My best work has historically been done in partnership. Co-teaching with any variety of friends seems to lend itself perfectly to what the positive psychologists have identified as Vital Engagement, a way to characterize life as love made visible. Two friends and I – both named Ruth – have collaborated and taught many college classes together over the years. My last stint with Ruth # 1 was at San Francisco State where the biggest challenge we faced was getting the students feeling safe and comfortable enough to sit in a classroom with the chairs in a circle! After class, walking to the parking lot, we passed classroom after classroom of students sitting in rows being lectured to, mostly looking bored and distracted. They lacked fizz and risibility. (I love this phrase and purloined it from KRJ). They are sadly far removed from being caught up in any wild, compelling, magnificent obsession.
Ruth # 2 and I got together with other friends and co-founded The Children’s Grief Program at Kara a number of years ago. Even in the midst of grief – or perhaps because of receiving good support for it – by the end of their time in the program, most of these kids ended up being Vitally Engaged.
MacArthur Fellow and neuropsychiatry professor Kay Redfield Jamison addresses the issue of Vital Engagement in a whole book entitled Exuberance. (Jamison’s understanding of Vital Engagement is profound, rooted as it is in her own long history of suicidal manic-depression). Here’s how she describes it:
Exuberance is an abounding, ebullient, effervescent emotion. It is kinetic and unrestrained, joyful, irrepressible. It is not happiness, although they share a border. It is instead, at its core, a more restless, billowing state. Certainly it is no lulling sense of contentment: exuberance leaps, bubbles, and overflows, propels its energy through troop and tribe. It spreads upward and outward, like pollen toted by dancing bees, and in this carrying ideas are moved and actions taken. Yet exuberance and joy are fragile matter. Bubbles burst; a wince of disapproval can cut dead a whistle or abort a cartwheel. The exuberant move above the horizon, exposed and vulnerable.
Hair on Fire
Social documentary filmmaker, Dorothy Fadiman found kids moving “above the horizon” and made a film about them. In her award-winning investigative study, Why Do These Kids Love School? there is nary a row of desks or a lecture to be found. In some of the schools she visited, the kids were so passionately engaged in things they loved, it was a challenge to film them. Likewise with Oprah $100,000 Use Your Life Award-winner, Rafe Esquith. His inner city Los Angeles elementary school students love school so much they show up two hours before classes start and stay two hours past the time classes end. I would say that’s Vital Engagement. I would also say we need more models like this to look to for guidance.
Three Primary Practices
What prevents all of us from becoming Vitally Engaged? Perinatal neuropsychologist Annie Brook has some ideas about how Vital Engagement gets lost. You can hear her talk a bit about them or attend her presentation at the U.S. Body Psychotherapy Conference. I’m guessing she will cover what I consider to be Three Primary Practices, which, if put into active practice by parents, teachers and counselors, would go a long way in the support and development of Vital Engagement, I think.
What are the Three Primary Practices? They must begin early with parents, of course, but parents, teachers, counselors and clergy would be well-advised I think, to all be aware of them and to initiate a personal practice with them. And, not surprisingly, we practice best when we play well with others. I invite you to investigate them here: The Three Primary Practices.