This I Believe

Shir - Bloomingdale, New York
Entered on December 28, 2006

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, says Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall. Most of us say we don’t like walls, and yet we constantly build them around ourselves, our stuff, and our people. I think of the giant cement wall the Israelis are imposing on the Palestinians versus the small stone wall in the Robert Frost poem that the neighbors build together. Walls are a fact of life; without them there could be no roofs, no private spaces, and even no life, which depends on cellular walls. My goal is not to reject walls but to cultivate a state of mind that acknowledges and accepts what is on both sides of any wall, Arabs and Israelis, apple trees and pine trees. I believe in openness: open doors, open heart, open eyes, and open mind. Nothing was ever gained by closing off.

The wall around my stuff is permeable and open. Yes, I have a door on my house, but that door is never locked. The agreement is – if you need something, please feel free to come in, but you are on your honor not to come in uninvited unless you really do need something. My car sits in the driveway with the keys in it. If you need it, take it, but if you don’t need it, leave it alone. If I locked everything up, then you might be tempted to break in, and if you got in you might feel entitled to anything you found because you earned it by working so hard to get in. If the door is open, though, you don’t have to earn your way in, and therefore you are not entitled to any reward. On the other hand, you are welcome to anything I have that you might need. You are on your honor. I believe honor is more powerful than any lock.

Just as my possessions are open to whoever might need them, my heart is open to the sufferings of others, as much as it can be, and every day I strive to open a little bit more. I teach at a community college, and I am surrounded by people dealing with pain. Whether it’s the loss of a grandmother or a girlfriend who’s cheating, an unexpected pregnancy or a rejection of a financial aid application, every student is experiencing some sort of pain. I work to keep my heart open to these students: the perfectionists who can’t write a line until it’s completely worked out in their heads, the single moms struggling with 36 hours of work and only 24 hours to do it in, the women’s basketball players who lose every game by a few points because they have only just enough players, with no substitutes. These situations cause real suffering that is no less real because it is happening to young people. So I listen to stories, read many essay drafts, extend deadlines.

Still, along with my open heart, I need to keep my eyes open. Not every sob comes from a true story; not every extension request should be granted. With open eyes (and nose) I can see who reeks of drugs and alcohol, who does homework for another class or text messages her friends while sitting in my class, whose grandmother has died one too many times. But I don’t get cynical. I don’t let what I see with my eyes persuade me to stop feeling with my heart. These students are still people, like I am, and like I was myself at an earlier age, not wanting to waste time on anything that didn’t seem immediately relevant to my life. It’s taken me 38 years to learn that not everything shows its true value right away. Sometimes the use of a piece of knowledge doesn’t become apparent until years later. So my eyes are open to the future as well as the present and the past, and I try to help my students see all the possibilities.

The bottom line to openness is an open mind. I welcome whatever comes in and balance it against what is already there. I am open to what the world needs from me, and what I need from it. I accept what’s on both sides of the wall, whether it’s mine versus yours, teacher versus student, or present versus future. In my open mind is where I must weigh generosity and discipline, truth and fiction, As and Fs. It is where I encounter elves as well as “old stone savages.” Buddhists say that anything that enters your life is there to teach you. Only by keeping my door, my mind, my heart, and my eyes open, can I learn the lessons the world brings.