An Authentic Life Is Calling
Commencement season begins today. Across the land, colleges and universities are sending thousands of graduates forth to to find their callings in life.
It’s also Mother’s Day.
So, moms, I have a gift for you — a book you should place in your graduate’s hands, and would be rewarded by reading yourself.
It’s called, aptly, “Callings — Finding and Following an Authentic Life,” by Gregg Levoy.
I found this book, or it found me, in an Asheville bookshop eight years ago, when I drove south from my home in Maine to say goodbye to a dying friend here in the Sandhills and visit Asheville for a travel magazine. I was 50 years old and feeling an unexpected gravitational pull back to the South, something whispering in my inner ear about shaking up my universe.
Please understand I’m not much on self-help books and pop psychology. But as I was browsing the shelves on a quiet winter afternoon, “Callings” caught my attention, and I opened the book and began reading. And reading.
Several weeks later, seemingly out of the blue, I accepted the invitation to teach writing and serve as the Charles Rubin writer-in-residence at Hollins University in Virginia, a writing program that produced the likes of Annie Dillard and Lee Smith.
I decided to use this remarkable book as the core text for teaching my course on memoir and biography. At term’s end, at least half of my students thanked me for introducing them to “Callings,” and two or three — the older ones — said it changed their lives.
Five years ago this week, days before the class of 2006 graduated, I was invited to speak to the university’s board of governors about my experience in their classroom.
It seems the “real-world” approach I’d taken to teaching about writing a life had resonated with several students and members of the administration. Before I headed off to the Sandhills to become Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, members of the board wanted to hear my thoughts on teaching.
I mentioned a recent Time magazine article that noted that this current college generation — which grew up with helicopter parents showing them flash cards over their Gerber mashed bananas and soccer coaches who believed everyone on the team should get a nice trophy to avoid bruised feelings and reinforce feelings of self-worth — might be suffering more anxiety and clinical depression than any college generation before them.
The primary reason given was stress from pressure to be admitted to the right school, pressure from parents to make top marks, and pressure to find a great job after college — or get into a top graduate school and repeat the process.
“College used to be where you went to have some fun, let loose, make new friends, discover Shakespeare’s sonnets and learn how to do your own laundry — to begin to figure out, in other words, who you are, what you love, and what your heart most desires to do,” I said.
But today, I continued, so many college and universities I’d read or heard about appeared to be fixated on helping students acquire the popular degrees and shape their “career paths” before they’d learned that one should never put blue jeans in the same wash cycle as underwear.
“We’ve turned liberal arts into a dirty word,” I said, noting that since my own time in college, traditional core disciplines of English literature, history, philosophy, music, art, rhetoric, critical thinking and ethics — stuff that constituted a fully formed pupil’s education since the Age of Pericles — have been steadily downgraded and even dumped like yesterday’s software programs in favor of pragmatic “career-focused” learning models that guaranteed students nothing more than an entry-level job at a PR firm.
Finding Your Passion
At that very moment, down at my own alma mater — the very place where I’d recently been asked to give the keynote speech celebrating the opening of the institution’s shiny new “Communications School” — a battle royal was being waged between the traditional English department (which birthed me) and the architects of the sexy new “Comm School,” whose architects hoped to uproot English literature from its traditional arts and science home and fold it into a curriculum that abandoned creative writing and poetry in favor of technical writing, journalism and public relations.
Ironically, I hadn’t learned of this conflict until the evening I gave my keynote speech — which I quickly revised on the spot, pulling choice nuggets from Gregg Levoy’s book. For the record, I gave pretty much the same points to the board at Hollins six months later.
Any society that teaches its young people to conform to a rigid model of success and has no poets or philosophers, I said, often loses its moral compass and produces an undernourished soul.
“In my opinion,” I said, “the world doesn’t need more public relations experts. It needs more poets.”
I used a snippet from “Callings” to explain why: “Where science goes for the unified theory, poetry voluptuates in nuances. Where logic studies the wind, poetry regards how boughs are bent. A poetic basis of mind is, in a manner of speaking, the opposite thumb of discernment, because with it we are able to grasp things we simply couldn’t before.”
The only reason to go to college, I told both groups, is to find your passion and shake up the universe a bit.
“Passion,” writes Gregg Levoy, “is what we are most deeply curious about, most hungry for, will most hate to lose in life. It is the most desperate wish we need to yell down the well of our lives. It is whatever we pursue merely for our own sake, what we study when there are no tests to take, what we create though no one may ever see it.”
In the aftermath of these conversations, I wasn’t the least bit surprised when Hollins made “Callings” recommended reading for incoming freshmen.
I was also pleased to learn my alma mater eventually decided to leave English literature right where it was — to inspire the next generation of English majors — though I’m certain I had little or nothing to do with the decision.
Ups and Downs
Ironically, following another kind of act of creation this week — the introduction of PineStraw’s new sister arts and culture magazine called O.Henry in my hometown of Greensboro — a woman I’d gone to high school with 40 years ago pulled me aside to ask how my own college students are faring.
My daughter Maggie, I was pleased to report, will graduate from college up in Vermont exactly two Sundays from today. My son Jack is finishing his junior year at Elon.
Both have had their trials, their significant ups and downs, their starts and mis-starts and do-overs. I’m happy to say it’s been an education for all of us, and choose to believe we will all be better people for it.
Last week, my feisty and independent daughter was named one of the school’s six Italian scholars and snagged a coveted food and wine internship at a famous New England inn. She vows to someday resuscitate the late Gourmet magazine, and I wouldn’t bet against her.
My ambitious, overworking son, meanwhile, plans to go home to Maine and find a job on a lobster boat this summer and finish his feature-length documentary on the rain forests of Sri Lanka. For what it’s worth, I added, he plans to start an underground newspaper on his campus when he gets back in the fall — just to raise a little journalism hell.
My friend looked surprised, offering an anxious mama’s smile. “Really? How do you feel about that?”
I told her I thought it was great on all counts — that I wanted my kids to yell down the well of their own lives and shake up the universe a bit. Otherwise, how could they ever possibly know who they are — or discover their true passions and callings in life?
I also told her about “Callings,” the book I’ve given to searching friends and students and colleagues for donkey’s years now; the book both my own iconoclastic scholars are receiving for graduation (and pre-graduation) gifts this year.
My friend seemed relieved to hear all of this, explaining that her son at Carolina, also a junior, had gone off to college certain he wanted to earn a business MBA. But now he wanted to take two years off and go work at a ranch out west and “explore a bit.”
“He suddenly doesn’t have a clue what he wants to do in life,” she admitted, almost sheepishly. “The funny thing is, I think I’m going to let him do it. That might be good for him, to get out and see the real world.”
I agreed with her, and even offered to send her a copy of my favorite book on the subject.
“Consider it a belated Mother’s Day gift,” I said. “Feel free to pass it along to your son before he sets off to explore his own life.”
“I will indeed,” she said with a laugh. “Now if he could only learn to do his own laundry ... ”
Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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