This afternoon I received the latest version of an email I’ve gotten once or twice every single semester I’ve been teaching online. The particulars don’t matter because it’s always the same basic scenario.
Student X has stopped participating in class because of a health, personal, family, or work problem; Student X is worried they won’t pass or get a good grade in my class; and Student X can’t drop the class because of financial, philosophical, or logistical reasons. The particulars don’t matter: what matters is that the story is almost universal. Whenever a student is panicking because they’ve stopped participating and don’t know how to get back in the swing of the semester, my answer is pretty much the same: “Just come back.” It’s an answer that is mind-blowing in its simplicity. “The way you finish the semester,” I wrote to this latest incarnation of Student X, “is by finishing the semester.” In other words, just come back: just resume doing whatever it was you were doing before you hit a bump and got derailed.
I’ve taught many incarnations of Student X over the years, and the biggest barrier they typically encounter is their own panic, despair, or shame about having to start over. Once again, the particulars don’t matter: what stays true is this mental block about coming back. There’s this deeply ingrained feeling that you should beat yourself up when you’ve hit a bump because your professor or some other authority figure is standing with arms akimbo, scowling, wanting to punish you. In my experience, though, half of life is about showing up, and the other half is about coming back. It’s not about never missing a beat; it’s about getting back in step after you’ve stumbled.
I wish I could say I learned this lesson through some sort of esoteric or mystical realization, but the truth is, I learned it the hard way. I’ve spent a lot of my life hitting bumps, getting derailed, and otherwise abandoning whatever work I’m supposed to be doing. Today, for example, I spent a good portion of the morning not checking my online classes, not checking work email, and not doing the things I’d duly written on my to-do list: the usual procrastination of yet another Don’t Wanna Wednesday. It’s not that I wasn’t working; it’s that I was avoiding one set of tasks by busying myself with another set of tasks. There’s always something lying around waiting to be done, so it’s always easy to procrastinate by looking busy.
So, how do you tackle the to-do list you’ve spent the whole morning avoiding? You just come back. How do you resume the morning writing routine you’ve let fall by the wayside? You just come back. How do you return, again, to the meditation practice you’ve been doing on and off and on-again for more years than you can count? You just begin again, again…and when your mind wanders, you just bring it back. There’s a reason why one of my favorite Zen sayings is “Fall down six times, get up seven.” If we didn’t stumble, flop, and fall, we’d never experience the joyous relief of starting over, anew.