There are three lies that I tell in all of my courses. One of them is that I am easily distracted.
I am not, at all, distractible. Certainly not in the manner I feign in the classroom. I have other problems and such, but being abruptly and entirely obsessed with the feral cats that haunt campus is not one of them. Nor is my attention broken by the sudden mention of any pop star I loathe. (I might in fact hate them all. But, recently, at the mention of Katy Perry, I narrowed my eyes and hissed, “Teenage Dream.”) I am neither random nor arbitrary, nor all that susceptible to being swayed away from what I had planned for the day’s lesson.
When I was a little kid, I remember sitting up at night, listening to the quiet thump of my own heart, wondering how it kept me alive. I wondered about everything. I still do. Always with determined scrutiny of every angle, entirely unwilling to respond to the sound of my own name unless I thought I could safely put aside the puzzle for later. My sister says I “research the shit out of things.” (Her words. We shared a room. I can’t remember if I woke her up to ask her about death. I probably did.) I was an intense child. I remain an intense adult.
So, I am not distractible. But I pretend to be, all the time, in the classroom. I will stop, suddenly, and wonder aloud about something I have remembered. I will reach sideways into the universe of pop culture, often deliberately misunderstanding it, to draw out strange analogies. To provoke irritation. To incite laughter. To enjoy confusion.
I will even complain that I am distracted, and stand in front of my students as I straighten all the tendons in my diminutive frame, glancing around the room as if searching through a clearing for a lost conceptual thread.
But I am never. We are always arriving where I prefer. Every twisting thicket somehow always leads to just the corner of the forest I had marked on the map. I laugh to my students as if surprised, but in fact not surprised at all.
Why do I lie? Because my “distraction” is really immersion in things, awareness of and delight in details. Authentic theology – or, dare I say, authentic spirituality – is really a deep attachment to the mystery in everything. I have no idea how to teach that, except I know that it is necessary to thinking seriously. Nor do I know how to surface the thorny matter of faith without a goofy grin and some gentle sleight-of-hand that turns the eyes away from threat and toward joy. Learning is a riot, I tell my students. It’s fun and it’s work. It’s hilarious and it’s sad. It’s wonderful.
Learning is attachment to things that is willing to let them go so that they might be given back again. No one has ever learned anything that didn’t need to be relinquished and relearned. No one has ever ceased an education. Play means willingness to let something go to see what might happen, and work means willingness to follow it to the end. I’ve never had a thought I could hold onto. That’s the fun of it, though. Never holding still.
I suppose I could cleanly argue a position. Certainly I know how to corner someone until they feel compelled start calling me names. I am able to ask a question and entirely dismantle another person.
But will either of us have learned anything? Perhaps a fact or three. But nothing so exhilarating as the thrill at everything.
So I am perfectly willing to wander where my students lead, fully aware that all roads lead us back to what is beautiful. (“We will arrive where we started,” says T.S. Eliot, “and know the place for the first time.”) I play a bit distracted, when really I am listening to the sound of their hearts. A small question, a peculiar detail, a stubbornly interposed reading from a dead Christian… All things that turn the eyes away from threat and toward joy.