Tomorrow marks the beginning of my 39th trip around the sun. Lots of you reading this have made many of these trips, and I'm hoping to learn a thing or two from your amazing journeys over the next few orbits. In fact, I have to say that what I feel most strongly about this impending arc across the solar system comes from what I have gotten from my interconnectedness with others. During the past 38 years, friends and family have entered and exited my life. Many have taken more than they have given in the immediate term, but I can't think of anybody who has not taught me an important lesson. I'm not a big believer in a cosmic orderer--at least not in any way that can't elude our best-formulated control schemes--but I do believe in the power of absorbing the lessons available to us.
This past year, the entrance of three young Sudanese Americans has transformed our house and our understanding of the world. At the start of the year, my partner and I faced the completion of a very long journey. When our friends opened their hearts and lives to their friend and his three young, lovely children, our dreams were transformed. By the time the year ended, we found ourselves constantly re-configuring mental models of our small community to make space for these children and everyone else in the village who wanted to help out. Even though we aren't the primary caretakers in these kids' lives (and probably not even secondary), we have found ourselves trying to become less selfish to help them and the many people taking on the extra parenting. The persistent pull of these kids helped pull me and my partner from the cascading traumas brought about by two floods, the forgotten death anniversary of my father, the end of a 17-year academic journey, the purchase of our first new house (and its subsequent remodeling), physical injury, and a cancer scare. When I was overwhelmed at times, my partner would remind me to think about these kids and the other kids in the world who live on the edges of war and colonialism. We know nothing of trouble.
It's easy to get caught up in my own goals as an academic. Sometimes, the game of success is the only game that I feel like I can win; hell, sometimes it's the only game I understand. It's only the persistent ethical draw of eleven years with my best friend and lover that pulls me out of an institutional orbit to see the larger picture of what we can mean to others, especially when the culture gives you no instructions on how to connect with the young and vulnerable when you aren't biologically connected. It's hard to love people when acts of love are interpreted as selfish at best, dangerous at worst. It helps to have a life partner who is an old pro at giving without leaving traces. Being there for friends and strangers means you have to be courageous. You can't give while looking over your shoulder. The blows will come, but love gives you strength and courage that help you ignore them.
At times, the courage that comes from love has manifests as a willingness to grab opportunities. We're walking towards spending time in Africa next year. I'm hoping to help grow the arts community during a time of scarcity. Sport is hoping to continue and expand her work with vulnerable women. We're also looking at ways of aligning our professional careers more closely with our ethical bent. I want to be a better teacher. A better researcher. A better friend. A better person. These things all require an uncomfortable amount of truth-telling; something I'm not always willing to do. As a rhetorical scholar, I'm always aware of the means of persuasion, but this does little to help me change the world in deeply ethical ways. Sometimes you have to risk looking like a jackass to fulfill your calling. It's painful, but ultimately necessary.
Being more comfortable in my own skin has meant rubbing some people the wrong way, but it has also meant making deeper friendships. You can't please everybody, but that's O.K. Everybody who I have met in my life has played some sort of important role. As I take this trip around the sun again, know that I'm taking a little piece of you with me, that I'm trying to be a little less me and little more of those kids. You have all taught me something I needed to learn. If you have read this far, I'm sure that you have somehow helped me get to where I need to go in my journey. Thank you.