As with most human attributes, the values you espouse as an adult are molded primarily by your experiences as a child. But once the mold is cast, can it be altered, rigid as it is? I believe the relentless offensive of time mandates that it must be.
Before I was even conceived I had already won the lottery. I had caring parents who lived in a safe town with a quality school system and all of its subsequent benefits. With them guiding me as best as they possibly could, I played by the rules, docilely following the well-illuminated path to success as set down before children of my background. In this incubator of constant achievement and rare misfortune dissent wasn’t discouraged. It just didn’t occur to us to examine ourselves when everything was so fine.
Paradoxically, college underscored both acceptance and rejection of the status quo to which I had so grown so accustomed. On one side I was surrounded by classmates who had embraced – often far stronger than I had witnessed at home – all the universal truths I had grown up taking for granted: general righteousness of government, invulnerability of religious expression, entitlement to quality employment, and practical apathy towards all but the most personally-affecting issues.
On the other side I had professors, books and peers arguing – frequently demonstrating, in fact – that the above beliefs were anything but self-evident. Wide-eyed as I might have been, it didn’t escape me that these classmates were often quite different in geographic origin, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ideology or music taste than those I had grown up with not questioning in the least our inherited dispositions. And while surely some of these teachers and classmates were only posing, disingenuously expressing indignation or judgment for its own sake, the novelty of their ideas forced me to at least contemplate them.
I can’t point out with triumphant certainty the moment that I began challenging much of what I had long taken for granted and stopped accepting without qualification whatever I’d been told. There was no epiphany. I can only theorize that as I began stepping out of my predictable routine more and more, I was constantly confronted with a picture different than the one painted by my peers, the government, the news media, or myself.
The summer before my junior year in school, I started writing casually for my school paper. Following that I worked for an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., and volunteered when I arrived back at school. I went abroad the following semester, forgoing conventional travel hotspots for edgier locales like Morocco. The coup de grace, perhaps, was arriving in Buenos Aires just after college graduation with neither a job nor an apartment, just the will to hack it in some capacity for a year.
Six months after arriving home from South America, I believe it’s remarkable how different my worldview is now as compared to as recently as two or three years ago. I’ve come to examine almost every aspect of life – institutions, motivations and the like – that I had once lazily dismissed as unquestionably normal, and even more curiously, right.
Not that I’ve radically altered my views, or disregard my ever-present naïveté. But all of these processes are slowly chipping away at the façade that has long colored my field of vision. And so goes it, on and on, hopefully up until the day that I die. For what is enlightenment but simply the conscious accumulation of experience?
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