One of the not-so-subtle lessons of late middle age is one that tends to stumble into recollections, often prompted by an overheard remark, a song title, a photograph. Michael Lesey in describing what photos bring us said, "The wonderful possibility is that the snapshot may be many things, and that like any lesson of the heart, it may deny a fear and indulge a hope, counterfeit a fact and reveal a truth." Some of us were lucky enough to have spent some time teaching a generation or two still open to intuition and still unafraid of curiosity. The experience gave us hope and, I think, helped a great many kids who might otherwise have dropped out.
But for each of us, the ultimate curiosity concerns our own selves. To satisfy that curiosity, we have no choice but to take the path of memory and recollection. No journey can be more important or rewarding. For within every one of us exists a past with a deep and moving power and a precious singularity. As one example, read this passage by Jim Harkness:
In the town where I grew up, the public library was on Washington Street. It was a square building of thick brown bricks. Inside, a marble stairway led from the first floor to the second. Above were books on history, psychology, art. I got up there rarely and never stayed long.
The ladies who worked in the library adhered relentlessly to stereotype. They spoke only in whispers, and I saw them all as agelessly fusty. From behind a variety of spectacles they kept watch with moist, vigilant eyes. Their skirts always fell inches longer than the current style. If, stretching on tiptoe to remove a volume. If, stretching on tiptoe to remove a volume from
some top shelf, one of the ladies inadvertently exposed calf or knee, the skin gleamed pale as bleached book paper.
I couldn't guess how many thousands of hours I spent in the public library. Aside from an occasional high school teacher who came to check out "The Snow Goose," the stacks were usually deserted. Husks of dead crickets lay on the dusty window sills and a non-unpleasant smell of rotting bindings pervaded the air. During the summer, dehumidifiers whined and dripped in the background ... In the evenings I poked down shadowy aisles and read "The Sun Also Rises" in one sitting.
Doubtless it is all inevitable, and perhaps in some ways to the good. So grant the new libraries their due: allow them their uses, their computer -- clatter, even their impoverished professional pop-speak. But I hope somewhere there survive at least a few dim rooms with round ceilings, where pale ladies speak softly and with the authority of character rather than bureaucracy. I hope there remain a few readers for whom old brown libraries constitute a philosophical as much as a physical presence. I hope that for at least a few summers to come, high shelves full of real books still lure certain American boys ... toward the spacious life of reverie.
While my sprawling collection of computers, iPods, iPads, smartphones and the evening cacophony of email nudges and blinking LED's demonstrate I am no Luddite.
I find Harkness's recollection so poignant because many of those very libraries have been replaced by the spawn of those more persuasive technologies. More and more each day our world is filled with the clatter of pop-speak, with the shattering announcements of new channels of input, new information formats, more invitations to sample, download, listen, blog, watch -- more "data smog" for tired minds.
Nevertheless, I remain resolutely, if provisionally, optimistic. The promises of the new technologies may indeed be fulfilled. They could and should and may indeed enrich all our lives. But they will do so only if we bring to them the riches that our own lives already possess -- the courage, the integrity, the curiosity and the vulnerable but essential sense of our own selves.
Do we dare? In particular, do we men dare? For I think men suffer the burden of taking ourselves so dreadfully seriously -- of playing so many exhausted and exhausting roles.
In our work with leaders, I try to balance the awesome potential of MORE, with the potent invitation for less: more time to think, to recall, to ponder, to listen. The deepest truths about ourselves don't reside "out there," but it's easier to surrender and watch, dial, switch, multitask. And what we lose in the process may never be recovered.