelings and experiences, is not open to scrutiny.

The obvious solution to this is to find a willing ear. But I have discovered that I need to be extremely careful about who I talk to. The temptation is to find someone who will take my side: Reassure me of the justification of my anger and the unreasonableness of the other. But this simply adds fuel to fire and does not actually cut through the opacity of my own perspective to something which may be more representative of the truth.

In the Spiritual Exercises in his rules of discernment of spirits, Ignatius writes of the importance of bringing things into the light. The enemy of our human nature thrives on secrecy, and so often simply the process of verbalising a thought which has been compelling diminishes its power. So taking my situation of conflict into conversation with another can be useful.

I have discovered several important factors. Firstly, I am most aided by those who I know care deeply for me, but who are willing to challenge my point of view, or, at the very least, to offer some thoughts on the possible perspective of the person with whom I am in conflict. Secondly, the person to whom I am talking ideally would not have any contact with the person with whom I am in conflict, or must have sufficient depth character to be able to separate my conflict from their own relationship with the person. Thirdly, I must be able to trust that the person to whom I am talking will keep the conversation confidential.

At the heart of these factors is the recognition that when such conflictual situations arise, I am not at my best. My capacity to see the other’s actions or words with generosity vanishes and inevitably the way I present my side of the story will be warped. I therefore need to limit the possibility for the spread of damage by choosing those who can actually help me discern. Those who can allow me to vent, and then help me to see the nuggets of truth in the distorted mess.

On setting goals

Many years ago, when I was still an undergraduate student, one of my parents’ friends commented that we tend to overestimate what we can achieve in one year and underestimate what we can achieve in ten years. Whilst I have long since forgotten the context of the conversation, I can still hear his voice in my head. It is such an important thought.

If we are not aware of this tendency, we can easily become despondent at the pace of our progress. Things tend to take longer than we think they should. And, for the most part, we find it difficult to take a long term view either in our reflections or our planning.

In reflecting on our progress over a relatively short period, like a year, we notice that we didn’t quite achieve our goals. Perhaps we make allowances because unforeseen diversions did occur which slowed our pace. But in planning for the next year, we somehow forget to factor in the possibility of diversions. For me, this pattern is most evident around New Year. The text for reflection over the past year goes something like ‘It hasn’t been a bad year, considering…’ or ‘I managed to achieve a fair bit, even though…’ And yet, somehow when I look into the bright shiny New Year ahead, I presume that this year will be different, I won’t have the difficulties of the year just past. This year will be better. And inevitably challenges arise which throw me off course a little.

But when I think of what I have done and what I learnt over the last decade I find little need to prevaricate in this way. And as I pause to recall some of the things that I was disappointed that I had failed to make manifest in my annual reflections six or seven years ago, are now beginning to blossom. On reflection I realize that for some, it was a matter of timing, but for others, although the idea was good, I wasn’t yet ready then. There was stuff I needed to learn before I could put it out there.

Having said all of this, the truth is that I am terrible procrastinator, and if I am not careful ‘it’s just not quite the right time’ becomes perpetual! So I also hold the idea that ‘a small daily task, if it be realy daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules’ (Antony Trollope).

The tension held by these two ideas, to understand my incapacity to be realistic about what I can achieve in a given time and to commit to taking small frequent steps towards the goal, provides the impetus I need to keep on going.

Not all people who live at the same time are contemporaries

Not all people who live at the same time are contemporaries

I came across this statement in a discussion on Karl Rahner’s theology in The Quest for the Living God by Elizabeth Johnson. It stopped me in my tracks. I don’t know enough of Rahner’s writing to offer any comment on what he intended by that statement, rather what follows is what I make of it.

I find this such a powerful idea. I am frequently baffled by the opinions that others hold. A current example would be the upset in the ultra-traditionalists blogosphere over the Pope Francis washing the feet of two young women on Maundy Thursday. The temptation for me is to divert myself into writing about my frustration at this response. But the idea that not all people who live at the same time are contemporaries gives me a way to defuse my own reaction.

Somehow this simple statement allows me to accept the fact that others will think quite differently to me. I must be true to myself and to the understanding that I have, but my task is not to convince others of that. I must be prepared to hold my opinions up for examination, and in so-doing allow for the possibility that I need to rethink and reconsider, but this is all that is required of me. The rest is in God’s hands. I need to let God be God.

Rahner is insistent on the mystery of God. Perhaps this phenomenon of the differences of thought and opinion is part of the way in which God reveals Godself. None of us hold a sufficiently large fragment to speak with certainty of the whole, but each of us holds enough of the nature of God, to be led further into it.

My task then, is to sit lightly to the detail – in Ignatian terms to use what leads deeper into the mystery and set aside that which prevents further exploration – but to hold firmly to the journey. To trust that in so-doing I will be led by God. If I can trust God’s hand in my own wanderings, perhaps I can trust that others will be led along very different paths but to the same end – even though we may never agree on the detail of description of the scenery along the way.