As a society, we really are enamoured with power and control.On a grand scale, our leaders speak of controlling deficits and borders, our national image and crime. Closer to home, we think a lot of what it means to be in control of our lives. We worry about being manipulated or not realising all of our potential freedom. We are sometimes suspicious of others, thinking of them as possibly wanting something from us, or wanting to trap us and use us.
Sadly, this is sometimes – perhaps even often – justified. Ours a world that has become terribly materialistic and lost its sense of wonderment at the simple things: being alive, having friends and family, maybe just feeling each of your breaths. Everywhere we turn, we find ourselves being seduced, charmed and cajoled.
But these are shallow feelings. They are brittle. The seduction of the material is not a call to love, rather it is a call to control. It makes us look at others for their attributes, rather than for who they are.
I remember a story told to me by one of my students. She was a very striking young woman, who had made a career in modelling and come to university a little later than the norm, in her early twenties. We went for a long walk around McMaster’s campus, upon a sunny summer afternoon, for she was taking my evening Introduction to Communication class and had come a little early to ask me some questions about one of the assignments. She talked a lot during our walk, which must have lasted about 20 minutes. We wound our way around the campus, through the lovely flowerbeds that criss-cross the central commons, past the green houses containing the mysterious flora gathered and grown by the university’s botanists.
I didn’t say much, I just listened. For her words painted a scene of incredible depth and beauty. She spoke in broad brush strokes, since, due to the many travels afforded a successful model, her years were full of experiences, of beautiful things and vistas she had seen and touched, of people she had encountered. Her eyes shone and her pace quickened when she spoke of nature or of things crafted: the craggy cinque terra, driving through the Swedish forests, attending haute couture runway shows where the clothing told her stories of the dreams of the artists who designed them.
Her face was often shrouded when she spoke of the people she had met. She’d look down, and her voice would deepen, her words would slow. She told stories of artists, yes, who inspired her, but mostly she spoke of grasping, small people who wanted to trap her. Who didn’t speak to her, but at her. Who classed her as one of the objects in the room, to be admired, put on a pedestal or – sadly – to be put down, controlled and used. They weren’t human to her, they were wraiths who drained the young women, aspiring artists and designers around them, who are so hopeful and full of creativity and dreams, taking away the spark of life and humanity. Reducing everything to brittle image and stuff.
She told me she was happy to be back in Canada, studying at university, surrounded by people who appreciated one another a little more for who they are and what they have to say, what they can do. She loved delving into the ideas of men and women who think critically about society, media and culture; who imagine beautiful possible futures and then express them in word or art or sound. She told me that felt her heart soften and her breathing slowly deepen when she had conversations with those who revel in trying to understand the world and feel empathy for others.
Our walk ended as we came back to my office building. She said smiled, thanked me and walked off to buy a coffee to make it through the late evening lecture. Dusk had gathered up the light of the evening, and I had to take a moment to plan the three hours of lecture and discussion I would lead very shortly. As I walked up the narrow staircase to my office, and sank into my chair, putting my legs up on my desk and leafing through my notes, I realised that I forgotten to turn the lights on. I got up and flicked the switch which clicked, and my office was filled with electric light. I stood there immobile for a couple of seconds, adjusting to the sudden change in illumination. As I sat down and leaned back in my chair, I realised that my life is rich, that I am blessed to be able to share moments such as one I just had, that conversation and sharing are really at the heart of the academic life.
I felt a surge of tenderness for that young woman, who had travelled so far, experiencing so much, but who had discovered a path to truth and imagination in her own backyard. For she had reminded me of why I love college life. At its best, it is a human life; a gentle life. A life of thinking and feeling, creating and discovering. It is a journey – both into your heart and out toward society. Indeed, college life can be profoundly human.