I subscribe to The New Yorker, and its diverse and interesting pieces sustain me during my long and varied commutes across buses and trains in the Bronx each day.
A recent piece on explorer and all-around bad-ass Henry Worsley touched a nerve. This is by author David Grann, so it’s great writing, and he has clear admiration for Worsley. Do yourself a favor and read it.
Yet despite also admiring Worsley’s relentless drive and leadership, I ended the piece feeling upset, even angry.
He left behind a wife and two children who loved him fiercely. For what? To trudge across the vast, icy, crevassed expanse of the South Pole on his own in order to fulfil what seems to me a prurient fantasy. That speaks of either immense despair or delusion, not of heroism.
I think it is much more heroic to learn to bear inner demons quietly, while tending to the needs of your family and society.
The loss of a man as strong as Henry Worsley is all the more tragic in consideration of all the good he could still be enacting if he had decided to put his energies towards the ones around him, rather than towards a solo trek across the ice.
In February, I went to a conference in D.C. My wife came down to join me afterwards. We don’t get out much, and I’ve barely seen much of my East Coast environs, barring last year’s visit to Philly. At the top of our list of things to see was the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. It was the newest memorial, and also slightly controversial.
As we approached the memorial, we read quotations from MLK’s speeches that are engraved along a wall that leads up to his statue. We then walked around the central monument, which depicts MLK with his arms crossed, embedded in a chunk of granite mountain that appears to have slid forward from its face (Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope). His hands are sinewy and strong, veins bulging, and his eyes gaze stoically across the water. There is a sense of calm and might, but also a deep sense of tragedy. The unfinished look of the overall work contributes to this sense.
We took our obligatory picture, and then my wife asked if I could take her picture in front of one of the quotations we had passed earlier along the wall.
“It reminds me of you,” she said, somewhat shyly. We walked back over and I took her picture in front of the quotation, which reads:
“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their heads.”
She seemed to feel that the reason why I am a teacher and work hard each and every day related to something like the sentiment expressed in that quotation. I couldn’t quite see myself in it, however.
This post is my explanation of why.
A little further down the wall, I saw another quotation that did speak deeply to me and about what I am passionately committed to in my work:
“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalty must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
I took a picture of this one as well. We then walked away from the MLK memorial towards the Roosevelt memorial, which is a long, meandering wall and pathway of red stone with various niches and spaces for reflection along the way. Quotations from F.D.R. are sprinkled next to reflective pools, waterfalls, and scattered stones. But it was a quote in a little niche from his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, that reached out most to me. And it links together in theme with that quotation from MLK:
“The structure of world peace can not be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation . . . It must be a peace that rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”
This theme of common purpose, of a struggle for a global, overarching vision through cooperative effort, is what drives me and motivates me to do the work that I do. I was flattered by my wife’s belief that I do what I do because of a deep-seated passion for social justice, but there was a cognitive dissonance I didn’t feel comfortable with in that first quote. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but it seems to have to do with some underlying sense of martyrdom (“I have the audacity to believe. . .”), a stance of personal virtue, nobility, and provocation that I don’t fully identify with.
A passion for a moral mission, bordering at times on the messianic, is a trait of some that enter into teaching or social service as a profession. It is common for teachers to speak of teaching as a “calling,” as if they have been drawn into the vocation by a force beyond their ken. I am frequently talked to by others who are not teachers as if I have forsaken the realm of mere mortals and ascended into an alien sainthood, given the wary respect and sympathy attributed to a monk — that is, with an incredulous, I-would-never-do-that-myself-but-god-bless-you sort of attitude.
This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Teaching is a profession. It is a career. And yes, it is a tough one, and it is especially tough when teaching special education in a high needs school in an impoverished inner city area. But I moved into this tough career not simply because I wanted to make my world a better place (yes, I am an idealist), but because I wanted — purely selfishly — to develop myself as a leader and a person, to learn firsthand the ground level effects of political and policy decisions, and become a part of something much greater than myself.
