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Remembering Our Essence

There is a story about a stream that flowed around many obstacles until it arrived at a desert.  The stream tried to cross, but its waters disappeared into the sand.  The stream heard a voice.  It said, “The wind crosses the desert.  so can the stream.”  The stream protested, “The wind can fly but I cannot.”  The voice responded, “Let yourself be absorbed by the wind.” The stream rebelled.  “I want to remain the same stream I am today.”  That is not possible,” said the voice.  “But your essence can be carried away and become a stream again.  You’ve forgotten your essence.”  The stream remembered dimly that she had once been held in the wind.  She let her vapor rise into the arms of the wind, which carried the vapor across the desert and then let it fall in the mountains.  There it became a stream again.  

The above passage is from an exceptional book titled “Leading with Soul- An Uncommon Journey of Spirit”. (Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal) It is a book about leadership, purpose in work and in life.  I was first introduced to the book in 1998 while on a retreat for school reform.  The book’s message of binding spirituality with good leadership practice has stayed with me and the parable about the stream remains a constant reminder regarding control, priorities and what is essential to me as an educator and an artist.  

Arts educators and teaching artists have an advantage over teachers in other disciplines. Our essence is never far removed from the subject that we teach.  In addition to being a teacher, we are also musicians, dancers, painters, sculptors, actors and writers.  Artists are what we are, teaching is what we do.  As I move closer to retirement age I have never once doubted that my art would become my soul focus and purpose after leaving the world of public education.  I envision what my post retirement life will look like, and it is full and rich.  Not so for many of my colleagues who have recently retired or are about to.  Many continue to hang on well past their  “educational expiration date” because they have no idea how they will fill their days once they no longer have a job to go to.  They have lost their essence.  They are at a desert that they do not know how to cross. 

We do a good job in this country of teaching and testing for information, but we are seriously remiss in teaching self-reflection.  The word education comes from the Latin educado which means “to lead out that which lies within”.  That is the real job of teaching- not to dispense information but to structure the delivery of information in such a way that it leads to individual self discovery.  It is essential for students and adults to realize that what they choose to do for a living does not necessarily define them as a human being.  A construction worker can also be a jazz musician, a lawyer can be an accomplished painter.  Our essence resides in our souls not our livelihood.

The book, “Leading with Soul”, does an exceptional job of bringing authenticity and spirituality to vocation. It speaks of disconnects between an individual’s quest for passion and purpose in life and the demands of full time employment.  Our western culture has become obsessed with the bottom line, profit/loss, winning/losing and in education- meeting the annual test score goals for the schools and students.  We have lost sight of the process in our focus on product. In doing so, we have disallowed the incorporation of anything that is not quantitative into our businesses, organizations and now schools.  It is no small wonder that people have lost their sense of self.  

As I watch my colleagues struggle with the decision of whether to retire or not, as I listen to stories about ex-Wall Street executive who have lost life’s purpose along with their jobs, I cannot help but believe that we need to incorporate the discovery of soul into our school curriculum.  The arts do this on a regular basis by requiring self exploration and in depth emotional probing in the making of art.  Whether a student realizes it or not, every piece that he or she turns out in an arts class is a expression of self and requires some soul searching. The arts can provide the way back to our essence and it is for that very reason that they should be an intrinsic part of every child’s daily education.  We will all encounter many deserts in our lifetime.  How we choose to cross them will be determined by what we believe about ourselves.

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