Tuesday, November 25, 2014

My friend, Rod Spaulding

Rod Spaulding

My friend Rod died last week and his life will be celebrated in Charleston, South Carolina. He came a long way to get to Charleston. We will not be there to celebrate him as we are in the Dominican Republic. Not a bad place to be at any time, but especially a good place for reflection.

Rod was born in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1938. That made him two years my elder when we met in Abilene, Texas in 1958 at what was then Abilene Christian College. He played an important part in my education. We sold Bibles together in the summer of 1960 and he encouraged me to buy a new Plymouth Valiant, one of the early compact cars built to be sold in the US.  I had no business, buying a new car, but a friend of his was a dealer and the price was modest.  I drove the car into the ground in 1967 after graduate school at Yale.

More importantly Rod encouraged my relationship with Jan Cothran.  He and Jan sang together in the ACC a cappella chorus and he knew her family. Her father scared him.

In 1960 we sold Bibles in Kansas and North Texas. Both regions gave me new eyes with which to view the world. In Texas near Vernon I discovered the roots of my family and had the experience of being called by my family name when I knocked on the door of a former neighbor to my grandparents, Henry Robert and Minnie Randolph. When someone greets you with “You are a Randolph.” And then takes you to visit the site of the former Randolph home place, only trees marking the spot, it is a formative experience. Rod understood that.

Jan thought of Rod as the older brother she never had and it was with Rod that our lives began to intertwine. We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary last May.

Rod became part of a team that established a new church plant on Long Island; New Yorkers did not know Jesus had a southern accent. Time Magazine announced their plan in 1964 with a story headed “The Campbellites are Coming”.  Their team was led by Dwain and Barbara Evans and Rod and Pat Spaulding were stable parts of an evolving effort to broaden the religious landscape of New York. A whole church landed in New York’s unsuspecting suburbs and the experience gave everyone involved a life changing moment. The congregation in West Islip engaged an alien culture with a new take on Christianity. The congregation lives today and played an important part in mediating the impact of Superstorm Sandy on its neighbors.

If the Greatest Generation won World War II, it was a fearless generation that tried to win the peace that followed. They rode the social unrest that marked the 1960s with what ever tools they brought to the struggle.  Rod had an ability to help people think about what we now talk of as core values and he used the church as a redemptive tool and when the tide shifted he developed other skills not far removed from those cultivated in selling Bibles in Kansas and Texas.

Rod didn’t know what he didn’t know when he came to New York, but he learned fast.  After West Islip he led an urban ministry project that grew out of a summer program called Camp Shiloh for a time and then landed with the Memphis Public Schools in 1972. He worked through the difficult days of integration and moved on to Charleston, SC in 1983. He retired from the public school system there in 2005.

We lost contact after the move to Charleston. It is amazing how quickly 40 years can pass. Our paths had gone in different directions, but the values we shared shaped who we became. We were Christian and held that the world could be a better place if the Social Compact actually worked. Rod worked to make things happen in the world of race and class. He knew the human side of the religious world and hoped to see its better inclinations come to fruition. He was often disappointed.

As I said, it is a long way from West Texas to Charleston, but he shaped and touched many lives along the way. Jan and I are grateful that he was our friend. We cannot sing the hymn Fairest Lord Jesus without thinking of Rod: “Son of God and Son of man; thee will I cherish, thee will I honor; thou my soul’s  glory, joy and crown.”

We meant to get to Charleston, but when we contacted Pat she told he was in the last stages of dementia. Son of God and Son of Man could not be more appropriate. Forty years goes too fast. Remember that I told you so.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Coming to Terms with the Death of a Student

Lydia K. '14, Meltdown, October 29, 2012, MIT Admissions Web Site,
I don’t think many people understand what we mean when we say that MIT is hard. It’s not just the
workload. There’s this feeling that no matter how hard you work, you can always be better, and as long
as you can be better, you’re not good enough. You’re a slacker, you’re stupid, and MIT keeps an
overflowing warehouse of proof in the second basement of building 36. There’s stress and there’s
shame and there’s insecurity. Sometimes there’s hope. Sometimes there’s happiness. Sometimes
there’s overwhelming loneliness.
One thing that is most important to me:  Coming to terms with a student death.

