Well, best laid plans and all. I should be telling you today about the glamorous publishing event I went to last night, only last night the train I was travelling in broke down and I lost so much time that in the end the only sensible thing to do was turn around and go home. So, that was not quite the evening out I’d been intending.
And I’m behind on my reading because this term, usually the quietest of my university terms (in fact this time last year, I had no students whatsoever) has been incredibly busy, and I am going into college on days I wouldn’t normally just to try to get through the backlog. Plus, exam term problems are tough ones. I spent two and a half hours with one student on Tuesday. And whether we made any progress at all is, alas, far from certain.
But I have been doing a lot of research reading in the area of liberation theology, which has turned out to be strangely apposite. What is liberation theology, I hear you cry? Well, I’ll give you a quote: ‘Liberation theology believes that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed and encourages the Church to participate in creating a new reign of life in which all people live with justice and love.’ It was a movement started in the 1970s by a priest working in the poor parts of Lima in Peru, a man called Gustavo Gutierrez, who believed that the story of Jesus is that of a man embedded in his historical context, fighting against imperial powers and doing everything possible to help those suffering social injustice. To live a spiritual life was, to his mind, to align oneself with the poor and the marginalized and make every effort to improve their situation.
Now the interesting by-product of this research for me has been about love. When you try to help other people, as I do in my day job, you realise pretty quickly that human beings are hard to help. They resist. They protest. They struggle. It is much easier to be miserable than to make the superhuman effort to overcome difficulties and change bad habits. So trying to help other people, even though they are crying out for help, is often a frustrating and exhausting business. What is intriguing about liberation theology is the understanding that faith keeps people going. Spirituality is a way of loving life, even when life is thankless and full of failure and never going to get better. I find that interesting because it’s not rational, and yet it’s emotionally logical. It responds, if you like, to the craziness that is suffering itself. I’m not sure I have thought my way around this sufficiently yet to be talking about it, but it corresponds in my head to the way that a child who is behaving very badly is probably a child very much in need of love. Or, to put it another way, when everything is going wrong in our lives and our instinct is inevitably to feel abandoned, the only thing that will pull us through is absolute belief in the constancy of our goodness, our value, our loveability.
I see this in my students who, because they are getting things wrong, are attacking themselves with their own anger; they quickly believe they are worthless. But getting things wrong is a daily part of the human condition. It has to be, because if we got things right all the time, we would be utterly swollen headed and insufferable. We are often at our least loveable when we are convinced we are right. Accepting our own mistakes is another description of humility, and humility is what makes us bearable to be with, not to mention compassionate towards other people because we understand how things so easily go wrong. This is the strange thing with my students. They don’t really want to be told how to write essays and revise for exams; they really want me to reassure them they are lovable. Even more than this, they need me to put them back in touch with love for themselves. For some reason, we’ve made love something that is in short supply, only available to us in the moments of supreme achievement. And love isn’t like that at all, or it wouldn’t be worthy of the name. Love is what we need to be able to find every time we mess up.
It is easy to say this and yet it can be very hard to do, but to put ourselves in touch with our own properly unconditional love is, I think, a very powerful way forward. And now, to try to think of a way to say this to the students that will not bewilder or embarrass them!