Hacking at the Root

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

~ Henry David Thoreau

Blogging often seems to me the height of hubris or faith. What a series of assumptions are required to continue this silly activity, flinging words at the digital void: the belief that I have something worth saying; that my words will find an audience; that I might somehow parlay my ramblings into sustainable work.

Yet I persist because some part of me knows, deeper than knowing, that if there is such a thing as a calling or vocation, mine lies in the direction of word-driven windmill-tilting, an adolescent’s passionate idealism persisting into middle age. As you know (if know me at all), my primary professional passion is Sudbury schooling, a way of revolutionizing and humanizing education to become truly empowering and aligned with how people learn.

Even so, I sometimes wonder whether I’m tilting at the right windmills. As deeply as I believe in Sudbury, would my energies be better directed at something like climate change? After all, if we no longer have a planet (or one on which life as we know it is sustainable), what will it matter how our children are educated? What about political issues like campaign finance reform? (If the system is broken, how can anyone advancing real reform hope to succeed on a broad scale?) Poverty, violence, disease, overpopulation…there’s no shortage of potential windmills, worthy causes greatly in need of support.

In my more mindful moments, I realize that what’s more pressing than any particular issue is the overall level of consciousness in the population at large. In other words, the fundamental problem is not this or that issue, but the fact that far too many of us are either oblivious to real suffering or believe there’s nothing much we can do about it. This is one reason Zen holds so much appeal for me, as a means of developing mindfulness and compassion. This is why I often wonder whether I should give up what I’m doing and immerse myself in efforts to wake myself and others.

But regardless of whether I pursue Zen, or education reform, or political or ecological activism (or some combination of these causes), the real question—the ongoing thorn in my side, a relentless source of confusion and anxiety—remains how to make this work; how to find worthwhile employment that also pays the bills, that doesn’t require me to live like an ascetic monk for the rest of my life.

In other words, where’s the money? My needs are relatively modest, yet at the advanced age of 46 I still struggle to figure out how to generate a liveable, sustainable income from work in which I deeply believe.

Case in point: I know, even my humblest, most self-deprecating moments, that I have some talent at wordsmithing. Yet the fundamental confusion persists: how do I go about pursuing my passion effectively? How do I find enough freelancing clients and non-ridiculous jobs to make ends meet? Should I spend more time marketing my children’s books? Should I put together a proposal (or three) for books on Zen and education? (Talk about hubris: I’m still very much a Zen novice, and how could I expect to get noticed among the myriad voices clamoring over the state of education?)

Getting back to that point of knowing-deeper-than-knowing, I truly believe that passion is the place to begin. I can’t know my destination or even the best path to it. But I think I can figure out where I currently stand, and in what direction to take the first, halting steps. As a writer, I could do worse than remember the metaphor I share with my writing students: that before you can sculpt, you must first generate a lot of clay; spew words now, wait till later to craft them into a beautiful statue.

And so I continue to blog, to throw words into the void, to keep hacking at that root. Not knowing what I’m doing, I still sense that I’m doing what I must. After all, there’s another lesson I’ve learned from years of writing: that you usually don’t know what you’re trying to say until you put yourself through the hard work of actually saying it.

You just watch: I will discover how to simultaneously make a difference and earn enough to live a good life. And by all means,  please share whatever advice, suggestions, and moral support you can, either in the comment thread below or in a private message. This quest is uniquely mine, but I can’t do it alone.

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