Tag Archives: Life

Commencement: A Beginning

This year, I had the greatest honour I have ever had.

Our class of 2021 voted for me as their graduation speaker which, as one of my colleagues put it, is about as good as it gets for a teacher. Students were on campus for graduation and families attended from home via livestream.

These were my words to our students, and to students everywhere:

It is a true honour to speak to you today, and I thank you from all of my heart. The best way to describe my feelings upon hearing about this is the Yiddish word verklempt, which roughly means full of emotion and speechless. I felt this way because I was deeply touched and I had no idea what to say. Just because I think a lot of things doesn’t mean I know a lot things. But I have lived a lot and this has led me to some understandings. In the next few minutes, I will do my best to share them with you.

Over the past two years, I have watched this class grow in many ways, the most significant of which, the one that I think best defines this class, is how you have grown in your resilience. To be resilient means to bounce back, to respond to adversity, to rise up stronger and wiser than you were before. You did this, and continue to do this, in rather complicated circumstances while managing your studies, maintaining hobbies and activities, and making plans for the future. You rose to this challenge. And now, you are here. This is resilience.

The ability to be resilient, to see challenges as opportunities to grow, is something to carry with you always, regardless of what happens next week, next month, or five years from now. And as we all continue to learn, we cannot rely on well-laid plans, but plans are required if we hope to move forward. Resilience is the story of the class of 2021; what will be the story of your individual life?

A few years ago I discovered rock climbing, and it has become a significant part of my world. My favourite of the climbing gym’s motivational posters says: Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow. Only you have the power to live your life. All actions have consequences, and your decisions will set you on different roads that allow for different possibilities. I have learned that these decisions affirm who we are, and also lay the foundation for who we will become. And even though you might wish otherwise, you will never know where the other road might have taken you, and you will never know who you might have been had you taken it.

So this is a critical question: What kind of person do you want to be as you begin your next chapter? Educator John Holt wrote, “The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.” Your character guides how you respond to your environment and those around you, and it is your character that exemplifies the values that are central to how you understand yourself and others. When we are confident and comfortable, surrounded by family and friends, we know who we are. Here, at Southeast Asian International School*, you know who you are. You know who is there for you, what is expected of you, and how to behave.

But things are about to change. Graduation marks the end of this chapter and the beginning of a new journey. You will have beautiful, remarkable, memorable moments. But there will also be times when you stumble. When you fail. When you are caught unawares, uncertain, or having made a terrible mistake. But you have proven yourself to be resilient, and this means that you will stand up and you will begin again. And if you are courageous enough, you will find yourself with choices.

Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow. Sometimes, the way forward is obvious and you clearly know what is the right thing to do. But sometimes, actually doing the right thing is very hard. This is when you need to ask yourself about the person you are becoming and what matters to you. You can decide how to act, who to be around, and how to build the community you want to live in. And you can change your mind when the road you are on is not right.

To send you on your journey, I would like to offer my deepest hope for you: That you find a path with a heart. This idea comes from The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, which is somewhere between anthropology and memoir. Don Juan explains that a path with a heart can go anywhere or nowhere – how it goes is what matters. As I understand it, when a path has a heart, it is right. It is the deep conviction that we experience without the need for words. This is the path that gives us joy, strength, and a sense of peace.

And finding this path takes work, perhaps trying multiple paths before reaching the right one. You will know that you are on your path when it speaks to who you are, how you understand the world and your place in it. Sometimes, you can keep going with what you have already begun. But sometimes, the scariest and most important thing to do is stop and start again. The choices that we make, and the character that reflects our values and guides our behaviour, allow us to walk a path with a heart. Doing this takes resilience, it takes courage, and it can take us to places we’ve never dared to imagine.

As poet Mary Ann Evans, better known by the pen name George Eliot, wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

Travel the path with a heart. The path is a journey. The journey is life.

Congratulations, Class of 2021. I can’t wait to see who you become.

The road to Devín Castle – Bratislava, Slovakia – January 2019

*Name changed to protect the innocent, as a friend and former colleague would say

Reflections on Learning

During our last class before the holidays, my grade 12 students and I talked about getting old. Well, older. I mentioned something that had happened six years ago and we were all taken aback for a moment. Six years ago I was still living in Rochester, New York where I grew up; six years ago, my students were in grade 6. Six years is six years but somehow, it seems like a much bigger change for them. Six years ago, my students were kids. Now, they’re young people who are preparing to go into the world and do something. But not just yet. Let’s not rush things.

I’m reflecting on this right now because I have a birthday coming up and it required me to change the tagline that appears just below the title of this blog. Until about 10 minutes ago, the tagline read, “Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place.” Now it reads, “Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place.”

Don’t panic: I’m still a teacher.