I have been a faculty member at MIT since 1971, and in that time there have been a number of student deaths almost certainly related to untreated or undiagnosed clinical depression.  There was one student death in the early 80’s in particular that I felt causally connected to.  The phrase “causally connected” means that I felt that my actions or lack of actions had some bearing on the cause of the death of that student.  It is commonly said that each death of this nature affects approximately ten other people in major ways, and I am one of those ten in this case.   I would like to talk today on how I have tried to come to terms over the last thirty years with my feelings of responsibility for that death.
In the events that have troubled me for so many years, there was a moment in time when I realized that the student was in real trouble.  The student had been in my 8.02 recitation twice, and failed 8.02 each time.  I can remember thinking to myself at that moment in time, as if it were yesterday, that I should find out what was going on with that student.  To my eternal regret, I thought that thought, but did not act on that thought.  I was tenured, but busy, too busy to take the time to make the necessary inquiries, and I felt that it was not my responsibility in any case.  Someone in S^3 was responsible.

I was profoundly shocked when the student died a month or so later.  At the time of the death, I simply could not understand how someone could do what the student had done.  It was a mystery to me.   Although I felt bad at the time, I thought there was something going on that I just could not fathom, and that provided some comfort.  If this had happened mysteriously for reasons beyond my control, then I had no responsibility in it. 

Unfortunately for that illusion, sometime later, in the late eighties, for the first time, I became clinically depressed. Fortunately I responded well to anti-depressant medication and talk therapy.  I do not today struggle with depression, any more than I struggle with getting the flu.  But for a time I was severely depressed.  And for the first time I understood how profoundly painful simply existing can be.  So painful that I could then understand at some level how it was possible that one could see death as preferable to life. 

And that gave me insight that I had not had before about what had led to the death of the student years before.   I could now understand the path that the student had gone down, and it was not a path of choice.  One no more chooses to die of clinical depression that one chooses to die of cancer.  So I concluded that I indeed was responsible to some degree, in that there were things that were in my control about the circumstances surrounding this death, and more importantly, that there were things that still remained extant that I could affect as a faculty member.
In the early 90’s I began lecturing in on-term 8.02, with something like 800 students, with the vague feeling that I could somehow reduce the stress associated with that course.  After three years I stopped doing that because I did not feel that lecture was a particularly good way to teach, and it was very hard to see that I was making or could ever make any real impact on student well-being given the way the course was structured. 
Later, in the early 2000’s, MIT had a lot of resources available to try new ways of teaching, and I got interested in trying the so-called studio format of teaching physics.  One of the many things that recommended that method to me was that institutions that had tried it found that it decreased the failure rate.  In my mind, decreasing the failure rate meant decreasing the stress, and decreasing the stress meant decreasing the chances that the stress would lead to clinical depression, and possibly death.  Although that was not the only reason I got involved in trying to change the way that freshmen physics was taught at MIT, it was one of the reasons. 

I spend six years of my professional life, and a lot of MIT’s resources, to set up the studio format we now use to teach freshmen physics to most of our students.  The failure rate is down and more importantly the students are much more tied into the course, in both their attendance and their interaction with both faculty and other students.  And the learning gains have improved by a factor of two across the board, both in the upper third of the students academically, the middle third, and the lower third.  This is a tide that raises all boats, across the board.  That is the main reason I invested so much of my career in this effort, because I love physics and I want to see others love it as well.  But I also want to see students not be injured by having to take physics.  And I think that I have achieved both goals to some extent, which consoles me in the context of feeling in part responsible for the student death many years earlier.

