28 June 2007

i have been thinking a lot about confidence lately. mostly because it feels like mine has dissolved and disappeared in the last four years. it's no secret that i'm an opinionated woman. that i really see no reason to keep my thoughts to myself. except when tact dictates that i do (and i'm generally tactful). but where i used to question everything in an academic setting--where i challenged everything, from professors' comments in class to the ideas presented in articles--i no longer do. i've watched my marginalia change from in-your-face questions challenging the foundational premises of an argument to basic regurgitation of points made in the text. and it drives me absolutely batty. because somewhere inside of me that provocateur is still there, still has questions demanding answers. but somehow i just can't ask them anymore.

and i want to know where my confidence has gone. in part it's a victim of the depression i've dealt with off and on for the last five years or so. in part it's a victim of a graduate program designed to beat people down. (i know that's extreme; and i don't think it's entirely overt; but that is undeniably one of the dynamics of grad school.) mostly i think it's been replaced by fear. fear of an unknown future. fear of loneliness. fear of sounding like a moron. fear of feeling like i've accomplished something only to be told i failed. and, worst of all, on some level i fear success--almost as if the beauty of the life i envision will make the pain of life that much greater, more unbearable, so it's better to just be dulled. mediocre accomplishment with mediocre pain to go with it.

the problem is, that the questions are still inside me waiting to be asked. the lover of beauty is never going away. i can't help seeing the world with my particular slant on truth. i'll never be able to live so that everything is just kind of even--no big ups, no big downs, just steady. because it will hurt that there's a part of me bottled up inside, no matter how much i manage to avoid pain.

so i've been thinking about confidence. about what it is. about how it works. about how i can get mine back. and it made me remember a talk elder holland gave during my last year at byu. 'cast not away therefore your confidence.' in it, elder holland recounts god showing moses a vision of all of the earth and all of its inhabitants and satan's subsequent appearance to moses, demanding that moses worship him. after moses rejects satan, saying 'get thee hence, satan; deceive me not,' satan cries out with a loud voice, saying 'i am the only begotten, worship me. and it came to pass that moses began to fear exceedingly; and as he began to fear, he saw the bitterness of hell. nevertheless, calling upon god, he received strength. . .' i've always been struck by the fact that moses only sees hell after he fears. so long as he retains the confidence of his knowledge of god and god's creation, he simply dismisses satan. elder holland calls attention to that fact, sharing several other examples of fear preventing god's children from relying upon their confidence. his talk is wonderful, and you should read it.

but every time i read that talk (and i've read it numerous times in the last ten years), i think about that phrase: 'cast not away therefore your confidence.' and i wonder what it means. what is it that we cast away when we allow fear to come between ourselves and our confidence? what is confidence, other than a vision from god (not something i can claim ever to have received)? what is it other than a revelation of a specific course of action (as in the example of moses parting the red sea, another example elder holland shares)? what is it in my situation, where confidence seems to be ability combined with a state of mind (or an inability combined with a state of mind)?

being a total english nerd, i turned to the oed (for those of you not english nerds, that translates to the oxford english dictionary), which defines confidence as: the mental attitude of trusting in or relying on a person or thing; assurance; assured expectation; assurance, boldness, fearlessness, arising from reliance; an object or ground of trust--that which gives confidence, boldness, or security. the etymology of the word indicates that it originally indicated two friends who mutually confide in or trust each other (makes sense; the etymology doesn't break the word down to its component parts, but con- as a latin prefix means 'with' and fid- is the root of words that mean faith).

but what does it mean spiritually? in psalm 65, the psalmist cries out, 'o god of our salvation; who art the confidence of all the ends of the earth.' proverbs 3 (a beautiful chapter of scripture) confirms this idea that god is himself the confidence of all the earth. after urging us to 'lean not unto [our] own understanding,' but to instead find wisdom and get understanding (by which god founds the earth and establishes the heavens), we are told: 'my son, let not them depart from thine eyes: keep sound wisdom and discretion: so shall they be life unto thy soul, and grace to thy neck. then shalt thou walk in thy way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble. when thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid: yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet. be not afraid of sudden fear, neither of the desolation of the wicked, when it cometh. for the lord shall be thy confidence, and shall keep thy foot from being taken.'

the lord shall be our confidence. and i'm struck by the repetition of 'foot'--our feet will not stumble. the lord will keep our feet from being taken. and it reminds me of the promise made in genesis after the fall that god will 'put enmity between thee [satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it [christ, but by extension all who take upon them christ's name] shall bruise thy head, and thou [satan] shalt bruise his heel.' god will be our confidence--our assured expectation; our boldness; our fearlessness--because through reliance on him, our feet will be kept. we will not stumble. satan may bruise our heel, but we will continue on without our feet being taken.

but what does that mean? in his talk, elder holland urges us not to stop once we've received revelation. and he explains that revelation is not just information (the knowledge that god is our confidence, for instance). it's also action. it's moving forward into the terrifying void created by parting the red sea. it's refusing to turn back in the face of an unprecedented course of action because the old captivity seems less bizarre and more sure than the way forward across dry land between towering walls of water (at least that's the way cecil b. demille makes it look).

just as it's a mistake to receive information and stop there without understanding and taking the way forward--the actions that will make that information efficacious--, it is a mistake to read far enough to get the philosophical without continuing to get the practical understanding of confidence. having told us that 'the lord shall be [our] confidence, and shall keep [our feet] from being taken,' the proverb continues: 'withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it. say not unto thy neighbour, go, and come again, and to morrow i will give; when thou hast it by thee. devise not evil against thy neighbour, seeing he dwelleth securely by thee. strive not with a man without cause, if he have done thee no harm.'

