Three Lessons for Students from the Film “The Prophet”

By Vicki Zakrzewski | August 25, 2015 | 0 comments

Discussing the new film adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s timeless poems with students can help reveal the science of a meaningful life.

Since it was published in 1923, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet has been loved by generations of readers. A new film, starring Liam Neeson and Salma Hayek, brings to life eight of Gibran’s poems, each one illustrated by a different animator. They are loosely tied together through a story about a troubled young girl, Almitra, and her mother who takes care of the house where the poet Mustafa has been imprisoned for his controversial writings. Mustafa gets the news that he has been given permission to return to his home country, but on his way to the ship…well, that’s all I’m going to say because I don’t want to spoil it.

For educators who want to use the film as a jumping off point to teach Gibran’s poetry, the USC Rossier School of Education has created an accompanying curriculum that focuses on analysis of Gibran’s poems to better understand some of the themes within them.

However, as I watched the film, I quickly realized that Gibran was light-years ahead of his time—scientific research is just starting to prove the profound wisdom within his poems. And indeed, certain findings and practices might help students better understand Gibran’s poems and even apply some of the ageless truths to their lives.

Here are a few examples.

Freedom comes from mindfulness and self-compassion

You shall be free indeed when your days are not
    without a care nor your nights without a want
    and a grief,
But rather when these things girdle your life and yet
    You rise above them naked and unbound.
                    — “On Freedom”

As much as we may wish otherwise, life is never free of cares, wants, and griefs. Rather, Gibran urges us in his poem “On Freedom” towards an inner freedom—one in which, to paraphrase Harvard psychologist and researcher Robert Kegan, we “have” our cares, wants, and griefs instead of letting them “have” us.

In other words, we are able to recognize and separate ourselves from our inner compulsions so that we control them (in appropriate and healthy ways) rather than them controlling us.

Given that adolescence is a time of extreme self-focus, teens might be very motivated to learn ways to cultivate this “inner freedom”, and the practices of mindfulness and self-compassion are both great places to start. They can help build what researchers call “psychological mindedness” or the ability to reflect upon and possibly change the meaning and motivations behind our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

To start, mindfulness helps us pay attention to our thoughts and emotions with kindness and acceptance, laying the foundation for recognizing unhealthy thought patterns or habits. Once identified, we can start to change these patterns and habits, through the practice of self-compassion.

Self-compassion, or being kind to oneself, is a powerful method for changing how we relate to ourselves. And indeed, nascent research has shown that teens who are more self-compassionate experience greater life satisfaction and less stress.

To introduce the practice of self-compassion, you might ask students to think of a time when they failed at something that was really, really important to them. How did they talk to themselves? Did they beat themselves up or did they brush it off and move on?

If they found themselves saying things like, “you’re so stupid” or “you always fail”, ask them to write a letter to themselves about the same situation, but have it be as if it were coming from their greatest supporter—perhaps a best friend or parent or even the family dog.

This practice can help calm the negative emotions that arise from failure, allowing students to look more objectively at themselves and the situation—or, as Gibran writes, “rise above them”—and take definitive steps to change their thinking and/or their actions.

Ultimately, learning practices such as mindfulness and self-compassion at an early age can help empower teens to take control of their thoughts and emotions, thus averting the inevitable drama that ensues from our inner demons and an unreflective life.

Work for meaning, not money.

Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with
    distaste, it is better that you should leave your
    work and sit at the edge of the temple and take
    alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a
    bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
                  — “On Work”

It can be shocking to consider how much of our lives are spent working. Even so, Gibran not only argues that work is essential to our lives, he also urges us to work with love—for the attitude we bring to our work affects us and everyone around us.

Researchers, too, have found that how we view our work impacts our well-being. For some, work is a paycheck; for others, work is a means to improve status and self-worth. For the luckiest people, work is enjoyable and meaningful and allows them to pursue a purpose. In other words, work is a “calling.” And indeed, studies have found that people who view their work as a calling have greater life, health, and job satisfaction than those who don’t.

This holds for students, as well, many of who in today’s educational environments, are experiencing tremendous pressure to succeed, but oftentimes finding their schoolwork meaningless—both of which negatively impact their mental health. In contrast, research has found that students who are committed to a purpose show higher levels of well-being and positive emotions.

Teachers can start students on the path towards “work-as-a-calling” by helping them connect their schoolwork to a greater sense of purpose. For example, at the start of the year, have students set long-term career goals and encourage them to create ones that benefit themselves and others, but that are not oriented towards making money. One study found that students who held these kinds of goals found greater meaning in their lives and their schoolwork.

Educators should also talk to students about how and why they became teachers, particularly as teachers often feel that their work is a calling. Then engage students in conversation about their own interests, and don’t worry if they have a hard time articulating what these might be.

Many have never actually thought about connecting their passions with future work, let alone done anything about it. But keep trying—teachers report high levels of engagement and fun when students spend time considering who and what they might become, particularly if the discussion focuses on bringing out their best selves.

Love is hard work.

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may
    wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the
    north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even for your growth so is he for your
                    — “On Love”

At the end of a movie when the two star-crossed lovers finally come together, I always feel like saying, “What happens in five years?”

While I’m not cynical about love at all—in fact, I think love is the most beautiful quality in the universe—I’d like to think I’m also a realist. Those of us who have been around the block understand the wisdom in Gibran’s words: true love is hard. Really hard. But also rewarding beyond our wildest dreams.

Real love requires us to expand beyond our limited selves and narrow interests to include the happiness of others, even when it’s difficult to do so. But this is where our scientific understanding of compassion can help us “to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” (Thank you Rumi, another wise poet, for those words.)

Researchers have found numerous reasons for why we might not feel compassion for another person. For example, we may think the person deserved his or her suffering or we might feel overwhelmed by another’s distress. We may think we’re not capable of helping or if a person appears to be very different from us—from another culture or race—we may be less inclined to help. Feeling like one has no time also contributes to a lack of compassion.

Teachers might start by asking students to think of a time when they were not shown compassion by someone they loved and how that felt. Did it resemble any of Gibran’s images in his poem?

Then have them consider a time when they didn’t feel compassion for another person’s suffering and have them reflect why, using as a starting point what scientists have discovered keeps us from expressing compassion. Comparing these two scenarios, does it shed any light on why the person in the first scenario might not have showed compassion?

Ultimately, scientists have discovered that practicing compassion can elicit positive emotions. So as a final task, educators might ask their students to perform a compassionate act and notice how they feel afterwards—a potentially powerful way to encourage students to make compassion a part of their lives. 

Adolescence is a time when many of our values are set in stone, shifted only with the great upheavals that life is bound to hand each of us. Using a scientific lens, Gibran’s poems (and the film) offer educators and their students a golden opportunity to explore these values and how to cultivate them.

The ensuing discussion just might deepen our understanding of who we are and what life might be about. For as Gibran once wrote about his book, “The whole Prophet is saying just one thing: You are far, far greater than you know—and All is well.”

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About The Author

Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D., is the education director of the Greater Good Science Center.


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