This I Believe: Henry Peterson (2021)

The emotion I feel most strongly and most often is wonder. I like this word because as a noun, it is most often associated with words like awe, amazement, or curiosity—all of which resonate strongly with me. I might call this Wonder with a capital W. As a verb, I prefer the phrase “I wonder” to the one I really mean, which is often “I’m confused.”  This is lowercase-w wonder. Generally speaking, I am not a competitive person. But my most consistent, tenacious, motivating opponent, throughout my life as long as I can remember, is the nagging feeling that I don’t really know the essence of a thing, or that deeper understanding is just out of reach.

I am grateful for this feeling. It has been one of the driving forces in my educational pursuits, which have received the vast majority of my time, effort, and dedication during my life. As I step back and consider the reasons for pursuing education, why I would do it even if it weren’t expected of me, I would say it is the humbling and awe-inspiring legacy I join in doing so. I believe the characteristic that connects humans in all societies for hundreds of thousands of years is the desire to understand the essence of things. Fire, tools, language, civilization, technology, leisure, art, science, and of course, institutionalized learning and teaching. All require planning and investment of time, labor, and natural resources, which in turn requires abstract thought and the conceptual process of understanding. Without an instinctual desire to understand the world around us, how much of our legacy as humans would have been possible? I believe the greater part of human activity is made possible by Wonder and in service of Wonder. Capital W. I want to be part of this, both as a student and a teacher.

But this grand narrative is not my everyday thought process, so let’s consider lowercase-w wonder as well. I believe the moment of confusion giving way to clarity brings unmatched satisfaction. It’s the reason I work part-time as an online reading tutor for elementary students.

A few weeks ago, during a session with a student, we found ourselves in a bit of a predicament. He’s stuck on a longer word, maybe one he’s never seen before. And so begins the frustration for both of us. Let’s sound it out! Is this a hard or soft c? And I rack my brains for a logical rule to explain why it is soft, but of course I’m no match for the English language, and he’s growing impatient. Can I find any shorter words inside this one he might recognize?  And I look up and hear the classic stalling technique, right on cue.  I need to go to the bathroom.  OK., I say, to the wall, as he’s already long gone. Finally, he’s back, and saying the word exactly right, as far as I can tell through Zoom. But there’s still the look of confusion – I recognize it anywhere. This might go on for eight or ten minutes. And I worry – has he really never heard this word? Because if that’s the case, this whole ordeal has been for very little benefit. And I finally mention, oh by the way, it’s almost always a soft ‘c’ right before the letter ‘i’ but of course it’s too late, as we’re already trying to blend the whole word together! And all of a sudden, after I’ve had him repeat the word seven or ten times, trying out different stresses and vowel sounds, the mood instantly changes. Oh, electricity! And at that moment, both of us experience the exact same emotion, the feeling of confusion crystalizing into perfect clarity. The more time I spend tutoring, the more I’ve asked students to sound out words this way. As we keep reading and rereading, the frustration of the particular word evaporates. When we encounter the same word the next day, sometimes they are surprised when I remind them how long we spent sounding it out, since it seems so natural now.

I remember being in this same place as a young child, and I guarantee I wouldn’t have been grateful for confusion, much less willing to deliver a speech explaining why this feeling is the bedrock of the beliefs, values, and questions I hold most strongly. But the feelings of awe and sheer amazement don’t work so well on a practical level, to guide me through the basic responsibilities of day-to-day life, or even the more consequential moments and decisions. So I’m grateful for that acute mix of curiosity and discomfort which has been such a loyal companion.

For the past several months, this tutoring job has been one of my routines. First twice a week, then four times, I’ve hosted students on my Zoom meeting – “Reading with Henry” – doing assessments and activities. I want to share a few more of my routines.

I am a college sophomore, so today I will probably work on homework to prepare for the second full week of online classes this semester. I might write a passage or two for the students I tutor. I might pick up my cello to practice a piece for a remote project organized by my college cello teacher, or continue learning my way around my great-grandfather’s guitar, one of many treasures I’ve found while helping my grandparents move. I’ll probably do my daily puzzles on, or even play an online game or two with someone halfway across the world. Maybe I’ll go for a walk with my family across the frozen lake near my home. I might look through Twitter, or Instagram, or TikTok, to see a glimpse of something my friends are doing, or thinking, or what’s going on in the world today outside my life in Stillwater. During the evening I’ll join my girlfriend’s Zoom meeting, where we’ll tell each other what we’ve been up to. She might share her screen so we can listen to music or watch a show together. We’ll share with one another what we’re grateful for and say goodnight.

I’ve written this speech a few weeks before the day you’re hearing it, but I’m confident enough to share these predictions because I’ve been doing many of the same things consistently for weeks, or months, or years in some cases. This particular set of routines may only reflect a small fraction of my life until this point, and certainly an even smaller fraction of my life yet to come. But I think reflecting on a few pieces of the world that surrounds me in this moment, and how I choose to experience it, is the best way to share the beliefs that I hold today.

Like millions of others, I have found myself in the world of online college. I spent almost a year in Southern California until being sent home in March. As the pandemic raged on, it became clear that I would next see campus as a junior. In the meantime, of course, there are still classes to take, research projects to do, friends to connect with. I’m lucky to have spent at least some time on campus, because both my time in California and back home have shaped my beliefs about the things I’ve learned, what I want from my education, and how I can best contribute to society.

