“I’m going to lecture on ‘why you should care about the world!’”
This morning I drove onto Capitol Hill, past the Capitol itself, and stopped at Bagels and Baguettes for a cup of chai tea latte. My friend Helen Bekele, the owner, makes the best cup on the Hill, as well as making fresh bagels and baguettes, muffins and scones, every morning. Not your usual month-old stuff from Starbucks.
She is a dear friend to me, the kind that I can walk behind the counter to greet. We have talked often over the years, about her life and work, and about mine. Like 250,000 others, she immigrated here from Ethiopia, leaving her war-torn homeland, making Washington DC the second largest Ethiopian city in the world. I have long called their woman “the daughters of Sheba,” for good reasons.
Helen’s life is economic, being the businesswoman that she is. But it is also political, given where she came from and why. But it is also social, living among such a large diaspora as she does. But it is also artful, morning by morning bringing into being delightfully imaginative tastes for the tummy of Everyman and Everywoman. And she is a mother of two boys, and today we talked about them for a brief bit, as we often have over the years. Like all women that I know, she has a complex vocation because she has a complex life.
I told her I needed be on Eighth Street in five minutes, and she quickly made my drink. As I kissed her goodbye, I said, “I’m going to give a lecture on ‘why you should care about the world!’” She looked aghast, in a playful way, and I went on to the American Studies Program for the rest for the morning. Every semester I am asked to lecture on this day as they enter into the semester’s study. My task is to talk about knowing the world, and still loving the world—and seeing one’s academic labor as integrally woven into a meaningful life.
So I talked about Simone Weil, and learning to “pay attention” to what is really going on in the world around us. And about the challenge of learning in an info-glut culture, the world of “the shallows” as Nicholas Carr has identified it, where there is more to know than we can ever know—but what will we do with it all? And the incisive study by Robert Bellah and his colleagues in Habits of the Heart, asking far-reaching questions about who we are and how we are going live, viz. what are our habits of heart as a people, and will we keep them alive, keeping America alive? And about the vision of proximate justice, and why it matters to young and old alike who take up vocations in the public square, feeling the weight of longing for more than is possible in this now-but-not-world. And finally about the possibility of being a contemplative in Washington DC, learning from the life of Abraham Kuyper, the politician who was also a mystic, understanding that unless we are deeply rooted we will fall along the way. To be honest, I think Bono and his band made their way in too, with their vision of making music that “tears a corner off the darkness,” which when all is said and done is what the truest vocations are always about.
I spent fifteen years teaching at the American Studies Program, and much of my heart, and the heart of my pedagogical vision, is still there. There are still thoughtful, eager undergraduates who make their way to Washington, wondering about the rest of life, and what a semester in the city might mean for their longer hopes and dreams. This was the beginning of their journey.
The questions implicit in what I posed to Helen are still the questions– for her, for me, for everyone everywhere. Why should we care about the world? And can we keep caring, when it gets hard to care? No one who studies in this city can avoid the questions, and answering them well takes more than a semester.