The Quality of Life Wheel: a tool for reading life

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This article, formerly published in a newsletter for RAVSAK (a Jewish Education consortium), introduces the Quality of Life Wheel, a tool I’ve developed for teaching skills to help students become reflective, articulate, and compassionate about both the hardships and the joys of life.

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Three questions guide me as I design and plan each course or lesson:

  1. Is the material interesting?

  2. Is it intelligent?

  3. Is it relevant?

Reflective practitioners design courses and lessons that are all three –but questions remain, for me, even when all three goals are met: what skills do the students learn that will stick with them from year to year? How can those skills benefit them throughout life? Will students become (dare I say) better people as a result of what they learn in my class?

In the field of Jewish Studies (Biblical or Rabbinic Literature classes, mainly), skills generally cluster around academics: translation, interpretation, forming and articulating arguments, writing, and in the best cases, problem-solving, cooperation, and application of creativity. Indeed, these skills make better students. They make more articulate meaning-makers. They enrich students’ intellects. But several years ago, I began to wonder if there were skills that could help students become better people? Are there skills that can help them understand not only Biblical character’s lives better – but also, their own lives better? Are there skills which could help them chart healthy pathways through life? Are there skills that could make them more compassionate, more helpful, more able to understand the ways life can bring us down, and more able to restore quality to life when it gets difficult? Is this something that could be taught and practiced, like other skills?

This question led me to ask an age-old question: what is a good life? What is a Quality life? How  does pain and loss affect our lives – suffering both minor and severe. And how can we recover from this pain? How can we thrive? What can makes life better? These questions are essential for young people learning to deal with life’s pains, and who are beginning to form values about what makes a life worth living.

We can teach these values, of course. We can give advice. But, I asked, could the ability to chart a course towards a Quality Life, a whole life, a life of joy, be a generalizable skill — a skill-set once learned, endlessly malleable?

The QOL Wheel

With these questions in mind, I developed a tool which I call the Quality of Life Wheel. It is designed to help students analyze and understand a wide range of subjects. At the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, my Biblical Literature course uses it to understand the import of Jacob’s flight from his family and his desert-dream. We use it to understand more thoroughly the meaning of the Destruction of the Temples. We use it to appreciate the emotional urgency behind the story of the Book of Esther.

Beyond this, the Quality of Life Wheel is a useful tool for helping students to analyze their own lives: longing for summer camp, stinging break-ups, family strife. In the world around them, it helps them understand history at its best and its worst: the founding of the State of Israel, the Holocaust. Similarly, it helps them relate to Hurricane Katrina, to 9-11, to political strife they witness on the news. It helps them grasp the gravity of memories from childhood, and also their grandparents’ wisdom about what makes a life worth living. It is the central schema around which students develop a skill-set they can learn and practice and re-apply, unit after unit.

The Quality of Life Wheel is a literary tool, a sociological tool, and a reflective tool, all rolled in one – so to speak.

An Overview: MMMMCCCC

To begin with, click here to look at the Quality of Life wheel (henceforth referred to as the QOL). You will notice that it is divided into 8 wedges, each labeled with the name of a Quality, and a few brief notes to explain the quality. Notice, also, that the Qualities’ names begin with an M or a C, allowing for a helpful mnemonic to remember all 8: MMMMCCCC. Some of the Qualities are further defined with a “vs.” — thus illuminating what a lack of that Quality looks or feels like.

Here is a chart to help explain each.

Quality

Loosely Defined

Mystery

Some sense or relating to a higher Being in the universe, whether that be God, the “Oneness” of all things, or, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s eloquent phrasing in The Scarlet Letter, the “sanctity of the human heart”

Meaning

Some sense of there being a purpose to one’s existence, a big-picture benefit to difficult things one has lived through

Memory

Some sense of where one has come from; cherished recollections, family and collective history, national myth

Mastery

Some sense of finesse, to be “good at” something, to apply talent and skill towards the aesthetic and functional shaping of the world – from music, sports, art, etc.

