The week of the Nobel awards always affects me similarly to the awarding of the MacArthur Fellowships. I'm filled with awe and wonder. I wonder about the people who didn't win. I'm struck by how much I don't know about the world. I feel a gnawing inadequacy.
But mostly, I'm reminded that we won't any of us be here on the planet for very long--and we need to consider how we're spending our time. We need to consider that question not just at major birthdays or once a year; if we can bear it, we should really think about that question daily.
I love that three women have won the Noble Peace Prize; I wrote about the women and the prize from a slightly spiritual angle here. I can't imagine that they've managed this feat, and they've done it in some of the darkest places in the planet. How can I possibly justify my lack of accomplishment?
Nothing I do will ever be enough for my inner 19 year old, who is convinced that I'm wasting my life, that I've sold out. In some ways, she's right. When I was 19, I intended to live in intentional communities that fought for social justice, like those founded by Jane Addams, another one of the only 12 women to win the Nobel Prize. I intended to forsake all creature comforts. I intended to change the world for the better. I wanted to do it in the big ways that people like Martin Luther King changed the world.
Now that I'm older, I realize that nothing will be enough for that inner 19 year old. I could wipe out world hunger, and she'd say, "Now, what about that problem of land mines?"
Now that I'm older, I realize that there are many ways to change the world. Even during weeks where I feel like I've done nothing that improves the world, when I look back, I realize I'm doing more than I think. For instance, in the last two weeks, even though I couldn't keep dozens of our colleagues from being RIFed, I did help solve some student problems (which included keeping at least one of them in school). I wrote two poems. I helped plan a creativity retreat. I sent some poems out into the world. I tried to calm the fears of colleagues who wonder about the safety of their jobs. I helped serve a meal to 80 people who wouldn't have had a meal otherwise, and I was part of the big shopping trip that took grant money and bought food for my church's food pantry.
I would argue that it's little steps like these that do help improve the world. We remember the Martin Luther Kings, but we forget the nameless millions who worked to transform schools, who worked to change government leaders, who envisioned a better world and went to work to make it happen.
I'm also struck by the back story of so many Nobel Prize winners and winners of other awards. This week, when hearing about the scientist who won the prize for Chemistry, I was struck by the fact that much of the world dismissed his discovery at first.
So, for those of us who struggle to believe in ourselves and our work, we should take courage from that story. Even if you're not sure of the worth of your poems, keep writing them. Keep going.
And often, when we look at the prize winners, we see that even the defeats are part of the ultimate success story. Again I say, the ultimate lesson to us is the value of persistence.
Graduate school taught me this lesson too. Many a brilliant scholar in our classes never finished the degree. They simply couldn't face the dissertation, which takes a lot of persistence to get done. Writing a dissertation, or any longer work, takes a lot of days of drudgery.
Those brilliant scholars forgot one of the most important lessons. In the words of one of my professors, the dissertation doesn't have to be the magnum opus--it simply has to be done. Even if it's not the most brilliant work, it can lay the groundwork for the brilliant work to come.
And I've often discovered that work I thought was not my best at the time, looks better once I've been away from it for awhile.
So, at the end of this week of Nobel prizes, it's a good opportunity to spend some thinking about our life's trajectory. Are we on the path we need to travel? Are we doing the work we need to do?