Sunday, October 23, 2011
Early this past spring semester, one of my students said something during a side conversation we were having privately just before class began. He told me that his parents thought I was a “youthful idealist” and I didn’t know how to take that for a couple of reasons: 1) I’m in my mid-30s. I still feel “youthful” but I’ve experienced enough of life and gleaned enough wisdom to warrant perhaps a different descriptor; 2) even more surprising was being branded an “idealist,” as I never saw myself as one because I’ve often thought of myself as too pragmatic to be idealistic. But after a great deal of wrestling with this notion, I’ve finally come to see that in many ways I have transformed into an idealist, something I never thought would have been possible. For much of my youth—especially beginning with my parents’ divorce in my “tween” years—I became and was a hardened cynic. I distrusted the motives of others and even myself, but I think this worldview was more of a social defense mechanism than what I genuinely believed deep down. I had certain convictions that I wanted to order my life around, yet was unable to do so because of the barriers I had built. Little did I know that in time those walls would come tumbling down and I would be this person writing letters of encouragement to nobody in particular.
When I went back to college at age 23, I had no idea what I wanted out of my education, which may have been the best thing for me. This allowed me to explore my interests without any preconceived notions about what those interests would eventually lead to in terms of job prospects, salaries, etc. I just wanted to learn at the time, but I know now that what I really wanted to learn about was life and my place in it. It only seems natural, then, that I became overwhelmingly consumed by the timeless questions for which there are no easy answers and ended up studying primarily religion and philosophy. About a year into these pursuits, the film The Matrix came out and only reinforced my interests in pursuing these eternal issues. And while there is tons of great material from that one movie, the line that has been sticking out in my head for the last few months is one that Morpheus says to Neo: “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” It sounds so simple that it borders on being a platitude. But from this one realization I think much of our personal progress and happiness in/with life stems. I’d imagine that just about every single person has ideals by which they live—or at least claim to live—but don’t follow through with them. I think the breakdown between how we ideally want to live and the way we actually do live is what causes our own dissatisfaction (whether we own up to it or not). As I described it in a speech to our graduating Honor Court two years ago, it’s the difference between espousing our ideals and living them. When I began to change my life for the better a few years ago, it began with not just believing in my ideals with words but by living them out with actions.
As I mentioned earlier, this letter has been a long time in the making. I’ve churned this idea over and over in my mind, trying to narrow down the ideals I thought were the most crucial to helping me transform into who I am today. Even that sounds misleading because these three are certainly neither the only ideals I have nor have they attained any sort of culmination. Life is a work in progress and we must strive to live out our ideals to the fullest in order to foster any meaningful change, but these three represent the foundation, if you will, for who I am in the process of becoming. Moreover, these three are listed in a specific order, as I personally believe we must begin with ourselves before moving on to our immediate community and ultimately our entire world. So after more than a decade of study and reflection on life’s essential questions, here’s what I’ve whittled it down to…
Integrity. This one word represents what it means to “walk the path.” Integrity is the first step on said path because in order to become the best of who we are meant to be we must make the right choices in every aspect of life. When I was younger, I clearly knew what the right thing to do was in any given situation but I often let my base desires win out, whether it meant succumbing to eat like a glutton when I was already depressed about my weight or stealing change from my mother’s purse to buy some worthless item. Granted my lack of follow through was more in my youth, but as I grew older—and especially coming into contact with classical philosophy—the ideal of living a virtuous life became incredibly important to me. It wasn’t until I met Erin and began this process of transformation that it really took on new meaning for me. As I entered my third decade I only began to truly appreciate that our integrity is the only thing (albeit an abstract thing) that we will truly ever own. Perhaps even more importantly, when you truly follow through on your convictions and live your ideals rather than just talking about them, life gets much easier. If there are no discrepancies between what you say and how you act, your relationships with others become stronger and more genuine. Plus, the lack of artifice makes our lives more organic in the sense that it frees us to be who we truly are on the inside. Much like I mentioned in an earlier letter concerning Howard Thurman, the more we integrate our “public persona” with our “private self” the more we streamline our lives into a seamless whole.
Egalitarianism. Once we have taken care of ourselves and ordered our own lives into a meaningful existence, we can then work toward the greater good—the other. While it is important to get one’s own affairs in order to have a fulfilling life, I personally believe that a life of fulfillment is a life of service. The only reason we must order our own lives is so that we have a stable foundation upon which to stand tall and help others achieve their dreams. My egalitarianism stems from my two favorite spiritual teachers, Jesus (by extension Thurman and Merton also) and The Buddha, both of whom taught a doctrine of equality among all human beings. If we want to be happy in this life, it truly rests in making others happy and a precursor for doing just that is recognizing everyone in the world as equal. I’m not saying that we are equal in our capacities, but on a fundamental level we are all equal in that we have been given this same incredible opportunity at life. We all think, we all have emotions, we all have families and the list could go on forever. Even scientifically it’s been genetically proven that all human beings are 99.4% the same. Six-tenths of one percent represents all the outward variation we see in our world, and for centuries have used those minor, insignificant differences to label, denigrate, enslave, maim, or kill each other…all because of wrong convictions. We must learn to treat each other as equals no matter who we are if we are ever to understand the complex web of interconnectivity and interdependence in which we live.