But yes, I’m turning 30 next month and any birthday is a cause for reflection. Last year I wrote a list of what I’d learned in my twenties and it definitely reflects how I was thinking at the time I wrote it. A few months later, I wrote a letter to my brother with some life advice and I like that one much better. It takes some elements of the first list and frames the ideas in actionable ways – I like that. The difference between these two lists, five months apart, also reflects what I would like to highlight here: the importance of perpetual learning.


I can point to much that has changed for me over time, but an essential constant has been the desire to learn and to grow. There has always been a genuine excitement over recognising something new or forming new connections. I’ve never been afraid of what I don’t know and I’ve never been deluded into thinking there’s nothing left to find out. This is also why I’m more than happy to reread books. There’s plenty out there, sure, but you really never step into the same river twice. (My credit to Disney’s Pocahontas here, but further research indicated that Heraclitus said it first.)

Last week, my Theory of Knowledge students gave oral presentations on the topic of ignorance. One student concluded by saying that ignorance leads to growth. When my co-teacher asked what she meant by “growth” she replied, “I don’t know, maybe learning.” Yes, exactly. Ignorance opens doors to learning. I have always known this but I have not always had the language to express it.

Growing up, my parents had a pretty clear policy on things we children didn’t know: Go find out. We had dictionaries and encyclopedias and after some time, we also had the Internet. If you didn’t know it, you looked it up. If you didn’t understand your findings, you asked. I only remember being turned down once for an answer. I was thirteen and my poor dad, looking distinctly uncomfortable, told me, “Go ask your mother.” I did and it was a good thing.

I have never been a stranger to learning. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve taken the important step of being able to appreciate when I am wrong. In many ways, being an educator has taught me this. As a student, I could see right through my teachers, especially new ones, and I knew exactly when they didn’t know what they were desperately trying to demonstrate that they knew. As a teacher myself, I understand the necessity of being both genuine and vulnerable with my students. I expect the same of them, after all, and at the end of the day we are partners in this thing called education. (Schooling is a different matter and, in keeping with the above, I am very open about this, too.)


Learning is deeply personal and I understand that. When I think back to what I wanted out of life six years ago, to return to the conversation with my grade 12 students, I’m stunned by how much has changed. I am in awe of what I have learned.

I am doing almost none of what I expected to be doing, but much of what I dreamed of doing. I have so much more than I thought I would, but very little of what I had wanted. I now see myself in ways I never imagined were possible because I didn’t know they existed, but I am not who I thought I would be. And I know there is more to become.

This is not to say one is all good and the other is all bad, certainly not. Rather, this is to say that I have lived in varying shades of black, white, and gray – at times, more gray or more black or more white. Shifting. Sometimes fluidly, sometimes with stark lines. In short, I have lived. I have learned.

I’m not particularly sentimental but I do grow nostalgic every now and then. For instance, the other day I looked up a friend from a former life. Just looked. But the same day, I picked up a book by an author I would have once passed over. Because you never know. Really.

In the words that Immanuel Kant took as the motto of Enlightenment, “Sapere aude. Dare to know.”

And millennia earlier from Socrates, “I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance.”

Indeed. And now I’ll return to my reading.

A Path with a Heart

A few weeks ago, I ran out of books. I was travelling and realised that I was going to be on a plane for seven hours without anything to read. After a moment of paralysis, I messaged a friend who replied by sending me a digital copy of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda. It’s long and drags occasionally, but I’ve been reading it on and off since that flight and I’m enjoying it very much.

A week ago I read the passage quoted below and it’s been dancing around my mind ever since.

“Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary.

This question is one that only a very old man asks. Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long long paths, but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.

Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.” – Don Juan, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda

If this understanding is accurate in terms of how to live well, though there are a few areas that I question, it is worth considering what this actually means in terms of living in today’s world.

Finding a Path with a Heart

When I first read the passage, my own heart leapt. Yes, I thought. Yes. That’s what it means when something just feels right – it means that it has a heart.

Finding a path with heart is challenging and as Don Juan says, we probably have to try many, many times before getting it right. But maybe we know it when we find it. Maybe it’s one of those things where we might not know what we’re looking for but we’ll know it when we see it. Something about it just makes sense to us and so we carry on. A path with a heart, according to Don Juan, is followed not due to fear or ambition, but because it is the right path. This does not mean that the path is meant to take us somewhere in particular. Rather, it means that we are making disciplined choices to do the right thing because the direction we are heading is not relevant.

This is where it gets tricky. Much of society today is highly materialistic. We are conditioned to, or sold the idea of, working towards the next goal, which usually means attaining something – a job, car, partner, house, nicer car, nicer house. As soon as we’ve accomplished Thing A, there’s Thing B on the horizon and everyone else is probably getting it faster than we are. We should know, because we’ve been following them on social media they look so happy! What’s wrong with me?, we might ask. Why them and not me? One could argue that this is the way of the world; it’s difficult to then respond, Well maybe the world is wrong. But this is a subject for another time. If we are chasing an outcome, we are going somewhere. This is a path without heart.

