This I Believe: The Human Condition
Atlanta (January 13, 2011) —John Stein
Dean of Students
The following is an excerpt from Open Forum: A Topical Intellectual Discussion delivered by John Stein, Dean of Students. The Open Forum series provide a weekly venue for faculty, staff, and Tech students to voice their opinions and engage in lively discussion.
I believe in the importance of understanding and sharing one’s own human condition. By that I mean the importance of understanding one’s own experience in the world from a social, cultural, and personal context.
Most of us share our human condition through our personal stories or narratives. My personal narrative begins with a theme of loss. My father died at the age of 39 leaving my mother, who was 36, alone to raise four children: two teenagers and me and my twin brother, age six. Life was not easy from what I’ve been told. Many changes were introduced into our lives: where we lived, what we could or could not do due to financial constraints, where we ate, and our ability as a family to accumulate “stuff” for the mere sake of having it.
However in the end what did not change was more important than what did change: our ability to remain together as a family, my mother’s commitment to making sure we all received an education, and the ability to still find a way to be happy in spite of our new status. My mother, who is now 84, has been fortunate in life. She has lived to see her four children find their place in the world. She has been witness to each of us finding our paths as we found life partners, pursued advanced educations and careers, became parents ourselves and deal with life’s joys and our own setbacks or tragedies. She has been blessed with 11 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren to date.
As I progress through life I am sure my early realities shape who I am today as a person, husband, father, friend, professional, and more recently Dean. My own experience allows me to realize that most times what we believe we know about people is only half the truth. Each of us is more complex and interesting than the person we portray to others in our daily interactions. And most of us are too frightened to share the full story with the people in our lives. Which makes me wonder what stops us from sharing our stories or narratives with each other?
In my role as a father I strive to understand my own children’s personal narratives - not an easy task with teenagers. I also must continually remind myself that I am only one of the many contributors to their narratives - my wife makes her own input along with their friends, teachers and others. As their dad, what I do matters and maybe what I don’t do matters even more. Someday I hope I am fortunate enough to hear them share with me their stories and maybe in listening to them I will better understand the role I played in adding to or subtracting from their lives.
In my role as Dean of Students, a role I take seriously because of its rich tradition and historical significance at Georgia Tech, I have the pleasure of meeting with students. Over time I hear the personal narratives of many students. I also meet with students who are referred to me or who come in on their own to talk and seek some support. I sit with students and listen as they share their personal narratives with me. I do my very best to offer a safe and comfortable harbor for them to say and admit what needs to be said out loud - sometimes for the first time in their young lives. Listening I am often brought to the verge of tears as students share their stories. Other times we find much joy in our mutual laughing out loud about something. The important element for both of us is the connection that has been made between us that affords me the possibility of understanding their human condition.
When I teach GT1000, students write a series of responses to directed journal topics. I learn a great deal about my students through their writing. Recently I learned of the pain a young man and his family lived through after his dad died suddenly of a heart attack. This past week another young man spoke of his fears in successfully completing this semester after his father was hospitalized. And one young woman noted that since being at Tech she learned that soul mates come in many forms and meet at the weirdest times, sometimes outside of libraries. Finally, a student admitted in response to as essay on loneliness that he realizes he has suffered from chronic loneliness his whole young life. He noted in his journal “I have always had trouble feeling connected to people. Even when I am surrounded by friends, I feel lonely.” However, not all stories are sad, in fact, many are celebrations of the successes students have achieved while at Tech both in and out of the classroom. Each of these students has offered a glimpse and insight into their human condition-their personal narratives. These experiences force me to ponder a very important question: what is the human condition at Georgia Tech?
My personal narrative continues just like yours. What I have come to understand is that my early theme of loss is a part of the human condition for all of us; I was just introduced to it at an early point in my life. That theme continues today in my life in many forms - some as serious as my first one but others less dramatic - the feelings I have when the time comes to say good-bye to a student whom I’ve come to know well over the years as they prepare to graduate and move into the world, a good colleague who accepts a new job and leaves, a friend who moves away, or more personally in saying goodbye to my own children as they left home and went away to start their college experiences. Each time I try to make peace with the situation, to learn from it and to understand the value it has in my life. Some situations are harder than others but such is life.
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- Rachael Pocklington
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