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Morrissey College of Arts and Science

UNCP5523 Telling Our Stories, Living Our Lives

capstone program

John McDargh

Associate Professor of Theology

Course also offered as THEO2523

Was Du erlebst, kann keine Macht der Welt Dir rauben.
What you have experienced, no power on earth can take away from you.
—Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

If you want to know your past, look at the present. If you want to know your future, look at the present.
—Pahmasambhava, 8C. Tibetan Buddhist sage

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
—Annie Dillard, author, Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek


  • Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging
  • Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
  • Frederick Beuchner, Telling Secrets
  • Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year
  • Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man and Life’s Greatest Lesson
  • James Carroll, An American Requiem: God, My Father and the War that Came Between Us

Xeroxed readings as provided.

Warning: This course is not about getting a job; it is about getting a life.

This Capstone Seminar intends to sponsor a process and not a specific content. It intends a highly personal and yet collaborative process of bringing a heightened and sustained attention to the narrative structure of our lives. By that I mean the kinds of stories which shape our sense of ourselves, our roles in society, our ideas about what constitutes meaningful work, worthy and life giving relationships, responsible public living, etc.

The fundamental premise of this Capstone process is that only in so far as we become self-aware of these organizing narratives do we have the freedom to intentionally choose them, modify them or reject them. We shall do this by experimenting with and cultivating various disciplines of attention or mindfulness: learning to take seriously our own inner wisdom as we become aware of our experience through exercises of breathing, writing, close attention to text, and to conversation, reading, and listening.

Our circle of attention expands outward from our immediate sensate and affective experience, to the interaction of the classroom, to points of view and perspectives offered by our dialogue partners in books and in bodies, to the personal change that has taken place over the whole of our formal "schooling" culminating in the past four years at Boston College, to the events within our environment, world wide and history long.

All Capstone Seminars, while reflecting the different scholarly interests of the instructor, are invitations to pay attention to four dimensions of human life:

  • What is worth doing with my single, unrepeatable life? What brings me to joy? What am I good at or have a talent for? What genuinely needs to be done? (the sphere of work)
  • Who are my companions in this life, how do I choose them and how shall I be faithful to them? (the sphere of relationships)
  • How do I responsibly take my place in the larger community that is my nation/city/state/world? (the sphere of citizenship)
  • Finally, to whom or to what am I ultimately accountable and in relationship with? We refer to this as our relationship to an ultimate environment, or the sphere of faith/spirituality. Thus the course has an intentionally spiritual dimension to it. The seminar aims to provide the space and structure within which we can reflect on how our own personal stories are related to the Story of Whoever or Whatever they may identify as God/the Holy/the Ground of Being.

Requirements [mutual responsibilities in the Capstone process]

1. Being there (i.e. attendance policy)

Woody Allen commented that "nine tenths of life is just showing up," and in a course where our mutual education is a key element, this becomes especially critical. Course participants will be expected to notify their colleagues in advance if there are conflicts, job interviews, etc. which preclude their attendance on a given day and will be accountable for explaining any other absences. There is only one "unexcused" absence permitted in the semester. Attendance policy extends to the two dinner meetings of the course.

Capstone writing journal

Each week there are a set of assignments ranging from basic mindfulness practice and "free writing" to more focused reflection questions based on the readings. The book that I have chosen for this year to thread through the entire semester is Rachel Naomi Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings and assignments will be made weekly in this text by assigned students for the upcoming class. Students should bring their Capstone Journal to class with them at each meeting so that they can read from it and write in it. At the midpoint of the course, and at the end, each student will select excerpts from the journal totaling no more than seven pages, and will edit these, rewriting them if desired, and submit them. The journal is ungraded but must demonstrate appropriate effort and some response to each of the assigned readings. Together with attendance this portion of the seminar constitutes 25% of the final grade—1/2 letter-grade off for each unexcused absence over one (see above attendance policy).

2. Short papers/interviews

Assignment 1: How my mind has changed/is changing

An old aphorism has it that to live is to change and to live well is to have changed often. The particular mode of “changing” that a liberal arts education aims at is in how persons think about the world and what is good and true and of value. To be educated (from the Latin educare, “to lead out of”) is to develop capacities to be deepen awareness, curiosity, and finally to come to judgement about matters of significance, judgements that can change over time with new experience, new information, a wider and more comprehensive horizon of understanding.

In order to pay attention to how we are being educated, for this paper you are asked to choose one issue/question/problem about which you are aware of changing your mind over the course of your college career (e.g., thinking about it differently and coming to a new understanding and judgement). It should not be a trivial matter (e.g., how my mind changed about mint chocolate chip ice cream), but something that means something to you. It should also be a matter that directly relates to your BC experience (course work, reading, extracurricular activities, friendships, travel, etc.). Examples include: How my mind has changed about: the choice of a major, race, professional sports, class structure, religious faith, gender roles and relationships, sexual ethics, drinking, advertising, political or social questions (e.g., economic justice, the death penalty, abortion, immigration policy, welfare reform), feminism, men, women. Try to be rather specific and focused, "How my mind has changed about the meaning of life" is too broad. In your paper identify your prior perspective or understanding and how it developed, and some of the particular discrete educational experiences—persons, places, books, experiences—that you see as formative or influential in changing your view.

Five to seven pages typed (20%) due September 29; will be discussed at dinner meeting.