A path with heart, on the other hand, rings clear to me as a way of being in the world, a way of living or relating to oneself, one’s environment, and those around us. A path with a heart can go anywhere or nowhere – how it goes is what matters. We know the beginning and the end but we don’t know the middle. At the beginning, we are born. In the end, we die. In the middle, we live a life. A path with a heart makes that a life well lived, and likely not the life we are sold as described above.

Assuming, and I know this post is rife with assumption, assuming that we have found a path with a heart, the question remains of how to stay on it. The question also remains of how we’re even supposed to know we’re on it in the first place.

Staying on the Path

According to Don Juan, we’ll know if we’re on a path with a heart if the path is easy but we’re also unlikely to realise we’re on a path without heart until it’s nearly too late. This presents a difficult position. Let’s first consider how to stay on a path with a heart.

I find it difficult to accept Don Juan’s assertion that a path with heart makes for a joyful journey and that it is easy. Anyone who has lived, really lived, knows that it can be painful and confronting to try to do the right thing. It can be difficult to even determine what the right thing is, let alone whether we are doing it. And it can be difficult to accept and learn from challenge if we come to understand that we are not doing the right thing. A further obstacle, from that point, is how to do better.

But, and this part is important, the easy part is in knowing that we are doing what is right by the principles we live by. I believe that one must have clearly articulated principles in order to walk a path with a heart. Otherwise, how will anything ever feel right or joyful or easy? As one of my friends says, he needs to walk out of work each day knowing he has done everything he can to do the right thing. Walking a path with heart, then, means living a principle. It means actually doing rather than merely speaking. It means being able to rest with yourself knowing who you are and why you have made certain choices, and then acting according to who you say you are.

From where I am right now, this is not easy. It is actually very difficult to peel oneself apart and ask questions. It is sometimes even harder to hear the answers. However, I see how it might become easier and perhaps this is Don Juan’s point. There are obviously bumps on the road, challenges and trials in many forms, but staying on the path itself might remain easy because it is the right one. Maybe it’s the knowledge of the path rather than the actions required to remain on it that Don Juan calls easy. This implies that life should be lived with purpose and our actions should be in accordance with our purpose. Once the purpose is clear, the rest of the way might not be easy, per se, but it might be congruent with one’s understanding of the world. There is an ease of being that comes through in such cases.

But I admit, I’m very much in this stage of my own journey. And that’s the thing – a path is a journey.

Switching Paths

As an educator, I’ve had some really interesting conversations with young people about their choices. We talk about who they are, what matters to them, and how to choose a life direction where life has purpose. Students change their minds a lot, but it’s also clear when they are sticking to something that just doesn’t seem like it will work. It’s hard enough for some young people to switch paths even before they really start on it; changing paths as an adult is even harder.

Don Juan claims that we should leave the path as soon as we realise it isn’t a good one but, since many people do not question themselves at all, this is unlikely to happen. He says that when we finally do realise we’re on the wrong path, the path without a heart, we’re essentially out of time.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been interested in death and dying. Many people die with regrets and wishes for having lived differently. I suspect Don Juan would say that they followed paths without heart; life was likely a painful journey and, in the end, the traveler succumbed. Many people live their lives fighting for something, for anything, without acknowledging that this is what they are doing. The fight is so ingrained in them, so much part of who they have become, that they cannot look at what truly is. But they know when they have lost because there’s nowhere to go anymore. The path has swallowed them. Such is a path without heart. I understand why Don Juan implores us to step off.

The painful part of a path without heart is that we’re constantly fighting to make it work simply because it’s the path that we’re on. We don’t stop to ask how we got there or to consider why we’re still there. We’re there because we’re there, not necessarily because it’s the right place to be. Granted, learning to stop and think is very difficult. It requires us to be vulnerable and open with ourselves and with others. But often, doing what is difficult is also extremely valuable.

However, this is not to say that the right path might not also be difficult, as discussed above. The importance is in choosing the path that is congruent with who we are and the principles that matter to us – the path with a heart. Honesty, both with ourselves and with those around us, will help us determine the way we want to live. It will help us understand what it means to have a purpose, and give us a framework for the world we want to build.

Conclusions

Don Juan tells us that paths are just paths and they lead nowhere. This means that there is nothing to “get” at the end, no finish line, no prize. The path we travel, therefore, is a way of being in the world, a way of walking, a way of living. A path with a heart is the right path because it speaks to who we are, and how we understand the world around us and our place it in. This means we need to clearly understand our purpose and live each day according to it. What matters to us? Why? How do we get there?

It is important to understand here that purpose is not the same as a goal. We might not reach the goal; we might not get the trophy or the cocktails on the beach. We do not “reach” purpose, after all. We live it. If we have walked with purpose, we have lived in a way that is congruent with who we are. Purpose means knowing what matters to us, knowing what makes us whole, and building our lives in accordance with these principles.

Travel the path with a heart. This is living. This is life.

Yunnan, China – September 2019