actively crafting the learning you wished you'd had
as i head into the end of my time in an interfaith chaplaincy program, many opportunities have come up, in my own contemplative moments, on thursday nights with my intimate class cohort, and on weekends in larger program-wide events, for reflection on what the whole process has meant--what it's given us, how we've grown, what edges we've pushed and explored, what skills and abilities we have identified or expanded, what vows we've made and how we've shown up for them, and what doors we have just now, here at the end of the process, begun to open.
i shared with the student body group recently that one of my most profound realizations about the program has been the fact that these skills--the skills of reflective presence, supportive space holding, and non-judgmental compassionate presence for humans who need an ear--are so deeply and fundamentally necessary to all of us as humans. true, thoughtful skill at chaplaincy-style listening isn't something that i should be coming to as a learner for the first time in my 40 years alive.
it's something I should have learned in grade school amongst all the "listening skills" activities that tended only to focus on data recall. it's something i should have learned in college, as a support to the transition into "away from home" adulthood and the world of peer supported decision-making. it's something i should have learned in midwifery school, where the focus is always so heavily on "what to suggest" for complaints and how to manage care, rather than how to *also sometimes* just hold people through what they're experiencing and take them deeper into their own self-knowledge and exploration.
what i learned and practiced and stumbled through and got better at in my chaplaincy program was not the work of obscure monastics--it was all just deeply fundamental humaning. my biggest piece of feedback about the program was that *everyone* should be guided through that type of presence work, not just those who want to become chaplains. it's great that a lot of us innately possess some level of skill there, but what we could accomplish if that skill-set was valued and actively taught to us from a young age, with space to practice, space to mess up, space to get feedback, space to do better...
every once-in-a-blue-moon, a meme circulates that says something like: "i'm glad i learned about parallelograms in high school rather than how to do my taxes--that will come in SUPER handy during parallelogram season!" that, to me, encapsulates exactly how i feel about the million things wrong with what we prioritize in education, and how leaving out basic communication and other life skills for the sake of ticking the same old boxes we always have produces students who are packed full of useless trivia (or very important facts they will forget very soon) but who are lacking in both basic skills of compassionate interaction and tools for productive, critical engagement.
we learn to listen to counter, we don't understand one another because we spend our hearing time thinking of how to respond, and then when we do respond, we often interrupt, center ourselves, or fall into patterns of giving unsolicited advice. you do this. i do this. i STILL do this. i catch myself all the time. i'm trying hard to get better at it, and it makes me happy to be able to notice it so that i know what needs changing. baby steps.
and there's so much to be gained by learning to do this well. as michael p. nichols notes in the lost art of listening,
“In the presence of a receptive listener, we're able to clarify what we think and discover what we feel. Thus, in giving an account of our experience to someone who listens, we are better able to listen to ourselves. Our lives are coauthored in dialog" (10).
being listened to, then--really, truly being heard--is essential for figuring out who we are and who we aren't, for identifying where we've been and where we want to go, and for discerning the steps we need to take to "get there" in a spirit of our own personal authenticity.
it's still mind-blowing that we as a culture don't value and teach this.
but i know a damn parallelogram when i see one! (except when my brain glitches and confuses it with a trapezoid or wonders "iiiiiiis that one a rhombus?")
did you google it? ;)
crafting a syllabus for life
in an effort to undo what i'll start calling the "parallelogram season syndrome" in my own life, i've made it a point to jump back into low-pressure, self-directed learning in the form of wisdom finding and wisdom sharing. at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of glib, tone-deaf advice that we should all be "using all of this amazing new free time in our lives" to learn new languages, pick up and become proficient at wild new hobbies, or wipe the slate clean and revamp our whole lives (who needs "new normal" when you can have a completely fresh start??). yeesh. that makes me feel tired and under-accomplished just thinking about it.
that's not the kind of "learning" i mean.
i mean learning that's a gentle door-opening into something you'd like more of in your life. learning that aligns with your values and systems of meaning-making. learning that takes you a bit deeper into something you find important or interesting. learning that gets you low-pressure moseying towards filling some gaps that education and life may have left for you.
