I love the line from the essay I posted this morning: Watts writes, “[It] is simply impossible to improve either oneself or the world by force.”
It brought me back to a number of years ago when I was faced, suddenly and with no warning, with teaching two classes of remedial reading students.
I was not the remedial reading teacher. The woman who was the remedial reading teacher decided that she wanted to “cleanse” her classes of the “bad actors.” She wanted only the compliant and good-natured poor readers.
So out the “bad actors” went. And, crossing the hall, they came into my classroom.
And there they sat, arms crossed across their chests, desks flattened against the back wall, sulks firmly in place.
It is one thing to have a handful of “bad actors” in a normal class. Their energy can be diffused with associating with the other students. They can be isolated from each other, but still kept engaged. “Bad actors” are, for the most part, very social animals. Very social.
And the ones who aren’t social animals are the ones to be very concerned about.
It is one thing to have a handful of grousing underachievers mixed in with some overachievers, some middle-achievers, and some just-what-is-your-level-of-achievement-anyway?s.
It is a completely different ballgame to face a room crowded with snarling, near-biting, ever-failing minds and bodies.
The Real Remedial Reading Teacher had given me the lesson plan for the classes. When I met with those-in-the-know, it was decided which, if any, of my students would, at the end of the year, manage to pass the eighth grade reading assessment test.
It was a rigorous test.
Normal students cringed at the thought of it.
It was in two parts.
There was grammar.
And there was writing.
Two distinct days of testing.
The small group that met with me to determine the future of my “new” students decided that perhaps one, possibly two students, out of both classes, would come near to passing.
My new students were clearly the refuse of their class.
And so I got the message, really, that I was just their grown-up babysitter, and to keep them as under control as I could.
Sitting still, at least intellectually, just isn’t me.
So I followed the assigned lesson plan for a month. All the while watching every move they made. I charted their sighs, and when they were made.
To their grunts. To their curses. To their growls.
And I learned a few things about them:
(1) They were angry. Every time a word on a piece of paper was put in front of them, it enraged them.
(2) They were stricken with panic. They tried very hard to cover it up, but, really, with the exception of PE and home economics, all other tests required reading to pass.
(3) They had very little ability to hold attention on anything. And, really, I could only see the attention-deficit disorder in one student. All the others just got fed up really easily.
(4) They had no sense of humor while sitting in a classroom.
(5) Their social skills suffered from all of the above.
So I decided to attend to these needs.
I threw out the adopted lesson plan. And I began a radical new plan.
With materials that I mined and even created.
First, every day, for the next eight months, the first thing that they had to do was take a very short test. I began with third-grade skill-assessment tests. They had to go through every one of these assessment tests. When they passed one, they went on to the next.
If they failed one, they were given work sheets on the issue that was covered on that test. They would stick with the issue raised until they passed the test.
Once a month, they had to take a practice entire end-of-the-year test, just to start training them in sitting through the entire test. It didn’t matter how they scored. I just wanted them to experience it.
Second, the bulk of the class was chopped up into short exercises in building up their skills. No worksheet would take more than a couple of minutes to complete. And each worksheet was designed for that particular student.
Third, every day there were games to play. Word games. Vocabulary games. Grammar games. But games nonetheless. Social games. Group contact.
A competition that, for once, in a classroom, they could win at times. Lose at other times. And witness their compatriots trying their best.
Fourth, they were rewarded. Even in a school that disallowed this, I managed to get administrative permission to allow my students to have “Friday parties.” If they got through the week, finished all their assignments, and behaved properly then on Friday they could watch a movie. I usually tried to get something that was actually English-class appropriate, but they didn’t seem to notice.
And I brought them in snacks.
It’s absolutely amazing how responsive a group of pent-up children is to silly food.
If they didn’t make it through their assignments, then Friday was the make-up day.
And if their behavior was inappropriate, to a visiting teacher, or just in general, then all privileges were revoked for a week. They went back to sitting by the seating plan. They were not allowed to leave the room for bathroom or water-fountain breaks.
