Merit as a Path to Enlightenment

By Josh Suteir

The moment I took my first good look at our venerable crest, I knew I was in the right place. Although I have never done a formal survey (or any inquiry at all, for that matter), I would think most people’s first and lasting association with it is the bejeweled crown. While this symbol, I assume, is a vestige of our regal ancestry, it could also just as easily represent victory, which is the unequivocal meaning of the symbol that frames it, the one that struck a chord deep within me. As a lover of competition, it is those palm branches I have always so desperately wished to bear, knowing I would only do so if I “merited” it, which is what the motto, in its jussive subjunctive mood, almost outright challenges us to do in order to gain the deserts alluded to. Thanks to Mr. De Pencier for making this clear!

In my younger days, I don’t think I had any concrete notion of exactly what “merit” entailed other than it involving the winning of awards and, after reading the various interpretations of this concept presented in the previous essays, I know now that I only had a narrow and foggy one. The term is clearly a loaded one. As a number of other contributors have pointed out, the strict dictionary definition incorporating ideas like “reward” and “deserving” is subjective at best and inherently flawed, at the least. As such, talk of a meritocracy, especially with the way our society is currently structured, seems moot. The concept of “merit”, however, retains great existential value and it is truly worth fleshing out, especially as it is our guiding principle (many thanks to Mr. Seeman, et al for initiating the discussion!). The popular, perpetuated conception of “merit” as something material or titular is understandable but quite limited. As already detailed in these pages, the caprices of chance and circumstance, in and of themselves, demand the need for a deeper meaning to the word. Mr. Caylor, Mr. Laidlaw, and others have variously opined that the act of “meriting” should involve some measure of moral rectitude. I think it does indeed embody a particular virtuousness and I believe we should strive to attach a grander meaning to the concept. Then, the four simple Latin words of our motto, given the legendary Admiral Lord Nelson’s imprimatur, can buoy us even more strongly.

Of all the concepts of Eastern philosophies that we have latched on to (and mutated) in the West, karma is probably the most well known. It can be good, bad, or a downright b$&@!, but in the end, according to a rudimentary understanding of it, our choices and actions determine our fate. The concept in Buddhism, however, has a broader meaning, involving intentional, virtuous action that liberates one on the path to nirvana. In fact, Buddhism provides a closely associated concept that is a result of good karma: merit (Sanskrit, punya). The Buddha outlined three bases of merit: virtue; giving, or alms; and mental development. While Buddhists want to accrue “merit” to increase their chances of a happier after-life, I think we can apply these very same precepts of merit to achieve true “rewards”, happiness and success, in our present lives.

Honesty, loyalty, equanimity, love, compassion – these universal virtues are basically our community’s “Shared Ideals”. They are also the sine qua non of “merit”. To use an example already proffered, the Olympic Games – which instantly arise to mind from the image of palm branches and/or laurel wreaths – are perhaps, ostensibly, the last sporting bastion of fair play and unity, eschewing the increasingly prevailing win-at-all-costs ethos. Meriting a place at the top of the podium requires not only amazing athletic prowess, of course, but also integrity and ethics. If the boys I coach do not play fairly or win without class and sportsmanship, I do not feel we would “merit” a victory. Conversely, the Spanish distance runner who recently relegated himself to second place when he pushed the leading Kenyan man, who had prematurely stopped before the finish line unknowingly, through to the end ahead of him, most assuredly earned the right to bear the palm. No matter what the situation or the outcome, one can consider themselves meritorious if intentionally and consistently living and acting with these qualities – good karma, strictly speaking.

To me, “giving” does not mean merely buying a gift card for your teacher or volunteering for Horizons. It entails sacrifice – being selfless but, in the process, giving and connecting to one’s own (sense of) self. In team sports, underdogs (or any team, for that matter) merit the palm by subjugating their egos and synergizing their talents. You cannot help erupting with goose bumps – a cosmic effect – watching today’s FC Barcelona squads, the Oilers of the mid-80’s, or the Knicks of the early-70’s. Here, merit is collective, a community-builder, but each individual, typically, also benefits in some personal, professional or, often, spiritual way. A group of people acting in harmony can become transcendent, with each person strengthening their sense of self concomitantly. Such giving, then, whether it is to your teammates, your classmates, or your family, becomes doubly victorious and truly meritorious.

Cultivating one’s mental life as a basis of “merit” is especially appropriate for a learning institution’s motto that revolves around this idea. Naturally, Buddhists would characterize this aspect of “merit” as involving some sort of mindfulness or meditative concentration. While this can be helpful, as a teacher, I would interpret this even more literally. That is, engaging in and developing a deep and abiding love for learning and the process of it is more truly meritorious than just achieving a high grade. I always tell my students that the “merit” they often desire is, more often than not, a direct by-product of not only their concerted mental efforts to develop deep understanding of the content, but also directed reflection upon their own learning abilities and strategies. I believe effecting this paradigm shift frees one up to absorb material more quickly and perform at a high level, which is every student’s ultimate objective. In an individually defined way, everyone can “merit” a (learning) victory each day, no matter whether that day ends with Ivy League admission, promotion, or general recognition.

We shackle ourselves unnecessarily with mundane and impersonal definitions of “merit”. Every Prize Day, Dr. Power takes pains to let the boys know that, though they may not have to risk tripping up the stairs to the stage in front of packed pews in Laidlaw on the way to shaking his hand, they can still earn the palm in innumerable ways. Although this can’t be re-iterated enough, I hope that I have provided some fodder for discussing alternative pathways to meritorious enlightenment. The simple foundation of the chief UCC symbol, “Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat“ has the power and scope to push us to tap our latent potentials and, in the jussive subjunctive, I say let it do just that.

Josh Suteir is a graduate of Queen’s Engineering and studied Science Education at OISE/UT. He teaches Chemistry at Upper Canada College and coaches basketball, tennis, and the Reach for the Top team. An advocate for furthering public understanding of science, he has also been an educator at the Ontario Science Centre and Royal Ontario Museum.

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