it seems to me that confidence--my confidence and yours--is not merely god protecting us from harm. it is also our continuing on in goodness. it is, as joseph smith demonstrated after having been tarred and feathered by a mob, continuing as usual in spite of whatever fear or difficulty we face. and as we do so, we will 'lie down, and [our] sleep shall be sweet.' and we will find that, according to isaiah, 'in returning and rest shall [we] be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be [our] strength.' indeed, if i have learned anything about confidence through the depression and darkness of the last few years, it's that raging at god exacerbates the fear and the loneliness, while quiet acceptance of his will fills me with peace. when i return to him and try to develop a relationship of mutual trust and faith with him, i no longer fear.

i think it is the mutuality of the relationship that creates confidence. in placing my faith in god, i also place my faith in his perception of me, in myself. in accepting him as the source of assurance, fearlessness, and boldness, i accept myself as assured, fearless, and bold. because he sees in me (and each of his children) all of the pure potential that lies within. in realizing (in the literal sense of making real in my life) christ's atoning sacrifice by doing his will, i fill my heart with love leaving no space for fear. because 'perfect love casteth out fear.' and god truly becomes my confidence.

19 June 2007

i find myself in the odd position of feeling what definitely qualifies as school spirit. now, i don't dislike uc irvine. in spite of some departmental shuffling (to put it nicely) in the past few years, it's been a good place to do graduate work. but i've never really found myself tracking any of its sporting events. in fact, with its refusal to have a football team, the university has a bit of an anti-school-spirit, at least in traditional sports-related ways, feel to it.

but yesterday i went to ray's to get an early lunch. and the customer behind me in line asked them to tune the television to espn 2. i was a bit surprised to find that uci's baseball team was just starting a game. college world series. against cal state fullerton. a southern california showdown. and it was win or go home. i watched the first two innings in roy's and then forced myself away. silverian exam and all. but i tracked down espn's college sports scoreboard and checked the score every so often through the afternoon. after tying up the game at 4-4 in the 7th, they played another six innings. that's right six more. for a total of 13. before winning 5-4 in the bottom of the 13th, setting a record for the longest game in cws history.

so this afternoon i tuned into espn's scoreboard from the uci library again to monitor progress as they played arizona state (who beat uci 5-4 in their opening game last saturday night). when arizona was up 7-4 in the 8th, which is when i left the library, i pretty much decided the anteaters were probably on their way home. much to my surprise, when i checked in from home a bit later, it was bottom of the 10th (another extra-innings game) and they were tied up at 7. with the anteaters at bat. with loaded bases and only one out, the anteaters delivered. 8-7 final. they set another cws record in the process--first team to win extra-innings games on consecutive days in the series. and now they face the defending national champions--the oregon beavers (sure makes for an interesting animal kingdom face-off)--two days running. that is two days running if they win tomorrow night (here's to seeing them win without going into extra innings...).

and i find myself feeling more school spirit than i have in more than a decade. ZOT!!

18 June 2007

i've been sitting in the library for six hours. working on my silverian final. and, except for one quick trip to the restroom, i've completely ignored the very sound advice i was given a few months ago to stand up and move around more often while i'm working. and now i understand people's reaction to the campy seventies music byu's library used to play starting 15 minutes before closing. downstairs, on the first floor in the rather lovely asian studies area of the library where i frequently studied, the students who had been sitting there all night would, with some regularity, dance on the tables. i never participated, but i think that were the library's soundsystem to start blaring music from hawaii five-o right at this moment, i would be sorely tempted.

16 June 2007

just because seeing little b. smiling on her first theme park adventure makes me smile. what a sweetheart.

i do love all my babies.

13 June 2007

it's finals week. i proctored the exam for my class this afternoon. five short answer identification & explication questions and two essays in two hours. 25 students writing fast and furious.

i like writing and giving a final. finding passages to use for identification/explication questions is like a puzzle. they have to be representative and significant, but also a little obscure--not something we've talked about explicitly in class, but still something that my students can recognize and explicate. and timed essay prompts are difficult to write. they have to strike the perfect balance between generality and specificity, giving the students enough direction that they don't flounder but enough rope that they can either explore fascinating ideas of their own (rather than try to regurgitate to me what they think i think) or hang themselves with their lack of preparation.

sometimes i feel bad for my students. as i walk around the room, i see the signs of stress on their faces. and, looking over their shoulders, i see which ones got caught in the snares of the identification passages--snares usually set by their own laziness or lack of attention to detail, but it forces me to admit to choosing passages with an eye for some slight possibilities for confusion. and i wince inside, because it seems like maybe i was unfair in the passages i chose.

but that always passes. because another part of me relishes their torture. two hours in which they have to pay the piper for all of those half-assed response papers and the stone-faced silence in class and the refusal to do the hard work of revision. the Machiavelli in me rubs my hands and grins gleefully at my students’ fear of a looming final, their strain under the burden of Too Much to Know.

in reality neither of those tendencies wins out in the end. i know that my exams are fair and that the students who have taken the time to do their work will be just fine. for them, the final is an opportunity to demonstrate their merit. because the thing about a final is that it's really a trial by ordeal--a modern day version of proving virtue by combat. the ones who deserve to pass, do. the ones who don’t, don’t. and, just as with medieval trials by combat, there will be a few who are guilty as sin--who read half of each novel, if that; who only made a half-hearted attempt at writing anything; who don’t deserve to pass based on true merit at all--but who will try to find a way to pass anyway.

honestly, if they’re clever enough to find a way to pass without having done as much work as they should have, i’m okay with that. because now that my students' final is out of the way, i get to look forward to my own ordeal. and trust me--while my success will be in part due to merit, it will also be in part due to my ability to b.s. my way through almost anything.