Friday, October 26, 2012

The trouble with inspiration

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Carl Bloch
I'm a bit of a curmudgeon.  People that only know me casually might be surprised to hear that, but those who know me well know that I am easily frustrated with "inspirational" stories, raw-raw presentations intended to "motivate," and short "inspirational" quotes (I've tried for years to be a "quote" person, but in all but one case the quotes I write down on a sticky note and stick on my wall seem disappointingly mundane a day or two after I am "inspired" by them--the single quote I have kept and still refer to comes from artist Carl Bloch in describing his struggles to create:  "God helps me--that's what I think, and then I am calm.").

I was reminded of this when I read an email this morning (which is actually a blog post that is sent out to a listserv) in which the author described being asked by a student to "define in one sentence what it means to be a 'true teacher.'"  The rest of the post went on to describe how he came to his "one sentence" that he eventually shared with her (you can read the post to find out what he told her).  Because I've read posts by this author before, I wasn't surprised at being underwhelmed by what he told this student.  It was a statement that sounds nice, but for me, has no real meaning because it is so abstruse and esoteric to provide no real guidance for someone who wants to be a good teacher.  So, while it may be initially inspirational to this student, it isn't likely to change anything about her teaching practice.

The reason I have appreciated and benefited so much from the Bloch quote above, I think, is that it has a concreteness that is helpful to me when I am feeling overwhelmed with a writing project, a troublesome situation with a student, or some other challenge that I don't know how to face.  At the same time, it isn't so explicit that it seems mechanical or restrictive.  Additionally, it has a narrative quality to it in that it calls up an image in my mind of a real person (Carl Bloch) struggling with a task and then thinking about the divine help that he is entitled to as an artist.  So, in that way it is both inspiring and instructive because it seems tied to someone's actual experience.

It occurs to me that we might often look in the wrong places for inspiration.  My experience suggests that it isn't found in philosophical statements or high-energy Joel Osteen-esque speeches.  Rather, inspiration comes when we have a window into the experiences of another.  What I might be arguing here (and which I've argued multiple times on this blog) is that rather than searching for one-sentence inspiration that is easily posted on the corner of our computer monitor, we should be searching for, telling, and listening to stories that have meaning because of their embeddedness in our actual experiences.  This takes time.  And, it also means entering into relationships with others in order to gain access to one another's stories.  It also means being vulnerable because anytime we tell a story about ourselves, we expose some part of our being that can then be evaluated, judged, or critiqued.  Telling a story is much more risky than giving an impersonal one-liner divorced from any of our actual experiences.

So, while the blog author whose post I referenced above (along with everyone else who has ever tried to say something inspirational) surely means well, his student would have been better served by a rich and personal story, as opposed to the sticky-note-ready quote that was likely forgotten as soon as the sticky on the note dried up.

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