A Life Worth Living

By Ralph Lelii, English department

Last month in TOK, a senior said in class something to this effect, “I wish I were free to get out and do some real work to try and forestall the coming tragedy of global warming.” He did not say it disrespectfully or aggressively; rather, there was a good deal of inchoate fear and sadness in his voice, I think. I have thought a great deal about it, and it hits home with a particular vengeance when I remember it while my one year old granddaughter is sitting on my lap. At those moments, I also feel sadness and an inchoate fear, for I want the world to be for her what it was for me. Alas, it now seems likely that while there will be a world for her, no one can say with any kind of certainty what it will comprise.

The astonishing miracle that we inhabit this planet at all is a well-worn truth, but still miraculous nonetheless. In his lecture on the evolution of our planet and our species, the historian David Christian talks about the fragile appearance of several “Goldilocks’ Moments,” times in our particular and peculiar evolution when just the right temperature meshed with just the right chemical conditions and life formed and was sustained. He adds ominously that our continued survival requires a continued balance of fragile, interconnected systems, which are under relentless assault. He ends the lecture with a huge photograph of his grandson, claiming that he wants for him a world of sustainable progress and health.

As teachers, I think we tend to construct knowledge and claim its veracity based at least in part upon its truth in our own lives. Part of the nobility of the profession, as I see it, is this connectedness with the past, the ability to link ourselves with those who preceded us by virtue of study and the miracle of language. Until recently, I felt secure in the belief that I had a relatively good, albeit miniscule,  sense of what the world has meant and I wanted my students to know these things, to feel connected all the way back to Socrates in one long, difficult but trenchant intellectual evolution. When I stand before them now, there is still a good deal of faith left in my tank about the world, but its pinions are a bit more wobbly, less self- assured.

Carl Jung wrote once of our species, “The denial of death, its attendant denial and fear of change, is an attempt to bring order to our lives. It is neither evil nor good. It is simply human.” When Chris Odom and Michael Erickson wrote passionately about global change a few weeks ago, I was reminded again of that student’s comment, of my grand-daughters life, and of those of all our children. With what certainty can we now make claims about the future for our students; with what justification can we offer them assurances that the knowledge we turn over to them will matter in twenty years if the world should warm 7 degrees Celsius as some scientific models suggest. I am neither melancholy nor fatalistic about this predicament. We are a clever and resourceful species and we have survived bubonic plagues, endless wars, nuclear proliferation, slavery, and even professional wrestling. But somehow, the stakes seem different now, more metaphysical, and less predictable. At the very least, we should probably talk more explicitly about these fears, about what kinds of knowledge may address them most capably. As I often say to my students, as a bald (ing) man of 59, I own about 20 years of the future if I am lucky. A non-smoking 18 year old girl in my class can expect about 73 more years on this planet.

It seems probable that they might deserve a slightly bigger seat at the table.

Mostly though, I want my grand baby Emma to have a life worth living.

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