Wheatstone Mentor Lindsay Marshall helps us break out of living for pleasure or rewards and find a purpose: thinking well in training for eternity.


We’re beings

made in the image of God, but most of us live like creatures of a lesser order.

You might know them as Shamu and Fido. Shamu is a pretty critter who does tricks for fish. Fido is the friendly block dog who loves tummy rubs and can’t say no when instinct calls. 

Most of us live like Shamu. When we excel, we do it for the sake of a reward. First, it’s candy or stickers. As we grow up, it becomes grades, diplomas, salaries, and “jewels in our crowns in heaven.” It’s easy to think we’re mature, but in reality, we’re often just splashing the audience for a fish.

Fido gets a bad rap because he’s reduced to his capacity for physical pleasure, but in many ways we live like him. Acting from desire isn’t always bad, but if it’s all we do, never disciplining ourselves to pursue more than our first instincts, then we might as well be the block dog. There’s nothing inherently wrong with video games, television, or celebrity magazines, but man cannot live on brain candy alone.

Fido’s habits can even intrude on our most erudite activities. It’s a good idea to read classic books for enjoyment, but not, for example, if we use them to avoid expanding our knowledge of science. Acting purely on desire, even if it’s good desire, isn’t enough to maintain a healthy, whole soul.


We must move past simple motivations for our actions.


The trouble with living like Shamu and Fido is that they’re animals. We’re not orcas or dogs. We’re made a little lower than the angels, and unless we’re happy with the occasional sardine, we must move past simple motivations for our actions.

As is so often the case, the ancients got this right where we fall short. Aristotle argued that objects have functions, or purposes, for which they exist. In Nicomachean Ethics, he says, "The function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle."

If he is right, then a purpose of humans is to reason excellently, which has very little to do with jumping through a hoop for fish. Other great thinkers agree. Socrates famously said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and Seneca argued that “leisure without study is death; it is a tomb for the living man.” Thinking isn’t just a duty to follow or an adventure to be had. It’s a vital part of being human.


Thinking isn't just a duty to follow or an adventure to be had. It's a vital part of being human.


Where did we go wrong? 

Well, the answer lies pretty close to home. With the rise of consumerism in American culture, we’ve become a generation of people who are habituated do tricks for fish. Our entire economic system is built to make money off our materialism, and it’s hard to sustain that system without a country full of Shamus and Fidos.

The expansion of public education should have counterbalanced the damage done by the consumer culture, but education that is intended for everyone necessarily limits itself in order to provide the same curriculum to all students. Thus, a student who wants to avoid Seneca’s “tomb for the living” has excellent resources for doing so, but formal education only offers an opportunity for such an examined life. It does not persuade all its students to adopt it.

What's a lifelong learner to do? 

The carrots and sticks that drive so many of us to Seneca’s living tomb are indeed hard to resist. But unless we want to severely restrict our souls’ growth, we must.

As Johnny Hart once wrote in his comic strip B.C., life is Eternity 101. What we do here makes us creatures fit for the life to come, and every breath we take is training. All of reality is God’s reality, so we can’t afford to ignore it. If we’re bored by any part of it, that’s our fault, not the fault of reality. We may simply lack background knowledge, and that can keep us from grasping the magnificence of things. 

Until I studied art history, I couldn’t understand why people were brought to tears in front of Rothko’s paintings. After a little research, I can’t stop staring at them. The same is true of almost everything. It’s shocking what universes of experience a quick Google search can unfold. Try it—you might never be the same.

If we want to escape the lure of treats and prizes, we must, above all, explore.


If we want to escape the lure of treats and prizes, we must, above all, explore.


Surround yourself with people who want to go on the journey with you. 

Redeem your brain candy. If you’re interested in the lives of celebrities, look into charisma and its impact on societies throughout history. If you love Call of Duty, read The Things They Carried and learn about the real effects of warfare on the human psyche. 

Go beyond the basics of the things you love, and take others with you. You’ll find that the things you have to do come more alive, and the things you want to do gain more meaning.

You can change the culture of your classroom, your playing field, or your youth group through the force of sheer enthusiasm for learning, because Aristotle was right. To reason excellently is a function of humanity.

Otherwise, you’re just in it for a few smelly fish.

 


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Lindsay Marshall

Lindsay is pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Oklahoma, where she studies the connection between American public memory, K-12 education, and the American Indian Wars in the late nineteenth century. She's also a Wheatstone Mentor and a Perpetual Member of the Torrey Honors Institute. A former high school history teacher, she pursues goodness, truth and beauty wherever they lead through history, film, education and beyond—especially when it involves riding horses and climbing mountains.

 

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