when designing a syllabus for a class, the first thing you have to do is take a look at your objectives--the goal or goals that you'd like to accomplish (or simply move incrementally closer towards) over the course of your learning. once you know your objectives, the syllabus evolves as a road map for getting there and also sometimes as a time frame for how long getting there will take. the objectives are the what and the why, and the syllabus is the how and the when.
if you were going to add something into your life that gave you joy, that filled in a gap, that moved you even a tiny bit closer to a feeling of authenticity, that brought you closer into alignment with your own life philosophy, or that nudged your growth edge just a little bit, what would it be? what's one objective you could use as a north star for a little bit of planning and learning?
maybe you want to know how to do more around the house and feel more self-sufficient. you don't have to round up thousands of dollars to take electrical and carpentry classes at the local community college. hop on tiktok and follow @mercurystardust, the trans handy ma'am. effortlessly soak up little bits at a time from a kind, hilarious, and amazing human.
maybe you want to incorporate more communal spiritual practice into your life but have religious trauma in your past and have disconnected with your congregation. one joy of the pandemic is access to services via zoom, and there are hundreds of uu churches ready and willing to hold your spiritual seeking and healing no matter what shape it takes. you don't even have to go anywhere, and no one will think less of you if you only occasionally "attend".
maybe you haven't picked up a fun novel in ages because of the amount of technical or academic reading that you have to do in your field of work or study, and you find your mental/intellectual life lacks joy. here's your reminder that the library is open, and it's ready for you when you're ready for it. grab a book. grab a fun book. grab something you haven't given yourself permission to read in a long time. murder mysteries and trashy beach-read romances are good medicine.
these are just examples and inspiration--only you know what you want and need more of in your life.
my recent objective has been to indulge in wisdom harvesting and sharing through writing. you're reading the results of my latest syllabus. this is it. writing. my contemplative internship through the chaplaincy program has included identifying 7 or 8 books from my dusty, neglected, adhd literary doom piles (do you know about doom piles? is that a thing you do too?), read them, reflect on them, and allow that reflection to turn into a piece of writing. i steep in the wisdom of another person, and i see what kind of tea results. i shoot for one every two weeks, but there are no due dates and no deadlines. if i miss a week, i get absolutely zero grade penalty from myself. hooray for adult learning!
previous super-rich and engaging reads included if women rose rooted, wintering and the age of overwhelm, and this week's read, somewhat lackluster in comparison, was the lost art of listening: how learning to listen can improve relationships. about halfway through the lost art, i realized that i was really just rehashing a lot of what i'd already learned in chaplaincy about how to listen, why it can go wrong and be difficult, and how to develop strategies for doing better in a host of different circumstances. no amazing "aha!" moments were happening directly from the material, but indirectly, the read allowed me to reflect on the fact that such a simple skill is taken deeply for granted and yet so fundamental to everything we are in relation to one another.
this week's entry on my imaginary syllabus didn't accomplish what i'd envisioned at the outset--i didn't read the book and find **amazing new concepts!!** to pass along or tidbits of fresh or unique wisdom to share. what it did though was provide me an opportunity to reflect on the goals and work of my larger project, and it reminded me to invite you, if you're interested, into the work of intentional, continued learning.
over the next three weeks, as you're frantically doing your taxes and cursing all that high school learning time co-opted by pesky parallelograms, i invite you to wonder: where in your heart, mind, or soul is there an empty cup lurking that you could start to fill? what would filling that cup give to you? how would it enrich your life? what's one tiny step you could take towards that goal, and how will you commit to being gentle, compassionate, and non-judgmental to yourself along the way?
for the first time in a long time, my taxes are done early, so i'll have plenty of time to read and to tell you my thoughts on what sherri mitchell weh'na ha'mu kwasset has to teach us in sacred instructions: indigenous wisdom for living spirit-based change. i have a sneaking suspicion that this one might take up two or three syllabus slots. i hope you'll join me to find out.
be well, keep growing, keep going.
abby hall luca
the hearth chaplain
as promised: if herbal medicine-making is something you're interested in low-pressure trying, there's no better place to start than with fire cider! proceeds from the course help support my and my partner's fertility treatment this summer. i appreciate the community love, and wish you happy cidering!