Showing Up and Shaping Up

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In the past few weeks, I have hardly gone a day without being in the school building or attending an event for De Smet Jesuit High School (St. Louis, MO). It can be exhausting, but no matter my attitude before leaving the house, I never come back regretting having gone to whatever brought me out. That doesn’t mean, however, that everything I do once I’m out the door is a success. I always wish I had done something better, or prepared more for class, or reacted more calmly and wisely to an unruly student. I always wish I had been more attentive to (and responsive to) others’ needs.  I have come to accept that will always be the case; I will only succeed at being the teacher, mentor, and person I want to be in some percentage of my interactions with students and coworkers.

So I’ve been trying to bump up that percentage by doing more around school. I helped out all day with our freshman retreat, have been doing more hands-on and lab activities with my students, and have hardly missed a sporting event in a month. I figure interacting more will give me more positive experiences, even if it means more negative ones as well. It has soaked into my classes too; the first unit in both biology and chemistry this semester had a lot of skill-building, so my students had to do a lot of practicing, to increase their odds of having success in problem areas just by working through them early and often. In fact it has likely played out in every arena: spend more time with community and friends, do more at school, plan more for my future, collaborate more with my department and others, get more into my faith…the list goes on.

There is a danger in this, though: I can make an idol out of the “magis”, a buzzword in Jesuit schools that comes to us from Ignatian spirituality. Too often, it is translated as the “more”; I can then take this and label every new endeavor as aligned with my mission and goals because it is “more” than I was doing before. I start to think that “more” is good because “more” is Ignatian, and anything remotely Ignatian is unquestionably good and perfect…and suddenly I have equated being busier with being better and holier. Suddenly, everything I do is good because it is better than not doing anything, and I have made myself a god in my own estimation. Through some mental calculus, I have contradicted my earlier claim that I never do everything perfectly, because I’ve made “doing” itself something perfect.

Instead, I have to treat getting more involved as a chance for growth, and not growth in itself. The “magis” is not “more”, it is “to a higher degree” or even just “better”.  It means being more, not just doing more. Even should I fail in and out of the classroom, I do hope my students learn to grow as young adults. I hope they learn that—at school, at home, on the athletic field, and in prayer—we only improve through more practice, but we ought only practice more to improve, lest we risk running ourselves into the ground. My students only master the content by doing more homework, but I only assign more homework so that they understand, not for its own sake. Showing up more is usually good; shaping up is better.

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