She just began talking— and for a long time I listened.
Flying away from New York City this past week, I sat in my seat, anticipating several hours of quiet on the way to Kansas City. But instead, I was drawn into the hopes and fears of a young woman on her way home after 15 months in India. Dressed in a sari, she was very articulate and thoughtful about the things of life, almost as if she hadn’t talked for months, and just wanted someone to listen.
Our conversation ranged the universe. She had much to say about India, which is her family’s native land, especially about the burdens and sorrows, the wrongs and injustices that seem so “normal” in Indian society, mostly about the disregard for human life; about her family, and their years in the U.S., and her schooling, several times wondering whether she had made the right decision between Northwestern in Chicago and MIT in Boston; and finally about her extended family in India, feeling deeply the strains that have made for alienation over the years. At points along the way, I asked questions, and she was eager to respond, explaining herself more fully.
She asked about me, about why I was traveling, and what I do. So I offered my best shot, trying to explain the tethered life I have in my home and my city, and yet the vocation of a public professor too, one that takes me far and wide over the course of weeks and years. She wondered what I teach, and so I dug more deeply, saying more about vocation and the common good, especially the meaning of responsibility born of love for the way things are and aren’t, for the way things can be and someday will be. It was there that we spent the rest of our conversation.
Given her Indian and Hindu background, we talked for a long time about karma, what it is and what it isn’t— and why grace is different. Or in Bono’s inimitable, poetic way, that “grace is beyond karma, beyond karma.” Of course, “why” it is, is the question of all questions.
In a strange way, that question has been at the heart of my life for most of my life. My first memory of thinking about it comes from the year that I spent in Palo Alto in my dropping-out years, living in a commune, working on a radical magazine, thinking deep thoughts about everything, trying to find my way into the world. One day I went with a Stanford friend to see the film, “A Clockwork Orange,” the very disturbing story of a deterministic world gone awry— horrible violence, awful imagery, and a prison sentence for the man who brought the terror of the tale into being. He is subjected to behavioral modification— of the kind popularized in the philosophical psychology of B.F. Skinner in arguments like “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” —and over time begins to have violent responses to violence. He learns to literally throw up when he sees horror and terror— and that is the point of the behavioral modification.
The great question that Stanley Kubrick raises in his film based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, is this: what is the heart of our humanity? If, for example, we take away someone’s responsibility, someone’s “ability to respond,” have we gone too far? Must we not always preserve “freedom” and therefore “dignity”?
That was a long time ago, but it is a question that has run through my life, and it was right there in the airplane on Wednesday, in the middle of my conversation with a young woman who was feeling the tension of her beliefs about the world, wondering how to be a human being if she was willing to allow “karma” as the final explanation for the way things are and aren’t.
We talked for quite awhile about the thesis of my Visions of Vocation book, which seemed to intrigue her. The idea of the “responsibility of knowledge” captured her heart, and she wanted to understand why and how that could be, seeing in her own life the possibility of “getting all A’s and flunking life.” But it wasn’t until I told her that I had dedicated the book to my wife— with these words, “To Meg, who has shown that the world can be fully known and still loved” —that she said, “That’s it, and now I understand what you are saying. And I want to meet her.”
We talked our way through the cosmos, pushing and shoving each other, intellectually speaking, always with honor and honesty, wrestling with the reality of “karma” in the pantheistic East and materialist West. In the end though, it was in seeing that the way we make sense of the most complex questions about the world has to make sense of the most intimate hopes and fears too, did she begin to see.
We all long for coherence, for a seamlessness between what believe and how we live, one that honestly makes sense of the most public responsibilities and the most personal relationships, one that makes sense of the universe without and the universe within.
I do… she did… because of course we all do.
(A very appropriate photo, and one of my favorite of Meg from this year, taken last summer in the southwestern corner of Colorado, in the very place where we spent parts of two summers when I was writing the Visions book— and where I spent my first summers many moons ago, the littlest cowboy riding the littlest calves, breathing the air that I most love to breathe.)