When someone says to lead a more meaningful life, you probably begin having images of gnostic, grandiose pursuits — traveling to a distant monastery to uncover your hidden vocation, composing a Gesamtkunstwerk that touches the sublime, or simply forking over $5,000 for a week at Burning Man. Dreams of utopia and escapism are important, no doubt, but in our searches for meaning we mustn’t miss the inexhaustible treasuries right under our noses.
I’ve visited Kenyon since graduating — something which some of you will never do, some of you will do too much, but all of you should do once. During that trip, as I was seeing old faces, pausing before maudlin hotspots, and looking at an environment in which I no longer belonged, I decided by midday it was time to retreat and go for a walk.
A friend joined me, and before long we found ourselves trekking the empty Gambier side roads. Partway through, my friend stopped, pointed me left, and, entranced, we watched a young horse in full stride. After making a full lap around the enclosure, the horse galloped toward us, came to the fence and rested. We stood there until, unexpectedly, we heard a yell, to “stop where we were” by the landowner. My friend and I began asking each other whether we should start walking the other way, but miraculously, we stayed and listened.
It turned out the landowner was afraid we were feeding the horse with our food. That’s what typically happens, she told us, whenever the horses mingle close to the road, and it has gotten them sick in the past. We assured her this wasn’t the case, and, in an instant, the landowner went from combative to friendly. She told us how long it had been since she had talked with Kenyon students, about how her main interactions were periodically yelling at trespassing ones from afar and how, living alone for some time, she missed the relationships she once shared with them. Until recently, students used to stop by her farm, sometimes to help tend to the animals, other times simply to chat.
She was a fascinating person, and had our meeting happened two years sooner she might have been a lifelong friend. However, in this lifetime, on this visit day, I was obliged to meet with others still. After a long conversation, she invited us over for tea. We turned her down. Upon leaving, I knew I should have taken up the offer, and reflecting today, I still wish I had.
We don’t need to transform our lives radically to make them worth living; relationships and communities provide this and more. Relationships and communities are where people come to feel like they are valued and matter. They are where people come to treat others like they are valued and matter. Before the walk, I was having a lousy day. And who knows — maybe something bad was happening in the landowner’s life at that time, too. Had my friend and I fled the scene or closed our minds instead of listening, I would have distrusted a harmless person instead of forming a memory that will remain with me forever, and the landowner might have felt even more like a stranger in her hometown.
So whether you are penning that Collegian op-ed critiquing whoever’s theory of politics, founding a new community crocheting circle at the bookstore, or waiting in line at Kroger, don’t forget: look others in the eye.
Daniel Semelsberger ’16 was an economics, political science and philosophy major and a math, public policy and IPHS minor. He now lives in Washington D.C. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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