Where are you being led?
Where are you leading yourself?
Is it to more of Life?
The word ‘education’ is based on the Latin e-ducere meaning ‘to lead out’. So in a radical sense, getting an education is about submitting to a process of being led out of a state of familiarity or ignorance. As creatures of higher cognition, we humans have two competing impulses that can hold each other in productive tension or fall out of balance. They are: 1) a curiosity to explore and gain new knowledge and 2) an attachment to and security in what is already known. Getting educated is being led by curiosity (or, in some cases, by compulsion) to learn new things that will require one to detach from what is already known long enough to integrate it with what is being learned. This is how education expands the scope of human consciousness: that is, by taking in greater and greater swaths of the world and revising the ‘working theory’ (i.e. worldview) based on new data. Committing to a lifelong self-education – as I did many years ago – entails remaining fearlessly open to new information and being skilled at incorporating it into one’s beliefs, thoughts, and actions.
My early experience of education took a quantum leap when my family moved from small-town Alabama to East Africa. Through this move, I was led out of a comfortable life with friends, family, and hometown, as well as native culture, religion, and worldview. Relocating to Africa as a six-year-old boy shaped my neurology in ways that would forever predispose me to continually seek ‘education’. The degree of disruption caused by this uprooting and transplanting at such a tender age brought me a mix of exhilaration and anxiety. Being thrust into totally unfamiliar surroundings, immersed in the sounds of foreign-to-me languages, and endarkened by cultural codes yet to be deciphered – all this sparked a primal survival anxiety around where I belonged in the social and ecological and historical worlds. It was also stimulus for an innate adaptive genius which kicked into gear in the form of low-level yet constant hypervigilance. Such anxious hypervigilance earned me neurochemical rewards as I succeeded in quickly finding niches of belonging. Thus a cycle was enacted in which I would – to this day – seek situations where educative hypervigilance is required so that that I can reap the dopaminergic benefits of success and satisfaction.
As is often the case, the neurological patterns and their behavioral correlates we develop in childhood work for the first half of life and begin to fail in mid-life. In my case, I built an identity and career out of that exact pattern created during boyhood: 1) be in new, unfamiliar, often cross-cultural circumstances, 2) engage hypervigilance and learn language and social cues quickly, 3) once a survival-level belonging is achieved, 4) move and repeat cycle. In my 20s, I visited more than a dozen countries and studied more than a dozen languages. In university, I earned degrees in languages and linguistics and then worked as a linguist in Africa for ten years. The work assignment I chose was remote and isolated (as unfamiliar as possible) and in extremely challenging cross-cultural circumstances (requiring utmost hypervigilance). I rose to the challenge, mastering the language and eking out a belonging even as an alien. It was my ‘dream job’ and I rose to the zenith of my ambitions. Whereas in the beginning of life, it was my parents who led me out to the most distant horizon, I had now become a consummate self-educator: ceaselessly leading myself out from what I knew. Although here it was not satisfaction I found, but rather, emptiness.
Indeed, I had been ‘led out’ and ‘led forth’ so much that I had left my own self somewhere in the dust. No sooner would I triumphantly crest a ridge on the horizon – familiarizing myself with yet another language, another person, another philosophy, another theory, another religion, another place, another self-identity, another group-identity – than I would be gazing ahead to yet more distant peaks. I could not allow myself to settle long enough to enjoy the resources of the newly discovered territory because subconsciously I believed I had to soon get up and keep moving anyway. Fulfillment was always ahead, but even when I reached ‘ahead’, the the ultimate relief I was seeking moved again beyond the horizon.
Of course, this pattern is functional at least in some respects: after all, for most of human history, our species were nomad hunter-gatherers, wandering wildernesses. How else did this planet get covered by us if not for thousands of years of pursuing horizons? Exploration and education are in our cultural and cognitive ‘DNA’. I am very proud to be an embodiment of that impulse. It is the driver of science and technology and the realization of human potential. It is a key factor in the hope for the planet and all its inhabitants. And yet, all things – not least we humans – have interiors as well as exteriors. As education, or ‘leading out’, implies, much of our learning is orientated outwardly, away from our intimate interiors. The time has come for me as an individual – and perhaps for our species as a whole – to turn once again inwardly, to explore the undulating landscapes of the inner world, to send expeditions not only to Mars but also into the labyrinthine caverns of the bodymind. Such a shift in focus would be the beginnings of an inducation, of a ‘leading in’. Only in the balance between education and inducation, being led out and led in, will I find the fulfillment of a life-enhancing curiosity. For unlike farmers who are rooted to the Earth in one place, nomads must take their rootedness with them wherever they go. So this is how I will lead myself to Life from now on: root in my microcosm, wander the Cosmos.