A Good Conversation Remembered

As I write I am on a train from New York to Washington, a trip I first made when I was about 21. The day before I had flown back from Europe, where I had spent some months. And that train ride was the first leg of a long trip across the country, to my home in California.

I had gone to Europe with questions in my heart, sure that they were not ones that college could answer. After a year living in a commune in the Bay Area of California, working on a magazine, I hitchhiked across America, reading books by people like Evan Runner, pondering deeper questions about extrinsic and intrinsic ways of learning and living. Over the next months I spent time in England, Scotland, and Ireland, then onto France and Switzerland—and wherever I was and whomever I was with, I asked questions.

Mostly I wanted to understand the world. I wanted to know what I believed, and why. So over many miles and for many months I asked my honest questions, hoping to find honest answers.

On the train from NYC to Washington DC—my first visit to the capitol city –I sat next to a professor from the Johns-Hopkins University School of Medicine, on his way back to Baltimore. We talked, and I asked questions. While I have vague memories, I know that I wanted to understand him. What do you believe about the world? and why? How does it affect what you do? We pressed in, and it was not superficial, When we got to his stop, I still remember him saying to me that he thought I should be a professor someday—because of the questions I asked. I had never thought about the possibility, even though I had been raised within the world of a major research university.

Now many years later, that has been my life. A foundation years ago said to me, “You are a public teacher, with a classroom across the country.” The words were a surprise, but I did understand, a little bit at least.

But I have not taught medicine, as did my traveling companion that night. My questions have taken me to other people and other places, thinking about other questions.

Today I spent hours with a group of folk whose vocations make them ask the same questions I do. What does it mean to know, and what is our responsibility for what we know? How does it work out in life? What is the relationship between what we believe about the world, and how we live in the world? In very different ways in very different places, we have given ourselves to the work of work, of understanding what we do and why we do it, day after day, week after week. It is most of life, after all, for most of us, and we all want what we do to matter.

Sometimes I have wondered about the professor. He took me seriously, young man that I was. Riding those same tracks tonight so many years later, I wonder what kind of conversation we would have. I am sure that both of us would still want to understand why and what and how—honest questions, honest answers, coming and going, back and forth. That kind of conversation is still the best of conversations, for everyone everywhere.

(Driving home along the Potomac River, just south of Washington DC.)

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