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June 27, 2019

You Matter: Sunday Vespers talk by Assistant Head of School Jay Bonner

Readings

Genesis 1: 1-13

1 John 4:19 New International Version (NIV) 19 “We love because he first loved us.”

1 John 3: 14-18

Good evening.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” examines why certain people become highly successful, whether it’s a rock band like the Beatles or a technology entrepreneur like Bill Gates. Gladwell boils much of the research down to a simple baseline: 10,000 hours. Success may be the result of some luck, but it’s the kind of luck someone has worked hard to achieve, putting in the requisite 10,000 hours of practice as a prelude to innovation and success.

Now God, as we heard in the reading from Genesis, creates the entire universe in six days: that’s only 144 hours. Pretty impressive! (Maybe, however, with more hours, He or She might have figured out how to resolve the dilemma of giving humans free will and ridding us of sin.) From God’s expressed wish—His thought or His voice—an entire universe and world are created. By calling something forth, God makes it happen. God’s desire brings forth a world composed of material, of matter: physical objects that can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, and heard.

We are, then, as humans made up of matter. Yet, so are the rocks on the ground. We are matter, but not entirely the same matter as rocks and twigs.

We have matter between our ears. Some of those in this chapel may have little more frontal lobe matter than lizards and puppies, but at least your frontal lobes are increasing, even as your advisors and hall parents might wish for quicker accrual. Is it that matter in our heads that makes us, finally, human?

AS’s mission speaks about developing our minds, bodies, and spirits. Our brains are matter. Our bodies are matter. Is it because of our spirit that we finally matter as more than mere matter?

I am fascinated that our seeming solidity is largely liquid. Then, at the molecular level, there is significant space: subatomic particles show space. What’s in those gaps but charges that keep the whole thing together? At the subatomic level, these charges connect and bind our molecules into larger groupings so that we can eventually be Scott B. or Annabelle Y., Erin C. or Lali H., Julia V. or James P.

It’s this connectedness—of mattering to one another—that closes those atomic gaps and makes us whole in spirit and substance—and fully human. And we matter to each other because we know each other and because we share in all the experiences that comprise an Asheville School education: seated meals, daily convos and chapels, a Humanities curriculum of communal readings, Sunday gatherings in this chapel and the dining hall. These daily events, these shared experiences, create a reverence for the AS experience, a sense that what we do matters and that what we do in each of these events has transcendent meaning and relevance: not only for each of us individually but also for the larger community.

So, what we do matters. We can’t “love in word.” We must “love in deed.” Deeds are truth.

Now God can express something and it’s so. But for us mere mortals, we can say something ‘til we’re red in the face, and if our daily actions don’t conform with our words, then our words fail to take hold and create the change or effect— universe or community—we desire. Our actions create the matter that gives substance to our words–or provides that charge to hold us together in spirited community. If we do what we say, our words will mean something. If we merely spew words, it’s no more than spittle in the wind…It’s what many students of writing hear from their teachers: show, don’t tell.

Just as matter, existence itself, is called forth by God’s word in Genesis, Asheville School exists to serve the words of our Mission: “providing an atmosphere in which all members of a diverse, engaged, and purposefully small school community appreciate and strive for excellence—an atmosphere that nurtures character and fosters the development of mind, body, and spirit.”

The genesis of everything we do at this school is designed to accomplish those words—to give form to or to embody the words of that mission statement. Our school universe—classes, activities, schedule—has been created to accomplish the words of the School’s mission.

Asheville School remains “purposefully small” for the reason that small communities allow students to be known and to be prized for their individual strengths as they “strive for excellence.”

Notwithstanding the myths of rugged individualism that are trumpeted in our culture, life, as David Brooks wrote in an op ed earlier this year, life is not a solo journey, but rather a series of neighborhoods and villages. Looking to the evidence of evolutionary biology, humans began in small tribes, working together in small groups, aiding each other in order to contribute to survival.

Sir Jonathan Sacks, an eminent theologian and rabbi, affirms this notion; he has written that “[t]he central drama of [human] civilization [is that] biological evolution favors individuals but cultural evolution favors groups….selfishness benefits individuals, but it is disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that individuals can survive at all.”

