A rising tide raises all boats. Except for the leaky ones. And trickle-down economics states that we all benefit when those at the top get rich. Unless we live near toxic runoff from tar-sand projects or major in academic topics not sanctioned for lavish remuneration by the powers that be. Wherever there are causes there are effects, and the looped connections between them often flow both ways. It’s up to us to decide our priorities and take into account the consequences of our academic and life choices.
Our agency, the decisions we make, is key to our success. Distance education depends on our ability to have foresight in our priorities and to plan not only for success but for actual enjoyment of the labour of learning. Reactions and outcomes are obvious to us at AU: if we shirk and skive and avoid coursework it’s going to bite us in the scholastic tail.
So, lest we become akin to the mythological Ouroboros (a snake biting its own tail, implying the circular dynamics of nature and the cosmos) it’s important to know where we are going. And for that we have to know where we are at and where we came from. But what about those extraneous details, the reminders and the notes lost in the shuffle of essay outlines?
Sometimes things happen just because. Not every moment or gesture is created equal. A spastic motion that might seem like a fit of outrage could just be the natural response to a shock of static electricity, for instance. Yet meaningless moments can also be magical moments. Meaning, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
The Gift of a Moment
Nothing expresses caring like gifts for no apparent reason. Take a bouquet of flowers, for instance. Rebecca Solnit remarks that “it may be the very uselessness of cut flowers, beyond the pleasure they give, that has made them a superlative gift, embodying the generosity and anti-utilitarianism of gift-giving” (Solnit, 17) As a seasonal forestry worker who’s always admired the combination of hand-eye dexterity with an eye for beauty endemic to the trade of floristry, it’s appealing to see things just as they are rather than perpetually what they will be used for. So much of life is numbingly utilitarian and distance education is no different. Often, and even perpetually, like a perennial plant that sprouts back year after year like a kitten ever on the pounce, the abiding question is asked of students everywhere: what are you going to do with that?
Intention and Meaning; Make of it What You Will!
Questions about intended outcomes are like the existential leftovers that gnaw away at our intentionality and ability to live in the moment, sort of an “are you going to eat your pickle?” aside to the main course of life itself. To avoid the pickle of a life dodging the pitfalls of such queries implies a certain philosophic outlook on life that embraces the sheer act of learning and growing and pondering. In the end, hopefully many decades away, it’s the little meaningful moments that will matter most. And often we’ll only recognize those in the distance vision of our mind’s rear-view mirror.
Few philosophers in history better express this broader viewpoint of meaning than the fifth century Roman, Boethius. Likely imprisoned for being a Christian, although trumped up charges to do with business dealings provided a useful pretext, he was sentenced to death. While awaiting his execution Boethius focused his energies and, like a distance student shuttered in her study nook for a weekend of catchup, wrote a book titled The Consolation of Philosophy. In it he remarks and extolls the virtues of difference and fulfillment, virtue and meaning. A key moment is when he puts life and culture in epistemic perspective; after all, when in some distant day we ponder our memoirs we’ll each be answerable to our own conscience, our personal raison d’etre.
“Finally, since every reward is desired because it is believed to be good, no one will consider a man endowed with goodness to be without reward. But what kind of reward? The greatest and most beautiful of all…Goodness is happiness, and therefore it is obvious that all good men obtain happiness in virtue of their being good. But we agree that those who attain happiness are divine. The reward of the good, then, a reward that can never be decreased, that no one’s power can diminish, and no one’s wickedness darken, is to become gods.” (Boethius, 129).
Such mystical epiphanies can arise from a single passage in our studies, especially if we are on the lookout for them in both mind and spirit! A gentle openness to newfound joy in meaningless moments opens our creative mind to new possibilities. This can allow greater fluidity and flexibility amidst the rigours of our studies. And as winter dawns into spring and birds begin to chirp we may, just may, find greater kindness peace in life and coursework.
As Jewel, the bohemian 90’s singer-songwriter (who famously had grown up in a VW van with her mother in San Diego), once sang: “in the end only kindness matters. And to be happy we must be kind, not only to others but also to ourselves. Forgiveness, for missed deadlines or even a failing grade, is divine. And through such a balanced perspective we can truly reap the benefits of work well done as distance students.