For the past week or so, my students and I have been discussing the "humans as lovers" philosophical anthropology (using James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom as our guide). The class has focused mainly on how cultures develop and change, and this last piece helps us think about why they develop and change in certain ways.
As we discussed, we make cultural artifacts (like objects and institutions) in response to human needs, wants, and desires. And we surround and associate ourselves with those same things, as much as we can, almost unconsciously (something I've been thinking about as I've read recent guest entries on Gideon Strauss's blog, and then Becky Talbot's lovely piece on The Curator today).
And then those artifacts shape us.
My office (in which I sit right now) is loaded with the usual stuff—a phone, a stapler, a cylindrical wire basket full of red and black pens—but there's more telling bits, too. There's a board to which I've pinned images of my family, and pictures from my favourite museum, and a calendar with illustrations of owls my husband gave me. There's a bookmark for my MFA program and a hand-penned copy of John O'Donohue's "Prayer for Work" sent by a friend, and a hand-drawn bookmark sent to me by another friend after a writing workshop. There are two bookshelves: one full of novels, poetry, essays, and literary criticism, and the other full of books on philosophy, history, religion, politics and art history. The two bookshelves together encompass both of the areas in which I teach—writing and humanities—and when students or colleagues come into my office, they look at those shelves and they know what I love, and thereby, part of who I am.
The institutions I strongly associate myself with do the same for me. I met with a student and her mother interested in the college at which I teach this morning, and as I explained for them—as I have for a dozen others recently—why I teach here and why I think it's important, it struck me once again that it's not so much that I love the institution itself, but that my loves and its loves are aligned in some places. In others they're perhaps not aligned at all, but they match up in important spots. Another institution that's important to me is my church, or more properly, the new church of which I'm a part. We joined the church not because we thought it would fulfill all our desires or even because we match up in all the right places, but because what it loves and what its members love is pointed toward what we love, too: our neighbourhood.
After class last week, I talked to a student who was struggling with choices about her future. And I told her: make a list of what you love, and then see what it tells you about yourself, and where you might want to go. She looked at me with new eyes. And I went forth, and did likewise.