In recent years I have also been more straightforward in publically addressing the underlying issue that this course redesign was in part aimed at:  reducing stress on our students.  Being more public was motivated by an article in the Tech by Grace Taylor ’12 in 2012 that was about her depression and how she dealt with it.  I was simply blown away by her article.  I still remember sitting in the Student Center reading the article on the day it came out, and just being amazed about how brave she was to do what she was doing. 

A bit later I was approached by Betsy Riley ’14, Chair of the Undergraduate Association Student Support Committee, about writing a similar article about my own experience with clinical depression for the Tech.  I have always been very open about having been clinically depressed, on a personal level, which is why Betsy knew to approach me, but this was very different.  This was on a very public level, and there is a lot of stigma attached to having been clinically depressed.  I would never have done this without Grace’s example and Betsy’s request.
In retrospect, I have found that my publically claiming clinical depression as my own has done a world of good.  It serves to normalize the experience, in that it makes it more acceptable for a student to admit that they may be depressed, and seek help for that depression, if they have examples in front of them that say that is ok to do that.  One of the anonymous comments in the Tech on the article I wrote about my own experience with depression was the following: 

Thank you. I believe this is one of the most important things that can happen on this campus around mental health - letting people know that they're not alone, and that they are not somehow permanently broken. Thank you.

So this is how I have tried to come to terms with the impact of the death of a student almost 30 years ago now.  In large part I feel I have made amends.  But it has been a long process that is still not over, and never will be. 

Grace Taylor ‘12, MENS ET TENEBRAE: It’s not you, it’s a disease, The Tech, Tuesday April 10, 2012.
My first few weeks on Prozac were like a prolonged version of that scene in the 2002 Spiderman movie
where Tobey Maguire wakes up and, instead of being a skinny, weak nerd, he’s buff and can fly through
the skyscraper canopy of Manhattan. For the first time ever, I felt like life was a pretty good time. The
pervasive feelings of sadness, anxiety, and fear that had plagued my life subsided almost completely.
Besides the actual relief of my symptoms, I felt incredibly relieved by the fact that my symptoms could
be relieved. It’s not me. It’s a disease. It’s treatable. Feeling horrible is not an inherent quality of my

Professor John Belcher

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Taking Risks

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool,
To weep is to risk being called sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement.
To expose feelings is to risk showing your true self.
To place your ideas and your dreams before the crowd is to risk being called naive.
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure

But risks must be taken, because the greatest risk in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn, feel, change, grow or love.
Chained by his certitude, he is a slave; he has forfeited his freedom.
Only the person who risks is truly free.
By: Janet Rand

 What’s Most Important – as most of the speakers have talked about, this is a tough question to answer… Depending on the time in my life, I most certainly would have answered this differently. Ever since Bob asked me to speak this semester, each Tuesday I’ve been reflecting on what I wanted to speak about. Right now in my life, while this may not be MOST important, taking chances and taking risks have taken me to where I am today.

In this case, the apple does not fall too far from the tree. My parents have taken a variety of risks along the way, starting with moving from the small town they grew up in near Youngstown, Ohio to the other side of the state as a young couple. My mom always reminds me of this as we discuss my sister and I living in Portland, Oregon and Boston respectfully. They too took a risk, leaving both of their families, friends, and loved ones to start a new life in Napoleon, Ohio – where I was born and raised. As a young family in Napoleon, they met friends in their apartment complex that would soon become their “chosen family”, my God parents. They found more “chosen family” in their new congregation at Emmanuel Lutheran Church and as the years continue to add up, I’ve seen them taking risks in both of their careers, some didn’t turn out as they had hoped, but they were honest with my sister and I about their decisions, these decisions have become more clear to me as I face and have faced them in my adult life.

