He was one of my first teachers in college. The class was Philosophy 004. He would teach me Plato’s Theory of Ideas and Aristotle’s Golden Mean. There were side journeys through Nietzsche and Heidegger, but Plato and Aristotle are the ones who stuck best.
I was not a traditional student. I was 32 years old, newly divorced. Juggling five children, a part-time job, and a full-time class schedule.
He had come to our small campus via the larger university and, before that, received an ivy league undergrad degree. He had been a prodigy.
He taught me Aristotle’s understanding of the three kinds of life people can lead. How we can get caught up in the vulgar or entangled in the political. But that the happiest life to lead is a contemplative one.
It is truly the life of a philosopher. It is also the life of a teacher or a mother, anyone who chooses it. And though he did not believe, it is the life of every Christian.
Aristotle said there is no guarantee of a happy life. Bad things can happen to anyone. But the only life that has any chance of happiness is one of contemplation.
Contemplation looks for meaning. It seeks the important. It pursues excellence. It looks for good.
And there is no meaning, nothing important, no excellence, nothing good, if we are not connected to other people. We choose contemplation. And we choose connection. The depth of connection determines the geography of our life journey.
Sheldon Vanauken, in his book A Severe Mercy, chose his life landscape: “Still, he thought, looking out across the meadow, still, the joy would be worth the pain– if indeed, they went together. If there were a choice– and he suspected there was– a choice between, on the one hand, the heights and the depths and, on the other hand, some sort of safe, cautious middle way, he, for one, here and now chose the heights and the depths.”
So my teacher taught me, and I take the lessons he gave me and pass them on. He still teaches because I teach still.
I invite others to leave a cave of shadows, to grasp reality with both hands. To seek the mountaintops. But not remain there. To remain is to stand still. To stand still ends pursuit.
We move from mountain to valley. Not back and forth. Forward. Always forward. And make our way through the valleys. We climb and fall and climb again.
I have lost my teacher, my friend, my colleague. This man so different from me, yet he never failed to encourage me. My life road went a different direction from his. Yet he cheered me on my way.
“The most crushing lie that a life can hang onto is that we are supposed to avoid suffering, avoid loss, avoid anything that breaks,” Ann Voskamp (176).
Life is short. We say that more often than we mean it. Life is filled with hills and valleys. We remember that every time we stand in a new low place. But the journey is best when we choose the heights and depths. All else is an empty cautious middle.
In a valley, having lost a friend, I raise my eyes toward the mountains. My journey is richer because our paths crossed.
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