In the late evening/early morning hours of March 3, 2020, a large tornado hit the greater Nashville, TN area just 1.5 miles from the central downtown area. At that time, my wife and I were attending a national conference for higher education student affairs administrators. As I woke up that night, I thought it was strange to see bright strobe-light like flashes of light that were blue and green, but with no thunder. The tornado sirens went off and then the hotel intercoms awoke hotel guests to evacuate their rooms immediately to proceed to the stairwells and move down to the lowest floors. Stunned and dressed for bed, hundreds of hotel guests moved to the stairwell, myself and my wife included. Once we reached the lowest levels, we waited for the all clear with hundreds of other guests, many who were attending the same conference. For 15 or so minutes, we waited patiently, checked social media, and stayed relatively calm and upbeat, not knowing the destruction occurring literally just blocks away.
Flash forward to today. The image of hundreds of individuals huddled in a tight, confined space, brings me mixed reactions. At that time, everyone kept the mood light and supportive, wondering what was happening to our Nashville guests and community. Today, I cannot think about being in that same situation without wondering more about my personal safety and health. Faced with the same situation today, would I considered the well-being of the community outside the hotel or would I be wondering who could be possibly carrying a virus that could transmit over to me? These are rough times. At this writing, 13,000 cases of U.S. coronavirus have been reported and milions of individuals in San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere are being asked to stay at home this weekend. Our lives have been shifted to a new normal – one that asks us to be “socially distant”, avoid services and activities like going to the gym or getting a haircut, and altering our spiritual lives by removing interactions among parishes, congregations, temples and mosques. On social media, individuals are posting pictures celebrating the purchasing of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, or hand soap. Next week, millions of K-12 and college students will return to virtual classrooms, where instruction and assignments will be delivered online. Traditions that define young adults – proms, graduations, weddings, sporting events, hanging out at the bars, etc. – are now “cancelled” or “closed until further notice”. These examples provide evidence of troubling times. Or do they? Can this moment in our global history be seen only through dire lens? Is life out of balance?
The Nashville tornado struck during the national convention of ACPA College Student Educators International. For that conference, I presented a session titled “The Calling We Seek: (Re)framing Student Affairs Through Monastic Ideas.” I used this session to initiate community discussion on applying St. Benedict’s The Rule (516 A.D.) and monastic culture as a unique frameworks to help us (re)frame our work in higher education student affairs to create work and professional identities and lives that are full and balanced. At this juncture of my career in higher education, I am trying to understand, both in a philosophical sense and in a spiritual sense, how we have turned into a profession that views professionals as “laborers and production tools contributing only time and energy with little consideration for their being” (Squire & Niccolazzo, 2019, p. 4). At one time, we were a profession that viewed individuals as deserving “full and balanced development” as stated in one of our profession’s foundational historic document, the Student Personnel Point of View (American Council of Education, 1949, p. 19), which has been a central tenet of the profession. Squire & Niccolazzo (2019) believes that we have moved “away from a developmental framework”, where professionals who enter the field to advocate for students, transform organizational structures, and fight for social justice, are instead valued for being cogs in the assembly line of higher education. As someone who has been in the field for now 30 years, I am an eternal optimist. I refuse to believe that higher education can only exist in the troubling form described by Squire and Niccolazzo. As I reached the midpoint of my life, I have returned to part of my identity that has been diminished once I received my Ph.D. – my spiritual self.
As a doctoral student working on his degree at Indiana University in Higher Education, I felt a strong connection at that time to my spiritual identity. As a Latino male navigating the unfamiliar territory of doctoral studies at a location 900 miles away from my home, I found solace and comfort in asking a higher being to watch over me and to provide guidance to help me obtain my educational goals. This spiritual behavior included heavy involvement in the Catholic parish near campus. This involvement culminated in being selected to be a retreat leader for Kairos, an intensive three-day spiritual retreat for college students held at the Archabbey of St. Meinrad about 2-3 hours away from the Indiana University campus. As a retreat leader, I was provided the rare opportunity to learn about life and culture in a cloistered monastery. Being guided by one of the brothers at the monastery, I learned about the daily life, tasks and duties, and spiritual development of the brothers who were “called” to live the life of of Benedictine monk.
I was fascinated by the life of these men who referred to each other as “brothers”, who lived communally in an environment that welcomed deep reflection and support, and valued work – intellectual and physical – reflecting their calling for hospitality and education. Long story short, after my retreat experience, I had deep reflection personally on whether I was receiving some sort of “calling” as a doctoral student. In my whole life, I have always been deeply reflective, extremely emotional, strongly loyal, and simple. Was the life I saw at the monastery something I could possibly live? I consider this as a possible life choice. Obviously, I didn’t take that route, but I chose a profession that I feel is still a calling – that of a college educator. Since then I have always respected and honored the life of monks and the culture associated with cloistered communities. It is something I have always kept in the head which I am now exploring in my role as a college faculty member. I have always waited to feel my “calling” to pick this back up and now I feel that I am reaching a crossroad in my career where understanding the value of spiritual wellness and community is important, not just for me, but for the higher education community – a lens to understand where we have been and where we are possibly going. Unfortunately, where we are going is challenging my idea of having a calling and I hear that in the voices of colleagues in the field. Our professional life is out of balance.
