We read some Emerson and Thoreau for one of my classes this week, and I just finished the reflection paper, so I have snippets of both those guys whirling in my head, with a liberal sprinkling of clips from Dead Poets' Society for good measure. Thoreau's quote, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them" has got me thinking, and not just because it's the end of the semester and I'm up to my eyeballs in reading and papers: how much do any of us avoid the possibility of unknown suffering by clinging to sufferings to which we are accustomed? Pink Floyd shares Thoreau's sentiment: "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way." Stiff upper lip, lads. How much of my life is extraordinary? That doesn't mean life-as-extreme-sport, (for God's sake, no) but how much do I live to get somewhere else, not pay attention to where I am, muddle through what I am supposed to do? How often am I genuinely alive, really soaking in the full range of human experience, and not running away from some part of it? Whatever we are doing, work, school, whatever is about developing or making use of a certain expertise of ability or information, but how many of us are expert human beings? I have become an expert at keeping the world stable around me, but when that stability is threatened, how easily my little world falls apart. I don't know how to become an expert human being, but, even if just for this night while writing this paper, Emerson and Thoreau have reminded me that the goal of all of it - work, school, community, ministry, whatever - is the deadly difficult task of becoming who we are, becoming real human beings.
For me in my little universe, that means more than having a much-expanded personal library at the end of this degree program. A mental rock star like Thoreau can say that he kept the Iliad on his table at Walden Pond but didn’t read much of it; again, he isn't dismissing intellectual work, but seeing the task of intellection directed to knowing himself. Plenty of people have dismissed his experiment because he was only a mile or so from Concord, but I challenge anyone to spend a week without reading or talking to anyone – that might sound like heaven at the end of the semester, but not reading, not writing, not accomplishing, not producing is a lot more work than it seems. In my head I share Thoreau’s sentiment, “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers,” but in my real life I also see how needy I can get after a few months of continual interaction, communication, productivity, when I have not disciplined myself to be still and let go of "relevance." My fear in this place is that academe become a barrier between myself and real life, cutting me off from the desperation of real people's real sufferings as well as Thoreau's “quiet desperation” in my own life, not just because I have spent a ridiculous amount of time this semester cooped up reading or writing, but because a university can be a cozy place to hunker down away from the chaos of the world. “Apocalyptic never makes sense to people who are tenured,” one of my OT professors once told our class. Point taken: To the degree that being here opens my world to the rawness of the world of people who live without safety nets, and gives me the tools to bring people to see outside their bubble, I'm in the right place. To the degree that this kind of work insulates me from it, I’m in big trouble.