this still-vast world

On Friday, I walked into my youngest son’s classroom to retrieve a couple of items and felt gut-punched by grief:

I hadn’t once seen this classroom actually lived in by my youngest son—

hadn’t once seen or touched the tiny desk
at which he now sits (at least, as often
as COVID cases permit).

For almost five years before COVID sent school home, my sons’ classrooms were a precious, important, recurring part of my physical world,

a place of joy, safety, warmth, and nurturing for my sons, and also,
I only realized on Friday,
for me.

A couple days prior, I’d read my early reflections on living in lockdown and found my now-self startled by the magnitude of the losses I’d described therein.

Somehow, over all the months since those early days, I’d forgotten just how big the world had felt to me before COVID. I’d forgotten how absolutely claustrophobic I then felt when most my life was compressed into the 900 square feet I share with three other humans and a dog.

Before reading those early reflections, I’d failed to see just how much I’d shrunk myself to fit into this dramatically downsized experience of the physical world,

or how much suffering that unsustainable shrinking had been causing.

To stand in my son’s classroom and remember how I once routinely navigated
so, so, very many physical spaces, with no awareness what a gift that was,
I also suddenly felt a gnawing suspicion:

I might have misunderstood the nature of my journey the last few months.

Was I really questing for my calling, or—was that, in fact,
part of a larger quest I
hadn’t
yet
(consciously)
grasped?

Since early 2017, I have constantly—yes, even in pandemic—been questing.

I wouldn’t have called it “questing” before I read almost every book written by author Neil Postman in 2017. 

Then again: Had I not read Postman, I wouldn’t have even known that
knowledge is a quest, not a commodity,
or that the gratification of concluding a quest
is directly proportional to the
quest’s difficulty.


As I came back to that gut-punch moment in my son’s classroom throughout the weekend, I thought about non-“calling” themes that I’ve been exploring for months: space, proportionality, and belonging. In each of these areas, I’d come to see there was something fundamental I was missing,

without being quite sure how to identify what, exactly, I was missing,
or how, exactly, to work to stop missing any of it—
not for the sake of abstract knowing,
but for the sake of wiser doing.

And I saw, as I both reflected and adjusted course through the weekend,

I had indeed misunderstood the real nature of my most recent quest:

Actually a quest for what Brown calls “true belonging,” or belonging fully to oneself, a quest I could only complete—in this phase, anyway—by first concluding its

interwoven
calling,
space,
proportionality,
and belonging
sub-quests

(which for-now concluding I had, at last,
accomplished).

I also saw:

In my COVID-shrunken world, I came to forget the physical world as so, so much wider than my house and an occasional office visit. Under the spell of this forgetting, I searched for belonging at (almost fully virtual) work and only at work,

forgetting that, holy crap! The world is—
like true belonging itself—so, so
much bigger
than
that.

The flip side of the joy of coming to really know, in my head, heart, and bones, anything deeply worth knowing:

The deeply felt chagrin of also understanding how fundamentally I misunderstood …

well, everything, practically … as recently as yesterday afternoon.

Fortunately for me, I now have five years of experience releasing that particular kind of chagrin. That, too, is thanks to Postman, who taught me that

it’s far, far better to eventually make hash of what’s wrongly “known”

than to hold on to what’s wrong and, for comfort, call it right.

[Orwell] concluded that Shaw was right [that “we are more gullible and superstitious today than people were in the Middle Ages”]: that most of his scientific beliefs rested solely on the authority of scientists. In other words, most students have no idea why Copernicus is to be preferred over Ptolemy. If they know of Ptolemy at all, they know that he was “wrong” and Copernicus was “right,” but only because their teacher or textbook says so. This was of believing is what scientists regard as dogmatic and authoritarian. It is the exact opposite of scientific belief.

Ptolemaic astronomy may be a refuted scientific theory but, for that reason, it is useful in helping students to see that knowledge is a quest, not a commodity, that what we know comes out of what we once thought we knew; and that what we will know in the future may make hash of what we now believe.

— Neil Postman


Yesterday morning, only baby steps toward releasing my chagrin at all this newly discovered got-it-wrong-ness, I told someone lovely, “I wish I’d understood any of this two years ago!”

“Oh, honey,” she replied before enveloping me in a hug. “As best you can, try not to think that way. You got here when you were ready, and that’s great. That’s really great.”

The physical spaces I visit may still be few for a while, but that’s okay:

I now remember, through and through, how the world is big enough that I once
lived in South Korea and then Japan,
studied killer whales in Canada,
and visited England.

I now remember that the world not only was but is vast, and that:

My adventures in it are not
nearly
over.

And there it is:

space,

calling,

proportionality, and, most of all,

belonging:

… to myself, as well as in the fullness of this still vast,
still wondrous, still possibility-filled
world.

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