[I write my classes a letter every month toward the end. I don’t know why — I feel compelled to do it… I always wished someone had done this for me, I suppose. But I went to university in a different time, place, age. I choose to do it because it seems right and will til I’m ordered to stop, whether anyone reads it or not. Like the song says, “It doesn’t matter” — not to anyone but me, unless they choose to read and care. Same for you, whoever you are out there.]
Students and Scholars,
I do this at the end of each semester — it’s a sort of summary of experiences and observations from my point of view. It may or may not be helpful to you now or in the future: As is anything you learn or don’t. The same goes for me as well as I’m speaking for and to myself when I speak to you all.
“Therefore make up your mind before it is too late to live as one who is mature and proficient, and let all that seems best to you be a law that you cannot transgress. And if you encounter anything troublesome or pleasant or glorious or inglorious, remember that the hour of struggle is come, the Olympic contest is here and you may put off no longer, and that one day and one action determines whether the progress you have achieved is lost or maintained.
“This is how Socrates attained perfection, paying heed to nothing but reason, in all that he encountered. And if you are not yet Socrates, yet ought you to live as one who wishes to be a Socrates.”
Epictetus, from section 51 of ENCHIRIDEON
“I see my future shufflin’
A shaky step at a time
I got no choice but careful
Thank God I’ve done my crime
The tools I see on tv
Can’t stand it when they fake
A prick’s a prick at any age
Why give one a break?
“I wanna live a little bit longer
I wanna live a little bit longer, now
I wanna live a little bit longer
I wanna live live, live, live, live….”
from “I Wanna Live”
The end of the semester is always a sad time for me — a month is never enough for me to get to know people and, prior to being students, you are all unique people with your own worlds, beliefs, approaches, and attitudes. I learn as much from you, probably more, than you learn from me, both from what you say and how it is said and what you refrain from saying.
One thing I have learned in my years seeing classrooms of college and university students from this side of the podium is that each class has its own personality, its own social order, its own spoken and unspoken understandings.
Most all of you except one or two are of a different generation than me which means you have a completely different generational mission than my own. My generation was known as Generation X — I am at the prow end of it: It began around ’65 and ended with people born at or just prior to 1980.
We were “X” because we are an unknown and quiet bunch, on the whole, except in pop culture; the smallest generation born in America — our parents were the first to have access to birth control and the notion of the Sexual Revolution; the first generation that will economically be less well-off than the one before it; the first generation to come of age under threat of AIDS; the last generation to consciously grow up under Cold War fear of instant nuclear annihilation –
The first generation to almost completely raise itself — everyone was at work or busy (the term “latch-key kids” was invented for us) — we are the children of what became the “Me Generation” of the 1970s (one of the experiments the Post World war II Boomer generation went through) –
The last generation to have teachers and professors who were old enough to give us a smattering, at least, of an old-style “classical” education; the first generation to be taught by younger ex-hippies; the last generation to see the remnants of old legalized institutional racism; the first generation to live with the hope we might actually make our country a more equal and free place for all in terms of human and civil rights and civil liberties – and culture –
The first generation in modern times to see the return of “free market” deregulation, the loss of the social safety net, the rise of libertarian and laissez-faire economic ideologies….
As you know, I could go on and on. I won’t. The point is: I come from an entirely different world than most of my students. Sometimes it is difficult to put myself in your places, inside your lives — even vaguely — to understand from your point of view what the world appears to be. And without a background in history, philosophy, sociology, art, and practical psychology… you cannot put yourself in my shoes even abstractly.
So each semester, I have to re-learn who my class is, individually and as a group: To begin with you where you are, who you are, in your place, and share the little I know and suspect from my standpoint and experience, my learning and my ignorance… my failures.
I work at this very hard. If I can’t reach you in language you will understand, if I can’t identify with your general direction — individually and as a group, if I don’t warn you what I and others better than me see dimly up ahead, I can’t begin to prepare you for the world and life.
And all this class is, in the end, is a preparation for learning how to live the right sort of life, to look around and see where we, as a nation and world have been, where we are, and where we might head.
Where we might head, gentle, patient reader, is up to you. It’s your choice, in your own life privately and as a generation of citizens who will choose to lead… or choose who will lead you and where.
Perilous, those words. Life, yours and mine, is always perilous, in a time of crisis (obvious and not so obvious), But crises are always times of choice. The Chinese pictogram for “crisis” is a combination of two more basic characters, one meaning “danger” and one meaning “opportunity”. Two paths.