My parents continued to take a chance, both financially and adjusting our families lifestyle by enrolling me in The Toledo Ballet when I was 15 years old after dancing locally since I was 4 years old. Toledo was at least an hour drive each way, and they shuttled me back and forth a few times a week and nightly when we were in rehearsals and performance for the Nutcracker, sometimes until midnight on a school night! I was absolutely in love with dancing, so it only made sense that would be my career. As a young adult, facing the decision to attend college, I didn’t take the road less followed, I applied for one school, The Ohio State University – I knew (or thought I knew) what my life would look like, I would go to Ohio State, major in Dance, become Britney Spears back up dancer, simple as that. I even opted out of a calculus class in my senior year of high school that would typically be required for most programs at OSU, because it wasn’t required for Dance, turns out I would eventually need to take that difficult calculus class to graduate at OSU. Long story, short – I am not currently and have never been Britney’s back up dancer. Through a series of failures, including not even getting accepted into the Ohio State school of Dance, I had to seriously reevaluate my “life plan”. During this time of reflection, I started to participate in Ohio State’s fitness classes to stay fit. And during one of these classes, I decided that it was pretty cool to teach aerobics and I also realized that I could get paid for it! Then, as you may imagine, I taught a variety of fitness classes throughout the rest of my career at OSU.

Then graduation came, what now? I was offered a full time job at a High Intensity training center for athletes in Columbus, and then shortly after an on campus interview in Cambridge (a city I’ve never visited before), I was offered a position at MIT. I talked to as many people as possible looking everywhere for the right decision. I called past professors, each of my supervisors at Dublin and Ohio State, no one could tell me exactly what I should do. I was so frustrated, confused, and the fact was, I needed to make a decision quickly. I was leaving for a 2 month back packing trip around Europe with my sister and would have to start either job immediately upon returning to the US. I think most of you know what way I went and I'm so glad I did. And a few years ago, feeling comfortable in life, on a spontaneous trip to South Beach in Miami, I met my now fiancé. He lived there, I lived here - our whole relationship was based on taking a risk on someone you loved. He knew from the day we met, that I was his soul mate so him moving across the country to be with me didn't seem like much of a risk for him, but for me, it was another time where I was uncomfortable at first but know now it was the best decision I could have ever made. 

Looking back, when I was deciding on which job to take back in 2006, I was asking myself this same question... what IS most important? This was the first time in my life when my path wasn't clear. It's funny because I haven't really thought about how difficult that decision was in a long time. For me, it was more than my "gut feeling" and in life, sometimes that's what you rely on, other times its advice from others, or maybe you lean one way because it's right for your family, and not just you. I loved Janet Rand's poem about risk, it made me really think about all of the decisions we make in our lives, from holding the door for someone on the T, or taking a job in a faraway place - each have rewards, each can be considered risky. For me, it's MOST important to find a balance between risking failure and staying comfortable. At MIT, this type of work ethic is evident every day and I think it part of the reason I love working here. Either way, the big decisions I've made and many of us make, fall somewhere on the continuum of "taking a chance" or "risking the unknown" - it may or may not pay off, but in the end - you're guaranteed to have learned something and grown as a person through it all.

Do one thing every day that scares you - Eleanor Roosevelt
Stephanie Kloos
Director of Fitness and Member Services
 MIT Recreational Sports

Reflected Light

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Genesis 1:3

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
2 Corinthians 4:6

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. 
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. 
Although its light is wide and great, 
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. 
The whole moon and the entire sky 
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass. 


Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.

God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is a niche in which there is a lamp. The lamp is in a Glass, the Glass, like a glistening star, kindled from a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil well nigh glows though no fire has touched it: light upon light.
Qur’an 24:35

Reflected Light

This year’s theme is “One Thing That is Most Important.”  That’s quite a challenge, because I can think of many things that are very important.    Love?  Purpose?  Humility?  These are all really great candidates.   Without love, St. Paul tells us, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  Without purpose, nothing I do really matters.   Without humility, I close the door to the kind of healthy self-criticism that can move me forward.    Should I roll the dice and just choose one of these?

