The thing about growing older is that you become acutely, sometimes painfully, aware of life’s ever changing character. An impermanence pervades all things. Buddhism invokes the flow of a river where nothing is ever static and all in nature must follow the laws of flow and transformation. “The river is everywhere” Hermann Hesse wrote in Siddharta.
Life is unfolding and given a linear notion of time, is unfolding forwards, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. From this unfolding, we gather experiences from which we construct our identity, our story, our ‘self’. Walt Whitman presents this ‘self’ as a sort of lung that inhales and exhales the world; a filtering of the world through the body from whose residue we weave the songs of ourselves. Lewis Hyde in The Gift writes how Whitman speaks of his inhalation as “accepting” the bounty of the world, his exhalation as “bequeathing” or “bestowing” himself, his work.
Similarly to the process of breathing, rare are the moments when we are wilfully aware of the processes through which everyday happenings shape the person that we are (becoming). Life just happens and we keep on doing what we do, jumping from one task to another, from one moment to the next with little reflection on growth or implications. For me, self-reflection not only brings this mechanical living into focus but also calls on me to put meaning and purpose to my experiences as well as gather from it whatever increased awareness and understanding that I can.
My recent graduation from University roused in me a particularly long stretch of self-reflection. If you have ever experienced a sudden onset of morning fog while driving you will understand my disorientation. The road upon which I had been driving on not too long ago had vanished. A clear transition is upon me. The welcomed certainty of working to ‘obtain ones degree’, almost as if for its own sake, was now replaced with an uncertainty of how, where and for whom to apply the accumulated knowledge that this degree represents.
In particular, I am struggling how to position myself vis-à-vis my education. My feeling of bewilderment is easy to understand if one looks out into the world and comes to realize just how complex, interconnected and entrenched the issues really are. Climate change, the destruction of ecosystems, species extinctions, war, inequality, poverty, corruption, crime, violence, depression, loneliness, anger, hatred, us vs. them… In the face of so much overwhelming ‘noise’ and turbulence, I often strain to recognize the value in my skills, the depth of my understandings and my capacity to act.
Today I finished Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift- Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. He uses Ezra Pound’s analogy of “gathering from the air a live tradition” to explain what happens as we read and learn. Hyde writes that “a live tradition is neither the rhetoric nor the store of facts that we can learn in school” but the sum total of the teachings that the (departed) writers, artists, musicians, poets, teachers, philosophers, parents… have left behind for us to decipher. “We keep their gifts alive by taking them into the quick of our being and feeding them to our hearts” writes Hyde. Listening to and learning from their experiences, we ourselves may come to feel gifted and may then to the best of our ability respond by creating new work. Our imagination is stimulated and “once the imagination has been awakened, it is procreative: through it we can give more than we were given, say more than we had to say”, says Hyde.
Important to his book is the notion that a transformative gift – whatever form it may take – cannot be fully received by us when it is first offered because we do not have the ability either to accept the gift or to pass it along. We steadily grow into the gift – like an oversized sweater -, we begin to feel something roused within us, and we may even temporarily feel a sense of great awareness and freedom. Like all students know only too well, however, our sense of enlightenment or certainty is of limited duration. Soon we are confounded again. Thus, our gift demands that we labour for it; we must develop it; meet it as an equal. There is a reciprocal labour in the maturation of talent, wisdom, comprehension. Hyde writes how the gift is not fully ours until we labour with gratitude and eventually give it away; pass it on. As we do, we complete the process and only then do we truly accept the original gift and live up to its spirit.
Of course, we cannot surmise the fruits of our labour. What provides me with solace, however, is that I am now part of a cycle of give and take. I inhale with acceptance and gratitude the bounty of the world, labour to become sufficiently empowered to meet the gift as an equal and finally exhale – and thus ultimately accept – my work, my gift. In the process, I am transformed.
Let me illustrate with an example from my life. For three years now I have been part of a campaign to address discrimination and harassment at my University. I came to it knowing little. I started as a volunteer and participated in training and continuous learning through group conversation and self-directed research. My fellow volunteers and supervisors greatly facilitated this process. They offered me a valuable gift. I had the option of fully engaging with and labouring for this gift or taking what I had learned as a one-off experience and being on my way. I am grateful that I decided to do the former. I laboured. The time soon came when I started facilitating workshops for students at UBC. I was and still am growing into my gift and am passing it on. I am being transformed. In this sense, I am coming to accept the spirit of the gift and am participating in the give and take that now connect my teachers to myself and ultimately through me to those whose lives I touched. Together we are weaving a live tradition for future generations to gather from the air.