When I went to college I entered a time of considerable personal flux. Psychological pressures I’d held at bay by focusing on specific goals came to the fore as the goals themselves began to dissolve. There was a gnawing uneasiness in me that I felt had to be settled before I could state what kind of person I wanted to be, or determine what I wanted to do with my life. But I was also at the time of life in which we were to be enamored of our own potential, aware of all the possibilities. It was a strange and compelling time.
Things happened quickly in my sophomore year. My first truly serious girlfriend and I broke up, I quit the club soccer team, I shifted from physics to engineering, enrolled in the coop program and got a job at a water heater factory where I would work full time every other academic quarter for the next two years to help pay for my education. I spent considerable time in the water heater test lab, tuning natural gas burners for commercial water heaters while trying to convince my new buddy, the Southern Baptist lab technician—a concerned father, husband and provider who skipped the annual strip club outings his other technicians made once in a while—that God would permit homosexuals into heaven. And do so gladly. We had some great discussions. And while all of that was going on, what I was really trying to do was make sense of things. I wanted to know what was truly true.
I met another man at the water heater plant who was kind, a little timid, always willing to help. He steered clear of our philosophical discussions, and once when we talked he warned me you just can’t really know what’s true. He killed himself a year or two later. He was a father. Divorced. He was a good man, obviously dealing with a clinical depression, and it was a sad day for me.
Meanwhile the receptionist to the Engineering group was suspected of having an affair with the VP. There were two other women in the Engineering group, both assistants of some sort. They each listened to their respective boss bemoan certain aspects of his domestic life, and then they compared notes. Several engineers and designers played role playing games on the server during lunch–it was the advent of 3D-like games that offered perspective and firsthand obliteration of zombies with pump action shotguns. Another person I met thought engineers in general were a paragon of entitlement and virtue, particularly the white male ones; he was very obviously bigoted. He was my boss.
My starting point was the awareness that my life had been fairly insular, and that if I was going to learn what was truly true, I had to take into account the ideas people in other cultures, religions and philosophies held dear. I was certainly no better than they were; my past offered no particular or special insights or vantage points. In fact, perhaps the opposite was true. In addition I felt it was necessary to continue expanding my knowledge of what we’d discovered scientifically as well. Science remained thrilling to me, and weighed strongly in my thinking. It was beautiful and profound.
I needed some way to navigate this stage, to process information and understand what was true for me, and I settled on a few core notions. If what was true was true, and no culture or society had a privileged perspective, then clearly the truth was not on the surface. My hypothesis, if you will, was that something was true–(interestingly I once heard a physicist years later state this as Einstein’s premise, that truth must be true, and therefore there must be a consistent way of reframing observations from one vantage point to another). If something was true, it stood to reason that through the filter of human experience differing aspects of that truth must have risen to the fore in various philosophies and cultures. So to put together a picture of what was truly true, I’d have to consider a variety of words and sources, often in a fresh light. I needed to free myself from dogmatic viewpoints so that interpretations were fluid enough to see how things aligned. I reasoned that what science had discovered was universal, but that there were boundaries on the sorts of questions science could test. Science as I understood it had little to say about the validity of an inner life.
A corollary to my thinking was that people were basically good, and intelligent. People in modern times were not more intelligent than people in past times. People had a bad habit of taking things literally when such conclusions weren’t warranted, of becoming close-minded, of needing others to think and believe the way they did. People had a bad habit of fearing differences, of believing they were right and others wrong. The people I most admired were those who were capable of spontaneous kindness and warmth, who were able to explore ideas without becoming defensive and close-minded, without feeling threatened, and who showed genuine concern for others and the world around them. People with confidence and humility at the same time.
The ones I met were lifelines. They came from all sorts of backgrounds and orientations.
I felt that I needed to call my dearest ideas into question. It was easy and enthralling to accept that life on Earth had evolved; easy and good to discount any notion of a God that would condemn homosexuals, or the entire Eastern world, or a divorced person, or the member of any other tribe or persuasion. Easy to discount any notion of a God that would reward violence with treasures in the afterlife. But it was more difficult for me to understand what was left. I knew that millions of people found meaning in systems of thought that didn’t have any God at all, and I decided I wanted to explore that. How did such people orient themselves?
I went to the Auburn University Library and checked out some introductory books on Buddhism. I read them and began to meditate every day. It was difficult at first, particularly as my closet metamorphosis was occurring in full view of a roommate with whom I shared a one bedroom apartment. I sat on the cheap, scratchy carpeting of our living room early in the morning and breathed. My roommate awoke and sidestepped me to chomp on a bowl of cereal at our kitchen table, five feet away. Police sirens went past and the neighbor’s stereo played through the walls. I wanted to understand what was being discussed—this idea of emptiness, of not wanting, of mindfulness. I was struck in particular by a book that described the world as illusory.
What did that really mean?
I rose from the floor and hurried off to my Thermodynamics II lectures. We learned the universe has a direction to it. It wound down, but it never wound up. I read about those guys who measured the blueshift of gamma rays shot down a stairwell at Harvard University, proving Einstein was right, about the cosmic background radiation and the microwave telescopes and the Big Bang and Weinberg’s First Three Minutes, about the way straight lines always followed curves except in our minds, about particles interfering with themselves in quantum physics experiments. The next morning I sat down quietly again and tried to think of nothing at all.
Was there any way to tie these tendrils together? Any way to make sense of my own being? What was a person? A scattershot of DNA? Did a person have a meaningful relationship to the whole, as I’d been taught? What sort of meaning was it? How could our broken world be repaired, so that people didn’t feel obligated to manipulate or deceive one another? To exert power over others? To feel the need to injure or kill those who were different, or threatened an idea?