Seeing the Stressed Out Student

A friend once said to me in regards to my time spent at my local university, “Do you walk through the hallways with prayer in your heart?” I was silent in response. The question sunk deeper and deeper, and I wondered — what do I think of when I’m walking through the halls? I knew the answer almost immediately, but the necessary routine of pretending, cajoling with the truth, and the inevitable realisation that my initial thought was in fact the right one after all, had to take place. When I walk through the halls, my default mode is a facade.
 

I portray happiness, aloofness or various other expressions to prove some point to the passers-by, my fellow students. There is one intrinsic flaw in this approach. Everything I’m doing is designed to protect me. Albeit indirectly, but nonetheless, my goal is to affect how people see me, and thus, hopefully, their behaviour and thoughts towards me.
 

The reason the aforementioned comment struck so deep is that it revealed my internal tendency to look out for number one, to selfishness. The beauty and strength of the statement is its wisdom: existing in and with prayer, even if you don’t acknowledge its power, is an action directed towards the other, and not just directed, but fueled with benevolence. A person who walks with prayer in their heart notices the qualities of their brothers and sisters passing innocuously by. They notice their facial expressions, mannerisms, the quality of their laughter, their posture, all indications of the overall state of that person. They notice, as much as is possible within such fleeting contact, the heart of the other.
 

Our culture tells us to do what makes us feel good, to do what we want, if “they” don’t accept you, it’s their problem. Living in prayer is so very contrary to such thinking. To live in prayer can be painful and difficult because suddenly the burden and loneliness of the other becomes personal and is felt and known in a profound way. I cannot think of a more fulfilling way to spend a day. It is after the days I succeed in this pursuit, that when I crawl into bed weary from a long tiring day, I can’t help but smile with an ear to ear grin, seemingly arising from nowhere.

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University life is a demanding and stressful one. If it isn’t unending deadlines, the ever growing shadows of approaching exams, or just trying to keep up in the continuous and unceasing curriculum, then it’s the stress of socializing, of fitting in, of wanting to be seen, or of recognizing one’s social and emotional poverty.
 

I can’t help but feel a deep underlying loneliness in my fellow students, a desire which I recognize within myself. There is a palpable hunger for authentic connection, for something tangible, real, and meaningful, for someone to recognize one’s personhood and dignity as a human being. The Servant of God, Katherine Doherty, a wise and humble woman, who was speaking with some university students decades ago, posed a question, “What do you want out of life?”
The students responded, “We want to be loved.”
Katherine in turn replied, “Then who is going to do the loving?”
 

It takes one small act to witness beautiful changes in a person’s demeanour. Something so simple and courageous as looking someone in the eye and smiling as you hold the door for them at the Subway. Another beautiful and profound woman, Blessed Mother Teresa, wrote an incredible poem about living out goodness. If I may adapt one line of her poem: your kindness may go unnoticed or be taken advantage of, be kind anyway.
 
As my own stress mounts and I become more polarized and emotional, I have to remind myself time and time again, everyone is feeling it. School is stressful. However, it is not only students who are carrying an enormous weight. We, as the human family, especially in North America, are carrying a heavy burden. With spiritual poverty, loneliness, and hedonism turning people further and further away from Love and its eternal Source, there is great pain and discontent in the hearts of many.
 
As I struggle to pray while I walk the halls, I notice quite a difference in my own body language when I succeed. It changes from a hardened aloofness, to something closer to a softened sincerity, with less defences and pretending, but strengthened with concern and respect. It becomes something which says, let us embrace as equals, not – I’m doing fine, check me out. Immediately an awareness grows in my heart of the pain that others carry, and with it a desire to do something, if only something small, to help.
 

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Getting Through The Mist

 
From the eyes of my youth, I’m sure the things I currently find delight in, are rather bizarre. Just this morning I rushed to get up, forced myself to eat something, did my morning prayers in relative haste, all so that I could plunge a few more pages into They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. The sole purpose of this book? To elucidate academic writing. If you had told eighteen year old Adam that this was his future, he probably would have wept in despair.
 

I’ll never forget the moment when I was browsing the comments on a religious video and I saw a response that forever changed my outlook on life. As is currently customary, there was large amounts of raging atheistic comments denouncing God, and Christian beliefs and ideals in general, but suddenly rising up from the mire was a ray of wisdom. The sun found a breach in the clouds, and the light poured forth.

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The content of the response is not what captured my attention, however, though it was important. I saw a man who so clearly, intelligently, and respectfully expressed himself. He didn’t become mad, childish, or unwieldly, just boldly pointed out his attacker’s error. Not only was he calm, but he was convincing. I immediately thought to myself, “I want that!” I suddenly realised a deep hunger that had been fermenting in my heart for ages: the need to express myself, to convincingly support a cause, to stand in defiance of illogical reasoning in a meaningful and profound way.
 

