So today in class we discussed our “core commitments,” the reasons we do what we do, the things that drive our aspirations. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially as I grow weary and exhausted and my brain chemistry falls out of whack, leaving me struggling even to cope with everyday things like bus rides and making dinner.
The biggest reason I do what I do is because when I look at the world, I see how terrible it is. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of beautiful and wondrous things. It’s not a hundred percent crapsack. But there’s a lot that’s pretty fucked up. Murder, torture, all manner of abuses physical and emotional, overt and subtle. The widescale destruction of a planet. Dishonesty and uncertainty and confusion and fear. Systems that oppress and harm and hold down groups of people simply because they have the misfortune to be born or to grow into people different from those holding power.
I grew up on fantasy and sci-fi novels. The kind where the evil or the misguided can be overcome, can be vanquished. Where heroic acts result in visible, measurable change. Sometimes that change comes at great and tragic cost, but it’s always something you can see and feel within the world being described. It’s not just that there’s a clearly defined good and evil, because there isn’t always; the important thing in sci-fi and fantasy is that the effects of actions are rendered visible. None of this working and working and working and never knowing what will come of all your efforts, if indeed anything comes at all.
The real world isn’t like that. It’s full of things that need to be fixed or changed. But sometimes all the effort in the world isn’t enough; unlike a fictional problem where the issue has a face, a person that can be vanquished, a disease that can be cured, a time limit that can be met, it’s not that easy to save our world. It’s too complex, too diffuse.
Sometimes I wish that I was a warrior. Sometimes I wish that I was confident and fully sane, that I could do big things with visible effects. Go into politics. Start a new school or university that values what I value, that doesn’t ostracize people with different ways of learning and knowing the world and expressing their knowledge. That I could raise large amounts of money to fund the work that I think needs doing. That I could dismantle capitalism in one fell swoop and institute a form of governance and economy that would nurture human rather than monetary resource, that would value the things I value.
But I don’t live in that world. I am not that person. I can’t stop seeing what’s wrong with the world or with me. I want to become a teacher, a mentor, a researcher, a knower and a doer, but I don’t feel like I have in me what it takes to do those things on a large scale, only a small one. I’m not the lone hero with a magic sword or a special gift. I’m not part of the Fellowship, traveling through untold dangers to save the world through the strength of the mortal bonds we forge together. I’m not even Gandalf, wise and powerful and full of hidden knowledge, or even yet Tom Bombadil, bound to the land with riddles and love.
I think what I can be is Old Ben Kenobi. I can be the quiet, strange person in the desert, the one who’s worked hard to know what I know and has struggled to survive so that my understanding can be passed on to the people who will move the foundations of the earth to change it for the better. I’m not really a leader; I don’t walk into a group of people and want to be in charge. I don’t like being the person responsible for big decisions. That sort of thing intimidates and frightens me.
Nor am I a follower, not really. I won’t take direction without a good reason, not unless I really truly trust the person giving orders. I don’t need someone to tell me what to do (at least, not all the time), I just don’t want to be the person doing the telling and bearing the burden. I sometimes describe myself as a beta, because that’s terminology familiar to the people I spend my social time around.
Now that I really consider it, though, I think that’s almost but not quite exactly right. I don’t want to stand entirely alone, to lead, or to follow. I’m at my best when I can advise and support, when I can tell the truth to power without holding the power myself. When I can instruct and provide guidance, can get my hands dirty, but not out in front. I don’t want attention. I want things to get done, and done well; I don’t need to be the one doing them, but I can’t sit back and pretend that it’s not my responsibility to do them every bit as much as it is the next person’s.
The most powerful thing that any of my students from the prison said to me was that I treated them like people. I made them feel valued. I helped them see that they had meaningful things to say, because I listened like they and their words mattered. That wasn’t something I did because I should do it. It was something I did because I believed it. I felt it. It’s not really the kind of thing you can fake, not for long. I put on a good show sometimes of being bitter and cynical, and sometimes I really am, but mostly it hides how very much I care.
I care about my students – both my debaters and the ones I’ve had in a classroom. I care about the people I don’t even know who are suffering. I don’t know what I can do to alleviate their suffering directly; I mean, I know some things that can be done, but a lot of them are things that I’m not equipped to do. What I can do, and (if the past few years are anything to go by) do well, is teach the way I’ve been taught. With care, with respect, with honesty. I can show students that they can contribute to a better world because it’s something I believe. I can make research that people outside of academic institutions can read, or watch, or participate in, or use. Even if I never get into a PhD program, even if I never teach at a prestigious university, I can do those things. Even if I only teach as a volunteer, even if I have to do the research in bits and pieces or have to try and find or start an organization to house it, these are things I can do in a variety of contexts.
This is my passion. My fundamental belief. My core commitment. The world isn’t a very good place, but it can be a better one. It will take people, many people, to make that happen. And I can be one of the people behind that change. I can support and guide and believe in the people changing the world. I can show them their strength and their potential, help them build the tools they need, and quietly, incrementally, make the world better. I can write that paper, read that book, go to that class, give that presentation, sit through that meeting, because those are all steps along this path.
And this is a path that needs to be walked.