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  • Paul Cumbo

The Heart of the Fire

Teaching at a Jesuit high school—at least in my experience—frequently involves talking about love.

This makes sense, given that, arguably, Christianity is predicated upon the greatest love story ever—that of God’s love for humanity. Fundamental to our mission as educators at a Jesuit school for young men, then, is helping them come to a mature understanding of love and its primacy in meaningful relationships. If we aren't addressing love every day, we aren't doing Ignatian education right. (That doesn't mean we need to say the word every day, but I don't think it hurts.)

Those lessons and conversations often occur in the context of retreats or other explicitly formative activities; however, if we’re doing our job right, they also emerge—perhaps more subtly, or indirectly—in the everyday routine of our classes. This stuff surfaces naturally when reading Romeo & Juliet, sure. But I found myself talking about love in the middle of a grammar lesson not too long ago. We began with a clarification about pronoun case; we ended up speaking about the importance of being able to articulate feelings in an authentic and genuine way--having an emotional fluency, so to speak.

Bear in mind I teach at an all-boys school, and I think this is one of the things single-sex education has going for it. Whether you're on a retreat or in the classroom, you can have these conversations without some of the complexities that would be involved with teenage girls in the room. Now I’m not saying these conversations can’t or don’t happen in co-ed classrooms; nor am I saying they are better in a single-sex context. Like so many things in education, it's a "both / and" prospect. The single sex environment is both an asset and a liability in this regard, just as it is in many others. However, given that boys generally tend to be less vocal about this type of stuff than girls are, I do think there’s an opportunity present for boys that might not be there if girls were also present. It's also worth noting that, according to the students, some of the most effective of these conversations occur in the classrooms with female teachers.

(And yes, in response to those who will call me reductive and remind me that not every boy is interested exclusively or mainly in girls, I am well aware of this. A percentage of boys in any given classroom, statistically, isn't straight; I don’t think that makes my point any less salient, and saying it does is pretty reductive itself.)

Of course there are hurdles anyway. One of the first hurdles involved with speaking to young guys about love is getting past the giggles and the squirminess. This is especially true with the freshmen and sophomores. The hackles rise and the guard goes up because, to quote a tenth-grader, “Love is just a weird word to use in a room full of dudes.” This changes by the time they’re seniors—these guys are old enough to get that love means more than eros, and for the most part they won’t hesitate to articulate their platonic love for their friends—male and female alike. Most of them have worked through their insecurities enough to be comfortable using the word love in a “room full of dudes.”

I’ve found myself many times over the past twenty years using the metaphor of a campfire to facilitate these conversations. Sometimes, I tell them, our “love” for someone or something (like a new hobby or temporary fascination with a trend) is really more about infatuation—a flash flame that burns brightly for a short time, but doesn’t have the resilience or lasting heat to endure for long. It’s a spectacle, but it doesn’t generate much usable warmth. Conversely, the subtle glow of red-hot coals at the heart of a mature fire emanate great, lasting heat. While such a fire may not emit as much light, it is strong and lasting. It may not be much to look at. It may not glow as brightly as a new fire. But it is hard to extinguish, no matter what we throw at it. Even a cold bucket of water won’t put it out completely. Not true for a brightly burning fire that hasn’t had time to establish a heart of burning embers.

So often, the conversation involves encouraging them to learn how to differentiate between flash-flames and lasting heat. And recognizing that it takes a long time for the coals at the heart of a good, strong fire to reach that point—that truly loving relationships take nurturing and patience. On another level, it involves helping them learn the skill sets and discernment to avoid being burned by the often-unpredictable flames of the flash-fires. Mostly, though, it’s reminding them to appreciate the lasting coals—their families, their long-term friends, and the people who tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear—even though the infatuation with yellow-bright flames might be more exciting.

All good stuff for kids to understand. But what about for those of us who are older, who are more established in our marriages, relationships, and vocations? I think for us the challenge isn’t so much infatuation with people as it is fixation on ideas, trends, habits, or impulses. Maybe with passing ideologies or charismatic—but less than effective—leaders. I know, for example, that I am attracted to shiny new ideas, job prospects, and stimulating projects. These aren’t bad things at all, in measure. But prioritized inappropriately, I know they can distract from the stuff at the heart of it all—the stuff at the core of my vocation as a husband, father, and teacher.

Maybe it’s a good reflection for all of us to undertake, whether we’re fourteen or sixty-four: Where is the heart of our fire? What sustains us and emanates the real, lasting heat that will withstand the challenges? And where are the brightly burning flames that inspire us momentarily, but don’t have the substance and fuel to last? And are we really doing well at knowing the difference? Part of me thinks that our social-media-charged world makes this a lot harder than it used to be--seems like there are a lot more shiny distractions coming our way at every moment. What do you think?


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