I have no illusions that I am changing the world simply because I may impact a handful of childrens’ lives in the confines of one classroom. I realize this is sacrilegious to say. This is critically important work and the impact on one child’s life cannot be diminished. But I believe strongly that the larger system within which we work impacts our nation’s future ever more greatly. We can change the world by working together with others to alter aspects of that system we work and live within. Teachers, parents, children, policymakers, state legislatures, mayors, citizens, these are the people that collectively can change the world. I want to learn to look beyond my individual self and work towards a common, global purpose.
This is why the second quotation from MLK and Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotation spoke to me. I’d like to think that I as an individual can influence great change, but realistically speaking, I know that whatever impact I can have on my own is nothing in comparison to what we can achieve when we work together.
I, like probably a healthy contingent of folks out there, am self-centered, and thus largely perceive the world through a deluded lens of self-importance. Every now and then, however, I gain a sliver of insight beyond the immediate realm of the distance between my cheek and my nose.
I like to magnify the spare, menial bits of glory that I may happen to stumble into now and again and celebrate the small triumphs of character or will. But the reality is that on the whole, I am deeply flawed, as I believe most people really are, when their externally syndicated mantle is peeled away.
There’s one simple way for me to maintain my humility: to re-focus my attention on the fact that for every extra effort that I extend, there is a woman doing the same thing — while simultaneously raising a child (or children). And because she is thus additionally employed, chances are that I will receive some kind of external recognition or compensation for my effort, while she may not.
There is what is within. And then there is all that is without. However, in essence, the without is but a collection of other withins. So if I stepped out of myself, I would observe that what is within other people is proportionate to that which is within myself. Without–in all of this collection of withins–is an extroverted form of myself. Or an introverted form of the cosmos.
But to directly and immediately equate the two together would be a fallacy, because while at some ultimate level everything within and without harmonizes like a yolk harmonizes within an egg, they are not one and the same at any given moment in time. It is only when seen from a steadfast, timeless, eternal viewpoint that they pan out into one. If you flash framed the Now right now, then you would notice more the contrasts, the differences, the distinctiveness of all people from one another from different peoples in different times. The yolk would seem to be distinguished from the egg just as when you cut in half a hardboiled egg. You could pop it out as if it were a separate piece altogether.
As if the children were distinct from the adults, who are distinct from the old. As if the college students were distinct from the young professionals, as if distinct from high school students. As if the sun were distinct from the moon, and this solar system distinct from the milky way.
As if my thoughts and my feelings were distinct from your fingers. As if your eyes were distinct from the concrete, from the summer air, as if the currents carrying a Florida thunderstorm were distinct from the waves cutting at the Taiwanese shore. As if this breath, this moment, this pinnacle of your rushing heart was distinct from the world.
I have defined myself by loneliness, a barrenness of expectancy. Any light that passes through me is not my own, I am a hollowness that is sounded by the passing breath of what the universe elects to bestow, just as it so readily and inevitably draws away, to leave me again enshrouded in silence, in the magnitude of a void that lies at the root of every being. For this solitude is not my own; it is the very concavity of the universe, against whose form I am embedded within, a child pregnant with nothingness, like the deadened sacs of jellyfish that wash to shore, glancing in the moonlight like glass blown bubbles, a horrifically beautiful detachment of alien life forms deadened of meaning. The eye that views us wholly is not our own. It is in the distance of aqueous rock, beholden to a history that extends far beyond the parasitic need of life.
As I unravel from out of my comfortable discipline, from out of the mountainous wilderness of my solitude and into a daily existence that necessitates immediacy, haphazard intimacy, and action, I find myself flailing, looking to strike out again for the deep water, where life slows until it is still.
But I have made a choice. I have turned my back to the night and descended into the electrified city of the people, where we choose to listen to the music of our own crafting. My deepest self, rooted in empty blankness, must belatedly put on the masks of human aspiration and join in the ritual dances of the season. To become a proselytizer of the human future, laboring for fecundity. To have hope, to believe in a collective expansion of spirit, that what we take will be less than what we make.
