On the occasion of my last birthday, a friend asked how it feels to be growing old? I proffered first, the old bromide that in my head I feelabout thirty, but my body groans a wholly different story. Then I joked that when people intone, “Well, you’re only as old as you feel,” I reflexively remark, if that’s true, then I’m really old!
Suddenly I found myself reflecting on my resume. Only logically, academics think of this document as containing the genuinely significant aspects of our lives, listed in chronological order no less. Vita indeed! But as I spoke, it dissolved into a metaphor of the life cycle. In the early stages, one focuses on one’s name, birthdate, and address. The next stage involves the listing of schools one has attended. The following stage is defined by one’s publications and presentations, living representations, surely, of genuine accomplishment. At least they prove that one did something, which has to mean that one was there, somewhere. But old age is captured in the vita’s final lines where one reads: The author of this vita is married to someone, and the father of several children, and the grandfather of even more children.
That’s the way it concludes, the vita, and the vita, even if it does take some of us a rather long time to realize what, in the end—a perfect turn of phrase—emerges as life’s genuinely significant milestones, not all of them public accomplishments. I realize that I am swimming against waves of social media urging us to broadcast every passing thought, fancy, and impulse. Apparently, however, I belong to a more silent age, one in which I was taught one keeps a host of secrets and goes public when one assumes the role of huckster, or protester.
Those of us choosing academic careers were also taught that it was essential to go public. Published results of our inquiries were part and parcel of the university’s mission, not to mention the basis of individual academic advancement. Everyone in our line of work knew that phrase, “Publish or Perish,” and who in his or her right mind would decline the opportunity to avoid perishing through the act of writing! “Teaching breathes life in to you,” a friend counseled, “but publishing keeps you from perishing.” I remember thinking, but aren’t those two end-points identical? Apparently not.
Over the years I have written about the lives of people, young and old, who quite frankly just caught my attention. Often I knew precisely the hook that lured me. It was unemployment, a secret a child was keeping, or illness. It was poverty and homelessness, or a premature death of a family member or friend. It was, perhaps, a school story, the words of students, teachers, staff members, or administrators. Regularly, the lure evoked in me a childlike sense of unfairness that ought to have been prevented by someone, or something, and thus the theme of injustice. Perhaps this sounds puerile, but it gives the reader a taste of a certain stirring I feel when I have heard someone’s account and walk away mumbling, “That’s just not fair.” More generally, perhaps life itself rests on, or ought to rest on a premise of justice.
Returning to the idea of a curriculum vita as a metaphor of the life cycle, I reminded of Robert Kegan’s observation that what makes the activity rendering us human is the act of making meaning. Specifically, an event occurs and the very act of constructing a meaning of that event causes it to find a home in our memories as experience. Kegan’s notion dovetails with the writing of the late philosopher Michael Oakeshott who suggested that in this process of making meaning human beings seek to discover the meaning of being human. Significantly, Oakeshott alleged that this activity is a function of instruction; teachers contribute to this determination of our humanness, and not all of them are found in the classroom. Truly we are what we have learned.
Reflecting back on my research I see quite a few of my own teachers, not all of them found in classrooms, but all of them contributing to my efforts to figure out this being human thing. People whose words appear in our books and articles stand among our important teachers. Together we work at attempting to discover meanings, transform events into experiences, and feel this provocative idea that we are what we have learned. So perhaps all of our writings are about sharing some of the results of our ruminations and reflections. Perhaps too, it is not exactly the case that experience is the best teacher. Rather, we require teachers to help us forge enduring experiences from events, which in turn, serves as yet another form of pedagogy. I think here of Jung’s notion that psychotherapeutic enterprises commence with both persons confessing either aloud or in silence, and conclude with both souls feeling transformed. Not so incidentally, between confession and transformation, Jung asserted that both persons experience the acts of explanation and education, this last word being one that would have pleased Professor Oakeshott.
In my mind those of us collecting the stories of people and passing them on to a public we believe must learn of these lives, are somehow educated and transformed by the work. I cannot believe that one listening to narratives could not be transformed, somehow, by these accounts. At very least, recalling the words of Emmanuel Levinas, surely they sense a certain stirring—that word again—within themselves. This stirring, Levinas instructed, is hardly an esoteric idea. It implies that we feel an urge to move toward the other and through this movement feel a call to our own humanness. The stirring, in other words, is the sensation of the other being inside us. It is funny to think that the pregnant woman is not the only one able to experience life stirring within her.
I suspect we all draw life from the stories told to us, or read to us, by a host of not merely storytellers, but story teachers. As many have written, perhaps all we are is contained in the stories we tell, to others and ourselves; it is the quintessentially creative act of which we are all capable, and quite possibly the product of our constant search for meaning. Which means that much of what we are is also constituted in the stories told to us, stories breathing life into us, and, as many have alleged, continue to live within us aiding in our constant efforts to draw life.
Thomas Cottle, 77, is Professor Emeritus of Counseling Psychology and Human Development at Boston University. His books include At Peril: Stories of Injustice; Mindfields: Adolescent Consciousness in a Culture of Distraction; and Hardest Times: The Trauma of Long-Term Unemployment.