To Be Engaged in Our World

Someone recently asked me, “What are three things you hope to instill in your students?”
Of course, if I were in control of my own world, I’d totally instill a love of quality literature (you know, not the Fifty Shades of Grey dime-store novel stuff  that seems to always populate the shelves and hit the best sellers lists), I’d make everyone care about using proper grammar and mechanics when text messaging, and I’d require everyone to have an Atticus Finch shrine somewhere in their house. But, unfortunately/fortunately, we do not live in the world of Britany, so if there were three things I’d hope my students to take away from my class, it would be: (1) to learn to critically think, (2) to be decent human beings, and (3) to be engaged in their worlds.

Obviously, the first two are “easy” to explain: because we live in a world full of data and fake news and technology, its important to always question, always research, always cross reference so that people make informed decisions (and the economy doesn’t collapse from everyone doing MLM or buying household products from the Home Shopping Network); and, we want them to be decent human beings–to treat each other with kindness and empathy, to throw away their trash and consider their impact on the environment, to be responsible, have work ethic, self advocate, because one day, they will be in OUR workplaces and we will have to work alongside them.

But, what does it look like to teach students to be engaged in their worlds? Why do we care?

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury predicted a world of disengagement–a world in which people drive super fast, in order to prevent uncomfortable thoughts from infiltrating their/our minds, a world in which they/we stare mindlessly at T.V. screens in order to avoid deep, intimate connections with others, a world in which they/we take prescription pills to avoid feeling, we listen to monotonous advertisements on the train to avoid thinking, they/we schedule C-Sections to have control over even those reproductive processes, fry their/our hair with boxed dye, over-tan, under eat, and avoid any sensations and engagement with their/our worlds.

(Thankfully, Bradbury offers us a solution to prevent this kind of world from actually occurring–which, of course, is to read more books!)

In our own worlds, where does this disengagement occur? Well, the easy and obvious answer is always technology; yes, due to technology has ruined our society (and what have we done to solve this?…), but I also think this disengagement occurs because we have been improperly trained on how and why to engage with our worlds.

When we are in high school, our parents and teachers and mentors encourage us to “get involved” in our community; we pack our days (and resumes) full of extracurricular activities (mostly so that we look appealing to colleges)–we are trained that ‘engagement’ is for extrinsic motives–to get us somewhere, or something, we want in the future–and, when we enter college, and we enter the work force, that motivation and that desire to participate in groups and in extracurricular activities goes away, because suddenly, there is no extrinsic reward we are seeking (unless there is a hot girl or we are trying to get into grad school–then we continue to seek engagement opportunities to build our resumes).  We stop signing up to volunteer, we stop signing up for team sports, we stop signing up for events and get togethers. It is because we have learned that ‘engagement’ in our worlds is built on extrinsic motivation–that we should do these things, because they will offer us rewards in the future. But, what about being engaged in your world just because it makes your living experience better? Because, living an engaged life makes your moments more meaningful? Your world dimensional? A world that is no longer is a flat plane of blended hues and images that surround you, but rather an illumination of sounds and colors, things and ideas and possibilities and adventures and meaning?

How do we become engaged in our worlds?

We invest ourselves into learning. My boyfriend recently earned his private pilot’s license and now anytime we are out and hear an airplane in the sky, we must stop, figure out its course, listen for the type of engine, calculate the air speed and notice the altitude climb. Before all of this learning took place, I never noticed the frequency of airplanes in the sky, but now, suddenly my attention is aroused; the noise of a plane will peak my interest, I might notice how close to the ground the plane is flying, which direction it is coming, what kind of model it appears to be based on the lights. Of course, planes have always been flying over the house, but because I now possess this knowledge, my interest is piqued; I want to pay more attention to these happenings in the sky. Investing in learning–learning how and what and why to pay attention to–engages me in my world.

We attend to experiences. “Collect experiences, not things” is a common mantra associated with Millennials; an interesting thing happened as I began making a list of experiences to collect. I joined this trail running group, and suddenly, the same routes I’ve driven by my whole life began to have different meaning. I began seeing trails cut into the mountain sides. I began noticing the incline, the width, the trailheads you might park at. These things obviously had been there before but it was not until I was engaged that the details of the trails began popping out at me; it was the experience of being in the trail running group that illuminated these other things to me. Suddenly, the hill I’m passing by is not just a mere hill, but rather an experience to conquer.

We meditate on the external world. In his book, ‘Wired to Create’, Scott Kaufman discusses two different types of meditation: an internal meditation, in which one focuses on the internal experiences: thoughts, the heart beat, the breathing pattern of the internal self; and secondly, an external meditation, in which one pays attention to the external world–the sounds, the space, the room temperature, the smells that wrap around. When we focus our awareness to the outside world, we begin to notice the collection of smells the plants produce–we notice when it changes from a rose smell to a honeysuckle to a lilac; we can differentiate between the sound of the bird, the goat, the car brakes of the neighbor coming home; we can see the layers of sandstone that make up the rock formation. We notice the details, the parts that make up the whole, the sensations of the external world, and suddenly, our external world becomes more dynamic than before.

We become active in our lives. We research local, national, and world affairs. We promote causes we feel strongly for. We get involved in our home owners’ associations and other places our voices matter. Because, when we have dumped our own personal time and energy into a cause, those things become important to us. When we research candidates for our ballots, we want to know who won. When we donate money to a non profit, we want to follow up on where that money went. When our HOA fees increase because the building needs new paint or the HOA wants to put in a community picnic table at the park, we notice those changes. When we become active in our communities, suddenly we wonder how that policy will impact our daily lives or our retirement, we notice who is selected as ’employee of the month’ for the organization we support, we care to educate people on recycling and picking up after their dogs. And we do these things, not because we want to write them on a resume or submit for a scholarship application, but because when we are active in our lives, we care.

Now, of course, teaching students to be engaged in their world is probably not going to be a check on the Common Core State Standards, and I most certainly will not find it on a standardized test, and it may not be until later on the down the road that the students see the benefits in living an engaged life, but it is SO important to teach, because, when we become engaged in our worlds, suddenly the same environment we’ve been living in, becomes meaningful, and we can finally understand the purpose to our existence.

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