By this point in the semester, week four, things have mostly calmed down. My students and I have found our rhythm, and we have begun to settle into the work of examining our world’s political systems and learning from one another.
But this year, more than others, I feel a heaviness lingering in the background of many of our lives. For some of us, it is the horror and betrayal of the Catholic Church’s crisis of sexual abuse and failed leadership. For others, it is concern about family members in harm’s way, enduring storms or the threat of deportation. For still others, it is concern about politics — both on our campus and in our country — and the many harms that recent discourse and actions inflict on our communities.
These events leave me, and many of my students, feeling on edge — unsettled and unsure of how to face problems of such enormity. And even when we are not directly involved, we often find it hard to look away. Our attention and imagination are captivated, as we spiral through emotions that leave us exhausted.
One response, the one that seems most common in society today, is to quickly and immediately judge, to take sides and seek a relief from our disquiet by standing on the seemingly firm ground of conviction. This reaction is appropriate in many ways, as injustice and harm need to be seen clearly, named and addressed. Action, so long forestalled, need to be taken, and accountability restored.
But there is another response, one that moves beyond our first reactions. It looks below precipitating events, searches to understand underlying root causes, humbly listens to the voices of others, probes our own deepest values, and makes the choice to engage the slow work of change.
St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, called this “discernment.” He learned from experience that it was difficult to make truly good choices and achieve real and lasting change when he reacted in the moment.
In fact, he later came to teach that, when we find ourselves in desolation — hurt, angry, confused, overwhelmed — we should not make major decisions. Rather, we should pay attention to and tend to our brokenness and the injuries of those around us. Our wounds need to be salved and our souls solaced; we may need to convalesce for longer than our driven Georgetown selves would normally allow.
Make no mistake, though: This process is anything but passive. It involves focused introspection; it demands purposeful learning about the issues and about ourselves; and it requires the building of relationships that will allow us to commit to change over the long haul of our lifetimes.
Profound cultural change is needed. In the case of the Catholic Church, it may very well take our lifetimes, or several lifetimes, for us to transform the culture of hierarchy, clericalism, secrecy and abuse that have injured so many. For our environment, scarred by evermore severe storms and temperature swings, we will need to change the consumption habits of our planet and help communities that are being affected survive and adapt. And in our politics, a rediscovery of the common good, an embrace of the dignity of each member of our human family, and a willingness to dialogue are all long-term reorientations required for our fractured society to be made whole.
Those who would undertake these tasks need to be all in, ready for the long haul: grounded in our faith and values, prepared with knowledge, humble yet unrelenting, members of an inclusive community that can support, encourage and inspire. Action must start now, but it also must be sustained and ongoing. Our task on the Hilltop is to lay the foundation — in ourselves and in our relationships — for the shared future and change we seek.
This driving purpose brings me back to our daily tasks of the new semester, which actually play a critical role in helping us achieve that long-term change we seek. There is an old Jesuit saying “Age quod agis.” Quite simply, it means, “do what you are doing.” In moments of confusion or betrayal or stress or crisis, stick with the tasks that you have at hand. After all, we chose this university and these tasks — our classes, clubs, internships, commitments, friendships — for a reason; continuing to be true to them can help us find our way to a path forward. They also remind us that the betrayals or failures we face are not the totality of who we are, and they usefully prepare us to face those challenges more effectively.
So, as we enter more deeply into this fall, let us keep our eyes on the horizon, pursuing the long-haul work of transformation for which our world so desperately cries out, but also taking seriously the day-to-day studies, work and friendships critical to forming the path that will lead us there.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an associate professor in the department of government and the School of Foreign Service. He currently serves as director of the Center for Latin American Studies. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Thursday.