Instead, I searched the sacred writings of my own faith for the phrase “the most important thing.”   I came across ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s statement, which you just heard, that the most important thing is to polish the mirror of the heart so that it can reflect the divine light.    Interestingly enough, the piano piece that I could most easily play, given my recent lack of practice time, is the Moonlight Sonata, another reference to reflected light.   And obviously, reflected light is a pervasive metaphor that you find in all the world’s religious traditions, a sample of which I’ve shared with you.

Now I wondered, why would this be the one thing that is most important?

Perhaps it’s because this idea captures a lot of those other important things, such as love, purpose, and humility.     When we love, we are both receiving light and giving it back.   When we are humble, we acknowledge that we get our light from somewhere else and that we need to become more receptive to it.   And that leads us a purpose, to overcome attachment to the transitory things that are like smudges on the mirror.

These are all uplifting ideas, and fairly easy to discuss in the comfort of our living rooms.   But then that made me wonder, can I cite an example of someone who exemplified all this in real life?   A walker, not a talker.   I immediately thought of Mona.

Mona Mahmudnizhad grew up in Iran in the 1970’s and spent her last years living with her parents in the city of Shiraz.   An extraordinarily humble and sensitive child, she became known as the “Angel of Shiraz.”   She became so close to her schoolteachers, for example, that she would cry whenever one of them left for another position.  She had a genuine love for those around her, especially younger children who would often surround her when she arrived at school just to be with her.  When she met people that she loved, her eyes would fill with tears and she would run forward to spontaneously embrace them.  She was extraordinarily close to her father; it is said that the two could communicate with just their eyes.   She was an excellent student and had a beautiful singing voice.

Mona was a Bahá’í and her devotion to her faith was very deep.   She would often awake in the middle of the night to pray and meditate.   Among her many services to the Faith, she began at age 15 to teach Baha'i children's classes, which included the study of the great religions, developing spiritual qualities, encouraging the children to put their talents and education to the service of their fellow man, and especially learning to appreciate the oneness and diversity of the human family.

After the Islamic Revolution broke out in 1979, the persecution of the Bahá’í community in Iran went into high gear.  In 1982, when Mona was only 17, she was arrested by members of the Revolutionary Guard and sent to Seppah Prison, and later transferred to Adelabad Prison.   She, along with other Bahá’ís, endured a series of grueling interrogations, accompanied by sleep deprivation and physical torture.   The goal was to induce her to deny her faith and convert to Islam.   Several times she was told that she would be executed if she did not recant her faith and convert.   Each time, she told them that she would never deny her faith and was ready to be executed.   After eight months in prison, Mona was sent to the gallows, along with nine other Bahá’í women.   In a final attempt to break their resolve, the authorities hanged them one by one while the others were forced to watch.    Mona requested to be the last, so that she could pray for the courage of the others.

Here was a person who had truly polished the mirror of her heart and made it a brilliant reflector.      In my moments of doubt, I am rescued by her example.   What she did is the most important thing one can do.
The Light of Lights He is, in the heart of the Dark Shining eternally. Wisdom He is And Wisdom's way, and Guide of all the wise, Planted in every heart.

The light of the sun becomes apparent in each object according to the capacity of that object. The difference is simply one of degree and receptivity. The stone would be a recipient only to a limited extent; another created thing might be as a mirror wherein the sun is fully reflected; but the same light shines upon both.
The most important thing is to polish the mirrors of hearts in order that they may become illumined and receptive of the divine light. One heart may possess the capacity of the polished mirror; another be covered and obscured by the dust and dross of this world. Although the same Sun is shining upon both, in the mirror which is polished, pure and sanctified you may behold the Sun in all its fullness, glory and power revealing its majesty and effulgence, but in the mirror which is rusted and obscured there is no capacity for reflection although so far as the Sun itself is concerned it is shining thereon and is neither lessened nor deprived. Therefore our duty lies in seeking to polish the mirrors of our hearts in order that we shall become reflectors of that light and recipients of the divine bounties which may be fully revealed through them.


Brian Aull
Baha'i Chaplain