Connection

A sense of not being alone

Creativity

Using one’s human, intellectual endowments to reshape and recombine the familiar into the new, to adapt, to grow

Control

A sense of order, predictable outcome to the world, freedom of thought, action, and movement

Continuity

A sense that the future will contain familiar and valued elements of the past and the present.

Periodically, a student will ask why certain things are not on the list. In fact, many things necessary for survival are not present in the QOL, in part because these are needs, but not qualities (food, shelter, safety), or because they are the outcome of a balanced life (peace, joy, happiness). These eight qualities, in contrast, can suffer and can be built up, they are affected by many factors, and they lead to many experiences. In my opinion, these eight qualities (and the helpful mnemonic MMMMCCCC) offer a tool that balances breadth and brevity. Like any schema, the goal is not to create a model to cram all of life into, but rather, to design a tool that illuminates the world around us — and inside us.

Building Up and Breaking Down: the QOL 360

Students begin the year interviewing a parent and a grandparent about what, in their eyes, makes a Quality Life. The parent/grandparent also ask the students about their own, nascent wisdom on the subject. Students and their parents/grandparents consider the various hardships in life which can cause damage or “trauma” to a Quality Life.

Using this new vocabulary, and the focused mindset that a conceptual tool like the QOL offers, students study Ancient Israelite slavery through the lens of the QOL. How does slavery erode at the Israelites’ own sense of confidence and Control? Their relationship to God/the Mystery? How does Exodus 2:15 demonstrate a breakdown of Connection, as Moses comes upon two Israelites fighting – Israelites who should be “on the same side?” Why did this breakdown in Connection happen? How does forced slavery degrade the human endowments of Creativity? Of Mastery? What is the Meaning of all the Israelites’ servitude, when they merely make bricks for store-houses which they do not own? When Pharaoh withholds straw for bricks merely to worsen the burden, the Meaning of their work is further demeaned. Their QOL is traumatized greatly.

Admittedly, one can explore the subject of the damaging effects of slavery on human life without a tool such as the QOL, but using the tool allows for a more robust, illuminated conversation. Systematically, students learn to empathize with the Israelites by turning over every stone – and more importantly, they develop the skills and the vocabulary to review the QOL of other disempowered people – using the same QOL wheel. This scaffolded approach builds a toolbox that the teacher can turn to in each unit, giving students a sense of Mastery more profound than facility with any single text. Now, the students learn how to look for potential QOL damage in other narratives, while speculating about how to rebuild after a trauma, how to heal after a wound.

In terms of the Text, the Exodus from Egypt itself can be seen as an enormous intervention, designed to repair and restore these problems. God appeals, indirectly, to Memory, Continuity, Mystery, and Control as he reassures the slaves: “‘I will bring you in unto the land, which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage. forever: I am the LORD.’” (Shemot 6:8) In other words, “The past is here before Me. The future is before you. Control has been taken away, but it will be restored – along with the Meaning of your existence.” This is the nature of redemption.

Likewise, continuing on, the narratives of the Exodus, Mt. Sinai, and much of B’midbar can be seen as a series of case studies in which God attempts to rebuild the Israelite’s QOL, but the pre-existing trauma presents many problems. Likewise, relating to the Meaning of the Mishkan through Rashi’s lens, the Mishkan itself is a powerful symbolic-experiential intervention, helping people who have had problems with Connection and who harbor a misunderstanding of the Mystery (as evidenced by the Golden calf) to realign to each other and to God.

The stories of B’midbar chapters 11-15 provide further case studies of the struggle for Quality of Life, as the Israelites, for example, clamor for food when they are not even hungry, suffer from false Memories about the “free fish” (Bmidbar 11:5) they ate in Egypt and struggle over issues of Control and Connection (Miriam and Aaron and Korach’s accusations of Moses’ unique status in Bmidbar 12:2 and 16:3). Later, tragically, feel so out of Control in the face of entering the land of Canaan, that they would rather return to Egypt than enter into battle (14:4). The promised Homeland, it seems, has lost its Meaning. In return, God removes that goal from before this generation, prohibiting their entrance: the people then struggle to gain a sense of Control by invading, anyhow, against God’s will. Their defeat shows them, however, that they do not have Control, and the only thing that will save this people from dying altogether in the desert is Continuity: their children, those who do not have Memory of slavery, will inherit the land – though one wonders if the Meaning of freedom could be lost on this new generation.

