I have a great challenge for you tonight. What do you want to give your life for. No, I’m not talking about dying a noble death. I’m talking, no, I’m asking you to find something worth living for, not dying for. I want you to find one or more passions; things worth spending your life doing or learning about. Something worth dreaming about for hours during the day. A thing worth planning years ahead, plotting, laying out a trail to lead to a golden end. I have three. First, the life of the mind takes center stage. How do we actually learn. Why is it that so few of us live exciting intellectual lives when I believe that most of us could live a passionate intellectual life. And, on the practical side of it. How do kids best learn. I am convinced it’s not at school for most kids. For me, school was a 12 year long prison sentence. As a teacher I work everyday of my life to try to make schools – or at least my little corner of the school world into a vibrant place that young people love. Second, I practice two arts; photography and woodworking. They are my connections to sanity as well as an extra income stream. I am fascinated by the beauty of transcendent craft in wood. The beauty of an artfully produced photograph always stuns me. I drift from one to the other. The third is bird watching. Bird watching is as much a connection to God as the church. In birds I see the magnificence of His creation. I see the infinite variety, infinate adaptations, transcendent colors and the thing I dream about most – flight. The photography, the woodwork, and the bird watching are for me. The study of the mind as well as how it learns is for the world. I want you to find something to change the world.
Egotistic you say? Not at all. The field I have set for myself is impossible. How people learn, how they make knowledge their own, then grow into experts is so hard a mine to explore that I will not live long enough to make a change I fear. That is probably one of my greatest nightmares; that I know I will die before I have learned it all or made the difference I want to make to kids and other people who are trying to learn. Not all people do learn. Some shut down after the 12 year prison sentence that school was for me. They never want to pick up a pen or pencil again because we have squeezed the guts out of the pleasure. By the time many kids get out of school they find themselves ready to cast away the vestments of school to run as far away as possible. To be naked of school is their goal. But so many never find the joy out of school. These unfortunates have been so convinced that learning cannot be a thing of transcendent joy that they look upon learning as a child looks upon vomit. So they run, ridicule and resist any further intellectual life. They have had enough. They have fed at the table of knowledge and found it poisonous.
What I am asking you to do, if you are one of the many who have started to follow these electronic scribblings, is to find a new passion. It’s there. Somewhere in the darkest, cobweb infested mind there is a corner where a dim flame still burns waiting for holy breath to blow it into raging flame. You had something you wanted to learn to do, or say, or perform at one time. When you were a little child still resisting the poison of industrial education you still had it. You looked at it with love. Perhaps it was a love for a subject or a project that was so deep it went beyond love into obsession.
You will find something to take out of that corner which can be dusted, made new and shiny, ready to be loved again. You will find something as beautiful as I find discovering what it is that really, genuinely brings out that passion in a child. That passion that says I have to do this thing or I will just wilt. My life will die. Look around you on your commuter train or look from your car. Look at the faces of those going to work at jobs where they will labor with a sense of quiet desperation. Perhaps you are one of those. Stop it! At least devote some of your time to the thing that makes your soul soar to the Heavens when you are doing it. I’m not telling you to quit your job. No, but, I am telling you to become an independent learner with a purposeful life seeking to add to human knowledge.
Eric Hoffer discovered his passion. Hoffer wrote ten books while he labored as a longshoreman. His “True Believer” which set the standard in the social science study of self-esteem as it effects fanatical movements. While he labored on the docks he contemplated the rise of totalitarianism and the loss of the self. His postulate was that fanaticism had its gnarled, arthritic claws firmly planted in self-hatred, self-hate and insecurity. All of this Hoffer did with little formal education and a labor job on the docks. Eric Hoffer is now a major figure looked up to in the social sciences. Had he let himself believe that he was less worthwhile for lacking the college degrees and the paper expertise of the dilettante, he would never have changed the course of American social thought.
Frans Lanting is a photographer. He discovered his passion in the Albatross. These magnificent seabirds of the deep oceans are slowly yielding their secrets to Lanting. He has made photographing them, documenting their lives his life’s work. As he developed his photographic skills he came back to them over and over. He is now the leading photographer of this magnificent species as well as one of the world’s foremost experts on the Albatross. All through his pursuit of photography he intended to show the world the magnificence of the bird he loves.
Don’t live a life of quiet desperation. Discover your passion. Perhaps you left it years ago feeling that I can’t make a living at that. You were probably wrong. But, for whatever reason, you left it. Maybe you wanted to become a premier doctor in some medical field. And maybe the time of medical school has passed you. But you can still form a foundation to raise money for the field. You can still write scholarly articles and books to help the laymen understand what it is that you want them to know about your passion in medicine. You can also help them by writing passionately about the disease from which they may suffer.
In the next while we are going to explore how to do this. We are going to look for a life project. This will be something that will be significant to you perhaps to no one else. It doesn’t matter. You are going to use your full talents for something that will give life meaning to you. Give your life a renewed purpose, a new hope, a new direction. Pick your field, master it and make it your own. Thousands of men, women and young people such as yourselves have done this without the Ph.D.’s Don’t be intimidated by the terminal degrees. Often these degrees take the joy out of the hunt for the people who earn them. They focus so finely on one small swatch of the fabric of their discipline that soon they may know the most about nothing among all the experts in the world. Being the master of a cubic centimeter is not a match for having a broad understanding and feeling for the width and breadth of a whole discipline. Hang on for the ride is going to be fun and bumpy. But what a ride it will be. It will be the ride of your lifetime – a lifelong learning project to take you down roadways yet unknown.