Mr. Messy Meets Higher Education

Meet Mr. Messy, from a book of the same title:

Mr. Messy is a friend of my kid Mac, who for some reason is intrigued by Mr. Messy. We haven’t even read the book (so in fact I don’t know what it’s about), but we have seen his picture and sometimes it looks to Mac like Mr. Messy is:

a) wrapped up in pink silly putty, or

b) covered in strawberry jam, or

c) “like a flower with arms and feet!”

All of these scenarios might sound pretty neat if you are 3 — eh, hem, I mean 3 and 1/2 — years old.

For us grown-ups, though, messy may not be as fun. Messy means things are not simple, clean, or clear. Messy means being able to live in ambiguity (per my mother’s motto: “We’ll see…”). Messy means that emotions can be involved, that learning is tough, that life is sometimes challenging, that the world can be a difficult place. And as such, messy also provides opportunities. Learning to deal with messy means we get to problem-solve, think differently, find a way, and figure out how to navigate the rough and tumble seas, and then celebrate arrival to dry land and reflect on what worked and what didn’t.

Without messy, we’d likely be bored. And without messy we probably wouldn’t learn much.

To celebrate messy, let me share another goodie from The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal,by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc:

If higher education cannot deal with the messiness of real life, educated people will not be prepared to use their knowledge amid the complexities and the cruelties that constantly threaten to undo civilization. And they clearly will not know how to use their knowledge with wisdom, compassion, and love. . . If higher education does not help people learn how and why to take the risks of love, its moral contributions to the world will fall short of its potential. (pgs. 38-39)

I like the idea of addressing messy with love because love represents embracing something fully and being devoted and caring. Dean Dad recently suggested that we should “tolerate” ambiguity by reframing it, and he has a great point in asking us to consider this:

Which sounds better: uncertainty or possibility? Failure or learning experience? Internal politics or growing pains?

Um, that’s easy: Possibility, learning experience, and growing pains, please!

Ultimately, for us folks who work and learn in higher education (hopefully there’s overlap there, right?), I think that love — in the way my kid seems to love Mr. Messy — is likely more sustainable and impactful than tolerance. To me, tolerance means I put up with something that might bother me (e.g., I tolerate my husband’s inherent need to reload the dishwasher after I’ve loaded it); love, though, means we can embrace the messy and, as Dean Dad proposes, work to make a difference.

My kid loves Mr. Messy.

And I am trying to, too. Even when he’s covered in strawberry jam (or in this case, nutella).

Meet Mr. Messy: Loving ambiguity one waffle at a time.


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