For this unit’s assessment, Students review the story in terms of where various Qualities are breaking down, and propose various interventions. Perhaps Moses and his siblings need to go on a three day “road trip” where they can re-Connect and restore the Meaning of their family’s bond. Perhaps the Israelites should have a weekly history-music festival, where the nation listens to songs about how they got to where they are, drawing from Memory to grow a healthier sense of Continuity. God should practice letting go of Control by giving more and more Mastery to the Israelites; as He sees them make improvements, He should give them positive feedback. These interventions sound like they are drawn from teenage experiences because they are – they are the application of young meaning-makers’ experiences to the ancient texts. They are authentic (if somewhat cheeky) encounters with a text that could be ancient and irrelevant, now re-imagined in the students’ own language.

Other elements in the Torah’s narrative make for great conversations about the QOL and how they work in our lives: is Moses’s passing away at the boundary of Israel a blow at to Continuity, in that he will not be allowed to enter into this next phase of life…or it an affirmation of Continuity, since Joshua is instilled as leader, by Moses, before the crossing of the Jordan?  Is Moses’s willingness to barter with Reuben, Gad, and Menasseh (B’midbar 32) a relinquishing of Moses’s total Control… or the application of his Mastery as a statesman, ambassador, and leader? What is at stake, if if these three tribes break away from the Israelite Nation — in terms of the Continuity of the Unity? In terms of the Meaning of being a single people? In bigger-picture terms, how do various Qualities of Life, in our lives, compete for primacy? How do we make choices to bolster some Qualities at the expense of others? Can you “have it all?” What is the best way to repair a trauma to a Quality of Life, before other Qualities suffer?

While this interpretation of the events of B’midbar is not the only interpretation of the text, it is one which opens up many avenues for discussion. Students can consider what interventions should have been used to prevent their breakdown in Connection, to give a sense of Control, to reinforce Meaning, and by doing so, learn valuable lessons applicable to their own lives. Students reflect on their own experiences with feeling out of Control, about how Meaningless some of their own burdens can feel, how valuable are the Connections with their family and friends – and yet how challenging, how frustrating. Students consider how some Connections require the voluntary giving up of Control: people struggle to find ways to restore a sense of Control, even in shifting circumstances — applying Creativity. The QOL vocabulary sets helpful bounds, with familiar, reusable terminology, so these conversations can build upon and inform each other.

Student Assessment: Intervention for Trauma

Above, I spoke about the need for skills which help students to chart paths through life’s challenges. The Temple-Destruction unit asks students to review an event which was damaging to a nation or community (such as the 2011 Tsunami in Japan or the 1986 Challenger disaster), and explain the trauma not as numbers wounded or killed, or dollars lost, but rather what “internally” was damaged for those who survived or witnessed such cataclysms. Students learn a bit of social-psychology, reflecting on how communities suffer collectively, anticipating which areas of society can suffer trauma, and in turn, anticipating what sorts of interventions can help a community get back on its feet.

In turn, students gain a deeper appreciation for Jewish History, understanding the Exile as a traumatic cultural event; the Jewish people are not merely victims of Babylonian destruction (nor Nazi persecution, for that matter), but rather, are creative, adaptable people faced with a terrible task: to rebuild their QOL after enormous trauma.

How is Meaning to be restored in the face of such tragedy? What is the purpose of life when all appears lost? How will the Jewish people maintain Continuity in the wake of such upheaval? Will societies in exile manage to rebuild Connection with the homeland, with each other, and with their God (the Mystery)? What role must Creativity and Mastery play as communities reform around new ways of relating to the tragedies of the past (Memory) and the challenges of today?

Ultimately, the Quality of Life Wheel helps students develop an eye for understanding and “reading” the world around them, relating to Classic Jewish Text, Modern History, Current Events, and Personal Experience each as overlapping disciplines, each informing the other. The curriculum is not just about what is on the page, but also about what is within people.

The skills are not just for school — the skills are for life.

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