I’ve had the great good fortune to be on the teaching team of a freshman seminar at UC Berkeley during the fall semester of 2020. The title of the seminar was Ethics and the Existential Crises of our Times. Each week we explored the ethical implications of issues such as climate change, the stress on our democracy, the ethical implications of a global pandemic. Heavy stuff.
The final class meets tomorrow, and I find myself feeling grief that the course is ending. I take this as a good sign. After all, when we feel grief, it means we have liked something that is no longer here … loved someone who has left or passed.
Without love, there would be no need for grief. Without grief, we might not realize we have loved.
As I metabolize my sadness, I’m considering what I want to share with the students in some final reflections and thoughts.
Young adults bring a certain quality of passion into the world that’s unique to their stage of life. It’s like the first blush of a flower opening. We can’t see the full display of petals yet, but the exquisite, somewhat still hidden beauty is making itself known. And the scent is powerful.
It’s true that every stage of life brings its own beauty and it’s helpful to remember this. After all, if I’m not careful I might resent the vitality and aliveness of youth, rather than celebrate it. So I’ve chosen to be careful. I’ve intentionally engaged in ceremony and ritual to grieve the loss of my youth, so that I can be present for and can honor the crossing of thresholds into other stages of life … like the one I’m in now. Some call it middle age, and at fifty-seven some would say I’m at the end of this stage, supposedly ready to cross the next threshold into old age in less than three years.
I don’t know what would genuinely constitute the middle of any life and I’m not sure I would call where I am at the middle. But I can tell you what it’s made of. It’s the stage of life where death feels closer to me than my birth and where consciousness of my mortality is a persistent companion.
It’s a stage filled with tender wonder around simple things, as if the future grief of my life ending is whispering to me now, “Don’t miss it. Don’t miss even one breath, for you will soon be gone.”
It’s true that taking time for the little things is wise counsel at any age, as death can be fickle and come in a flash. But for most, the stage of youth — being closer to birth — brings a quality of passion and drive untainted by the conscious awareness of endings.
It strikes me now as I am writing that this is one of the harvests of my time with those young folks: a greater awareness of endings, and their value.
Each week, the students brought into the room an engaging intelligence and curiosity that fed my hope for the future of humanity. I, on the other hand, brought an example (primarily through my being, as I did not say much) of the reality of inevitable endings. With it, there comes an appreciation for the wisdom in limitations and the recognition of the deleterious repercussions of actions born from the lie of the prospect of endless development.
Over the course of the semester, our conversations regarding the existential crisis of our times pointed directly to this poignant point — there is no such thing as unlimited growth. We spoke of the climate crisis and the limitations of our natural resources if we do not tend well to the life cycles of the natural world. We talked about the ethical implications of artificial intelligence and its potential to usurp our uniquely human qualities of emotion and reason and substitute them with statistics and certainty — as if there were such a thing as certainty. We discussed the long term ramifications of the production and consumption of new stuff, such as clothes — and how this one industry alone is poisoning the world’s waters and depriving people of this life-giving resource.
These were heavy conversations and, at times, brought with them feelings of overwhelm and despair. Yet the students’ receptivity to innovation and adventure never waned. It was palpable in each session.
I realize that the meaning and purpose of their lives is bound up not only in their personal dreams but in tending to the dream of the planet. They are intimately aware of this. They did not show anger or resentment around stepping into this role — blaming the boomers (or anyone) for the trouble we are in. On the contrary. They seem ready to embrace this mission as simply part of their unique purpose. A given.
I was, and am still, deeply touched by this.
I see in their readiness the evidence of a ripening maturity, which I suspect might have been absent in me when I was their age. But then again … I must remember, things often look different in hindsight, and what I see in them now they may not be able to see in themselves now — and likely won’t realize as being so until they are middle-aged. After all, it’s true, they’re barely through their teenage years, and thus still carrying around a complex of mixed drives and passions to sort through.
Still, they are not turning away from the times we are in.
And I love them for this.
After all, we all get to live through the times we are given … which reminds me of a beautiful exchange between Frodo and Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings.
In a tender moment, in his dread around his calling, Frodo shares with Gandalf his fear of what is transpiring. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
And so I am reminded that, although I wish a pandemic would not have come in my lifetime, or that the environmental crisis would not be impacting nearly every decision I presently make, or that our democracy were not so fragile … this is the time I am given.
Only I can decide what to do with my time.
I do my best.