I recently applied for a civic action program offered by my university. The application prompted me to consolidate a lot of ideas that have been circulating in my mind. Here are some of my thoughts on heritage, education, service, and my future.
During my high school years the cause most important to me was fostering a healthy, integrated queer youth community in New York (my hometown). Although I still care deeply about this community and will continue activism on its behalf, over the past year and a half I have become passionate about struggling communities in other parts of the world – those whose livelihoods are affected not by their identity and others’ prejudices but by an absolute lack of economic, educational, and social opportunities. My emotional response to the Haiti earthquake crisis demonstrated to me that I care most about those whose for whom survival, much less self-realization, are at question. I hope to invest my education and career in development in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. In the interim – while I continue to study languages, history, culture, and diplomacy – I can and must practice compassion and activism within a community I do understand.
Native American communities stand at the intersection of some of my strongest values. Their history teaches any student to question the justice of a unilateral exercise of power, and whose truth history and its residue expresses. Their diversity teaches cultural sensitivity and warns against generalizations, while patterns of tragedy shared by many teaches the effects of a unilateral, self-righteous policy of expansionism and insularity on millions of lives and hundreds of communities. Their strength and pride in the face of contemporary challenges – legal battles over sovereignty, casinos (as demonstrated so vividly in the Shinnecock case), and the continuing problems of alcoholism, drug use, and poverty – teaches to never consign any group to history.
Much of my elementary school education focused on the history of the Lenni-Lenape and the Algonquin in the 17th C and on Westward Expansion from both a settler and a Native American perspective (in fact, we did almost nothing else, aside from the occasional class trip to investigate Chinatown or go seining on the Hudson). In my freshman year of high school, I co-wrote and acted in a film about Spanish explorer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, the most open-minded and least murderous of the New World explorers. (I was the “Indian Chief.”) My junior-year American History professor first made me aware of Pine Ridge reservation (a mere two hours from Rosebud, the destination of the trip) and the extraordinary challenges faced by this community (namely, the battle over Whiteclay). I’ve maintained a strong interest in Native American history, culture, and contemporary issues.
My most important and affecting experiences and lessons have been through interactions with new concepts and traditions. A liberal education in New York public schools and from the city and people themselves steeped me in a broad cosmopolitan awareness of many different traditions on which I have thrived. I’ve sought out other traditions in my high school philosophy, European history, and Jewish history classes; in my interests in contemporary and historical Native American communities and in medieval England; in my homestay with Romanian family friends in Germany; in courses in Islam and study of Arabic and other languages; and in my study of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. And while I take a dialectic approach to these studies, it is important to my approach and my own sense of humility to treat my counterpart – whether text or person – with the utmost respect.
Unexpected interactions with other ways of being have also taught me a lot. My brother and his friends are different from me in almost every possible way, from leisure activities to approach to studies to language to values. When I first began to encounter them, I was resistant to their presence and silently supported my father’s criticism of my brother’s new lifestyle. Over time I learned a new humility: to respect these friends of my friend and to treat them with compassion, but also to speak up when they do something especially silly and challenge them to consider the motives for their actions and the desirability of potential outcomes. This is real compassion: to love, to accept, and to encourage every being to be its highest self.
When I list to friends the five things I’d most like to do within the next five years, working to aid a Native American community is one of them. Our destination and the community with which we will be interacting are far from the cushy Ivy League experience.
As an avid backpacker and yoga practitioner, I have experience in situations very different from the Princeton experience and practice a mentality of openness and acceptance. Last summer when I solo hiked the Long Trail, I set out a detailed itinerary beforehand but after one week I was already far ahead of my itinerary. For the rest of the trip I planned in a much more flexible manner, with only an approximate finishing date in mind. Although each day I had a goal in mind, I often ended up sleeping somewhere else – either nearer, further along, or off the trail entirely. New traveling companions, rain, or the necessity of resupplying also caused rapid changes of plans. And my diet was certainly spartan. Although I have always been very methodical, since the Long Trail I’ve become more open to and accepting of a change of plans in the moment. And beyond mundane matters of itinerary and supplies, what the trail taught me above all was an openness to every new experience and a new way of seeing and listening: what the sound of the wind in the trees above indicates about the prospect of rain or a cold night; why the ground may be so muddy even in a location far from water; whether I’m walking alone even when not walking with a human companion; and which trail I’m following in a literal and metaphorical sense.
I’m not sure what my path is. I’m not sure what my culture is. I don’t think it’s my parents’ culture. I inherited their love of classical music, Euro-centricism, and liberal thinking. I didn’t inherit their religious culture, social conservatism, or valuation of capitalism and American democracy. I’m not sure that the world I’ve built for myself is a coherent culture either. I’ve adopted philosophical elements from Hindu, Zen, secular humanist, progressive, and New England cultures in my path towards philosophical maturity (if I should be so lucky). These all share elements of respect for environment and community that I believe are a fundamental part of the most wholesome and enduring cultures and ways of thinking. Understanding other cultures, however, has a strong impact on my thinking and always provokes me to question and further develop my own beliefs and my relation to established cultures and traditions.
How do you define culture? What are your enduring values? What motivates you? What would you like to do, if you had the opportunity?
I’ll leave you with this:
Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.