Sunday, October 23, 2011
Walking the Path
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…