I recently reviewed the memoir of a friend and former student who, at the tender age of 24, is a poet, teacher, and retired cage fighter. His yet-to-be-published memoir, Caged, focuses on the traps in which he’s found himself, and the way out of those traps. Late last night, when I should have been sleeping, I recognized a trap he had failed to identify. It applies equally to me. It’s the service trap.
This example, though, is from Cameron Conaway, former poet in residence at the University of Arizona’s renowned poetry center. He shows up as scheduled at a nearby Indian reservation, prepared to teach creative writing to elementary-school kids. The teacher forgot he was coming, so she sent him away. Most reasonable people would have pocketed the money and gone back home. Not Cameron. He wandered the campus, poking his head into various classrooms, asking how he could help. After a few attempts, the special-education teacher let him teach geometry.
This is a minor example in an exemplary life, a life filled with service to others. What combination of DNA and personal history allowed — nay, required — Cameron to pursue a life of service? As I’ve indicated previously, Cameron is plagued, like to the rest of us, by the near absence of free will (which is not to be confused with absence of choice). But how did he get there? How did any of us?
The odds against any one of us being on this most wondrous of planets exceed the odds of being a single atom plucked from the entire universe. To quote the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, “In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I that are privileged to be here, privileged with eyes to see where we are and brains to wonder why.” Combine our inherent uniqueness with our one-of-a-kind personal history, and I daresay it’d be impossible to ascertain how any of us ends up doing what we’re doing.
It is clear that some of us are committed to lives of service, and others are not. I’m sure social scientists have identified myriad patterns to justify our quirky lives, without actually explaining them, much less identifying mechanisms underlying them. And that’s just as well, given the magnitude of the task. I’d rather we spend our considerable cognitive surplus on other issues. Consider, for example, how much time we spend tweeting. And then trying to determine if twittering counts at literature. (If you think twit lit is, well, literature, I think you’re an idiot. But I digress.) Never mind who’s drinking which brand of beer in the White House. We’re so absorbed with television and the Internet and who’s screwing whom in the world of celebrities, we can’t bother to focus on the inordinate suffering we’re causing, to humans and other animals. Sixth Great Extinction, including our own species? Whatev. Solving those problems will simply have to wait until after I get a tattoo proclaiming my independence from mainstream culture.
Better days lie ahead. How could they not?
Thanks to CJ for the cognitive surplus link.