There is an indescribable joy when one reads an essay, article, book, or comment that takes one’s own views or unknown longings, hopelessly muddled within the brain, and displays those thoughts with such clarity and depth that the words just pour out, “I couldn’t have done it better myself…” It is no longer the best Slayer album, the greatest guitar and amp combo, or the most raving party life I chase after, but this very experience of discovering an idea which makes the world slow and become clear, that causes the clouds to part and rays of light to shine down as if to say, “We know!”
 

As I grow as a writer my outlook on what writing is, is slowly morphing. The authors of They Say, I Say make a profound point in relation to writing when they state that “writing well does not mean piling up uncontroversial truths in a vacuum; it means engaging others in a dialogue or debate.” I hunger that all those around me will take pride in their ability to communicate themselves. Often times I come on too strong in conversation, and the other person backs down, but this is the last thing I want. When I engage in conversation, or express myself with passion, it’s because I’m ramping up for a good discussion. Without dialogue ideas exist in a dark vacuum and can be completely flawed, but no one will ever know. Without dialogue egocentrism is easy, and growth difficult.
 

Current trends are emphasizing the need for education and expression more and more. I whole heartedly support these trends; however, I see one flaw. More guidance is needed about how to write respectfully, about how to explain one’s ideas in a way that encourages discussion, not slams the door shut with violence and slander. It is a tragedy that some people with great ideas will never be heard, because they can’t get over these childish methods of expression. Writing is a double edged sword. It has almost infinite power to change minds and hearts for the better, if wielded correctly, but it can also draw us into a pit of domination and bullying.
 

I was your typical “I hate essays” student for most of my life. I specifically remember finishing Grade 12 English and thinking, “I’m FREE! I’ll never have to write another essay EVER again!” While many people my age stay up until two in the morning getting the latest on Facebook, or blasting away just a few more aliens, often, I’m up late writing just a couple more thoughts on whatever topic has stricken my heart. Somewhere in my life the mist cleared away, and a ray of light shone through. I am now living and breathing proof, that people can change.
 

Defending Goodness in an Age of Uncertainty

 

Every once and a while one gets the opportunity to stumble upon a great and engaging book. The kind that makes us excited to read again, to search and hunt for more of its kind. True to life at large, these hidden gems are hard to come by, and this is what makes the joy of finding them so riveting.
 

Recently I was blessed with such providence. I found my little hidden gem in a library branch I’ve only been to once in my life, the time I found this book! The book was none other than Roger Sarty’s War in the St. Lawrence. It was a captivating and educating read; not surprisingly for a history book on naval affairs, it had very little dry patches and best of all I was taken deeper into understanding the psyche of the Canadian generations before me.
 

I have noticed, mostly through my own inadequacy, that my own generation has a hard time understanding the ways of life from previous generations. During my time spent with a friend who has seen more winters than I can imagine, I am often confronted with a stark reality: my generation does not fully understand the horrors of a world war, the tumult of the sixties, or the need to support one’s military.
 

No matter how many times one sees Hitler and his cronies on TV or watches movies about the great military battles of those times, it will never compare to the actual reality of WWII. One can never imagine what it was like to live with constant, real, and vivid fear. It must have effected every aspect of life, the bus drivers, the shop keepers, the waiters, everyone must have felt the tension. People must have been more on edge, though I’m sure it also bonded people together as well.
 

War in the St. Lawrence is a captivating recollection of Canada’s efforts to protect many nations shipping interests along Canada’s enormous span of coastline from the attacks of German U-Boats, and even to guide transatlantic shipping to support Britain in her war effort against the Nazi death machine. The bravery of the Canadians who fought against the German U-Boats was enormous; at the best of times they were under-equipped and short-handed. Sometimes major waterways were defended by militarized pleasure craft, or other quick fixes to get some defence in place. Not only those in the military, but those who ran the supply ships ran a great risk to their lives in the open seas. Those on shore felt the fear as well: on more than one occasion the wreckage and bodies of dead sailors floated  ashore from recently destroyed vessels; sometimes the bodies were family members or relatives of the people in those very communities.

 

 

In an age where relativism is gaining more and more ground, it is scary to imagine a country whose citizens will cease to fight for what is right in this world, to have a generation who will say, “maybe it’s right for them,” instead of stopping atrocity. Relativism cannot fight evil, because it cannot identify it. If I truly believe in relativism, then what right do I have invading Germany to stop the holocaust? Who am I to say that Hitler was wrong and I am right? However, if we understand the value of human life, absolutely, only then are we capable of intervening.
 

