Along the road I met a very wise man.
I knew he was wise, not from what he said, for I did not speak with him, but from what he was doing: picking up trash on his way to town.
I followed him for some time at a distance.
In among the long sharp shadows of early morning I watched his head dance from side to side.
His eyes would dart among the bushes, upon the sidewalk and out into the roadway searching out bits of unsightly rubbish. He retrieved old cans that had been lying there for some time, rusted in place and crusty.
Torn candy wrappers, soiled tissue, brown cigarette butts, plastic jugs, all of these went into the large white plastic bag he held alongside his briefcase.
He was well-dressed, balding and of strong stature. My guess is he was in his middle 50s.
As I watched him, I could not help but think back to a university class I had in the late 1960s.
Professor Theodore Khan, then in his mid 70s, delivered a series of lectures in anthropology he had written as a way to question the accepted view of human development.
Khan, small and wiry and seriously controversial, threw much of science to one side as he meticulously charted man’s 2.5-million-year development, which led humans from walking on all fours to living and dreaming among the stars.
Knowing that universities required courses to have titles, Khan wrote his in brazenly wide strokes across the top on the large blackboard that stood in the centre of the lecture hall: Hominology 2050 — the study of the whole man.
He then proceeded to draw a loose circle around these words, turned quickly toward the class, and with a broad smile that covered a good part of his small face said,
“This, my good friends is a class in the anthropology of men and women at their absolute best.”
“And,” he continued, “if there are no questions, I now give you your first examination. Write me one thousand words on the following topic: Why for God’s sake — if there is such a creature — are you in this classroom today?”
We had two hours to complete the exam and when we finished we were to lay our papers on the corner of his desk, go outside and have fun.
I took the full two hours.
I still have a copy of the essay I handed in that day. For many years I considered it my finest work.
In it, I wrote about destiny and the rise of spirituality. I pointed out my intense desire to learn, of my goal to teach. I described my family, mentioned parental stimulation and the value of hard work.
I even threw in a little Marshall McLuhan and his views on new media; Carlos Castaneda’s use of the term ‘nagual’ to signify our yearning to reach into the unknown, and Timothy Leary’s drug-induced ‘crack in the unconscious’ just to make sure the psychedelia of learning was well-represented.
I knew something about Freud and Carl Jung, so I wrote two paragraphs on dreams and the collective unconscious. And as intellectual kicker, I scribbled in words like exegesis, hermeneutics and evolutionary cosmology.
The final sentence: “I am here today if for no other reason than to bear witness to my persistent movement through time and through space.”
At the beginning of the next class, Khan paced back and forth at the front of the lecture hall like a large and long cat.
He called out the names of students.
We each raised our hand and stood up. He walked to where we stood, looked each of us straight in the eye, and handed back our papers.
Mine, as well as the others that I could see, was blanketed in red. Written in margins, across the top, perpendicular along the sides, in handwriting more like calligraphy than anything else, were comments, suggestions, additions and subtractions. And attached to the back, two full pages of serious and quite detailed criticism.
In some places on my paper Khan had penned the words “wow,” “brilliant,” “you know I had not thought of this until now,” and “if you really believe what you say in this paragraph you are a fool.”
He corrected grammatical errors and drew heavy lines through misspelled words.
He indicated where new paragraphs might help smooth it out a bit, and he drew smiley faces to let me know which ideas caught his fancy.
When he had finished handing out the papers, he thanked all of us for adding significantly to his education.
Now, if he could be so bold, he would like to present a few thoughts of his own.
And for the next 13 weeks, two hours a day, two days a week, he stretched the view of the human character like it was some rubber band that could not break.
He taught us that human development moves through fairly well-determined levels, seven of them in all, he said.
He pleaded with us to write them down and be ready to look for them as we lived out our lives.
I followed his directions.
As I review my notes nearly 40 years later, I read through his hierarchy of development from the lowest to the highest.
Perched there at the top — “Level seven: man finally reaches universal consciousness. Some evidence of this level of achievement — man will no longer litter his landscape.
“He will recognize the utter beauty of the place he lives. In fact, he will, without thought and with great joy, stoop to pick up the litter others have left behind.”
I continue to watch the neatly dressed man in the road in front of me.
As he bends at the waist to pick up a large and flattened plastic Evian water bottle, I notice that his movements are soft and they appear effortless. And for a moment, I think I hear him whistle.