A Wanderer Looks at 30: Unabridged

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. If you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”

— Stephen Hawking

I’m excited to celebrate the 100th post on this site with a meandering on life as I reach an age milestone that I find quite significant. I’ve learned a lot during my walk on this earth, yet I know very little. Yes, it’s cliche to say that the more I learn, the more I discover how much I have to learn, but it’s absolutely true.  And to that end, most of what I’ve learned are perspectives, ideas, and truths that other much greater minds have realized during their journeys. So instead of attempting to arrogantly develop my own philosophy, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on this statement from Stephen Hawking, one of the most powerful minds of our time.

Part 1: Never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. I think that we too often mistake work for a four-letter, stress causing word.  It’s something we do to get through to the weekend, to earn a paycheck. We too often forget that work is an experience that offers value to our identity and our time in this world. I also believe that because my generation has been told again and again, “do something you love for your career and you’ll never work a day in your life,” that we feel entitled to that dream job the moment we graduate from college, and we become easily frustrated by anything that doesn’t meet our high standard.

Both ends of this spectrum lock us into an unforgiving paradigm paralysis during our twenties; we’re always searching for something “better” while we begrudgingly whittle away at the jobs we’ve found, earned, or negotiated our way into with much effort. Either side of the continuum we find ourselves in, stress or despair, I think we might be missing Hawking’s message:

Work is your service to our global community.  Work is your time to think hard about the world and the positive affect you can have on it, and then going out and having that affect. Work in this case might not mean what you’re doing from 9 to 5, it might instead mean you stay up an extra hour at night to complete an important project for a nonprofit you volunteer for, or it might mean you turn off the T.V. for three hours during the weekend to help build the community in which you live, or it might mean you skip happy hour a couple times a month to pursue your passion, paid or unpaid, recognized or ignored.

Now it doesn’t mean that this type of work comes without stress or despair. We will most certainly feel anxiety for our attempts to make an impact on this world, and we will most certainly continually hope for a better way to make that impact. But this new understanding of work from Stephen Hawking refocuses our energy towards more productive and more meaningful pursuits. Work becomes on-going, consistent, diligent, and done with both compassion and passion, no matter what stands in your way. Imagine the limited understanding of our universe we would have if Stephen Hawking didn’t wake up everyday and work.

To any doubters, or to anyone struggling with this rethinking, remember one of the greatest advertising campaign slogans, “Just Do It.” Hawking offers further and more poetic motivation, “however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.  It matters that you don’t just give up.” Our perseverance, persistence and courage will see us through.

Part 2: If you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away. Once again, I want to expand our concept of love.  I am most certainly blessed to be married to Lindsay and to become the father of our baby in 2014 (the greatest 30th birthday present I could ever receive). But I think Stephen Hawking might agree that love goes beyond this lifelong partnership.  Love is found in our families, in our friendships, in our communities, and in a deeply interconnected way, through the whole universe.

In a speech I heard by Desmond Tutu, he unpacked the word Ubuntu. In a rough translation, Ubuntu means, “I am, because you are.” Take a moment to contemplate that statement.  How often do we view ourselves as isolated, autonomous beings?

More often than I want to admit to myself. Sure, I’ll talk a big game about community and interconnection, but at the end of the day, I brush my teeth for myself, I go to work and earn a paycheck for myself, I drive my car from point A to point B to get myself somewhere I want to be, I buy groceries for myself, and I drink a beer or two to relax myself. Every single one of these things is a seemingly selfish act, but when we look deeper at all of our “autonomous” moments, each of them has, and can have, a profound impact on our fellow human beings.

Every great religious prophet, from Buddha to Christ has asked us to consider our neighbor in all of our actions.  Wandering through the 100 acres forest, Winnie the Pooh learned again and again that he was nothing without Piglet, Rabbit, and Tiger, too. Even Holden Caufield and Leopold Bloom attempted to carry the weight of the novel world on their 20th century backs, but they discovered in the end that they could not, and should not, be alone. Somehow Mack, drinking moonshine and waxing philosophically on Cannery Row found the power of community early on in life, and despite his constant trespasses, he held it up higher than any material or worldly possession.