I went into college as the typical liberal arts student. Colleges like mine try to advertise that there is no “typical student” here, but I think we all know that’s not the case. I had no idea what I wanted to study, deflecting any questions with things like I don’t know… social sciences maybe. I signed up for classes sometimes on a whim, thinking they would be interesting and pushing off the decision, after all, I had until the end of sophomore year to declare a major. I had a great experience during my first year, learning new things without a strong sense of commitment to anything.

After being sent home in March, I had a significant change of heart. I realized that online school stripped away much of the experience of college life which, when I spoke honestly with myself, was substituting for genuine passion and interest in the material I was learning, whether that was economics, psychology, or international relations. I remembered how much I had loved immersing myself in the world of math and science YouTube channels when I was in middle school. I remembered how much I had loved exploring the forests near my house, hunting for rocks and minerals, and watching rabbits, deer, and turtles go about their business. It wasn’t until the end of my freshman year that I realized I wanted to change course and pursue natural science. I believe that the social world of human relationships and interactions is deeply connected with the larger world of other living things, and the processes of change that take place around us, outside our control for the foreseeable future. This is one reason among many that I’m glad to have found an environment for studying earth science at the time I did, and I really haven’t looked back since.

Another routine of mine has come about much more recently. Over the past several weeks, I have been helping my grandparents renovate and clean out their home as they prepare to move. It’s strange to think of such a significant and unique moment of change becoming routine, but that’s where I find myself. I’ve been involved in a good mix of construction and destruction, installing drywall and light fixtures and painting, but also tearing up carpet and filling trash cans, one after another, with old things. The theme I’m beginning to understand is that of contradictions: the building and the tearing apart, the new and the old, the leaving and the entering, the satisfactions and the frustrations. I believe these conflicts are always present, whether simmering below the surface or rupturing to a point at the most significant moments of our lives, and of history. I like the perspective that comes from articulating these opposing forces, because only when conflicts are understood can they be resolved.

One perk of this job is I’ve been invited to look through bins of old things, many of which haven’t been opened since my grandparents moved into their current house almost two decades ago. I’ve taken home some of my favorites, like my great grandfather’s guitar which I mentioned, some props from the magic shows he used to perform, a teapot from my great grandmother, a kerosene lamp my grandfather converted to an electric one as a child, and many more. This whole experience has shaped a few recent shifts in my beliefs, which are closely related—maybe just two aspects of the same belief.

The first has to do with my relationship with physical things themselves. For a long time, someone who had seen my bedroom might say I have a minimalist lifestyle, with very few things on the walls, floor, and desk. This is becoming less true by the day. I still hesitate to buy things for myself which I feel are not completely necessary, but I find myself connecting more with objects that have some meaning or story associated with them. That story might be my great grandfather’s magic shows or the billion years of deposition, weathering, and erosion contained in the banded iron stone I found in the St. Croix river.

The second shift has more to do with the stories themselves I’ve heard from my parents and grandparents about their lives. I believe that the past is full of beauty. To me now, and perhaps for many among my audience today, this may seem trivial. To explain why this was such a recent change, I’ll do my best to summarize the religious life of my childhood. For most of my life, I would have essentially agreed with the following:

The past was not so good, the present is pretty decent, and the future will be even better.

This is the essence of what I would call progressive mythology. I say mythology not to imply it is false or outdated, but to say it is a constructed narrative, with associated traditions, beliefs, and assumptions, and to say that it is unprovable in its totality or most general form, and therefore we must believe in it for it to be true. This narrative has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It was made all but explicit in my high school US history class. It was always present when things like politics, the economy, and laws were explained to me. As I become more aware of the world around me, this narrative seems less appealing. Not necessarily less true, but less convincing, and the moral direction it pointed toward less justifiable.

I believe, for instance, that the trajectory of our society’s relationship with the natural world has at best adapted while maintaining the same destructive essence, and at worst deteriorated toward a future of environmental catastrophe. Because despite the beautiful story spun in this progressive mythology, I believe a strange contradiction arises when we ask how to confront challenges. And we find that the answer is the opposite of its appearance, it is regressive, because we must hold steady the same course which has brought us this far, and after all, look how much better the world is today. This mythology tells us we can imagine the wonderful future that awaits, and join in to help achieve it, but we cannot imagine a new project, a different path, because that would jeopardize all that we know and love. So we can look back on a mythologized past full of people who supposedly envisioned and hoped and dreamed that the future would be the way it is today, and maybe they suffered because the world wasn’t yet so wonderful as it is now. But I feel compelled to say that the people of long ago are more than just the precondition for the world as it is today, that we can learn not just from the ways they helped to build our reality, but also from their wildest imaginations of how things might turn out completely different.

I feel that some things can be explained through this lens of progressive mythology, but that contradictions remain which I am unable to resolve. The question of how to understand the past is one for which I feel that sense of wonder in all its facets: awe, curiosity, and confusion.

The beliefs and questions I hold most strongly are just beginning to come into focus. I’m deeply grateful for the world that has been made available for me by my family, friends, and educators. I’m especially thankful for my parents, my brother Jack, my grandparents, and my girlfriend Isabel who have been my closest circle, especially since quarantine. And thank you all for listening as I share the questions and beliefs I hold in this moment.