Perhaps one reason why relativism has taken such a footing is because the very real, blatant, and undeniable reality of evil contained in war, mass murders, and dictatorship is rather distant for most North Americans under fifty years of age. Many brave men and women have fought for our country over the years since the Second World War, but more and more people are losing touch with the importance of an effective, functioning, and well supported military. That means support from it’s citizens.
 

Though I am a Canadian, I also find America’s military history intriguing. People tend to tar and feather all American war efforts in the last few decades, but judgement is far easier then working towards understanding. If we are to understand the errors of a nation’s army, we must look to that nation’s very citizens. We must dig deep into the psyche of their people and leaders. We must feel and know the pain of their cultures, the struggles that have played out for centuries. Only once this work has been done can one begin to understand the true motivations behind America’s hunt for Bin Laden, for example, or their military action in Iraq. The first lesson of human psychology is that any given action is rarely singularly motivated; likewise, saying that America’s involvement in Iraq is due to oil alone, is rather short-sighted.
 

It is difficult to make accurate or meaningful judgements of the American military operations in Vietnam also. Though it was a tragic and misguided effort, how many of us know about the true horrors of communism? How many have lived under the oppressive, mass murdering, regimes of the communist political machine? The non-communists in Vietnam understood this reality all too well following the fall of Saigon. Two choices existed: try to escape or face slave labour and probably death at the hands of the communists and their “re-education camps”. A mass exodus occurred; people tried to escape the communist occupation and took their chances on the open sea, often times with  home-made boats, facing deadly storms, pirates, disease, and starvation, rather then accept the “education” of the communists. Hundreds of thousands died trying to escape, and it wasn’t compassion or kindness they were running from. With this reality in mind, I cannot wholly blame America for trying.
 

Evil must be resisted in any form it takes, even at the risk of helping in the wrong way.
 

Without the capacity to see and know right from wrong, regardless of opinion or personal differences, a society becomes an enabling force for atrocity. Violating a country’s sovereignty is not an act that should be taken lightly; therefore, much thought and discernment is always needed to know when to intervene and when not too. As can been seen with the Rwandan genocide, to do nothing can be the worst choice of all.
 

Thanks to providence and the sacrifice of millions, we were spared from living beneath the Nazi boot. To argue that the lives lost defeating Nazi Germany were wasted, would be insanity. War is tragic, inhuman, depraved, and so contrary to every good thing, but the Nazi regime was worse. Taking a man’s life in an armed conflict is one thing, liquidating defenceless women and children for no other reason then their heritage is pure and unfettered evil. There is no better name for it.
 

Even so, I get the feeling that some would argue that “the Nazi’s just did what was right for them”. If this way of thinking has not been reached yet, relativism is quickly hurdling us in that direction. It is this type of thinking that terrifies me to my core. I have heard the argument that if Nazi Germany did conquer North America, then we would all have been indoctrinated into Nazi thinking, and thus we would not see anything wrong with Nazi thinking. For some this may be true, but for anyone with a solid sense of truth, it would not be the case.
 

No matter how long a dictatorship has been in place, we always hear of those who see the evil of their surroundings and fight against it in any way possible. For many, this means death at the hands of their government, but for these people, to do nothing in the face of such injustice is unacceptable. It is an undeniable proof of the human capacity for knowledge of what is good, and what is wrong, even in the face of relentless propaganda. These freedom fighters defied the greatest human inclination, the desire to maintain life, in the pursuit of goodness. A great example of this is the White Rose resistance movement: a group of university students who wrote and distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in defiance of such a malicious government. Many lost their lives because of their efforts.

 

If one rationalizes their experience of evil, they become more and more desensitized to it, until finally there is little or no reaction. It is good to be repulsed by evil. It is good to recoil at the thought of innocent people being slaughtered or worked to death. If a culture loses this ability it will lose its very soul. Great caution should be taken to ensure that the rationalization of evil is not encouraged. One need only look to the content of modern TV, video games, popular slang, pornography, etc. to see an unsettling trend.
 

More and more video games contain the ability to be good or evil, to kill the bad guys or kill innocent bystanders, to rob and murder or to live by some code. In one Japanese video game the sole purpose of the game is to stalk and rape women in the subway. Many would argue, “It’s just fantasy, or virtual reality, we don’t actually want to do these things.” My question is this: why would you even want to pretend to do it for fun? If our children spent their time imagining a scenario of sleeping with a prostitute and killing her after instead of paying her, a course of events which may be chosen in several of the games in the Grand Theft Auto series, would we encourage this “harmless” fantasizing?
 

In and of themselves, video games will not destroy a person’s conscience, but repeated exposure on a regular basis to such content will have a dire effect on a person’s ability to react to evil. We become desensitized to the suffering of the other, and therefore become more isolated and self-centered.
 

