Then said a teacher, Speak to us of Teaching.
And he said:
No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your mind.
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and lovingness.
If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.
The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm, nor the voice that echoes it.
And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell you of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.
For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.
And even as each of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (1923)
I am not religious (no matter the sentiment, I always feel slightly threatened by religion), but lately, I’ve taken to reading religious texts.
I do this because the sudden death of my father brought me hurtling through a religious funeral where I had to rapidly make peace with the fact that I do not believe in any spiritual realm beyond this world. (I did this so that I could hear the hymns without feeling nauseous). Nonetheless, my loss left me needing writers that speak on grand, barren and gravely universal terms. Religious texts epitomise the needs of grieving readers (again, I just can’t bring myself to follow through on my critical thoughts about this–are we coerced into texts because we are involuntarily flung by death into a particular style of reading? does religion capitalise on death and loss? am I opting into this? I couldn’t care less). Bereavement has cast off my critical resistance to such things–it’s all just words and I need all the words I can find.
It was strange to start reflecting on the good teacher, and to reach for my copy of The Prophet. Grief has me seeking out material that will speak to the riddled notion of ‘being human’, that will speak of earth, understanding, wisdom, faith and lovingness. Gibran uses these big, big words to talk about teaching. For Gibran, the good teacher is a pious figure who leads students to their own understanding of these words (gathered in the unscalable word: God). The good teacher shows you a way through shadow, song, space and rhythm. The good teacher will sing through a space, and let you find your own echo; your own reverberations.
Don’t you love that image of teaching as sharing spatial rhythms?
Don’t you love that it’s a teacher asking this question of a prophet?
In rhythm or in song, we move through a space, nothing like a lesson or like learning.
In tandem of understanding, we rhythm through a space.
I will threshold my footfall and you will shadow your own tracks, in proximity.
We will rhythm a space into wings.
For Gibran, tracks, lessons and shadow-rhythms all, ultimately, lead toward God. I don’t believe in God, but I do like this idea of moving together toward a force we both believe in. Actually, I think the passage becomes even more valuable if we resolve ourselves to the idea that God does not exist. When I read this passage, I see a teacher who leads people toward something imagined, yet trusted. I see a good teacher who knows no more than their students what knowledge they are proceeding toward.