A couple of weeks ago I attended my 20-year high school reunion. I went to George School, a Quaker boarding/day school (I was a boarder) in Newtown, PA. For those that are not familiar with Quakerism, no, it does not have to do with the Amish. It is a Christian-based religion that operates on the core belief that we all have the light of God inside us, ALL OF US. As G.S. explains on its website, “This straightforward, elegant idea basically means that everyone has the capacity to do good and the facility to be great. You just have to listen to that of God within you and recognize it in others.”
This core belief manifested in several ways while I was at G.S. (and still holds true today):
Everyone and I mean EVERYONE from students, faculty and staff addressed each other by their first name. This subverted the idea that teachers/staff/adults had authority over students.
Instead of being preached to or following orders/rules, our religious service was meeting for worship where we sat still in silence for quiet reflection, and if we felt moved, we addressed the people in the Meetinghouse with the inspiration coming through us.
Everyone, no matter what your economic status, had to do co-op, an on-campus service program where all students performed various tasks to help in the daily operations of the school; money saved through the program supported the school scholarship fund.
G.S. did not promote, in fact, rejected superstar culture academically, athletically and socially; cooperation/community instead of competition/hyper-individualism was stressed, thus, there was no valedictorian, sports hero or prom royalty. As a matter of fact, we didn’t have a prom. We had a senior-year dinner dance where all students had to ride a chartered bus to get to the dance hall in an effort to curb materialism and stratification among students.
While I came from a junior high school that instilled in me the importance of community, this high school experience challenged a core belief and overall consciousness I had deeply internalized: there is a hierarchical order to life. I held a (conscious and unconscious) belief that all living things were ranked in order of importance (i.e. the planet belongs to us humans, not we belong to the planet) and that some humans were better/worth more/mattered more than others. This originated from and was constantly affirmed by family, school, religion, culture and society.
Since this was true for me, I committed to the onerous, insatiable and futile task of being THE best (not MY best) so as to claim my position at the top of this hierarchy. I wanted to look the best, dance the best, be the coolest, be number one in my class. I remember that at the age of 9, I felt so humiliated for not receiving first honors after having so consecutively for a few years (beaten by the new girl in class) that I pleaded with my mother for me to not go back to school anymore.
So one can imagine how unfamiliar this idea of all of life matters PERIOD (no more, no less) was to me when I entered high school. You’d think it would offer a healthy reprieve from the consciousness I held that was causing me suffering. Instead, I resisted.
I wanted to continue being top of the class, but how could I be top of the class when there was no award ceremony or public announcement to honor those that performed the best academically? I was forced to focus on performing MY best without competition as the driving force; the driving force had to come from within. At the time, I couldn’t see how this would benefit my well-being and personal growth, and instead felt that the “fun” was taken out of the equation because I could no longer dominate.
I felt a bit shortchanged by not having a typical high school prom. After all, it would’ve been the perfect opportunity to showboat and see who could outdo who (with my striving to come out on top, of course).
I remember complaining to my advisor about the school’s lack of hierarchical culture (not in those words) and expressing my desire to go to an elite college institution that promoted exceptionalism, where I’d be among the best of the best. She responded with a reminder of G.S. values where “every soul is sacred and worthy of respect,” but in true Quaker fashion, didn’t force it down my throat.
Although I resisted, I was still immersed in this culture 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (most weeks) and it left its imprint. My driving force had to come from within, not from where I ranked among others. Inspiration became integral. I was able to connect with people from all walks of life in a meaningful way. I was able to connect with nature, which paved the way for what has become my love affair with trees. I was more emboldened in believing in goodness in all of life.
Experiencing life without the need for hierarchy was one of most liberating, creative, enriching, powerful and happiest times in my life. It was only when I held on to hierarchy that I suffered.
And yet, that’s what I did for many years after that, going to and getting caught up in the culture of an elite, top-ranking college and working in the entertainment industry where it’s unapologetically hierarchical and hierarchist. I became embroiled in the soul-sucking endeavor of being the best, being special, being on top (of others). I couldn’t resist the lure of hierarchy if it meant that I was winning.
In the last 10 years however, I started to develop an awareness of this being one of many ways to view and experience life, and that I was enmeshed in this particular consciousness. I started to see how this idea of there being a hierarchical order to life compromised my personal growth and well-being. I started to see how it caused suffering, being out of alignment with my true nature and the truth of we are one, and thus, real power that we all hold within. And more recently, I started to see the many factors–people, places and experiences–that fostered a sense in me of there being a consciousness that was more expansive, harmonious, loving and aligned with my truth, the truth.
When I went back to G.S. after nearly 20 years, I was deeply moved by the realization it was no accident I chose to immerse myself in a culture that challenged a limiting consciousness to which I was loyal. In my mind at the time of choosing to go to G.S., I was intrigued by the idea of going to boarding school, of independence, and having a college experience at the tender age of 14; I thought it was interesting and that it would look interesting, stand out as special. But I realized 20 years later that it was actually my soul’s way of having me experience a consciousness that was more aligned with my true nature and the truth.
I realized how much I resisted letting go of hierarchy, how I wasn’t ready to fully embrace this new consciousness at the time. The only way I knew to be powerful was to be exceptional, dominant, on top of the pyramid; I couldn’t comprehend there being another way to view and experience life. Since I longed for a sense of empowerment (like all of us) and held a distorted view of power, I felt the need to keep hierarchy in place, something I’d have to contend with along the path of embodying a new consciousness, the truth.
I also realized that while I can still hold on to hierarchy and vacillate between the old and new consciousness, I’ve been making my way back “home,” making a conscious commitment toward embodying this new vision of and approach to life that’s more aligned with the truth. This coming full circle struck me precisely as I stood in the Meetinghouse after 20 years. What I’ve come to know and embrace as my truth, the truth, and the several values and practices that keep me aligned with it, were rooted in this place. And I was destined to this place to make my way back home.