Last night I gave a lecture, “Learning to Learn in a Whatever World.” While we name our world as best we can, trying to make sense of what we see and hear, we do so finitely, always looking through a glass darkly. We never get it all– and truth be told, we are giving new names to cultural phenomena that are ancient, echoing across the ages into every century and culture.
Thousands of years ago, the Greeks and the Romans lived in the same world we do, and their questions and answers were driven by profoundly perennial hopes and fears. They were just like us, so very pre-modern as they were. It is of course why the poet Steve Turner can say so succinctly, “History repeats itself. Has to. No one listens.”
Whatever? The word may come and go, but what it means stays the same. As Epicurus once said, thousands of years ago in fact, “Inner feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction are the highest criteria of good and evil.” There is nothing more important than the way I feel. Nothing. Philosophers have written volumes on this over the centuries, almost always debating the relationship of the words “is” and “ought”— is it possible to have to honestly live with the former without the latter? –but the way it gets worked out on the streets is recognizable to all, i.e. whatever. The universe is indifferent, history is indifferent, and so am I.
The words above are from an article in a noted New York newspaper, commenting this week on the social mores of modern-becoming-postmodern life, on our behaviors and what they mean for all of us. It was not an editorial comment, simply a quotation from someone on the proverbial street.
But it reminded me of last night’s lecture, as I was asking the university community to think about “a whatever world,” and what it means to learn to learn in a world like that. I told a story of a conversation years ago with someone who was the head of the first-ever human trafficking project in Washington, DC, and probably in the U.S., given who was behind it. As she said to me, “I have access to the best graduates from America’s best universities. But eventually they ask me, after thanking me for the job and affirming that the work is very important, ‘Why do we think we know what’s right for people in Thailand?’ I sigh, and just wish that I had access to a kind of young person who believed in basic right and wrong in the universe.”
Some conversations you just never ever forget. So last night I pressed into this moment that is ours, the early 21st-century, asking the students what they were learning that will guide them into a pluralizing world where “whatever” is more often than not the answer to every question.
The world needs more from us, and we need more too, something that leads us to live lives in line with the grain of the universe—rather than imagining that we can cut against that grain and still find the flourishing we yearn after.
(Photo from the farmlands of Ohio where I was this morning, driving back to the city and its airport.)