Showing Promise

Egg grown in a Tree
ink, 2015, Bonsai Ramey

A student puts off his final essay till the night before it’s due.  The stakes are high.  Four pages and 10% of his final grade for the course are on the line.  The deadline looms guillotine-like above his head, and this motivates him.  He gets his grade back soon and proclaims to his peers, “I don’t know how I got a 95% on my paper; I pulled it out of my butt the night before!”  What’s notable about this common scenario, putting aside his rectal storage site, is that this 95% is viewed as a major shortcoming of the teacher and a buckling of the high standard of quality he or she is known or supposed to maintain.

Let’s assume for the moment that while this is true, it is not entirely true.  Perhaps a second reading of the situation would ask, Why is the student not more impressed by himself, his transcendent nature, and what he was able to do with a few long, intense hours of focused, guillotine-dreading time?  He has produced not just passable work; the work is good.  It shows PROMISE.

We say of someone showing potential that he shows promise, exhibiting an aptitude or skill early in its flowering.  Why do we use the word “promise”?  Because, however nascent in its development, the potential culmination of the skill is perceptible.  Because, like promising something will come to pass, those who show promise would lift themselves above their current orbit merely by staying their present course.  Every person is a becoming, but that person who shows promise in a given capacity can consider himself promised a privileged position, a sacred earning, a gift, a power, merely by holding to the path along which he already finds himself.  This is special, for noticing the path means already some part of the conflict about life has been overcome.  A unifying direction has become visible from the chaos, a means to trump entropy, to “contribute a verse.”  As Walt Whitman wrote:

O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer:

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Trusting the Ground of Learning

In order to access that “world in a grain of sand” which William Blake wrote about, physically, nothing more is required than to walk the beach, sit and comb the sand.  In the end, physically, there is probably nothing required.  What he meant was a psychological alignment.  Only we think the weight of “infinity in the palm of the hand” is too great to bear alone, or it seems cheap, so we hire all kinds of help and conspire to lift the entire beach to see what’s holding it up.  If we can do it together, after all our labors, then, maybe, the reward will be great.  But a single grain of sand—there has got to be more to it than that.  We’re not used to finding greatness without great expenditure.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said in a speech that, to be concerned for others, we must “project the I into the thou.”  The only way to test something truly is to test it on its own ground, to walk that ground in those shoes.  This in itself is challenging enough; but it is impossible if one does not “know oneself” first.  So the reverse is just as true.  Nietzsche knew this well when he said, “The you is older than the I; the you has been pronounced holy, but not yet the I: so man crowds toward his neighbor” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 60).

Original Blue Mandala2