I am sitting in the office with an administrator when a student walks in unannounced. She declares that if they send her to class she will just pick a fight with someone so she can go home. Arms folded, lips pursed, she is primed for conflict. The administrator responds to her calmly, asks her to sit in the waiting area. He will be with her in a minute.
The door closes behind her and he says, “I’m about done with her. I don’t want to be, she’s so smart, but I’m about done.”
My mind has gone in a different direction. I muse out loud, “I wonder under what circumstances could I have been her.”
I have begun thinking about this a lot. Begun to believe that who we are, our success and our failures are at least 50% circumstantial.
An elemental case study:
For a moment, let us personify the most basic building blocks of existence.
Imagine that you are a hydrogen molecule. How do you understand your innate purpose in the universe?
For those of you who need a quick primer, Hydrogen is the lightest, simplest, most commonly occurring element in the galaxy (anywhere between 75-90% of the known universe). It is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. It is also highly flammable. The sun is predominantly composed of hydrogen.
What if hydrogen had a consciousness that allowed it to consider questions like: “What is my purpose in life?” “Why am I here?” or the more mundane “What’s my personality?” If hydrogen lived out its existence with only the context of, say, the sun as a guide, it would perhaps assume its purpose was the generation of heat and energy, its personality energetic, charismatic, and explosive, with a barely containable volatility. A Sagittarius, perhaps, or some other fire symbol. If it went its whole existence without ever encountering or bonding with oxygen, there would be no disputing this characterization.
But should two positively charged hydrogen molecules encounter the balancing effect of one negatively charged Oxygen molecule, if they are able to bond, a completely different destiny emerges. Hydrogen transforms from one of the most ubiquitous substances in the cosmos to one of the rarest.
Now Hydrogen’s existence becomes characterized by cohesion. The color changes. The possibilities and properties too. The combination of these two elements creates something that seems the opposite of the explosive volatility of the sun. But both water and fire were always within the spectrum of possibility for Hydrogen molecule. Its demeanor depends on circumstance.
I have come to believe the exact same can be said for any human. Within each of us is a capacity for explosion or cohesion. We are, all of us, subject to circumstance.
My son has a lot of hydrogen in him. In another time or place he might have been an amazing football player, fur trapper, or centurion. His physicality on the cusp of brutality would have been rewarded very differently historically. As it is, though, his mother is full of oxygen. She has a degree in conflict resolution and a spirituality on the cusp of pacifism that has her volatile son making guns “filled with love that shoots out goodness.” Sure, buddy. Whatever you gotta tell your mama.
I also met a woman recently who practices Reiki. The tradition emerged from Japan and seeks to align the energy fields that have various epicenters in the human body. This woman has a gift for Reiki, but she is not from Japan. She is from Jersey. She stumbled upon what she now considers her calling after losing her job in mortgages during the financial crisis. Reiki was never something that her circumstances would have suggested as a viable option for her. She is grateful for the disruption in her trajectory that allowed her to find her calling.
We are so accustomed to the gravity of our cultural circumstances, it can be difficult to see beyond it. Difficult to escape it, even if we feel compelled to explore other heavenly bodies.
More and more I feel that what true learning spaces ought to do is create brief periods of zero-gravity where humans might consider other elemental narratives of what they might become. Might practice harnessing both their fire and their water.
All of us have the capacity for combustion and cohesion within us.
One is not more elemental than the other.
The cosmos call for both.