If I am because you are, than you are because I am.  I must therefore be thankful everyday for your presence in my life, and I must recognize that I also have a great responsibility for your life. Whether that “you” is a dear friend, a colleague, a stranger I pass on the freeway, or a child sitting in China that will one day meltdown the computer from which I write this diatribe if I don’t find a more just way to properly dispose of it, I am thankful for you and I pledge to honor my end of the bargain as best I can.

The plea then arrives that before we even begin to work, we must consider and cherish and return the love we have in our lives.  I’ll make the confession that I often don’t show the love I have for everyone in my life: quite simply, I suck at returning phone calls. Our twenties have taken my friends to every corner of this country.  We have moved away from dear family and lifelong friends, but nothing is more important than our community. If we must find a portion of our community through emails, Facebook, text messages, or a cell phone glued to our ear for an hour a day, than so be it.

By all means, find community and love in your home, in your neighborhood, in the brewpub down the street, at work, on the other side of the globe. And as it was said, when you find that community and love, do not throw it away. . . instead, cherish and serve it with every ounce of your being.

Part 3: Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Stephen Hawking goes on to say, “Try to make sense of what you see, and always wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” Hawking’s call to wonder strikes a resonant chord in my being.

I am often asked about the nature of the course I teach on Creative Leadership. In brief, I am attempting to help students discover again this remarkable sense of curiosity we possessed as children, but that has been systematically removed from our lives by standardized tests, coloring between the lines, and a culture that undervalues creative pursuits and the strange answer.

I spend a semester reminding students to ask questions, to observe their world, to look at challenges and opportunities and belief systems from new perspectives. In truth, all I am asking them to do for eleven weeks, and a letter grade later, is to look up at the stars and imagine. To think for a moment about the grand cosmos in which we are spinning, and how miraculous and magical it is that as tiny little specs, we exist at all. To meditate for a moment on the mysteries of life and the gift of every dawn.

For a moment, I ask students to consider a world where Václav Havel didn’t lead the Velvet Revolution, a world where Sojourner Truth didn’t stand up against all odds and fight slavery, where Rhasan Roland Kirk, a blind jazz musician, didn’t take to the stage and play three different instruments at once, a world where Steinbeck didn’t pen the opening paragraph to Cannery Row, where Ed Abbey didn’t monkey wrench, and where Julia Butterfly Hill doesn’t climb trees, a world where U2 didn’t blast Bloody Sunday with resounding triumph or where Macklemore didn’t record Same Love, or a world that succeeded in stopping Martin Luther King’s dream, Cesar Chavez’s protests, or Rigoberta Menchú’s testifying for the plight of indigenous people. And finally,  I ask students to consider a world that failed to give the N-Peace Awards in October of just last year to eight very deserving female human rights activists.

The resounding conclusion is that such a world does not exist. The human spirit fights everyday to keep us from Desolation Row, because the Times are Changing. The availability and the possibility of imagination from compassionate indignation will always win over the forces of oppression and enslavement of the mind.

In the Creative Leadership course, I then ask students to think of five people in their lives with dreams and imaginations and talents just as strong as the well-known heroes described above. In my life, I feel blessed that I can easily think of dozens. Do all these people work? Indeed. With blood, sweat, and tears.  Do they all love? To a near unfathomable amount they love(d) their fellow human beings. Are they curious? Filled with excitement and passion for life? Of the most powerful kind.

I started this, “A Wanderer Looks at 30” series by proclaiming that I would not come to a philosophy of my own, but that I would instead reflect on the words of Stephen Hawking.  After my three-part rambling on his eloquent quote, it’s even clearer to me that his three guiding truths for life, (love and don’t let go, work and let it bring you meaning, look up at the stars and wonder), are ancient wisdoms we should and must live to fulfill.

But what does this mean for us as we head into our thirties?  Where do we begin, or maybe continue, the path of work, love, and imagination?  To put it succinctly, in the words that I heard from the president of my university on the first day of college, we must start by “dreaming big,” for ourselves, and our world. Then, we must go out and live those dreams fearlessly, with a wild will to wander.

Ubuntu, from you’re friend and brother,


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About mlgray

Heading out on adventures, building community, eating delicious cuisines, supporting the local food movement and enjoying walks in the wild . . . grateful to be wandering in the world with you.
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