The Overwhelming Beauty of Community

DAISY SAVAGE, HEAD OF UPPER SCHOOL: My husband and I are avid amateur birders. Our yard is loud with finch, sparrows, wrens, jays, cardinals, chickadees, nuthatch, and woodpeckers, and we tend our feeders as lovingly as we once fed our children. Throughout the spring and summer seasons, we come to recognize particular pairs and families. The goldfinch and cardinals in particular are lovely to watch as they live in devoted and careful monogamy.

This connection that we, as living beings, can feel towards others – and not exclusively to our ‘kind’ – is, for me, very powerful.

In the late fall and winter, the goldfinch usually move off to warmer climes, although this year they remained late: I thought I caught a glimpse of one late in February but couldn’t be sure. And then one Sunday as Tom and I trekked through the neighborhood woods and fields, we saw a telltale flash of blue: the Eastern bluebird, a certain sign of spring.

I worried for weeks afterward. Even at the moment of our joyful sighting, in 50 plus degrees of an extremely mellow February with March on the near horizon, I knew that frigid and capricious temperatures were on the way. I understand that, to some, such concern might seem trivial or even crazy. After all, birds are exceptionally smart and show incredible creativity and initiative in their instinct to survive. But what if something happened to that bluebird? I could not get it out of my mind. This connection that we, as living beings, can feel towards others – and not exclusively to our ‘kind’ – is, for me, very powerful.

This then led me to contemplation of this sense of connection, this sensitivity to others. Our conversations about thoughtful use of technology throughout this year probably helped bring it to the surface, in its persuasive assertion of how excessive screen-time and our increasing reliance upon digital communication/connection is demonstrably affecting the development of empathy in children and adolescents. That is certainly worrisome.

Some things are just really, really complicated, and, maybe, just maybe, sometimes it really is hard to know what is true.

Just as worrisome is the coarseness of current political debate in the country, the insistence on argument in online commentary, the simplification of so many complicated things into a binary, either/or construct: If I’m right, you’re wrong; things are either black or they’re white. The answer is either yes or it’s no, and one of us is an idiot.

As we are frequently reminded, human beings have been gifted with the capacity for reason. To me, this means that, not only can we determine what’s right or wrong, we can also determine what is neither. Some things are just really, really complicated, and, maybe, just maybe, sometimes it really is hard to know what is true.

So this leads me, as an educator, to thoughts about our students’ evolving capacities for critical thinking and creativity. Most of us might understand what creativity is, but what about critical thinking? What does it look like, and how will we know it when we see it?

As teachers, this is the itinerary of growth we need to help our students navigate, and there is not a straight line in sight!

I believe that, if we can reason, then we can assess, analyze, and make decisions. And then we need the time to honestly reflect upon those decisions. If we are also encouraged to be creative, then we can develop the confidence to strengthen that reasoning process by allowing our imaginations to participate, to see the false barriers that can limit our thinking. As teachers, this is the itinerary of growth we need to help our students navigate, and there is not a straight line in sight!
The century ahead presents enormous challenges, not merely because of their scale, but also because of the capacities we have developed – as societies, as nations, and as people – in the past 100 years. The decisions we make in the years ahead – about climate change, about global leadership, about human rights, war, economics, you name it – need to be thoughtful ones that all citizens in democracies around the world can understand and in which they can at least have a voice. If we lose empathy, if we diminish our executive function and our critical thinking, if we silence our imaginations – if we surrender our lives over to machines designed to make our lives run smoother and faster and easier – then don’t we risk losing contact with the very capacities that we need most? And don’t we risk losing contact with each other?

This does not mean we have to be gregarious extroverts. For example, anyone who knows me even a little bit knows I enjoy solitude and consider my personal space to be inviolate. But enjoying solitude is not the same as wanting to be alone. We simply were not meant to live that way. When we look out for each other, when we honor our mutual connection with depth of feeling and genuine empathy, we support others and we strengthen ourselves. Just like my goldfinch, we’re all in this together. John Donne, one of England’s great metaphysical poets, in his Meditation XVII, from 1624, memorably expressed this ancient truth:

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee….”

let’s rejoice in our deepening critical reasoning capacities and the creative way this growth reveals itself.

So, as we race through the spring’s sprint to the school year’s end, I want to remember my connections and be grateful for the hard work so many have invested in the year’s progress and for the progress so many have made through the year. As the spring leaves unfurl and the ground puts forth its riot of colorful daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinth, and hellebore, let’s rejoice in our deepening critical reasoning capacities and the creative way this growth reveals itself.

Underscoring our connections throws them into bas-relief and accentuates the overwhelming beauty and strength of our community. And while we are at it … pray for my bluebird!

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