The individual light within me has been lessened, intentionally, to make way for the lights of other people who will come with me. The one light that we shine can only be stronger, the one song that we sing can only be that much more steady, defined through the legislated breath of each other, not simply by the passing happenstance gift of the beyond.
Life is and should be hard. To compete for the sun, establish one’s space in which to grow, to harmonize with what already exists, and develop continuously for deeper rootedness is a struggle. To be able to propogate only love, without bitterness, without anger—this is the pinnacle of existence. How many people do you know, whether rich or poor, who can smile at any stranger and fill their momentary solitary space with light? It is rare indeed to be able to penetrate the inner sanctums of alien awareness. You think you got something? Whatever it is that you hold is a barrier to divinity. Your own mind. Your own body. Your own desire to be something greater than this situation in which you find yourself, to be someone better than the people you are surrounded with. This moment, this day, this everyday mundanity. You are of this. You are this, with no delineation, no distinction. This, you, bounded, distorted, disarrayed.
And then just when you despair: the light. The tomorrow making of vision. A higher-ness of determination. Your potential succor staggers your stasis into omega futurity. You are of what you are, bounded only by what you aren’t, which is ultimately or predeterminately of what you are.
Simply put, the light, the love, the making of our interrelated creation: this is exactly and precisely the manner and whey in which it should be. A separation of layers, a diminishing and ascending relation of solidity. As I shed my past, shed my reluctance to be more or less than my own imagining, I find out who I am meant to be. This parcel of exact and apportioned reckoning. This complex version of what is and always will be simple in a single vision.
You’ve formulated these full, glossy lit pictures of perfection in your mind. You’ve established how you believe the world should be. You’ve determined how you want those you love to be. And now you find yourself putting up walls between yourself and reality, constantly on retreat, the ebbing colors of your idealism flowing into the eroding moat outside your acceptance. You hold on tight to your imagined versions of who you love, as they slip away invisibly from between your bestowed masks and costumes like a greased pig. You clutch at ghosts, you cherish empty husks, you bed with demons. You dig yourself in deeper, unaware of how alone you have become, how lonely, how lost, how stranded.
Those who love you become your enemies. They talk about you behind your back, unable to confront you with a reality that you can’t accept. There is no possibility of change, no potential for a different outcome, until you’ve come to the end of your own rope. Until you are ready to reach out from behind the walls of your idealism and step back into the world that exists beyond your limited desires. Until you drop your selfish ego and accept your diminutive status within the world. Until you drop the burden that you have created and free yourself to become involved.
To become involved in the nurturing and growing of living things, you must get dirty. You have to struggle, get down onto the ground on your hands and knees, work at the earth, sweat into your clothes. There is no easy way to create beauty that will survive apart from you.
There is nothing wrong with being a perfectionist, with being an idealist, with wanting the world to change, with being angry and bitter with the way things are. But if this idealism is preventing you from becoming effectively involved in your own life, then it is just as dangerous as greed, just as dark as blood shed by warfare. In order to act, a thousand other potentialities must be destroyed. The question is: is this action the right action? Is this involvement the right involvement? These are the things that frighten you. These are the things that hold you back. While your plants are withering. While reality grows ever more desperate, more detached, more inclined towards despair. The real question is not right or wrong; the real questions are: how selflessly can you act? How fully involved can you be?
If you can give yourself completely, then there are no questions.
Dirty your hands in the challenge of your world. It is best, of course, to think and choose the best course of action. But how many times have the options only become apparent after you have already committed yourself? In the streamline of successive moments, the right way will become manifest. You must believe this. You must have faith in what is beyond yourself of which you are but a part. You can’t out-think the physical manifestations of the universe. You can’t formulate a perfect philosophy to encompass each and every moment. You can only open yourself to learning, like a child. In response to reality, you will know what is the right way to act.
Open yourself to the suffering transparency of the light. Break down your walls to the invading hordes of the world.