Two weeks ago, I sat at a large, round table in the balmy woods of Georgia, eating cheesy grits. I was surrounded by strangers who became friends and who I love deeply. They run major philanthropies, publish books, pastor churches, climb mountains, work on HIV/AIDS prevention, practice mindfulness.
These 32 young justice leaders and activists from Mexico, Switzerland, Peru, Canada and across the United States were all gathered together for the Center for Courage & Renewal’s “Courage to Lead for Young Leaders & Activists” retreat, co-founded by writer and activist Parker J. Palmer.
I tried to engage the group in a breakfast discussion about staying encouraged when the work is especially tough. But what I really wanted to ask was, “How can we possibly do this work that breaks our hearts, that leaves us exhausted, that feels deeply important yet shallowly valued?”
The truth is that all of us around the table were tired—and not because it was 8 a.m. and we had a 14-hour itinerary. We were deeply tired. One friend was planning to resign on Monday. Several others had recently transitioned into new roles or new cities. Many of us felt the burden of lives divided between what we allow others to see and who we are inside.
Now back at home, with January 1 approaching, I wonder: How can I—and my fellow educators—enter the year being true to our inner teachers, connecting our “on-stage” lives of work with our “backstage” lives of vulnerabilities, fears and joys? Of course, there are recommendations like getting more sleep and eating our veggies and all that. But as Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach,
Wouldn’t it be more practical, I am sometimes asked, to offer tips, tricks, and techniques for staying alive in the classroom, things that ordinary teachers can use in everyday life? ... I have worked with countless teachers, and many of them have confirmed my own experience: as important as methods may be, the most practical thing we can achieve in any kind of work is insight into what is happening inside us as we do it. The more familiar we are with our inner terrain, the more surefooted our teaching—and living—becomes.
So, with lessons from Courage & Renewal and Palmer in mind, here are four strategies for renewal in the face of our necessary but very challenging work.
1. Consider when you feel most alive. Seek that out.
Most introductions begin with, “So, what do you do?” But even if we feel deeply connected to our jobs, how can we genuinely express that? As Palmer asks in his writing, how can we bring our “soul to our role” and express our “heart in our part?”
On day one at Courage & Renewal, our introductory activity helped answer these questions. The directions were, “Say your name, where you are from and what makes you feel most alive.”
“Horses,” one person said. “Karaoke,” said another. “Dancing!” chorused about five. We laughed and continued.
Later, back at work in Wisconsin, I asked my students the same question, and I shared my answer: “Doing things only kids are usually allowed to do: frequent singing, jumping, play.” We, as justice educators, can renew ourselves by embedding these joys into our daily lives—and by encouraging others to do the same.
2. Practice talking freely and listening openly.
Throughout the Courage & Renewal retreat, we had a simple reflective model: (1) Read a short poem or essay. (2) Write or draw for 10 minutes. (3) Sit with two others and talk. (4) Repeat.
The double gift of listening and being listened to was life changing. One of the most profound experiences we can have is to be fully heard by another—to know that someone acknowledges us and cares. For people who feel undervalued or overexerted in work and life, the practice of being heard can be revolutionary. Likewise, one of the most important gifts we can give another person is to listen.
Whether it’s a colleague at work or someone in your personal life, try asking a trusted person to listen to you for 10 minutes, uninterrupted. You could talk about a reading, a problem or a work issue. Then for five minutes, the other person can ask questions: no suggestions, no “fixing,” just simple clarification prompting further detail. (If you are interested in learning more about deep listening and open and honest questions, click here.)
3. Write yourself an honest letter. Wait to send it.
For the final Courage & Renewal activity, the facilitators asked us to write letters to ourselves. I lay down and watched my hand move pen over paper until my shoulder tensed. When I finished writing and joined the others, a fellow retreat attendee said, puzzled, “I thought something happened to you.”
She was referring to the fact that, for 20 minutes, I had been face down on the ground, writing. Surely I had appeared almost unconscious. My mind was miraculously clear. I was calm—not rushed, not stressed. Sure of myself. So her question made sense: Something did happen to me. We handed in our self-addressed letters for our facilitators to send to us months later.
Reflecting with no expectations can be freeing and grounding, and seeing those reflections months down the road can add insight, a revelation for our future selves. Try free writing or drawing about where you are emotionally, spiritually and professionally. Seal it up and give it to a reliable comrade who will send it later. A letter is a delight, especially when it arrives from someone we love—including ourselves!
4. Begin and end with gratitude.
Be gentle regarding expectations of yourself and others in the new year. A retreat comrade taught me an Alcoholics Anonymous saying: “Expectations are the resentments of tomorrow.” Instead, focus on gratitude. I end now with deep gratitude to the brave people everywhere who do justice and who choose to endeavor with me at leading authentic lives. We owe it to each other—and to the people we serve—to develop and listen to our inner truths as educators so we can press on with the task of loving work and living well, together.
Happy New Year. Here’s to sanity and solidarity.
Czarnik-Neimeyer is the assistant director and chief of staff at St. Norbert College’s Cassandra Voss Center, which focuses on transformation through initiatives related to race, class, gender and identity.