(Not that any self-respecting university would ever think of asking me, a reformed academic, now nearly thirty years in recovery. I left the academic world in 1986--or rather, more truthfully, I was eased out. I’m thankful to have been shown the door so many years ago. No disrespect to academia, but it was not the place for me. But... if an institution happened to be so ill-advised as to invite me, here’s what I’d want to say to students headed out into the world):
Don’t forget the inner life.
I’d like to think that some part of your university education required you to pay attention to the values inherent in your being human on this planet, whether a Shakespeare class or a social studies seminar, a course in environmental sciences or in comparative religion. I realize that, these days, the worth of a degree in the humanities has been called into question, most frequently for the obvious practical reasons: what are you going to do, after college, with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, for heaven’s sake? Disregarding—I’d say disrespecting—history, we tend to look upon a university education as a kind of training ground for a future career.
Then, when we emerge from these hallowed halls with a piece of paper in our hands and a tassel at our ear, the first item of business is inevitably to find a job—preferably one that’s well paid enough to begin to pay off the loans we have accumulated along the way. I know how great a challenge that presents you with in the current job market. Kudos to those who manage it. The truth of the matter is that most of us will be lucky simply to scrape by, at least for the first few years. That’s the way of things, today.
And then, of course, there are the other preoccupations and distractions: finding a partner, if you wish to have one, and a place to live; raising a family, if you wish to have one, and providing for their welfare and education; climbing the professional ladder, towards whatever you think of as “success.” None of it is easy, all of it demanding on your time and energy. What is easy, alas, is for the inner life to get forgotten.
And yet, looking back on things from the perspective of my age—currently, just shy of seventy-nine. Old, I know—I realize that this was the most important and, yes, the most easily neglected aspect of my life. I was well into my fifties—halfway toward heaven, let’s say—before I was brought up short, in a time of painful personal turmoil for which I was woefully unprepared, by the effects of its associated physical, emotional and spiritual repercussions. I was confronted with the uncomfortable truth that I had paid little attention to the things that matter most.
Believe me, I had a lot of catch-up work to do. I’m still doing it, twenty plus years later. Pointless to say I should have started earlier. I didn’t, to my cost. I was too busy doing the kind of things I mentioned just a moment ago. And I believe it’s true to say that I was not only busy with the distractions, but also somewhat scared of what I’d find if I penetrated too far into the interior, the place of old, buried fears and resentments, of repressed anger, yes, and pain, perhaps some grief. It took me a good long while to arrive at the understanding that these hidden undercurrents could actually determine the direction of my life, without my knowing it. I was, in a sense, a slave to the imperatives of my unconscious mind.
I trust that after four years of college you’ll be familiar with that ancient Greek injunction: Know thyself—which slips a bit too easily off the tongue. But in fact it’s not just an empty slogan. It’s work. It’s “The” work, the work of a lifetime, the work that makes a life rich and rewarding. There are any number of ways to do the work: there’s the creative enterprise, if it’s well done; there’s psychotherapy—not only, as I myself for a long time chose to believe, for the mentally ill or the emotionally unstable, but also for the inner life seeker; there’s religion, if you allow it to take you any deeper than church on Sunday or synagogue on the Sabbath.
The human mind, where the inner life flourishes, is of an infinite complexity. Those of us who have enjoyed the privilege of a college education have learned to listen first, sometimes exclusively, to the dictates of the head. We tend to leave the other three essentials of our nature--body, heart, and spirit--to their own devices. But to truly know myself is to bring the whole of my being into the same state of consciousness, to listen not only to the head but with the same level of attention to the body, the heart, and that numinous space for which we have only inadequate descriptors like soul or spirit.
To achieve this state of awareness requires constant vigilance and investigation, which is why we call it work. The easy course is to let it drift away as we get on with “business,” but we do so at the risk of impoverishing our lives. So these are the words I’d invite you to take with you as you continue on the adventure that our lives should be: Don’t forget the inner life; do the work it takes to nourish and maintain it, with all the energy and enthusiasm you bring to every other aspect of your life. No matter how you choose to do it, dig. With attention and intention. And keep digging, so long as there remains some place of darkness to explore. And then dig some more.