I never decided to be a rebel.
Indeed, until my late 20s, I seemed anything but. An A-student from the day I started school, I was also a Boy Scout for years and, throughout my childhood, probably missed no more than half a dozen Sunday services at my church, on top of youth groups and other meetings. When I became a high school teacher after college, I can’t imagine anyone was surprised.
No, I saved the surprises for my 30s and 40s, as my second career made me a passionate advocate for Sudbury schooling, and more recently as I’ve taken a longstanding, bookish interest in Zen and developed it into a serious, daily practice.
Elsewhere in this blog I’ve explored the challenges of straying from the herd and swimming against the cultural mainstream in both my profession and my spirituality. Certainly the hazards of zealousness, defensiveness and isolation, as well as the sheer exhaustion of perpetually being different, have at various times taken their toll.
Today, however, I want to focus on how this state of affairs came about. If, as I declared above, I never consciously chose an unorthodox path, how is it that I find myself so frequently in one niche or another? Just how did I transform myself from altar boy to gadfly?
The way I see it, there’s a conundrum at the heart of this question. On the one hand, I don’t think we can choose what we believe, or love, or want. At this point in my life, I most certainly cannot decide that I am going to adopt conventional beliefs regarding education or religion. Even if I wanted to, I cannot force myself to perceive reality through lenses which no longer make sense to me, even when this poses difficulties for myself or those close to me.
Even if I didn’t consciously choose an unconventional path, I could not have been a strictly passive observer on my journey toward the unorthodox. At various points I was surely aware that some kind of movement was occurring, uncertainty and restlessness heralding a transition into the unknown. And no doubt decisions I made helped influence these shifting circumstances: not simply the obvious and major departures from familiar patterns (like no longer attending church), but also decisions that seemed trivial or innocuous at the time (like taking a friend’s advice to check out an unusual school’s website).
My layman’s understanding of karma offers an account for this sort of process. We inherit and encounter certain conditions, and our willful actions and decisions chart a course from there. Perhaps, to the extent that we drive our own lives, the process can be likened to steering a massive ocean liner or tanker, blindly, at night. We can’t really see where we’re going, and it takes an awfully long time for turns of the wheel to send us in a new direction.
In my own life, there’s no doubt that going to college in Chicago, after growing up in a small Missouri town, opened up entirely new and larger horizons. At the time, I knew that I wanted to “get out of Dodge,” yet how could I have known where that would take me? Later, seeing what conventional education is like on the other side of the teacher’s desk—no longer being a teacher’s pet, but a teacher—was likewise a major eye-opener.
And these are only the obvious, large-scale influences. People I’ve met, places I’ve gone, jobs I’ve found, books I’ve read: who’s to say what tiny, random juxtapositions exerted an outsized influence later on? I suspect I’m not along in this subconscious questing. Back in the 80s, David Byrne warned that “you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” When Neo took the red pill in The Matrix, he learned that some things can’t be unlearned, that certain steps can’t be undone.
And yet I have no regrets for this transformation from orthodox to un-. Like the speaker of Frost’s famous poem, I believe to my very core that these roads less taken have made all the difference. Or to cite a more contemporary oracle, Steve Jobs…
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
Of course, this is but the tip of the avant-garde iceberg. I have a long way to go yet before I can fully comprehend the path I’m on or explain it adequately. But I think there is in this a story worth telling, and if you see ways in which it might be fleshed out or developed, I’d be grateful for your feedback.