I’m watching the Death-of-Bin-Laden blogs unfurl, and my mind keeps wandering away from them. Instant reactions to the news drop like petals from a dying flower as new information emerges: was Bin Laden armed? Was torture used to find his whereabouts? The whole process seems designed to calibrate some precise reading of responsibility and righteousness, with triumphal crowds gathering to crow over revenge for 9/11 and spiritual leaders beckoning us to higher ground: even God, they say, grieved the death of the Egyptians who chased the escaping slaves of Exodus in the Red Sea. There is something of interest in many of them, but the the most useful responses note that the news has nuances, that all truths co-exist.
The President’s poll numbers are up.
The assignment of righteousness, which obsesses most of the commentariat, doesn’t interest me much. Instead, I find myself wondering how we acquire the discernment to see things fully, to wait to know enough to ground our responses, to render our responses of use.
So it’s odd but true that a recent encounter with students has suggested an answer. The spirit of any era is reflected in many types of customs and social arrangements, but one of the most telling is the advice young people are offered about bridging from study to practice. To many members of my generation, the current conventional wisdom sucks. We tend to slide into clucking disapproval of the way young people are now pulsed through early adulthood, encouraged to choose a future and commit to it before they really know who they are.
We’ve all met 18 year-olds who have their whole lives planned out and—for fear of falling behind in the race for professional security—wouldn’t dream of, say, taking a year off to bum around before finishing school. People still compete to get their children into the right preschool, in the hope that giving them a gold-seal start will ensure a stellar finish. If parents have the means and aspirations, their kids will be tutored for their SATs and given professional coaching on the essay sections of college applications.
We see this generation gap depicted in TV and films all the time. An attractively rumpled post-hip professor tries to engage his class in open-ended dialogue on life’s big questions, but dressed-for-success students repeatedly disrupt things by raising their hands to ask whether the discussion will be covered on the final, or will otherwise affect their grades. In the movies at least, the implications tend to be mixed. On the one hand, it is suggested that too much interest in deeper meanings can lead to a kind of failure: tenure, maybe, but also many hours imbibing alcoholic remedies for disappointment, copiously laced with self-contempt. On the other, too much callow ambition makes young Jack and Jill shallow: we see them sacrificing pleasure and wisdom for a prize—economic security in the corporate world—that turns out not to be worth the price, or (given the uncertainty of our times) simply not forthcoming.
It’s a leap from the hunt for Bin Laden to generational biography, of course. But they both relate to the belief in a controllable future—an aspect of our Zeitgeist that has by now morphed from an article of faith to an object of ridicule, without releasing its grip on the culture.
This past weekend, I delivered a keynote address and moderated a panel for the tenth anniversary celebration of the Performing Arts and Social Justice program at the University of San Francisco. My talk was part of a weekend of offerings for current students, faculty, alumni and friends. The thread that connected connected them was moving from study to practice.
The panel I moderated comprised four San Francisco-based women who differed in age, race, and many other categories, but all of whom felt called upon to offer advice to members of the audience who hadn’t yet completed the journey from study to practice. What they had to say seemed so counter to the conventional wisdom, I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Their current roles and titles really don’t sum up their vast and diverse experience, but here they are: Laurel Butler, a performer who currently serves as Education and Engagement Specialist with a special initiative at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; Jessica Robinson Love, Executive & Artistic Director at Counterpulse; Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Artistic Director of Brava Theater; and Dianthe “Dee” Spencer, vocalist and pianist, Professor of Music at San Francisco State University, where she founded the jazz studies degree program.
They didn’t compare notes or coordinate their messages, and their own life-stories differ in every particular. But the advice they gave was nearly identical, and easily summarized:
Learn by doing, they said. Each of them described a dozen different interests and projects they’d explored before landing on their current roles, making it clear that they could only come to know their own strengths and passions by tasting a range of options.
Be prepared to invest and risk, they told us. In contrast to what all of us had recently heard from young people unhappy with the deprivations of internships and volunteer roles—who feel offended by the lack of professional compensation entailed—they said they had earned recognition by offering their services for free, again and again, until they were in demand.
Be comfortable with not knowing, they urged. Or as it’s sometimes put: we plan, and God laughs. One thing leads to another, and if you are as open to possibility as these women were (and are), you will be led in surprising directions, some of which will show you where you belong.
These were lessons offered in a specific context, counseling performing arts students getting ready to graduate. But I am challenged to come up with a context in which they don’t fit, including armchair punditry. The most meaningful life (and surely, the most meaningful observation) contains ample room to meander, to experience the complex and often contradictory meanings of events, to risk giving more than you get, to change course and reconsider and learn from the journey what is worth knowing. Some days—Osama Bin Laden’s last day being one of them, if his whole adult life isn’t lesson enough—certainty seems the root of the gravest sins.
Someone recently turned me onto the sadly late and remarkable singer Lhasa de Sela, who wrote the beautiful “Anyone and Everyone,” portraying the paradise of venturing beyond fear.
You walk out your front door front door
Out into sound and sun
And people say hello to you
And you say hello to everyone
The leaves are falling falling down
Down into sound and sun
And no one is afraid of you
And you’re not afraid of anyone