Pema Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart, is a set of provocative essays asking the reader to explore his or her heart in challenging times. In each essay, she takes us into a deeper place of exploration, searching for ways to make sense, both personally and collectively, in difficult times.
In her first essay, Intimacy with Fear, she writes:
Embarking on the spiritual journey is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown lands. With wholehearted practice comes inspiration, but sooner or later we will also encounter fear.
As human beings, we are pulled in the direction of discovery. We seek to know more and search for certainty amidst the chaos. As we search for unknown lands in the ocean, we are drawn to a horizon that illuminates ashore. And yet, if the shore does not reveal itself we have to confront our fear of being alone in the ocean’s vast expanse.
In the midst of the COVID pandemic, what will we have to confront as we consider opening schools up for face-to-face business? We will need to ask ourselves some basic questions about our experiences.
- What were we able to achieve through the virtual school experience?
- What worked in our virtual experiment and why?
- What didn’t work in our virtual experiment and why?
What do answers to these questions reveal about how we adapted to teaching and learning in virtual spaces? What did we learn about ourselves, and most importantly, what did we learn about our students?
I would surmise that after we ask these questions, study the responses we receive, and think about our schools’ futures, we will need to confront our fears of the unknown. Pema Chodron writes:
Fear is a universal experience.
She points out that there is nothing wrong with feeling fearful in the midst of uncertainty. “It is universal for all living things.”
What about the fear of some teachers that will not want to return immediately? What about the fear of families thinking about sending their children out into the unknown? What about the fear of a teacher, student, or parent dying of the coronavirus infection? What about the fear of having to go back into a virtual learning environment, doing it again for an unknown amount of time? These are all fears we have to accept and adapt to as we think about opening school.
In a poignant and insightful way, Pema Chodron writes:
In fact, anyone who stands on the edge of the unknown, fully in the present without reference point, experiences groundlessness. That’s when our understanding goes deeper when we find that the present moment is a pretty vulnerable place and that this can be completely unnerving and completely tender at the same time.
We have read about and experienced the groundlessness that accompanies the pandemic. It is on the news every day. However, staying grounded in the present and open to what comes our way, we can learn to integrate our feelings of uncertainty and fear into a new understanding, a deeper appreciation for fellow travelers. As a result of this understanding and empathy, as well as openness to our imagination, we can tap into our inspiration to design a new way of being. Putting our inspiration to good use as we design for opening schools may offer opportunities we never dreamed of.
Her ideas inspire me to think differently about opening school. I see possibilities that are designed to honor peoples’ fears but also designed to address them openly. She challenges us to confront the fears and not bury them.
What we’re talking about is getting to know fear, becoming familiar with fear, looking it right in the eye–not as a way to solve problems, but as a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking.
What if we confront our fears of opening school with social distancing, wearing masks, taking temperatures when students arrive on campus, and people getting sick? Might we design a model for opening school in which caring for one another, honoring our need to express emotions, or building a new kind of community becomes more important than learning content, taking tests, and worrying about grades? Wouldn’t that be an interesting place to learn?
We don’t have to throw out all that was good about school before COVID but we can open school with a new understanding if we are willing to confront our fears of the unknown. Let’s challenge ourselves to become familiar with peoples’ fears after the chaos settles and we see some light on the horizon. Then, and only then, can we open schools in ways that will invite fearful people into community.