The complications of a busy life conspired to thwart my plans to attend my twentieth college reunion. When I didn’t appear at the appointed tent, a classmate of mine texted a where r u, because Professor Chatfield was asking. Jack Chatfield is my most beloved history professor who had embodied all of the things I most treasured about my college years. This man, my academic hero, had been in declining health for several years, and I had come to understand, through other mutual acquaintances, that he was too ill to visit. “Not so,” texted my friend in Hartford, “I am with him now, and he misses you.” Immediately, we hatched a plan, and last fall, I set foot on the Trinity College campus for the first time in nineteen years.
I have spent almost a year trying to order my thoughts about that weekend. They are complicated. The weekend was exhilarating, devastating, reassuring, shattering, and far too brief. It included a visit with my professor I will never forget, time spent with a new friend, a moving memorial for a man I did not know, boozy carousing with two of my closest college friends, and a very disturbing introduction to a man whose life was in free-fall.
This post will not tackle any of the above. What brings me to my keyboard today is the word meaning, as in something that is important or worthwhile, with purpose.
When people find out I was a History major in college, a modern American diplomatic history major to be specific, they laugh. I do not begrudge them that response; I laugh too. When you look at what I do each day, it does indeed sound ridiculous that I once dedicated so much time, effort, care, and passion toward a discipline and topic that is very remote from anything I do these days. While I could proceed on a tangent about the value and versatility of history as a discipline, I will spare you from that. Nonetheless, I can still recall the energy, the sense of calling, and the satisfaction I felt studying these topics in college. Almost all of that grew out of the benevolent, productive, patient guidance of my professor, who imparted such palpable relevance to the events we discussed that they seemed every bit as vital, if not more so, than the contemporary world around us.
As one unraveled the events and motives and assumptions of the past, the dense web of connections between the people of centuries ago and of today caught the light of first recognition and glittered in a way that maybe only a twenty year old can see. Revealing the swift flowing continuum that connects us to our forebears filled me with curiosity. Seeing current events react to forces unleashed long ago changed my sense of time, giving me my first sense of how immediate the past can be. The lectures and discussions and readings from those days fired my mind, and filled me with a sense I did not bother to name then, but which I can clearly label now as meaning.
I did not pursue my history studies out of any conscious search for meaning. I pursued them because I found them captivating. I believed then – as I was raised to believe – that the pursuit of that feeling would lead to the sort of excellence and drive that would lead me to a calling. I studied history as an undergraduate with no proper sense of where that might lead, and when I closed in on graduation, I found two paths before me – academia and the law. My gut told me the last thing the world needed was another lawyer, and I knew too few lawyers to understand just how diverse that profession can be. My gut also told me that I would never teach at the caliber of my beloved professor, and I knew too few teachers (as peers) to understand how many different ways there are to be an effective teacher. So I turned my back on these things that so excited me, and sought meaning elsewhere.
Let me note the meaning I am pondering is professional and intellectual meaning. I have been deeply fortunate and truly blessed to find genuine happiness and meaning with a wonderful wife and a terrific family, and I would be lost without them. I am solely addressing meaning in a work setting as I turn these thoughts over. We live in a world where our work, our occupation is a fundamental part of our identity and self-worth. When you meet a stranger, see how long you can speak with them before one of you asks some variation of “what do you do?” Society admires people whose work has true meaning, and it also admires people who find meaning in their work. Most of us were raised to pursue meaningful endeavors, and most of us raise children who we steer towards a life in pursuit of meaning.
I have now been out of college for more than two decades. I’ve worked miserable hourly jobs, I’ve worked poorly paid internships, I’ve worked some small independent side jobs, and I have had a series of related jobs that string together to form a career. I’ve been good at some of the things I have done, and I have even been better at them than any of my colleagues, which fosters a rewarding sense of true contribution.
Curiously, the work I do does not build on any of the talents I consider to be my best skills. In fact, I have been moving further and further away from them over time, like an unmoored ship borne by the tide away from where it is meant to be. These days I am a statistician, and I am certain that any of my math teachers would have placed big bets against my ever finding employment tied to my quantitative abilities. Strangely enough, I am a solid statistician, but I bet you can guess what I do not find in that sort of work: meaning.
If this meditation has veered too far towards whining, I do not mean it to. First off, the evolutions I describe are all of my own making, outcomes from decisions made in an ignorance of my own design. Combine that with the fact that I live a fortunate, safe, happy life. It is the death of my professor that brings these things to the front of my mind. I think I have managed to forget, or maybe suppress, the vibrancy of what I felt as his student. Recalling his cadences, his corrections, his encouragements, and his piercing curiosity as we debated the events of the past, the vital, electric immediacy of that time together is so far removed from anything I ever find in my work these days, and that gulf alarms me.
I wonder if the passion I felt then was a function of not only the man and the material, but of my age at the time? If I somehow slipped out of my life today and returned to all those same things, would they kindle the same feelings within me now? Or has the passage of twenty years dulled my capacity to feel that? I don’t think so, I don’t want to think so, but is that a realistic assessment or simply wishful thinking? It is difficult to step back from the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other nature of life and contemplate these most fundamental issues.