I was sitting at an outdoor table on the 7th floor of our high school grounds – the Penthouse suite view, I mentioned to a passing colleague. After a dismally dark and rainy Sunday, I was cheered by the sun, as it began breaking through the fog on this first day of the new week. Grey began to give way to a swirling promise of greens and blues and whites. I was taken by the view.
It was an inspiring setting to consider tomorrow’s lesson plan for my Humanities I in Action class. We were beginning our study of the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, asking the question, “What is the guiding story of human civilization?” Overlooking the campus, a question came to mind for the students’ homework, “What in your opinion is the collective purpose of humankind?” To make it memorable, the assignment went on, reduce this message to a bumper sticker slogan like, “I have a dream”, “Just do it!” or “Make America Great Again.”
And so I paused, what do I think is the collective purpose of humankind? The burgeoning radiance broke through, illuminating our campus centerpiece, a yin-yang island of water, rough stone, and bamboo grove. The idyllic scene breaking out in front of me brought to mind a dear friend and I felt the need to share this small gift of beauty. Snap, snap – and off went the image of bounty through cyberspace. And now back to the question, I thought: what is the collective purpose of humankind? And just as easy as the photo snap, up came the answer: to make love manifest. Like sunlight melting through the fog, this simple truth came not from some great intellectual struggle, but somehow emerged effortlessly from the chest. Yes, make love manifest.
Perhaps this timeless message came from events in time, both before and after. I recently saw “Lalaland,” twice at the theaters and once on a plane. I’d heard its critiques – Hollywood in love with itself; its genre confusion as either a musical or a drama; solipsism in suggesting that stars shine just for these two. But for me, as Ryan Gosling said in an interview (0:52), I was taken by its joy from the start. It was about love breaking through, despite the self-focus of careers, the interruptions of moving to Paris to become a star, or commitments to family. As Mia and Sebastian sing earlier in the film: “Just one thing everyone wants . . . Yes, love, Yes, all we’re looking for from someone else. A rush, a glance, a touch, a dance . . . . Cause all that I need is this crazy feeling, rat-tat-tat on my heart.” Love seemed to have disappeared until a chance meeting fully manifested that which had been there all along in their final, wordless extended look.
Or maybe I got this message from another Oscar award-winning film. Just as Mia and Sebastian never forgot, neither did Chiron and Kevin in “Moonlight.” Raised in the drug-infested, poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Miama with an abusive mother, the painfully introspective Chiron had only one moment of genuine mutual intimacy in his adolescence – with a schoolmate, Kevin, who later betrayed him. Yet years later that one memory brought the two together in the final tender scene: the one thing everyone wants, which can redeem a human life.
Or maybe it was walking across a street in Causeway Bay later that afternoon. Heading for a late afternoon walk in Victoria Park, I met the gaze of middle-aged woman of South Asian descent who somehow looked both distinctly and distantly familiar. Stopping mid-street, she asked, “Mr Schmidt?” “Hi . . . is it . . . Mariam?” Mariam graduated from HKIS 22 years ago and I hadn’t seen her since. “I saw you on CNN last week,” she said, “but how did you recognize me?” I explained simply, “Graduates flow in and out of our minds – and I had wondered every once in a while, what ever happened to you?” I didn’t tell her that I thought I had glimpsed her more than once walking through Hong Kong streets – the strange memories of teachers on their off hours. We couldn’t remember whether we had had classes together (religion, we think) or Interim (probably the Pattaya trip in 1993), but somehow those long-forgotten experiences had left an indelible energetic impression. Pausing for a sustained conversation on the side of a major thoroughfare in Causeway Bay, I couldn’t help but think that this happenstance encounter was an actual illustration of the morning insight: some long latent energy had been brought into form.
So, I went into my Humanities I in Action the next morning to ask students their opinion on humankind’s collective purpose. They held up an array of bumper sticker messages on slips of paper: Humans For a Difference; To Create, Explore and Innovate; Protect All Other Species; Give to the Universe. But in our discussion another idea emerged, the most compelling answer that carried the day: there is no collective human purpose. To these young students who spend year after year studying in science courses in which spirit or consciousness play no role in the curriculum, who live in a media-saturated world of endless entertainment, it would of course be a courageous leap to intuit something more. (Hurray to the one student who commented: “Spread love and compassion. That’s why I signed up for Humanities I in Action.”) I gave nothing away in my managing of the discussion of my previous day’s insights, but inside my heart was sad. How tragic that students, some of whom undoubtedly have high values of love for family, friends, and even God, cannot even contemplate that their inner knowing may have something to contribute to the conversation and instead are persuaded by the dominant post-modern narrative of purposelessness.In what story do I trust, the one of a random universe that evolved to the point that I can existentially choose a narrative of meaning or meaninglessness, or do I trust a moment of intuition that seems verified in not only our collective dream life of Hollywood movies, but more importantly in my own personal experiences? What do I believe? As historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg has pointed out, “believe” comes from the German belieben, which means “to prize, treasure, or hold dear,” and is related to Liebe, or love. Contrary to the training of my formative years, my belief is not some intellectual assent, but rather that which the heart holds most dear. A secret was unveiled, a more vibrant world glimpsed, a message received: make love manifest.