Always there are at least two paths and you must become creative enough to find the right one for you and turn what seems disastrous on the surface to your advantage.
“The thing that matters is not what you bear but how you bear it,” said one of those old Roman Stoics (Seneca), along with “…disaster is virtue’s opportunity.” [Those are from his writing “On Providence” if you ever wish to read the whole thing.]
I have shown you, but only just barely, some of the weapons for your struggle and which will always break or tend to mislead and which, if used well, will increase your ability to truly turn disadvantages to your benefit — at least to bear the trials life will hand you and emerge on the other side intact, with integrity, whatever “the other side” might mean…: In work life, in private life, in social life.
I have shown you, just barely, ways to apply the theories and which theories are being applied by others, even if they don’t understand what they believe or why they believe it. I’ve shown you the tools to become more conscious and conscientious and careful…. If you choose to do so.
Yes, my lectures are “heavy,” yes my words in class are many, yes my e-mails sometimes are long or pestering. I always communicate with class as if this will be the last time we might speak with one another (one never knows these things). We only have roughly four weeks together, I want you to pass. Above all, though, I want you to walk away with more to think about and an approach to how to discern true from false and good from bad.
Yes, you are supposed to have more questions in your mind at the end of a class like this than at the start.
Questions are a sign you are beginning to understand you have a need. If you need to know, you will ask, “why” about everything important and won’t be satisfied until you lay hold of a better way than you may previously have been following.
That takes a lifetime and working that out is practicing “philosophy,” in the ancient, deepest sense.
I can point out many possible directions. I can challenge you. I can warn you where some directions are liable to send you if followed consistently. But I can’t live for any of you; I can’t take your place or perform your special mission in life that is your calling.
But I can tell you how important it is you choose well as possible and pick yourself back up when you make a mistake or are manipulated. You are important and I’ve no proper words to explain how important you are: important for your own future, the future of your families, your communities, your countries, your world.
Each of us does our public and private work, whatever it will be, and we each create a part of the future. Your action and your inaction creates the future you will leave for others whom you will never know as well as creating the present.
What else do we have in this world as human beings more important than recognizing the gravity, the value, the quality of our choices for ourselves and one another and generations of people yet to be?
(Here is one of my infamous asides; skip it if you’re bored: My entire life has been a very strange experiment in trying out ethical theories to find out what sort of life one gets from them because I began directionless and obsessed with finding a good way to live; I do not recommend you ever do this without mature forethought and advice from many wiser, smarter people or looking to their example.
I say this as my life has also, at times, been a string of disasters I did not know how to “turn to my advantage.”
When I talk about terrible theories and why they are terrible, I used to believe and live them. When I talk about better theories and ways to think, it’s because I’ve tried those, too, and still make use of them or see the use of them in a good life.
This, in large part, is my destiny — to learn things the hard way and come back, if I get to come back, to share with others, to give warnings and evaluations. Take them or leave them: I must do this.)
I am hardly an example of an upright and good person; I am as imperfect as anyone, more so than some, and a little dense sometimes. You can do better than I’ve done. I learned to try and to try hard — but you can do better. I have faith you and your generation will; your voluntary willingness to return to school at this stage in life tells me you have the desire and drive to have a better life, a better future. And this is good. I was not so intelligent or able at your age. (Maybe I’m not now: it’s possible.)
Live your own life, but live it to a high level of intensity by following values that are truly valuable, as a sailor navigates her way by the trustworthy stars at night. Make those values your own and put them into effect in your own life, in your own way, with your own style.
The future is not mine: it’s yours. Over time, you will learn to do well with it — again, this is my faith or else I wouldn’t teach.
I’ve compressed a lifetime of experience and learning into one heavy, dense chunk and handed it to you over the past three weeks. After next week, you’re done with me and you can all be relieved. But you are not done with morality because it is tied to human choice and life is nothing but time and choice. What we choose and the quality of the choices is who we are and who we become.
Please, choose well. Continue to teach yourself — a bachelor’s degree means you are prepared to learn and grow maturely as well as pursue a career, which is part of that.
And that is the most I will say from this point forward.
“Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!”
Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor, philosopher, in his tent after a day of battle and decisions in his older years, writing to himself… and you and me.
MEDITATIONS, Book Eleven, section 7, Penguin Classics.
19 June 2015
Richard Van Ingram