Assignment 2: Work/career interview

Select someone who seems to you to be doing meaningful work and/or whose whole composition of life is personally inspiring to you and interview them about why they do what they do, how they came by doing it, and what sustains them. What you are listening for is the story which they tell themselves about their work and how that story of work may or may not be integrated with other dimensions of their lives and other stories.

You may interview anyone you like, subject to the following restrictions:

  • they should have been working for at least five years after finishing their highest level of schooling;
  • your write-up should include quotations from your interview, so you may want to tape record it with permission;
  • your analysis of what you learned and how you responded to the experience of the interview should draw upon the readings and discussions from this class.

Five to seven pages typed (25%) due November 5.

3. Facilitation of class

Students working in teams of three persons will several times through the semester take responsibility for leading the class discussion around particular assigned texts. Teams are asked to meet the week before with the professor to talk about how they plan to conduct the course.

Each week as well three students will give an assignment to the class from the current section of the Remen book to be read for the following week. At the beginning of that class these three students will share their own reflections or responses to the assigned readings and invite their colleagues to share theirs. Note: you are not limited to reading just the assigned sections, but you should read at least those.

4. Final project

A Spiritual and Intellectual Autobiography, ten pages, typed, double-spaced (30%); consultation with professor recommended; final draft due December 17

5. Back from the future (a letter to myself)

Due December 19, a letter to yourself—what I do not want to forget, or what I want to remind myself of, in a sealed, self-addressed, stamped envelope; recommend permanent home address. Instructor will mail the letter to you one year to the day of your graduation from BC.

Week 1: Getting started

The principles and foundation of the course. Why are we here and what do we hope to accomplish, beginning with attention, mutual responsibilities, what makes genuine conversation possible? Why tell stories?

Week 2: Learning attentional strategies

Writing as spiritual practice and as critical reflection.

  • Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings, assignment from Part I: "Receiving Your Blessings—Introduction" and pp. 17–21; "The Shell Game; Keeping It Together; Remembering"
  • Mary Rose O'Reilly's The Centered Classroom
  • Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind

Week 3: Stories of origins

Facilitators: ____, ____, ____
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings
Assignment [from Part I: "Receiving Your Blessings]": ____; Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions and excerpt from Traveling Mercies

Week 4: What stories can be shared

Facilitators: ____, ____, ____
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings
Assignment from Part II: "Becoming a Blessing": ____; Frederich Beuchner, Telling Secrets

Week 5: Sharing our Educational Stories

Assignment 1 - No meeting
Dinner meeting at Professor McDargh's house, 59 Ripley Street (617-928-6003)
Directions from BC main campus:

  • Via MBTA Green Line from Chestnut Hill: Travel one stop outbound to Newton Center. Get off train and take a right (i.e., back towards BC) to Langley Road. Take a right on Langley, crossing over the Green Line. The second right is Chase Street. Take a right. The first left is Ripley Street. Our house is a yellow two-story house with green trim, about the 10th house on the right, left door.
  • Via car: Drive out Beacon Street to Newton Centre and take a left at the light on Langley Road (Appetito’s is on the right for a landmark), then same as above.

Week 6: Narrative and the Quest for Meaning


Facilitators: ____, ____, ____
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings
Assignment from "Part III: Finding Strength, Taking Refuge": ____; Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


Week 7: Coming to Terms with Family History, National History, and the Mystery of God: One Man’s Journey


Facilitators: ____, ____, ____
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings
Assignment [From "Part III: Finding Strength Taking Refuge"]: ____; James Carroll, An American Requiem: God, My Father and the War that Got Between Us. Plus selected op-ed selections by Carroll from the Boston Globe. First Journal Selection due.


Week 8: To what stories should we be attending: A Long Loving Look at the World and Our Place in It


Class guest: Tom Beaudoin, author of Virtual Faith
Facilitators: ____, ____, ____
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings
Assignment [From "Part IV: The Web of Blessings"]: ____


Week 9: Listening for the Story of Meaningful Work: Part 1


Remen selectors: ____, ____, ____
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings
Assignment [From "Part IV: The Web of Blessings"]: ____; BC Magazine: “Inner Workings: Labor and Meaning”; David Norton essay, “Education for Self Knowledge and Worthy Living”; Reporting in on our work interviews [Assignment 33]


Week 10: Meaningful Work, Part 2


Facilitators: ____, ____, ____
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings
Assignment [From "Part V: Befriending Life"]: ____


Week 11: In the ed: Relationship Reflections on mentoring, friendship, and living one’s dying


Facilitators: ____, ____, ____
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings
Assignment [From "Part V: Befriending Life"]: ____; Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie


Week 12: In the beginning: Relationship reflections on friendship, partnership, marriage, and commitment


Facilitators: ____, ____, ____
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings
Assignment [From "Part V: Befriending Life"]: ____; Readings TBA or Film TBA


Week 13: What does the Ignatian Spiritual Tradition offer to help in the discernment of a life way?


Facilitators: ____, ____, ____
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings
Assignment [From Part VI: Restoring the World]: ____; Selections from Wilkie Au, S.J., By Way of the Heart: Toward a Holistic Christian Spirituality


Week 14: Final Meeting of the Class: What do we carry forward into the future?


Evening Dinner Meeting: Student Apartment or Dorm TBA
Remen Selections: ____, ____, ____
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings
Assignment [From Part VI]


Final Journal Selection due


Final Exit Interview: Individual Sign-up


Final Assignment due.