Driving back from a camping trip in the desert weekend before last I noted a hand-written sign along the side of the 395. It read (approximately):
Coy – Goldfish
Need a Home
I was turning to Brad to ask “what do you suppose makes a goldfish coy” when suddenly it dawned on me that the sign was intending to advertise koi and goldfish. The image of the coy goldfish caught me fancy, though. I imagine a goldfish rendered sort of cartoonish, with a bow on its head, and big fluttery eyelashes. It left me thinking a bit about this piece of Stephen Fry’s where he argues that language should be enjoyable and that pedantry is mostly pointless because we know what people mean even when they say it wrong. (If you prefer the written version, the video is excerpted from this, which I’ll confess I have yet to actually read in its entirety since his use of language appeals to me more when read with an actual British accent rather than the poor substitute in my head). I’ll note that in this case I actually didn’t know what the Coy Goldfish sign meant until far enough down the road that if I’d been looking for koi I might not have bothered to turn back. But still, I take his point. Delighting in the notion of a flirty fish is more fun than railing against spelling errors.
Then last week I was flipping through The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, which I recently picked up off paperbackswap for sentimental reasons. My mother has a large collection of Idries Shah’s books and the Nasrudin stories lived on the side table by the big chair I used to regularly sit in to read. So when I was out of books or otherwise bored, I’d read those. I read them more for entertainment than with any eye to their meanings as teaching stories. And, honestly, I think I picked up this volume with the same intent. It’s a comfortable and entertaining reminder of home more than anything. Nonetheless I paused when I came to a variation of this parable (the text of which I have taken from here):
Nasrudin was ferrying a traveler across a lake. As they spoke on various subjects, Nasrudin made a minor grammatical error.
The traveler remarked, “You who wears a turban and calls himself a Mulla-have you ever studied grammar?”
“No,” Nasrudin admitted, “I have not covered that subject in depth.”
“Well then,” the traveler replied,” you have wasted half of your life!”
Several minutes later, Nasrudin turned to the traveler and asked, “Have you ever learned how to swim?”
“No,” the traveler responded.
“Well then,” Nasrudin replied, “you have wasted all your life-for there is a hole in the boat, and we are sinking!”
There are numerous things one could take from that story. The ISHK website offers the explanation that this story shows Sufi rejection of the purely scholarly approach. As someone whose life takes a pretty scholarly bent, I’ll admit I chafe at that sort of interpretation a bit. I think I’m more inclined to read it as an indictment of the sort of thinking that supposes that one sort of knowledge is always essential and should be pursued, even at the cost of other sorts of knowledge.
Aside from that thought–and an additional reminder that I would do well to let go of some of my language pedantry–it took me in the direction of thinking about how to live a life that isn’t wasted, a life with purpose. For many people the work they do for pay is both the thing they spend the most time on and the thing that they hang much of their identity on. I’m fortunate to be able to do work that I think benefits the world a little. I know “statistical programmer” doesn’t sound like a world-changing career path but I do feel like the project I’ve been working on and the ones I’ll be starting on shortly do have the potential to inform public policy and potentially play a part in small changes. It’s not much but it feels more meaningful to me than, say, marketing research. I also happen to enjoy my work a great deal, so on the whole I feel pretty lucky. My work could be more “important” in some sense but it makes its small difference and is challenging, interesting, and leaves me sufficient time and brain power for the rest of my life. In short, I like my job a lot and I am happy.
But sometimes I wonder if that’s enough. I wonder if I am doing enough to make the world a better place. I wonder if I am using what skills I have in useful ways. Leaving graduate school, and my aspirations of academic life, has given me a lot more time to develop hobbies and interests outside a narrow intellectual focus. I feel like, in terms of the story above, my current life gives me room to learn both grammar and swimming (as an aside I’m mostly self taught in both areas, but have amassed enough skill in both to survive most pedants and boats sinking in gentle water ). The problem is that, having relatively recently chosen a life that involves a great more leisure time than the life I once aspired to, I’m selfish with that time. I’m doing the things that I felt like I didn’t get to do while I was in school. And I’m enjoying living, figuring out who I want to be. That’s not a life wasted, that much I know. The question is whether it’s a life that’s insufficiently generous.
That I’m even asking the question, I think, is an indicator of my answer. I don’t feel generous enough. I feel like even if I’m shaping my little corner of the world into a better place, but that doesn’t extend beyond my walls. Sometimes I think it doesn’t even extend beyond the boundaries of my skull. And it should. But I’m not sure where to start, what I want to do given that my energies are limited and I’m, frankly, greedy with my time.
One solution I’ve considered is going back to the church I was once a member of. There’s a new minister and some things that troubled me while I was there seem to have changed. When I was there I was deeply involved with the leadership of the congregation but not with anything else outside the church. Still, being tied to a community where the notion of social justice was important is something that I miss and if I went back I would work harder to find ways to also improve the world outside the walls of the church. I’ve written here about the process of leaving. The reasons I left are complicated and many. Some of it was simply time. Brad and I had started spending our weekends together and since that’s the only time we saw each other I was loathe to take time out of my Sunday. Plus I was exhausted due to my various roles in the church and what my involvement on the board meant in terms of how I experienced the years of institutional churning the church was going through at the time. Both of those things are problems that time has, essentially, solved. There were other things, though, that made me leave. One was feeling like my presence there was appreciated for what I could do rather than who I was. Much of the rest had to do with my ability to navigate certain types of personal relationships. When I was there I was one of the only (if not the only) women under 30 in the congregation. It made me a lightening rod for a lot of interactions I am generally poor at dealing with. Even just playful flirtation is a dance I don’t perform particularly gracefully, when it takes any sort of creepiness my abilities to cope are pretty taxed. Of course since I’ve left two things have happened. I’ve aged (though at 32 I doubt I’ve come even close to aging out of any sort of creepy attention) and other women under 40 have joined the congregation. So many of my reasons for leaving have at least lessened in their importance. There are still, though, pieces of hard hurt in my heart that I’m not sure I can see around.
The years I was there were hard years for me, emotionally, academically. The friends who meant the most to me during that period in my life proved themselves repeatedly unreliable and having to face the various complications that came with my place in spiritual home left me battered and bruised both emotionally and spiritually. I am unsure ultimately whether going back would help bring catharsis and healing or whether it would be a source of new pain and hurt. It is clear to me, though, that the walls I built around myself in those years need to start coming down. I need to open myself more to the friendships I have built since then. I need to find a way to feed the spiritual parts of me that have largely atrophied in the five and a half years since I started cutting my church ties.
Part of me thinks I would be infinitely better off finding someplace to volunteer that is wholly unconnected to that old life but the idea of building new connections is intimidating to me, as is the idea of finding a place that I feel fits me. On the other hand, the idea of starting fresh has its attraction. Of course, there are also other Unitarian Universalist churches closer to where I live now and clearly I could start looking there for spiritual fulfillment. Still, my old church was my home and there is a part of me that longs to go back. I like the new minister a great deal, and when I look at the service schedules I often find myself interested in his sermons. I miss that particular community, even if there were aspects of my relationship to it that were problematic.
I’m still not sure what the answer is but I’m pretty sure I need to be branching out with my energies, reinforcing the connections I have to my current communities, and building new connections.
Swimming lesson might not hurt either. There are, I think, worse things to resemble than coy goldfish.