image from illinoisspringfield on flickr
Congratulations to the class of 2012. You’ve come just in time. You have until December 21st to avert the apocalypse.
This year I turned 30, gave away most of what I owned (my possessions now fit, more or less, in two black REI duffel bags), and moved to Uganda. It makes my life sound very strange to put it that way, even to me. Because eight years ago when I wore the disappointingly cheap robe and the tasseled hat I could not have placed myself in such a life. It was too far outside the American cultural consensus about what a good life can look like. I still had much to learn.
I use ‘learn’ here as a euphemism for ‘find out I was totally wrong about very important beliefs of which I was extremely confident.’ This sort of learning is cataclysmic, an earthquake of the mind and heart, a tsunami of the soul. It comes all at once in a terrifying moment and destroys the earth on which you stand, forcing you to rebuild your world on higher, firmer ground.
My first moment of such learning came while I was in college. I was studying economics in Los Angeles with a mind to make a million dollars and live by the beach and drive a very fast, very well-designed car. Then I went to Nepal. Nepal is home to the Himalayas, the world’s biggest mountains and, from what I’ve seen so far, its most beautiful. Nepal is also home to some of the world’s poorest people, coaxing their meager subsistence of rice and lentils from the impossibly terraced mountainsides. And although many endured poverty to the point of death, this did not restrain the joyful and generous fullness of their communities, the giving and taking-care-of and celebrating together.
During one long trek through the Himalayan dreamworld I crossed the deepest gorge on the planet, so crowned because it lies between two of Earth’s highest peaks. One cannot help but see the analogy to life in Nepal: soaring beauty and humanity astride a dizzying depth of need.
Flying back to the sprawling one-man-kingdoms of Los Angeles I could have scattered my understanding of the world like ashes from the plane. It was gone. And with it the future that I had long imagined for myself. I was adrift in the flood, searching for terra firma.
This cataclysmic type of learning is among the hardest experiences I’ve encountered. It undermines the identity, value system, the very sense of meaning of an individual. Three times it has done so to me.
Nonetheless it is my greatest hope for you that you allow such learning to overthrow your life, that you will seek out its catastrophic powers through travel and relationships and deep, open engagement with ideas that differ from your own.
I wish this for you first because these moments of cataclysmic learning have led me, at times painfully, to a truer understanding of identity, values, and meaning, and I believe they will do the same for you.
And secondly I wish this sort of learning for you because the world needs it. Through my most recent moment of cataclysmic learning I have come to see the great challenges the world faces – things like resource depletion, collapsing ecosystems, economic injustice, the changing climate – as symptoms of a deeper cultural problem. They derive from our pervasive global culture of endless growth, the consensus belief that humanity has a manifest destiny to conquer and control the world, no matter the consequences to the Earth or even to ourselves.
For most of us it’s hard to see exactly where this culture is wrong because our own beliefs are built on it, and because we are all complicit in its ills. I consume too much. I support labor exploitation. I drive a CO₂ pumping SUV. Even worse, I depend almost entirely on the global system this culture has created. I need it. And so do you.
This is why we must let truth get to the roots of our beliefs and, where necessary, shatter them. Because only when our foundational beliefs are broken are we driven to find a stronger foundation. Only when our identity and values and meaning are shaken will we send our roots to deeper, truer soil.
One truth that has become clearer to me through each cataclysmic learning experience is: no matter the level of affluence or poverty, what’s important in a person’s life is a sense of meaning. Our global economy-dominated culture would have you find meaning in success, in wealth, in the enjoyment of the many pleasures that it offers. The obvious problem with this sort of meaning is that it can be destroyed, by forces of nature and market.
But there is a stronger, truer source of meaning that can not be broken. It is our own ability to love. We create meaning in our world by loving it and the people and things within it. Here we see the more insidious side of our global culture: in tempting us to find meaning there it wants us to love success, to love wealth, to love luxury, even while these things care nothing for us, and will leave us at our first misstep.
The truer objects of our love care for us as we do them and will not disown us so quickly. There are four that I’ve found: the Earth that sustains our lives, the people who shape our identities, our own health—physical and otherwise, and the deep truths that teach us our values. Soil, community, heart, and soul.
Meaning is not something outside of us waiting to be found, it is a product of our proper relationship to our existence, a loving connection to our place, our people, our selves, and the deepest truth we can muster.
As you make choices in the coming years that will shape your life, your beliefs, your impact on our shared planet, I encourage you to seek soil, community, heart, and soul. Seek them in distant cultures. Seek them in the wisdom of others. Seek them in your own heritage. Let them shake your foundations. Let them topple your worldview. Let them become the bedrock on which you build your part of our future.
You probably won’t end up in Uganda with two duffel bags to your name, but together you might actually save us from that apocalypse, December 21st or otherwise.