While in graduate school, I wrestled with the issue of where I would begin my professional life. And the answer throughout that fall was Alaska. After all, I had travelled and worked there twice, my sister Susan lived there with her family, and it was far away, romantic, and very rugged, which fit my Outward Bound and NOLS experiences. That was the plan.
Still and all, I had a gnawing sense that I was running away from something; that there was a “push” as well as a “pull” in my calculations. Why Alaska? Why not Vermont where I knew so many people, the terrain, and the history so well?
And then, one sunny Sunday afternoon in North Cambridge, it hit me. I was afraid to go to Vermont. My large extended family had played a significant role in the political and economic development of the state since their arrival around 1800. And the “push” towards Alaska was my fear that I would not be able to develop my own professional and social identity under this historic cloud of family achievement.
I struggled with this notion all afternoon that day. It was a little like wrestling an elusive greased pig, furtive, dodging in and out of the shadows of my consciousness, slipping through my grasp; being denied, then affirmed, and finally…..understood. I reckoned with it and the message was clear.
It went like this. “Peter, you cannot run away from your family name and history or the privilege, the responsibility, and the identity that comes with it. You could be in Madrid, Spain, get robbed and left for dead in an alley. And, if you could get to a phone, you could call home and everything would be okay. “
“If your family can dominate you in Vermont, they can dominate you wherever you are. Your fear is your construction, not theirs. So you can deal with it or it will color your life. Decide where you want to live and go there. And, no matter what, understand your privilege and what you are going to do to be yourself and use it for good things, if you can.”
I went to Vermont and, over the next 20 years, lived near and loved my parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, charted my own path, sometimes to their consternation, founded the state’s community college system and served as a state senator, Lieutenant Governor, and Congressman-at-Large before leaving the Congress in 1990 at the age of 45.
Without that turning point on a sunny Sunday afternoon, however, none of that would have happened.
We all have life lessons like these. They comprise a defining narrative in our life stories, sometimes elusive, but compelling as well. To paraphrase Eliot, they represent departures from the current path that, upon return, re-define the path going forward.
There is a mystery here, and an unknown. The transcendent sense that life is more than a linear journey through time and space, that life contains a series of departures and returns within that longer journey; departures and returns which take on their own meaning, and in so doing change the journey, enriching it, altering its value, adding new themes and textures to old understandings.
What “knowing” was Eliot describing? I believe he was describing a timeless human stretch, a stretch that reaches beyond a simple journey to a fuller understanding of life’s experiences. And there is a promise hidden in the stretch; a promise that if you extend yourself and can convert the side trips of your life, whether an unanticipated belly roll or a stroll to the corner store, into the meaning they had for you, cause and effect, you will change and your life’s richness will be changed as you come to “know the place for the first time.”
I believe that “knowing the place for the first time” is true growth, not in size or in years, but in understanding. If you cannot, or do not, seize the opportunity to understand, then you become a prisoner of your own life experience, unable to convert experience into meaning, controlled by events and mastered by situations.
This promise, the call to deeper understanding, isn’t an order, something you must obey. It is there to be seized or avoided; confronted and absorbed or lost in the noise of daily living. Sometimes you see it immediately and sometimes it is revealed only when the situation requires it. Sometimes it is an “aha” moment, sometimes it is the product of active reflection or personal experience, and sometimes, like taking a job or attending college, you sign up for it.
That said, the stretch, the reach, and their promise are not one-time deals. There are hundreds of side trips in our lives, each fraught with meaning, consequence, and potential – large and small. The human challenge of living through time and taking these side trips is whether we are able to learn to treat them as opportunities, as gifts, positive or negative, from which meaning and growth can be extracted.
And the revolutionary potential in the New Universe of Learning is that the value of the many opportunities to learn throughout life has expanded both horizontally and vertically. Horizontally, because the many different ways that people learn – personally, experientially, formally but not in higher education, and formally but as part of an organized collegiate effort – can all be harnessed and recognized, creating a complete mosaic of the learner’s understandings and capacity. Vertically, because all that learning, much of it previously ignored or literally unattainable, can now be valued, counted, and seen as contributing value to the economic, social, civic and personal lives of learners as they accumulate more throughout their lives.