What We Yearn For

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At a small conference yesterday. Topic: trees on college campuses. I spoke about the Agnes Scott Arboretum: what led us to take a different approach with this project, how it differs from a run-of-the-mill tree walk or arboretum.


My audience was people who are paid to help manage or otherwise care for campus forests. Arborists, landscapers, groundskeepers. Strictly speaking, they were not there by choice, some of them, maybe even most of them. They simply needed continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain a certification of one type or another. In general, throughout the day, they looked about as as you would expect: resigned.


I started by asking them why, if the all-too-obvious purposes of a college or university are (1) to educate and (2) to create new knowledge, their institutions should spend even one dime on tree care and flower beds.


In other words, why should they have jobs in higher education, if their paychecks are diverting money from instruction and faculty research?


Always a great move at the beginning of a lecture or presentation: insult your audience!


I’m happy to report, however, that by the end of the hour, at least some of them had been persuaded to see their day-to-day work — and by extension, themselves — in a new light. Or new-ish. I hope, and have some reason to believe, that at least some of them left the auditorium with a bounce in their step. One kindly person, pumping my hand, spoke to me of a “paradigm shift” in his thinking. (Of course and without doubt, there were just as many who thought, “Oh, give me a break.” And: “What a weird guy.” And: “It takes all kinds, I guess.”)


In any case, it got me thinking. Take all the people in the world, all 7.3 billion of us. Multiply that by the number of waking hours for the average person during his or her lifetime. What tiny fraction of that humongous number, do you suppose, captures the aggregate human experience of feeling that our lives are profoundly important? I’m not talking about something like, “Yes, my preacher tells me that I was made in the image and likeness of God, so I take for granted that my existence has meaning.” Not, that is, if that belief does not extend beyond the sphere of the intellect.


No, I’m talking about a deep emotional connection to something you can’t name and could never fully describe, something transcendent, as if from time to time the veil before your eyes were ripped aside and you saw everything, even the dark matter of the universe. As if you became convinced — just for a moment and beyond a scintilla of doubt — that the same cauldron of white-hot fire that warms our planet could be found, in miniature, inside your own chest.


A tiny sun deep inside of you, its rays shooting forth and bathing in brilliant light and nourishing warmth the people riding the subway with you, the guy in the kiosk who sells you a newspaper and cup of coffee, the woman whose cubicle is next to yours, the people around the table at your weekly staff meeting.


Or maybe not. I don’t know. Maybe it’s more like “Look, colleges and universities are businesses, nothing more and nothing less, and all the rest is just hokum. So long as I get mine, I’ll be happy.” Maybe in the end there’s really nothing more in life than self-interest and self-preservation. You know, the Hobbesian “life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Or as John Gray describes us humans in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2007), we are simply an “exceptionally rapacious primate.” It’s so hard to argue with a pessimist, after all. They just put this knowing smile on their faces and look at you with pity.


Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that there was a moment there when at least some of the people in that room yesterday (including me, of course) came together, happily, around an idea that seemed bigger than ourselves. We yearn for those moments, some of us do. Don’t we? Do you?


Would that they arrived more often …

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