You can recognize the hero’s who fought against the Nazi occupation by those who decided to live for someone other then themselves, by those who risked everything to save children from Jewish ghetto’s, for example. You can see the fruit of self-centeredness by those who went along with the Nazis out of fear for their own life or livelihood, and as a result did atrocious acts they never would have done in any other circumstance. I cannot cast a judgemental finger at these people, however, because the pressure they were put under was enormous and unusual. To resist such coercion is extremely difficult, but this reality is exactly why it’s important to have firm and defined values, to know what one stands for, and what lines one will never hope to cross.
 

Some would argue that the only thing we can be certain about is that we can’t know anything with total certainty. People treat absolute truth like its some rigid and stodgy thing, that no true modern thinker could possibly hold such beliefs. I argue just the opposite. If we are to retain our decency and empathy then we need real and absolute values; only absolute truth can support real compassion.  I must decide and know that what is happening to my friend is wrong, before I will act to help him, or alleviate him from his persecutors. To renounce such an ability is foolishness. To take on the responsibility of knowing truth, goodness, and right from wrong is a lifelong process, but it enables one to become more human, more compassionate, and more loving. Just as action towards the good of the other is inseparable from love, so striving on a daily basis to know truth is inseparable from doing what is right. Without knowledge of truth, a person becomes a leaf in the wind ready to accept any new influential movement, whether it be from a heinous dictator, like Hitler, or from some other source.
 

My love for history began with my love for the human race; more and more I’m beginning to realise how understanding history is absolutely necessary to understanding the actions and motivations of modern day cultures and nations.

Argument and Discussion: What’s The Point?

 

Discussion is an essential part of a maturing person’s diet. It enables one to expand on their own ideas, discover the flaws in their own logic, and to find the ideas they hold which they don’t understand as good as they thought. I am an avid discusser. I hunger for more than my fair share. My roommates have come to know this, that Adam loves a good discussion. On occasion our talks will last hours, usually heated to some extent, and almost always instigated by myself. All of our talks contain great content and food for thought, but one thing in particular struck me recently.

 

Usually a discussion is a kind of verbal melee in which two parties share their thoughts on a subject and, if disagreement is present, there is usually some form of sparring, though rarely a definite winner. Everyone gets a few hits in, and each participant usually walks away thinking they had the best hits of the match.

 

There is one obstacle and temptation that is most challenging to overcome when it comes to enabling mature discussion: getting over the need, the unnecessary and unhelpful need, to be right, or in more accurate words, to win. Sometimes we confuse winning an argument with enabling our side of the discussion to be true, especially when the topic is dear to our heart. It’s hard to swallow one’s pride, and address the person, not the argument. If the person whom we are discussing with is the priority, then our own wisdom becomes irrelevant as we try to address the needs, confusion, and often times pain of the person in front of us.

 

I noticed a quality common to all great theologians, poets, and philosophers: they don’t feel the need to respond directly to any accusation, question, or counter argument, but circumvent expectation to approach the heart of a matter. Sometimes they will answer your question with another question; sometimes they will answer your question with a seemingly unrelated statement, which sinks in slowly until clarity strikes; other times, most infuriatingly, they won’t give you any answer at all. Rarely is this silence from a lack of knowledge or inability to respond, but from a deeper understanding of how information affects people.

 

After much thought I found the telling of Jesus and the adulterous woman to be an excellent example. After presenting the adulterous woman to be stoned, the Pharisee’s try to trap Jesus with a question: “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” Jesus doesn’t answer their question with “yes, stone her”, or “no, don’t stone her”. He doesn’t refer to Mosaic law, or some loophole they didn’t know about. He merely says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” He provides no evidence, argument, or supporting information. Yet, immediately the angry mob is diffused; Jesus simply turned their attention from their evil plot to the darkness of their own hearts. Voila! They leave, probably still angry, but they leave.

 

Such wisdom is incredibly difficult! For us mortals it requires incredible insight, patience with ourselves, and a kind of tempered recklessness that laughs in the face of expectation. One must see simultaneously the question or statement at hand, the greater picture, and the heart of the individual/individuals they are conversing with. Personally, I get so caught up in having the greatest response to an argument that I lose sight of all else and focus on “winning” the argument. I would have been three chapters into reciting the Mosaic law, interposing my own “incredible” thoughts here and there, during which time the woman, and probably myself, would have been stoned at the hands of the angry mob.

 
So to win an argument one quality is needed above all else: to see the heart of the other person in the discussion with love, clarity, and compassion. Only then will we have the proper insight to find the right words to address what really lies at the heart of the matter being discussed.