And there was definitely no Friday party.
If they had accomplished all their work, then instead of kicking back and relaxing, they would be assigned something onerous.
At the end of the year, all but one of my students passed their English assessment exam.
And the one that failed, only did so by three or four points.
As a mystic, in my visions, for most of my adult years I had been told that when I gave away what I had learned in my “first level of learning,” then I would go on to my second level. I always laughed at that.
First, the idea of sharing any of my mysticism with anyone else was horrifically off-putting. And I figured that by that time, if it ever came, I would be so old that to begin a second level of learning wouldn’t be worth the effort.
I am always wrong.
The time did come. I broke my silence.
And I suppose this blog is just a continuation of that process.
In the years that I’ve been officially in my second level of learning, I have realized the difference between the two levels.
The first was solely focused on God. How God worked. Why God worked.
The second level focused on people. And so I began looking at the different realms of healing that I was assigned.
Over this past Advent, having made it through the visions mostly intact, vastly bruised, I came to see that one person I had to study was me.
Barriers that had been there all my life, so part of me that I didn’t realize that they were even NOT a part of me, were smashed. My humanity was spread out on a dissecting table, open to my ever-critical, ever-scanning, ever-solving mind.
I remember once feeling absolutely thrilled when I found the passage in scripture about having my heart of stone replaced with a heart of flesh.
Well, I can honestly tell you that finding one’s heart of flesh in the ruins of one’s heart of stone is a painful experience.
And so I have been looking at the two “realms” of Julia: the divine one, the one that sits at the feet of The Father; and the human one, the one that trips over every log of life.
I wondered what the real difference was between the two realms.
And the term, ferocious, came to mind. With God, we can be ferocious. We can lift up our swords of righteousness, and we can hack away at our spiritual ignorance. We can be fierce in protecting our souls. We can build firm barriers between ourselves and the world.
It’s what monasteries and convents are for after all.
It’s why we can find respite sitting in a church, gazing at the altar.
In God, our fierceness is safe. And protected.
But in the world, really, we need to be gentle. With ourselves. With others. With our environment. With our own lives.
There is no safety here, no protection.
And so in life, as opposed to in vision, our fierceness becomes something else.
I started to think about Jesus, the man who perfectly shows us what it is to be divine in the world. And I realized that there has always been something I have wanted to say about Jesus, but couldn’t find the words for.
It was about his ferociousness. His open condemnation of the Pharisees. His rage at the money changers at the temple. His strength in his ministry.
His standing silent as the crowds condemned him.
I absolutely love that one definition of fierce is: extremely vexatious, disappointing, or intense.
And for the first time, this definition enabled me to admit what I’ve always loved most about Jesus: the fact that he was a disappointment.
He disappointed the people in his town. He disappointed the leaders of his church. He disappointed the powers-that-were.
And so he died. Because he was a disappointment.
He was, to follow the definition of fierce, also very vexatious and intense. That’s very easy to see.
But he was, in the end, a disappointment.
So there it was, in all his gentleness, in all his kindness, in all his mercy: ferocity. A wild ability to look beyond what was in front of him, what was expected of him from the people around him.
It is this quality that has inspired so many throughout the ages to follow him.
People keep trying to wash that quality out of him. His essential quality. His ferocity.
In Jesus there is no anger, they say. No division.
And, yet, in truth, Jesus taught division. He separated sheep from goats. He separated children from their parents. He separated the spiritually lax from his followers.
Yes, he did it with a gentle hand.
He is a unique spiritual teacher because he does just that, brings ferocity into gentleness.
In truth, Jesus stood up to the expectations of the whole world.
And, in its eyes, he failed.
It’s my favorite thing about him.
The illusion. The living illusion.
The illusion that conformity and being agreeable is what is important.
Here, he says, to them, take me. Kill me. I am not what you want.
And why wasn’t he? Why does he continue to this day to not be?
It is, in truth, because he is ferocious.
He was extremely vexatious. He was extremely intense. And he was extremely disappointing.
Thanks be to God.