Author: Gemina Garland-Lewis
After hearing the long list of things going on in my life, a friend’s mother recently told me that they couldn’t remember how long it had been since they had my high level of energy. Exhausted, I looked at her and said that I wasn’t sure how much it was my energy levels or how much it was simply that I don’t have a choice (I’ll get back to this later). This spring I was named a National Geographic Young Explorer and one month later I was accepted into grad school – two phenomenal things that, needless to say, have since dictated about 99% of my time. Unfortunately for me (at least from a time management perspective), the two have absolutely nothing to do with each other. My grant work for National Geographic was a photojournalism project documenting the stories and images of the last living whalers in the Azores, who ended their 1800s-style hunts 25 years ago. My graduate program is in Conservation Medicine (it’s okay, nobody knows what that is) – the interface of human health, animal health, and environmental health. Basically I study disease, in every shape and form, of every living entity on this planet. While I do love it, I’ll admit it’s not the most incredibly uplifting field of study out there. My photographer self and conservation medicine practitioner self long for the day when they can work together on a project and occupy the same space-time in my body.
Knowing that I was starting grad school with continuing obligations to my Young Explorer grant work, I wasn’t totally unprepared for the complete lack of life that I am currently experiencing – I assumed the worst possible scenario and therefore haven’t been terribly surprised. Certain things are easier to go without when you’re expecting their absence. For me, this mostly means dance, yoga, biking, hiking, gardening, and of course at least a modicum of social life. I have found, however, that every time I pass a group of friends out to dinner or having a drink I have a passing fit of jealousy. One night it was so bad I compared myself in my head to the little matchbox girl (when of course I had a bed to go home to after I watched all those lovely people feasting and really am nothing like the little matchbox girl). One of my saving graces has been a tumblr I started part-way through the semester. It lets me remember the world beyond my studies and the life that I’ve led in it. I know that someday I’ll be out there again, but for now? Time to read that next paper…
Then there are the times when I’m reading a particularly depressing paper and look around me and think, “we’re all going to die.” This is particularly (and painfully) true when children are nearby. I apologize to them in my head for the cruel realities they will experience in their lifetime, a good deal of which we will be unable to prevent.
One thing I found to counteract this jaded depressive mentality is to surround myself from time to time with younger people (just not so young I feel immediately apologetic to them). This opportunity has mostly presented itself to me through being a trip leader and photography teacher for National Geographic Student Expeditions. For the last three summers I’ve lead small groups of high school students on international trips – so far to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Italy – and taught mostly photography, but some exploration courses, too. I get to see the world through their eyes for short periods of time, which helps me remember how amazing most places really are. Every time I see the Sydney Opera House I get to see it for the first time, because my students’ faces remind me of what I felt when I did actually see it for the first time. I am always amazed at their excitement for the world and their perception that possibilities are endless. I love listening to my students’ goals and plans, especially those who are either in the process of applying to college or who are away on their last summer trip before college starts. It’s encouraging to know that good people with big dreams are heading out into the world.
This year I got an extra dose of that tenacious energy of youth when I took an undergraduate class on vulnerability and adaptation to climate change for my elective this past Fall semester (talk about depressing). I got to spend 2.5hrs each week with people fresh to semi-fresh out of high school who seemed to have some knack for seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. They were an incredible group of people – talkative but thoughtful, creative, passionate, and much more prepared on whatever last night’s reading was than myself or any of the other graduate students taking the course. They were audibly outraged by climate injustices and they spoke with a zeal that I wish I could muster up more often.
In short: whether acting as my students or my peers, these teenagers gave me hope – a good thing to get a dose of every so often.
In the end, however, I feel that tackling our global issues will be knowing when to keep the rose-colored glasses on and sometimes, when to take them off. Maybe this is that jaded girl in me, but I do feel that too much hope, too much rosiness, can prevent us from seeing things the way they really are and taking the appropriate steps. Call me crazy, but at age 17 answering the question of where I saw myself in five years seemed a lot easier than answering that question now. Now I understand the circuitous route life often takes and the difficulties involved in not only making a living but in living itself. I also understand the joys of the world better now, and feel that if I didn’t grasp these realities I wouldn’t be as effective in executing my goals and facilitating the change I absolutely do still wish to see in the world. Again, I feel that we’re at our best when our passion and our reason are working together constructively – when the glasses are neither always on nor always off. In retrospect, I’m sure I had the wrong answer to the “where do you see yourself in five years?” question at age 17, but the stakes didn’t seem quite as high then (and I haven’t minded in the least what life did deal me in that time).
So why do I do this? Why do any of us do this? We’re overworked, constantly tired, often searching for someone to fund our work to continue, and potentially involved with an incredibly depressing field. Is it because we’re full of energy? For some of us, maybe. I do know that audible passion to do good work and improve the condition of all life on this planet doesn’t fade for everyone. For me however, it is a quieter passion. I do this simply because I don’t know any other way. What do I mean by “this”? All of it. Life and all of my seemingly myriad commitments. From being a teacher, to being a student, to being a photojournalist, to being a dancer, to being a farmer. We can always choose what and how much we incorporate. Of course I’m exhausted, of course the majority of what I research and study is depressing, of course there are days when I wake up feeling defeated.
But I know that when I’m not involving myself in these topics I feel like I’m not contributing anything – and if I’m not contributing anything, then I really would have to ask myself what the point of all of it is.
So this is what I mean when I say I don’t have a choice – I have to involve myself in what is meaningful to me, even if the difficulties are greater. I have to be a scientist so that I can understand both the beauties and the struggles of the world, and I have to be an artist so that I can share this understanding on a larger scale.
At the end of the day, my greatest hope is only that I can achieve this balance in myself and that others can fill their lives with whatever is most meaningful to them. This is when we are all at our best. The path may be windy and bumpy, but each of us has the choice at every moment to involve ourselves in something that we care about.Keep the passion alive and the world will provide you with the reason in time.
In the words of Kahlil Gibran, “work is love made visible.” Or at least it should be.