The Curious History of Love (1)

I have just finished reading Jean-Claude Kaufmann’s book The Curious History of Love. I recommend it to you.

It begins with a historical analysis of the impact of both Christian agape (unconditional, or universal love: ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’, ‘love your enemies’) and eros.  It follows European history through the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment and up to the current era of individualism.

Of particular interest to me is his analysis of the conflict between individualism and the conjugal expression of agape. The latter part of the book is more of a commentary. He identifies how domestic love is built on a thousand little kindnesses. A marriage fails, he says, not because of the loss of passion, but because of the failure of  agape  to underpin all that we do together as a couple. He celebrates the sentiment attached to small kindnesses and praises the trust that the friendship of marriage brings. It is very refreshing. His comments on the ways that we show this love even when we are cranky, in my view, are very insightful. He talks about one person in a marriage, in the case in his example it is usually the woman, doing a mundane act like sweeping the floor when the other person has done something to upset them. It is, Kaufmann argues, an act of love, because she is trying to say to him that she will lose her life for him. This conflict between our desire to be an individual, and the uncompromising nature of love – that it demands we lose our lives in order to express it – is quite fascinating. He notes also the ways that we can manipulate the love of the other person in order to assert our individualism. This is why societies built on Utopian frameworks often fail and become dictatorships. Whether in a marriage or in a community, the individual can abuse those that love him/her.

I am sure like many husbands, I believe my wife is quite astonishing. Her constant patience and, I choose the word deliberately, goodness, are quite humbling. Our culture does not properly celebrate the tremendous daily joy in a loving marriage – even in the moments that embarass me I am a person who is deeply loved. My wife knows that she is too, and that is wonderfully fulfilling.

My analysis of the book is too quick and glib. The book deserves better.

Well done I say to Mr Kaufmann on being so counter-cultural . And yes, he does see all forms of love as political acts.

Acting ethically when others express their power

The usual assumption is that a principal of a school has a significant portion of the authority needed to create the social reality of a school.

And, in many ways, this is a fair assumption. He controls the budget and selects how it will be spent. He directs projects and programs. He can intervene, or decide not to act.

Yet, there are times when a staff member or a parent or a student, rightly or wrongly, takes action to express their point of view about a matter in a public and negative way, and the principal needs to lead the school in response to their actions.

We have some peculiar forms of language to describe the ways that we can respond. Common parlance in the business world is to ‘limit the damage’, and to ‘present the official position’. This language associates the leadership with the maintenance of their own power and the established structures of the school. When a large independent school is in the firing line, the whole history of the institution seems to suggest that the actions of the school leader are about protecting reputation.

But what if the leader has a strong desire to act ethically? To both tell the truth, and to  protect the dignity of staff members, students and parents. It seems a simple enough approach. One of the challenges is that the disgruntled person often operates from a position where the audience might be more likely to believe them. They are the David, the school is the Goliath. Add the fact that social networking is often a ‘private-become-public’ representation of loyalties, best guesses and emotion, then the Goliath is liable to look even bigger, and the David all the more the boy with a few stones.

What can a principal do?

Firstly, he can ask what he expects of himself. I ask myself if I am being straight-forward. I ask if I am representing my view clearly and making sure that I don’t spend time trying to misrepresent the other person’s view. The other person, whether they speak truthfully from their perspective or deceitfully, can and will speak for themselves.

Secondly, he can be open to criticism. We all have blind-spots and sometimes the seemingly wild voices have wisdom. I need to listen to the comments of staff, students and parents, even if it is painful.

Thirdly, he can make sure that he is not personalising the issue. Even in the hardest circumstance it is important to seek to be magnaminous. I hope to tell the truth to the person with whom I have the disagreement, but I don’t need to justify myself publically in the hope that I will look better. Just consistently tell the truth.

And finally, remember Kipling. Both triumph and disaster are imposters. Any difficult circumstance is not about me: it is about learning from the situation, it is about gaining strength, it is about creating a better place for the students to learn.

And it isn’t a bad thing that students see that people are fragile, even broken. Even the people they idealise are flawed. So are they. So am I. In schools we say that it builds resilience, and it does. Perhaps more important is that students have to work out what they believe, and how they will discern whom to trust.



Conversations with my Daughters (3)

My youngest daughter and I chatted recently about the factors that she might consider when looking for a post-school occupation. She is in her final year of secondary schooling and is undertaking school-based assessments whilst preparing for exams in October and November.

What is the advice that I as a parent could give? Occupations have status, financial recompense, and enjoyment as factors. In schools we often advise people according to these criteria.

Our conversation turned to the area of the physical space that she might work within. When we choose an occupation we choose a type of environment: the gardener in the garden, the IT specialist with his screens, the Vet in her surgery. So I asked her to consider the physical space that she would be working within. What could she manage? What would she enjoy?

The other big question is why she wants to work at all. Does she want a job so that she can confine her work to what someone else asks her to do, and thus go home and leave aside work? Does she want a career so that her work gives her status, influence and the possibility of increased income? Or does she want a vocation so that she can live her life as an act of service and blur the boundaries between the public and the private self?

She knows that I see work as vocation. It is a Christian model that, since all of your life belongs to God, your work does as well. Work is a series of decisions to make, adventures to participate in, problems to solve… for the well-being of a community. This understanding is problematic in that even well-meaning individuals at work and in business can expect the person who takes this approach to serve their individual needs. And I would not want to see my daughter, because of her good will, be abused by  those who are just looking for someone to do their work. I am pleased that she is someone who is able to tell the truth about her life and work as well. Her work should not compromise her integrity.

Yet a great joy in life is in living and working cooperatively with others. “He that would save his life shall lose it, and he that would lose his life for my sake shall save it,” said Jesus. Perhaps if I can show her the joy in approaching work as a vocation, who she becomes will be more important, and more sustaining, than what she chooses to do.