During the convention, there was looming dread about the future impact of the coronavirus. Conference attendees were encouraged to wash hands thoroughly, to not shake hands or hug (which is a HUGE request to ask professionals in our field), and to keep pay attention to any sudden shifts of health. Concern and worries about the days after convention were discussed throughout the convention. Those worries came into complete realization the week of March 9th. In the span of a week, institutions of higher education were deciding to limit student contact on campus, to figure out how to control the spread of the virus, and how to handle the daily functioning of a college. The following week, campuses for the most part are now completely online. The recent events are unprecedented in these modern times. Again, my reflections of where we are at in higher education, where we have been, and where it is going in terms of professional and work culture are weighing heavy in my mind. How did we get here? This is not just a higher education issue, this has become a worldwide concern on how we have been living and how our lives have possibly been impacted by our over reliance of technology, our ability to avoid strengthening community, and the ease of controlling and oppressing individuals for our own selfish gains.
Life is out of balance…currently. This is where my eternal optimism shows up. It is truly my hope that along with the pain and hurt we will observe in the weeks and months ahead, we will also see the marked changes humans will achieve after social isolation that helps them value the worth of community and validation. We are noticing this in understanding the impact of the service industry. We are recognizing the importance of those who help make our day a bit more important – the nurse, the first responder, the waitperson, the grocery cashier, the flight attendant, the housekeeper, and the list goes on. My hope is once we are able to do more our daily tasks, we honor more the work that these individuals provide. My ultimate goal is that this carries over to the wonderful and valuable work our student affairs professionals provide on our campuses. The entry-level resident director, the mid-level director, and senior-level administrator who hasn’t lost their calling as they climbed the ranks. We need to respect their work and treat it with the value we failed, in most cases, to notice before this crisis.
In this semester of remote work at home and supporting students and colleagues online, I have made it a point to use Friday as a day of reflection on where we are at as a society. This will be done through a selection of readings focused on spirituality in education and teaching, reflection and journaling of current events, listening of music of genres unfamiliar to me, and viewing of film that address the broad question, “how did we get here?”
I started this spiritual journey by viewing the documentary feature, “Koyaanisqutsi”, a 1982 film consisting of images depicting how mass-produced technology has infiltrated and overtaken nature and human life. Shown through a series of slow-motion and time-lapsed footage in urban areas set to the minimalist music of composer Phillip Glass, this film provides a remarkable account of “life out of balance”. Individuals are placed in settings where anonymity is valued. Technology (at least the earliest versions of what we have now) has overtaken nature, where we as humans prefer to be in spaces devoid of appreciation of beauty and peacefulness. Slowness is considered invaluable where speed and quick response is desired and the ultimate goal. While made in the early 1980s, this film is so prophetic. The images today, many which are iconic in cinema, ring true today. Some images in the film are haunting even in today’s standards – the lonely individual who raises her car’s power window only to be replaced by the reflection of a huge anonymous skyscraper, the mass-production of food (see below clip of Oscar Meyer wieners at 4:00 minute mark) coming off the conveyor belt juxtaposed with humans going up an escalator, both looking similar, then the iconic time-lapse footage of cars on a freeway , representing our avoidance of observing the nature surrounding us. This film provides me one answer on how we got here. We have lived our life out of balance. We have to change. Images like those found in the below clip need to change. We need to reflect on why life looks like it does below. We need to press the brake. We need to slow down. We need to rebalance.
As I continue to reflect on events occurring today, I will make use of this time to understand our crisis through the practice of writing. I hope to use the references mentioned above to create more posts providing my thoughts. Using the visual and media arts is valuable during this time of reflection. I aim to include it as much as possible. My goal is to turn these reflective posts into something I can piece together to create a larger thought paper. What I’ll do with it remains to be seen, but I do hope it can produce something that might be of interest to a newsletter, publication, or book. If not, I’m just glad that I am taking time to write and I appreciate that you found interest to get this far. I welcome any thoughts or comments. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to respond. Let’s try together to view this historic event spiritually and with an eye on how we can transform life – both professionally and personally – when all is said and done.
In the end, we will hug and appreciate the value of human connection and balance.
For additional reading and viewing:
American Council on Education. Committee on Student Personnel work, & Williamson, E. G. (1949). The student personnel point of view.
Coppola, F. F., Reggio, G., Fricke, R., Glass, P., Riesman, M., Hoenig, M., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Film Co., … MGM Home Entertainment Inc. (2002). Koyaanisqatsi. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment.
Meisel, A. C. & Mastro, M. L. (1975). The rule of St. Benedict: Translated with introduction and notes. Doubleday Publishers.
Squir, D. D. & Nicolazzo, Z. (2019). Love my naps, but stay woke: The case against self-care. About Campus 24(2). https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1086482219869997
Taylor, B.C. (1989). Spirituality for everyday living: An adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
Valente, J. (2016). How to live: What the Rule of St. Benedict teaches us about happiness, meaning, and community. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads.