Being Replaced

stargazerWhen we question ego-mind directly, it is exposed for what it is: the absence of everything we believe it to be. We can actually see through this seemingly solid ego-mind, or self. But what are we left with then? We are left with an open, intelligent awareness, unfettered by a self to cherish or protect. This is the primordial wisdom mind of all beings. Relaxing into this discovery is true meditation—and true meditation brings ultimate realization and freedom from suffering. —Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche, “Searching for Self”

“How do you feel about being replaced?” a friend asked me yesterday.

This in response to a candidate for my position at Rollins College being here for campus interviews.  As a part of the interview process, she taught a class.  It happened to be my class that she taught.  The question troubled me, and it’s taken a while to decide why.

It was almost an out of body experience for me, which is what we say when we don’t entirely know how to process an event.  We were in 105 Orlando Hall, which has been my preferred room to teach in for the last twenty-four years.  She was sitting in my place at the head of the table when I walked into the room about three minutes before class was to start.  I was a little startled by that.  Undoubtedly my ego taking offense at her taking over my place at the table without being graciously shuttled into it.  You don’t sit in Dad’s chair when Dad is home, right?   She had her books arrayed around her and she was sitting complacently.  She might have been chatting with a student.  She was soft and low key.  She wore a diaphanous, summery blue print dress that seemed decidedly unlike the tailored blue suit graduate students are advised to wear at interviews.

I went up to her and introduced myself; she rose and shook my hand with the appropriate amount of obeisance. Told me how much she had heard about me and that she was happy to meet me.  New guard greeting the old guard.  It was an archetypal moment, one in which both people know the importance of the moment–the changes coming into their lives.  I spoke to her jokingly about “my babies” as I looked out over the large class and how pleased I was to hand them over to her for a while.  They deserve the best, I said.  And then, several other department members arrived to observe her and we got started.

I went to the back of the room and sat at the table with the students instead of positioning myself at the room’s periphery with other faculty members.  I didn’t want to judge this event; I wanted to participate in it fully.  I watched her closely.  She is young and attractive.  She has a book coming out.  She has an MFA from the best university for teaching writing in the nation.  She’s got creds.  She’ll be good.

And there she stood in my place.  And there I sat at the back of the large oval table I’ve walked around for twenty-four years.  And then I realized:  I don’t see myself as “being replaced” because, to just be honest, there is no way I can be replaced by a young person right out of graduate school.  Something bigger than “replacement” is happening here.

As I watched her teach, I could see that she is a highly competent person, just not very filled out as a human being. I recognized a necessary wafting and waning that takes place in the workplace.  The department gets something new when it hires a young person:  fresh skills, new information, high energy, and more.  But what you lose when you let go of an old soul like me is just that, an old soul.  Someone who is clear about what is important about life and has the confidence and finesse to actually bring that into the classroom.  Yes, you still have to teach knowledge and technique, but at this stage of my teaching life, I’m interested in teaching wisdom and awareness, nudging students to think in new ways about themselves and the nature of their realities.  This is the real work that we human beings have to do on this planet.  Skills and techniques are nice (oh yes, even important); but the heart of the matter for me is grappling with the Big Questions.  So there will be exciting new things that this beautiful, young thing brings to us, and that’s so good.  She will grow into her own skin in time.  Hopefully sooner rather than later.  Because our little babies at Rollins need to know about their souls.  They need to begin the work of saving themselves.

Essentially, I see this process of retiring and hiring as a part of the evolution of the college, and ultimately as a part of the larger evolution of the planet. The candidate and I are really just small pegs in a deep evolutionary process that is going on around and in each and every one of us, one in which we are at the least mere pawns, at the best co-creators.  The college must slough off the old, the parts of us that need to move on to quieter times or to other projects, and it must take on new blood, new energy, new knowledge.  It’s the way any organism changes, and we hope those changes bring about new strengths and deeper knowledge, more benefit to our students. Keeping equilibrium between the old and the new is a job of delicate balance, it seems–in organizations and in individuals, too.  It’s a process of “transcending and including” the best parts of our growth, to use philosopher Ken Wilber’s notion of evolution.

It leads me to question:  what old and no longer beneficial part of me am I sloughing off as I leave 105 Orlando Hall and that fabulous oak table I’ve walked around for years?  What am I taking on that is new and energetic, what new knowledge, what new skills, new insights?  Can I move through this process “unfettered by a self to cherish or protect”?  That’s my job right now.

Photo credit:  Bret Hubert