“I don’t try to change the world. I just try to understand it,” a sage Georgetown professor once told me. It was the credo of a true intellectual, and an important grounding mechanism for a man whose life story was intimately tied up in his area of scholarship. He knew that no good could come of his meddling in certain affairs, and settled for digging into all the details from a safe distance, learning all he could, perhaps influencing a few thoughts here or there, ever a critic of all involved.
My professor wasn’t overtly seeking converts, but his words certainly stuck. It’s a simple summation for anyone jaded by good intentions gone awry and the seeming relativity of all truths. What good is change when our idea of what is good is too thin to offer a real reason to pursue it? His scholarly detachment allowed him to speak lucidly on anyone and anything in a way no one else could. The thirst for knowledge burned within, and he dedicated his life to seeking it.
Truly believing this requires an awesome distance, a detachment that lets one view all through a cool eye from on high, even as it might affect one’s life. It doesn’t necessarily mean a faith in reason, either; the more mature seekers of understanding are aware that they may never get there, no matter how hard they try. It puts the pursuit of knowledge above the self, which tames the ego some and provides a sort of guiding light, dim as it may sometimes be.
It seems a sensible ethos for a postmodern age, one that frees one of any commitment to anything other than the truth. It frees the seeker to attain some authority on subjects that are often fraught with harsh battle lines. It leads a certain Zen, as one makes peace with things as they are and soldiers along down a lonely but noble road. It can also free one to have some fun: sigh with disappointment when things go wrong, but head home at the end of the day and forget it all. Drop the earnestness and the world becomes a plaything, ripe for exploration and delight.
A road worth taking? Perhaps. It would be an honorable life, and some great good may come of it. After a while it comes easily, and it provides peace in its retreat from the arena of battle. A safe place to carve out a little haven for oneself and may a few others as the other ideals out there go on buffeting one another.
Or perhaps there’s another step that follows. One that draws on the lessons of that detachment, and uses them to some further end. Sometimes that distance may not really be cold aloofness or naïveté, but instead extreme caution and skepticism, a determination to get it right. Not a righteousness of hubris, perhaps, but a supreme confidence nonetheless, and belief in something higher. Maybe that ideal will never come, but maybe it’s a chance worth taking, rather than making do. The fire to find it lies within, perhaps long suppressed, never given a chance to show its true self, troubled as it is. Ambition and anxiety remain intertwined, inseparable, and so long as they are present, mere contentment with retreat will never quite be enough. And roots, no matter how gnarled, never go away: complete detachment is an impossibility.
And so one may go along; at best a blasé, judging scholar, and at worst a meek nobody who observes but never offers a word. It is a mask. What lies beneath is not really the ‘true self’—all sides of a person are manifestations of their true, very complicated selves—but there is more there. Beneath is not a person who seeks to change the world, nor one who seeks to understand it. No, that person seeks to embrace it as it is, to do all the above and so much more; to leave a mark, in some little way. The means will come out in the details. The path, however, could not be clearer. The cycle goes on.