I often think to myself, Maybe this doesn’t make any sense.
You may ask what “this” refers to. “This” can be a lot of things. My career, my goals, how I see the next ten years of my life unfolding, how I plan to use my time, how I currently use my time, what I wish I could get more involved in, what I think should happen in my life, what is happening in my life. The list goes on.
Over the years, I have drawn a parallel between how I see the trajectory of my life and what I believe would be the most logical way to compose its course. I have viewed my education, and the experiences that surround it, as an entity that requires a clear, set path. I worry that my studies don’t necessarily align with my long-term goals, like one day maybe owning a business or having a family. I have muddled the idea of freedom in my education with a belief that my future has to be practical or “make sense.” I have put school in one category of learning and everything else, like volunteering or social events, in another.
It has taken some time to unravel such a view of things.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to study at Oxford and during my time abroad, I experienced a taste of what it was like to move my education outside of its usual constraints. I met many different students, with different interests, dreams and passions. I went into the program thinking: as an English major, studying at an institution such as this one, with faculty of such value, I will be able to further engage in my study of literature, and better understand its place in my education.
Many of those initial hopes did come to fruition, but not in a conventional way. The experience of learning in a new place, with new people, taught me more than anything out of a book or lecture. When you are thrown into an entirely new setting and forced to adapt, you learn the most about yourself. I don’t mean to project this in some cliché form of traveling abroad to “find myself.” I mean that while you are abroad, surrounded by new people, you start to see the way you view your life outside of its usual structures. When those boundaries blurred a bit, what I found was invaluable.
In class, I saw the differences that bring students together to study a certain author or text. We came at it from different angles, yet we found commonalities across what moved us and why. I took a course on the Inklings, a group of writers who met as a weekly literary group in Magdalen College. Among them were C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams.
Some students loved “The Lord of the Rings,” some were fascinated by Lewis’s religious writings and others were particularly interested in each writer’s ties to Oxford and their lasting legacy.
The Inklings met to discuss their writings, their lives, ideas and dreams. These writers moved learning into a category of living. That is what I believe my experience was. Beyond sitting in a classroom and reading the texts of these writers, we found that the learning was woven through every experience. I learned the most about people and their lives while sitting on the lawn before dinner, or riding on a bus to an excursion. Yes, many of us had similar interests in literature, but my love for Lewis was vastly different than others’ interest in Tolkien, or love for fantasy. We learned from one another because of these differences.
Our education stretches far beyond the limits of a course or field of study. What I saw before as a failure in finding a clear path to my future, I now recognize needs to be reordered. There is no such thing as one way to learn, or one way to follow a passion. However, there is one way to miss it. We can remain too limited in what we know or what we have grown used to. That makes us unable to see our need for something new.
When Tolkien and Lewis met among the other Inklings, they didn’t just sit and confirm what they already believed to be true. They pushed against their views of fantasy, religion, romance and language. By studying the way these writers engaged with each other and challenged each other, I feel I need to implement these habits in my own educational experience. The Inklings saw one another as teachers, and greatly valued every opinion about their work. The fellowship of this group encourages me to consider who I surround myself with, and how willing I am to learn from them.
We become comfortable — and remain fixed — in a lifestyle that makes sense to us, or aligns with our goals. But we need things to disrupt our positions. We need people to question why we believe what we believe, or love what we love. It is only in those moments that we can firmly hold onto the very ideals we build our lives upon. While surrounded by so many people, you cling to common interests, and possibly diverge on certain principles. But through the common thread of accepting the experience, you are forced to grow.
In reflection of his time with the Inklings, Lewis once wrote, “What I owe to them all is incalculable.” Use those around you to grow and learn, and allow the views that challenge your own to teach you more about yourself. Dismissing such an opportunity for the sake of comfort robs you of plenty. Once you abandon the rigid track you feel you must follow and look outside of it — you’ll likely find your path more transparent than ever before.