Jordan Peterson, in his “12 Rules for Life,” affirms the value of small communities: every member of a small community provides a skill of value to the com- munity as a whole, whether a mechanic or a baker or a plumber—these are jobs of value and significance when there are few people. “It [is] easier,” as Peterson writes, “to be good at something in smaller communities” (85), and he lists examples: homecoming queen, spelling bee champion, math whiz, basketball star. (Indeed, research suggests “that people who were born in small towns are statistically overrepresented among the eminent” (85). Small town folk are more likely to achieve great accomplishments because of the lessons learned in small communities: do your best, take care of one another, make a difference. I suspect the same is true of students in purposefully small school communities.) The closeness which comes from small numbers breeds respect, closeness, and worth: giving lives meaning, making lives matter.

Therefore, relationships matter. If we know someone, we want to do right by that someone: sell healthy farm produce, repair the car right the first time, design a building so that it withstands the seasons through decades and centuries. And, thinking from an evolutionary perspective, we begin our lives as social animals, raised by parents until we can become independent. We evolve with social brains: think language acquisition, emotional connection, and even survival—as babies we humans are unable to care for ourselves or for others. We are alive BECAUSE of the kindness and care of others. We still exist as matter because our parents loved us and expressed that we matter.

In a study titled “Hardwired to Connect,” the research concluded that the most resilient mammals are those who are licked frequently when they are young by their parents: mother cats grooming their kittens, dogs licking their puppies. This resilience is manifested at the physiological level—and informs the emotional well-being of the mammal. The quality of family relations, therefore, is of significant importance in the development of a healthy adolescent and adult. I imagine, playing off Gladwell’s study, that the healthiest of these mammals had been licked at least 10,000 times. These were the licks of love and of family belonging: actions that demonstrated a parent’s care for her or his young. These licks were practice for the love that this young mammal would need to develop for his or her own healthy survival—and for the continued survival of the species.

When we are loved and known, we are motivated and empowered to know and to love others. These licks let the young mammals know they matter: they connect the baby to the parent. When we know we matter, we are motivated to help other people know they matter. It’s a life-affirming, spirit developing cycle. It’s a cycle of connectedness.

Now licks also has a more negative connotation: we can be licked in a fight on a playground or be licked on the soccer field or feel licked by a situation. What’s important, in these scenarios, is to learn from them. There is value in a skinned knee. We grow by being tested and even by failing (as Kamryn reminded us in her talk on Thursday). The miracles of science and technology mask a 99% failure rate. We don’t mature and develop resilience without adversity.

Indeed, an Afghan proverb states, “No scar, no life, no story.” Without damage, we don’t emerge into our full selves. We have no story to tell unless there has been a complication and tension in our lives. Even a Disney story—Bambi, Snow White—has a complication that allows the protagonist to mature into a more complex character.

So, we test you at AS. Yet, we provide hours of support. Yes, we want you to test yourselves and to try new endeavors. What might you learn? How might you grow? And—we’re here for you. Knowing we’re loved gives us more willingness to try something and to risk failure.

For our brains to develop, we must place ourselves in novel situations. We must risk being uncomfortable, distanced from the womb-like security of what we know. My colleagues, therefore, who love and care for you, who wish for you your greatest potential, will push you into new levels of effort and activity—and it’s all brain food and brain development–brain AND character work.

Living in a small community where we are known compels us toward the better angels of our nature—and that’s a good thing, because I think that so much of ethical behavior, so much of character, is about habit, practicing the same thing over and over until it becomes innate—as with working to make our non-dominant hand layup in basketball automatic through repetition, dozens of them a day at practice.

Indeed, our hope is that this year will change us, together. We want you tested, stretched, even scarred. In Milton’s great poem, “Paradise Lost,” a retelling, of sorts, of Genesis, it’s instructive to remember that the poem’s protagonist and antagonist, Satan, proudly proclaims that he is the Ruler of Hell, because he “brings / A mind not to be changed by Place or Time” (Bk I, lines 252-253). Think of the audacity of that boast! —I will rule because my mind, my intellect, my rational self, will be unmoved and unaltered and unchanged by what I’ve done or where

I am or the time that I spend there. That’s the definition of a fixed mind—and, therefore, a lost soul: a soul who pridefully refuses change, who swaggers in the absurd belief that he knows it all.

I hope this year is one of becoming and belonging for us, one to which we open ourselves to doubt, to the consideration of new ways of Be-ing, to new philosophical principles. In other words, Heaven is a place where one is Alive: involved and engaged; open to connections, awash in love. Hell, Milton seems to suggest, is Death, a closing of the mind and body and soul—because love has been lost. Hell, then, is where nothing matters. Let us, then, belong in Heaven.

Because of you, we are. Because you matter, we are. Because you matter.
Let us, then, love, “[B]ecause He first loved us”—His love given—because we matter. Let us turn these words into deeds—so they matter.

Amen.