March 6, 2020 — Once a month, I meet with faculty and staff to share stories about ways to (balance/integrate) our call to care for students—our heart and passion as professionals—with institutional structures that lean heavily toward efficiency and structure. Our method for the conversation is simple. I email a poem or wisdom story with a few prompts to stir thinking and reflection from the heart. When we gather I read the poem out loud, hold a moment of reflective-silence, and then invite everyone to share a word, image, or phrase that grabs their attention. The conversation flows from a combination of lived-experience in higher education, insights from the poem, and unexpected connections drawn from what others share. Participants enter our shared space with a variety of emotions from heavy-hearts to the deep-joy of being together. Our time has a sacred and transcendent quality. It is a real blessing to be part of this community, striving for integrity and fidelity to self and the nature of the work.
We recently explored the theme of burdens and the value of periodically laying them down. The poem “Burlap Sack” by Jane Hirshfield was particularly helpful in guiding the conversation. The poet draws on the metaphor of a mule burdened with burlap sacks full of sand, ropes, nails, and axes to draw a distinction between self and work. She writes: “To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error. / To think that grief is the self is an error.” I find this observation a wonderful reminder that what I do, especially the stuff that is onerous or challenging, is not me. This, I think, is important to keep in mind when the institutional work, that must be done, crowds out the heart-filling work that forms the core of my call to teach. When I’m overburdened, I must, as Hirshfield cautions, be “careful between the trees to leave extra room”. I know this feeling well, moving with intention in crowded emotional spaces. When I’m not careful my overloaded bags, my business, can cause harm and hurt as my sacks of stuff bump into students, colleagues, or family members. I think I can do it all, when in fact I can’t. My hubris is bigger than my actual capacity to do good in the world. Hirshfield concludes her poem with an invitation, to lay my burdens down, to no longer carry the heavy load: “What would it be to take the bride / And leave behind the heavy dowry? / To let the thin-ribbed mule browse in tall grasses, / Its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?”
In our group conversation we imagined, along with the poet, what it would be like to “browse in the tall grasses” of higher education with joy and pleasure. We went a step further. We wrote on sticky notes the sources of our burdens. The challenges and those tasks that are usually life-giving but can weigh us down if there are too many good things or when we must rush through the joy and on to the next task. We placed the sticky notes on a drawing of a burlap sack, filling it with the burdens we carry around like pack mules. We talked, in triads, about our bags and what they were filled with and we unburdened ourselves by pulling off sticky notes that named tasks we didn’t really need to keep carrying. We invited ourselves to be at peace with the work, both the challenges and the joys.
One theme that emerged during our investigation of the poem—and our willingness to be investigated by the poem—was the question of balance. It is helpful when carrying heavy loads to make sure the bags are well balanced. This is essential to the long-term health of the pack animal. Too much weight on one side creates an imbalance that a person works against to stay upright. Balance makes good sense in the metaphor of pack mules, but I’m not sure it works as well when applied to humans working in educational settings. Balance, in these setting, means stagnation. There is little room for experiencing the fullness of human emotions; the highs and lows. And when the load shifts, the person must add energy to the other side to balance the competing forces. Balance, it seems, ends up distracting a person from a closer examination of what the sources of the tension are. When I’m striving for balance I’m more concerned with the nature of the axes, sand, and shovels in my burlap sacks then how did those items get there and are they the right items in the first place.
I think a better goal to strive for is integration. How do I pull together, into wholeness, the competing forces of calling and institutional responsibilities? Rather than self as a counter weight balancing out other forces, in integration the self is a fulcrum between burdens. The self remains independent of the two demands of inner calling and outer institutional protocols and responsibilities. Integration values a dynamic approach to making sense of the lived experience of educators. It accounts for the ways that at times one side may weigh more, and be out of balance, but the self is still centered. As Hirshfield notes: “The self is not the load of ropes and nails and axes. / The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.” The self is a combination of the various elements of identity, gifts, talents, and social context.
The balance metaphor is premised on parts and pieces that are consciously maneuvered to achieve a static relationship. The integration metaphor is premised on wholeness with the distinct elements in fluid relationship. The key concepts, for me, are wholeness and relationships. As long as these elements are present I’m okay with shifting sacks of responsibility and unbalanced loads. Here are a few questions to ponder as you seek to integrate your burdens, once you put down the unnecessary ones. In what ways have your gifts of service, leadership, or teaching turned into burdens? In what ways do you find it difficult to navigate your work when your burlap sack is full of burdens? Who or what have you harmed as you bumped into them with your burlap sacks? What burdens would you have to put down to feel like you could wonder freely in the pastures of education?