An Unexpected Lesson from a Class I Didn’t Want to Take

Bodhicitta:
a Buddhist concept for a person seeking to fulfill an enlightened mind through maintaining an open mind and heart towards all they encounter, understanding that they can learn something from everyone and everything, and embracing new thoughts and ideas.

Until my junior year of college, holding on deeply to a religion I was born into, yet guiltily questioning it in the back of my mind, I chose to concern myself mostly with social matters, such as how my hair looked, or whether or not I would have a date for the upcoming Fraternity formal. Suffice it to say, I was not embracing any new or unusual concepts in those days, and certainly did not seek out anyone I thought different than me. In my fake plastic world, everyone had their own group with shared ideas and common interests, rarely mingling or overlapping, but leaving all peoples with a place they belonged. Mine was Southern Methodist Christian, and every answer I didn’t have could be answered by the Alpha and Omega, God. It was balanced and harmonious in my head, though precariously so. I held tightly to this safe, easy answer until a class I entered into, unwillingly and without an open mind, changed my heart forever.

Majoring in Literature, it was required of us to take a multitude of classes from across the curriculum. With my senior year courses reserved for the pursuit of my Masters in Teaching, I had limited options in terms of choosing when and what courses to take. The major dilemma I was having this semester was attempting to fulfill the necessary requirements for my undergraduate degree, and wanting to take only those classes that interested me. At the moment I was trying to come up with a defense to take to my department head for allowing Southern American Literature to count for my World Literature requirement. My main argument that America was a part of the world, and thus totally counted, seemed a little flimsy, and so I set about choosing a World Literature as my sixth course.

The somewhat self-absorbed teen I was still maturing out of being wanted desperately to take Southern Lit in order to examine the writers and texts of my roots, and to learn more about myself through my history. However, as a result, I would be forced to choose a class which compared works of Western European Authors with Eastern Asian texts, and not the one on British Feminism that seemed much more relatable to my Caucasian, European mutt and female identity. Hemming and hawing for a quarter of an hour, I finally convinced myself that it was my duty as a future educator to take as many courses as I could. I also convinced myself that this other class would certainly have something new to offer me, practicing Bodhicitta long before ever learning of it. I sure knew how to talk myself into making life harder on me, and gleefully stormed ahead with my six firmly scheduled classes.

Fall slouched in sunny and muggy, as it was wont to do on the Virginia Coast, with the hustle and bustle of a new school year being the only indicator that summer was drawing to a close. Renewed with that false, short-lived enthusiasm brought on by a long break and new school supplies, I was excited for classes to begin, but unprepared for the journey I was soon to take.

That my Southern Lit. class was taught by a Jewish woman from New York City with a penchant for Faulkner was not actually the biggest surprise of the semester. Nor was the B- I earned it in, as my early on-set drive for schoolwork had ceased the moment I needed to choose between studying and hitting a homecoming party. No, the biggest surprise of the summer came from the class I had finally chosen to have an open mind towards, despite my initial trepidations.

My elegant professor stood almost six feet tall, wore little to no makeup, and kept her hair in a short pixie crop that accentuated her large blue eyes. She was graceful and beautiful, yet once she spoke, her appearance became secondary to her eloquent Bulgarian accent and articulation of the English language- one of the seven languages she had learned in her life. Navigating my native language with a mastery I thought perhaps greater than mine, she was smart, funny, and engaging; the type of professor so fully invested in her love of the authors, from Dostoevsky to Haruki Murakami, that she inspired me to actually do my assigned reading every night for the first time ever. It was in her class that I first gave attention or mindfulness to the ideas, concepts, and religions of the East, and in her first class where we were introduced to the idea of

Pantheism.
Although Pantheism, the idea that there was not a singular, existing God separate from our world, but that God was everything and everyone, was an idea I’d encountered before, but I had been raised Southern Methodist. My childhood included attending church and participating in Christian youth activities through my high school years. We were monotheistic in my family, and as we had been learning in my other class, Southerners placed a high importance on family, believing that they were not just where you came from, but who you were as a person. Families, beliefs, values, and God were the factors which made up your entire being, and they were not something to eschew lightly. Though my family was intelligent and open minded, that there was a single, loving, Christian God was an underlying fact taken for granted, and certainly never openly criticized. Any questions about belief could be answered through the concept of Faith; it was a self-confirming religion. Pantheism, however, explained the world differently, and seemed to answer those questions I had been too afraid to confront.

I cannot blame those whose eyes gloss over as I start to attempt to explain my crumbling of Christian faith and acceptance of a new perspective. Some immediately dismiss my outlook as false, and others simply feel uncomfortable questioning their notions of God, as I had for so long. Still others worry that I might try to “convert” them to a new religion, or push my view on them. Lucky for them, within my new belief system is the idea that everyone and their personal beliefs are products of their raising, community, and culture, all to be given respect and consideration. Luckily for many more, my struggle to describe and explain exactly how I view God and the universe continues, keeping my musings on it mostly within my personal journals.

I do know that in this class, I finally learned how to truly question everything I thought, read, heard, noticed, and believed, without feeling guilty about it. The catharsis I felt when I finally accepted that maybe I was wrong awakened a new zeal and excitement in my life, allowing me to search for answers in new places, and accept when there were simply no answers. I explored new religions and philosophies and I questioned them all. I came to see the world as cyclical and repetitive, our selves just small details in a much greater, beautiful picture. This allowed me to let go of the daily struggles and problems we encountered, to see them as inevitable and temporary, always coming and going, always repeating. I attempted to rid myself of preconceived, culturally-given notions of right and wrong. I finally asked, Who am I to be so self-centered and special to think that only my way of thinking is the right way? Or that any one person’s perspective, or religion, is the right one?

I chose to take Southern American Literature in an attempt to learn more about myself through my culture and roots; my first comparative literature class was simply a side effect in the search of those ends. However, it was the latter that lead me to the biggest moment of self-discovery in my twenty years. It created many changes in my way of thinking, leading me to learn new perspectives and to constantly question everything, and it showed me that choosing something new was not scary, but enlightening. I began to see beyond social norms and pressures, and learn to reflect on myself. My love of learning was cemented as my core belief, and my chosen purpose- to continue the cycle of learning in the high school classroom- grew into a desire to teach at the collegiate level and pursue my PhD. Like my worldly, brilliant professor, I wanted to introduce students to grander ideas and topics than they would likely encounter in the secondary classroom. I wanted to encourage critical thinking on the deepest and, sometimes, most uncomfortable of levels. I strove to espouse reason, intellect, understanding, and kindness. Perhaps most importantly, I have learned not to take life too seriously, because no matter what, there is always someone who disagrees with you, and for good reason, too.

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