He Called Me Up
Comments shared by Ara Astourian at the Celebration of the Life of Dallas Willard, University of Southern California, School of Philosophy (October 4, 2013)
During Dallas’s last two years as a professor, I took a course with him, did some independent research with him, and also served as a teaching assistant for one of his courses. But, without question, I learned the most from Dallas while talking to him in the privacy of his office, one-on-one.
We’d usually meet at night, and spend hours at a time, talking about philosophy, religion, and academia. And, naturally, I took a lot away from those discussions, but one of the greatest things I learned from Dallas came through his manner of relating to me.
Whenever we’d meet to talk, it was always clear that Dallas exceeded me in every important respect: he was decidedly sharper, more insightful, and more knowledgeable. But if you only paid attention to his way of relating to me, you would’ve thought we were equals.
Because Dallas respected me. He thought of me and treated me as one of his peers. To put it in his terms, though he knew we weren’t equally worthy, he believed we were of equal worth, and so he was prepared to act as though that were true.
To be respected in this way always made me feel as though Dallas was calling me up to where he was, and, therefore, that he believed I could actually make it to where he was. This really encouraged me. To be respected by someone whom I respected so deeply, to be called up by him - this motivated me to work harder and to keep trying when I seemed to be making little progress.
Since I started TAing here, I’ve been trying to treat my students in the way that Dallas treated me. As it turns out, you can’t just will yourself to treat people respectfully, especially when you recognize their relative weakness. So in trying to imitate Dallas, I’ve been learning that he was a more caring and patient person than I am. But I see that he was and is calling me up to him in these areas as well. I was near Dallas’s office one day last year, after he’d decided to officially retire, and I noticed that his daughter and son-in-law were there attempting to clear out the space. So I went over and said, “Oh, you must be Becky and Bill. My name’s Ara.” They greeted me and then asked if I was a student of Dallas’s. But I struggled to answer them, finally managing to say, “Well, sort of.” They looked a bit puzzled, but I finally got it out that, yes, I’d been a student of his and had also been one of his teaching assistants.
I struggled to answer them that day because all I could think of was this: long after the last bit of light would fade from Dallas’s office window, I’d get to the bottom of my long list of questions, and I’d apologize for having kept him so long. But he’d tell me that I had no reason to apologize and then he’d lean forward, shake my hand, and say, “We’re friends.”
I can say without exaggeration that it’s one of the great honors of my life for this man to have thought of me as his friend, and it’s my aim to make myself worthy of that distinction.
Ara Astourian earned his PhD in philosophy in 2017 at USC: writing a dissertation in political philosophy that defends public reason liberalism as conceived by Rawls. During his first two years in the program, he took Dallas's undergraduate Philosophy of Religion course, served as a teaching assistant for his course on The Professions, and did some independent research with Dallas on religion and politics in the early modern era. After graduating from USC he moved to Boston to study Law at Harvard.