Call it ego or call it a cry from my soul, but one of the biggest fears I have is that my life won’t make a difference.
It is a haunting thought that the work I do with The Finishing School, the passion I have, the beliefs I hold, everything that seems to overflow from my being – may not be enough to create a positive change in the world.
But the flip side of fear is hope. And while fear constricts and strangles the spirit, hope expands and inflates it.
Fear that I won’t be enough, that my work won’t be enough, requires me to focus inward, to focus on myself.
However, hope for change, for growth, for compassion, for increase in knowledge that adds to people’s lives, hope to see people take positive and real action that is a force for good…well that aims the gaze outward, to look toward the community around me and to position myself in the larger picture of others who are working toward the same goal.
Hope looks to see where effort can be made together, so that the work done becomes amplified.
You may wonder what spurs these reflections when our last communication was a simple book list to encourage people to read fiction.
I find myself in this contemplative mood because this morning I found a simple note written on the back of an old catalogue card that simply said:
Now, I know this note was written by Jampa, our Head Archivist. You may remember that I mentioned him in the post on reading and empathy. Jampa thinks I don’t know that it’s him that leaves me these little scribbles of rumination when he thinks I need a reminder of the seriousness of my task as Chief Librarian of the The Finishing School.
First, let me say: Jampa, I’ve worked with you for 10 years. I know what your handwriting looks like. And you know what? We don’t use the card catalogue anymore.
Second, I never forget the seriousness of my task to reveal the work of The Finishing School to the world. This library that has been built over millennia and the knowledge contained therein are a constant reminder of both our grand successes and our epic failures.
I want to make sure my tenure as Chief Librarian leans toward the former and not the latter.
But back to the note.
The person we know of as Hypatia is a very important figure in the history of The Finishing School. Her many achievements include being a world leading mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and one of the early Chief Librarians at The Finishing School…no pressure to measure up there…
She also lived and died during an incredibly turbulent period of history.
“Remember Hypatia” is a motto both for the school at large and specifically here at the library. It is appropriate in a variety of circumstances. Hypatia can evoke great aspiration of what we should all work toward as human beings or, it can be a reminder instead that the world can be a dangerous place, and that our job is not to hide away from it, but to participate in it.
Full participation is the only way we can influence what the world becomes. There is no guarantee of immediate success, but the work is worth doing regardless. Participation in creating “The Good” is a way to remember that we are each responsible for helping to craft the world around us.
Let’s look back at Hypatia and the history of The Finishing School to see what I’m talking about.
If you don’t know ancient history, or don’t care about it – don’t worry. This is going to be brief.
There was a city in Egypt called Alexandria. This city was created by Alexander the Great several centuries before Hypatia comes on the scene and the idea behind its foundation was the quest for knowledge. Alexander intended the city to be the intellectual capital of his empire. He brought the teachings from Greece and Rome and the tradition of critical thought. As a member of The Finishing School, he also brought other secret adherents to Alexandria.
After his death, Alexander’s successor (with the help of the members of The Finishing School) built the incredible library of Alexandria – one of the greatest libraries of the ancient world. This was one of the golden ages for The Finishing School. The library flourished, and at its height, we think it housed almost half a million pieces of writing.
The Chief Librarian at the time took the task of increasing the collection very seriously. He was able to get permission to search all vessels arriving at the port of Alexandria and to steal any book that was found. It was then taken to the library where it could be copied and stored.
Now, stealing books seems a bit dodgy to me when you’re trying to create good in the world. But, with what we currently pay to keep up with the collection, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing given half a chance.
Our records of what happened to the library are a bit scarce because they were burned in a fire. Or a series of fires. We’re not totally sure. We do know that Julius Caesar is to blame for at least some of it. We also know that the Chief Librarian was completely distraught and died trying to save the books from the fire.
That is very sad. Or, just desserts for stealing books. Depends on your point of view I guess.
A smaller collection of books remained after the fire and this was moved to a different location in Alexandria called the Serapeum. The Romans eventually conquered Alexandria and the smaller library remained intact for several hundred years.
This is when Hypatia comes in. She was the last Chief Librarian in this part of the world for quite some time. As a mathematics, astronomy and philosophy scholar, she continued to manage the much smaller collection with the hope that it would grow again.
More importantly, she hoped that the desire for knowledge and wisdom would continue to flourish. In her role as teacher for the school, her classes brought together people from a variety of backgrounds – pagan to Christian. It didn’t matter to her what religious beliefs people held. Finding common ground mattered. Finding a way to live together mattered.
The politics of the time turned deadly. The three religious groups of pagans, Christians and Jews found it increasingly difficult to live together as they vied for power. Violence ensued from all sides and Rome eventually declared that the Serapeum – the temple that housed the library – be destroyed.
Our records are unreliable, but we believe that most of the library was lost.
We don’t come to the end of Hypatia just yet though. Even though these events must have made her universe look completely different as the pillars that upheld the ancient world were falling away, she continued to teach and to push for the value of education and scientific truth. She also continued to be an influential woman in the city as she advised the current leader.
To say that she must have been confused and frightened by the events of history must be an understatement. To say that she showed great character by maintaining an ethic of rational thought and a belief that there were wonders to be discovered in the world, must also be an understatement.
As was mentioned, Hypatia was an advisor to the ruler and as such, held a position of power among the elites of the city. In order to undermine that power, opposing parties declared her a witch and monks flayed her with pottery shards until she died.
…O.k. so her life doesn’t have a cheery ending, but “Remember Hypatia” has been a motto for The Finishing School for over 1500 years. We have never forgotten her and the importance of her work. She has been an influence for us all over the world. She was a voice for tolerance and wisdom in a world that was seemingly turning upside down. She did not waver in her beliefs, nor did she give up when the library was almost completely destroyed.
Hypatia wasn’t great due to a specific moment in her history. She was great because of how she lived her daily life. She was great simply for who she was as a whole person. Daily life matters. Small decisions matter. Character matters.
She demonstrates what’s possible for great individual attainment, but also shows that collective action is necessary. One voice of reason is not enough. We need many to speak out and to live out these principles. We need to join with others who are doing the same.
I suspect that all of you are like myself and are giving serious thought to what is happening in the world today. I’m sure you are concerned and deeply troubled. It is tempting to turn inward and focus on our fears. But, I hope that you and I can also see the potential that is in front of us in this time of turbulence.
We are at a time where both our actions as individuals matter deeply, and when our actions as a collective are paramount. If we can no longer depend on those in power to do what is right, then the responsibility falls to us. Quite frankly, it was ours all along, but I believe we got used to believing that these issues were for others to solve. For others to decide.
We are at a time of great opportunity. Deciding the kind of people we will be, the kind of character we will have is no longer just a personal journey. The kind of people we decide to be and the character traits that we deem important are what changes history during times of upheaval. Daily life and both small as well as large decisions will lay the foundation of what follows when things settle, as they inevitably will.
Who we are matters. What we do matters – now more than ever. This is the great opportunity.
As Hypathia herself said:
“Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.”
The work of The Finishing School has helped to shape some of the biggest figures in history. But it has also shaped people who we have never heard of. Their lives have influenced the world just as those names that have gone in the history books.
Will my life and my work make a difference? It is too early to tell. I believe the answer to that depends more on you than it does me. What we do together to create a better world will decide the answer.
I have faith that we will succeed.
We just need to remember Hypatia.