Something More. I love this phrase. This is my go-to explanation for anything that I would otherwise designate as ineffable or beyond expression with words. This, to me, is the undercurrent behind all of life. If you’ve read any of the older letters, NIP, I’ve alluded to this before—namely, life is completely miraculous. You can take that in any sense you wish, but to me it doesn’t matter if you attribute the miracle to spirit or science because one must fundamentally arrive at the same conclusion that either way you look at it or contemplate the odds of existence life is miraculous. Having grappled with many suppositions concerning the origins and nature of the universe/life over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what you call it. The label will never capture the essence of anything in this life, which is why I’ve always fallen back on my description of “something more.” I don’t rationally “know” that there is something more, but I intuitively feel that there is. Moreover, there is no point in giving “it” a label; labels only limit us and our thinking, whereas living in the moment and truly appreciating what we have been given with this chance to live and breathe as part of this miraculous phenomenon allows us to simply exist without those limitations. Perhaps I am akin to an ancient Israelite who knew labels can do no justice; they dared not “name” the ultimate power because that would limit it to human conception and comprehension. The force that lies behind all life cannot be encapsulated as such—it cannot be “known” only “experienced.” These last few years especially have helped me “pierce the veil,” so to speak, on this illusion. Every last atom in this universe came from somewhere and is directly responsible for the life we have been given, and I believe it is intellectual hubris for us to try and ever capture and understand this experience with words. All I intuitively know is that there is something inexplicable at the ground of being, the substrate of all existence. And whatever this “something more” is, I am eternally grateful for it and the interconnectedness it provides for all in this amazing life.
I’ve been walking the path for a few years now, NIP, and I would encourage you to do the same. This may mean tempering some priorities in favor of others, but it will ultimately lead to a better life. The ideals that you find most important may not necessarily be the same as mine, but they should be congruous and working together to build a strong foundation for the life you want to lead. Perhaps we all figure this out as we age and the phenomenon I have experienced is something older readers may have already been through. Either way, it has taken me months to come to grips with this student-given epithet but after much reflection I have to agree. I have become an idealist. I may not ever achieve perfection with any of these ideals, but I will ardently strive toward their realization in order to help me become the best person I am capable of becoming. You can do the same, NIP; your ideals may be slightly different than someone else’s, but as long as those ideals foster personal growth within you and a desire to change the world for the better outside of you then they’re noble goals. If you’ve been staring at your path (knowing) wondering how you’re going to change, NIP, all you have to do is take the first step and let the momentum carry your forward. Once you begin walking your path, your ideals will transform from words to actions and it will make all the difference.
Walk the path, NIP…
Thursday, October 13, 2011
How’s life treating you, NIP?
Well, I hope. If I were facing my current circumstances about 3 years ago, I probably would have had a meltdown by now. Life has been throwing just about everything possible at me the last few weeks and I sometimes I wonder if I’ll be able to keep up the juggling without dropping something. In the last month my grandmother has passed, we found out that one of our dogs is terminally ill, we lost one of the feral cats we have taken care of for the last 3 years, and school has been out of control with formal observations, evaluations, trying to keep up with my new courses…the list could go on forever. I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar in your life at some point, NIP, which is why I feel this letter’s subject is so crucial. Even in the midst of life’s most hectic stretches of time, we must still continue to better ourselves. Though it may be more difficult to fit in that quality time to develop ourselves, we must find a way to keep building our momentum.
This past summer was quite a high point in my recent life; I got to spend nearly every single moment with my best friend and lovely wife, Erin. Being that we’re both teachers and have the essentially the same schedule, most summers have offered us this opportunity. And when you add in our long daily yoga practices together, I felt as if we grew tremendously as both individuals and a couple. We both approached the new academic year with excitement and energy, but quickly realized after a few weeks of school that this year was going to be challenging. Between the new classes for me and Erin’s new students, we were initially overwhelmed. After a few weeks it seemed to be getting better, but Mémère’s passing marked the beginning of the tumultuous times that Erin and I have been facing. And yet as crazy as some of the days have been, I always manage to find some small victory among the rubble of chaos. That’s the secret, NIP; always be on the lookout for the tiny accomplishments that propel you in the direction of that better person you want to become.
While the transformations we seek in ourselves will not happen instantly, they are worth the struggle. The important thing is to never quit on your personal growth, to keep striving toward that better person you know you are capable of becoming. Over time you’ll discover that as you chip away at your magnum opus, your life’s work of art, the image that begins to emerge from the stone will drive you even more. As anyone who has ever created anything will tell you—whether created through words, paint, music, wood, plants, whatever—that moment of creation when you begin to see the results of your dedication and diligence is incredibly gratifying. It is the same with our personal development; in those moments when we realize we were more patient or generous or whatever other quality you’ve tried to cultivate, it is a victory over our old ways, our old selves. And it is precisely these moments that allow us to build momentum. Just as the word implies, the more momentum we generate, the easier it is to move forward in with our undertaking of becoming the best of who we are.
As we continue to build this momentum in our lives, it has a hidden benefit of which I was completely unaware until these past few weeks. When life gets out of control, the momentum we’ve built holds us steady internally. We may be slogging along to some degree through life on the outside, but the momentum we’ve harnessed gives us the energy and perseverance to see us through to another day, to keep striving toward that ceaseless goal of discovering the best of who we are. By being aware of even the most minute of personal victories, this keeps that momentum churning. And so long as that momentum churns, we have enough energy in reserve to press on in our quest. Life may have a way of dampening our spirits when there is so much to do in so little time, but we must be sure to take time and check in with ourselves. Even if it is just by stopping for five minutes to close our eyes and do some deep breathing, it helps. The momentum that is built in better times will inevitably carry you through the difficult ones, NIP. Our inner fire will blaze at times, smolder during others. The important thing is that we are mindful of the fire—and stoke it when necessary to keep it burning.
Keep building your momentum, NIP…