“The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should be so humble that even the dust can crush him.” —Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments With Truth
When I was 20, I took a leave from my undergraduate studies at Cornell University to be a field assistant in Costa Rica, where I helped ornithologists figure out what the parrots were saying to each other.
I lived with five people in a two-story farmhouse in the tropical dry forest of Guanacaste, a state in the northwestern part of the country. Every morning except Sunday, for five months, we woke before sunrise and hauled microphones, nets, cables, and a big speaker into a remote area of the forest. We unspooled the cables and set up the microphones in a giant spiderweb array. Then we stretched the mist nets between trees, hid in the bushes, and played parrot calls on the speaker. If we were lucky, a parrot or two or sometimes a whole flock flew down to investigate and got caught in the nets. Then we burst into action, detangling the snarling parrots, putting them into cloth bags, and packing up all the equipment.
We went back to the farmhouse, tagged, measured, weighed, and took blood from the birds, unloaded the mic recordings onto the computer, and put the birds in an aviary in the backyard. Then we stayed home and worked on the computers the rest of the day. My job was to sit behind a blind next to the aviary and videotape the parrots when they talked.
When we weren’t working or sitting around the kitchen table at meals, we went into town to eat at a restaurant and kill time at the internet cafe. But that was only on Sundays. The rest of the time we were working, and most of the working involved waiting. Waiting for the parrots to fly into the nets, which could take hours, or waiting for the parrots in the aviary to speak, which always took hours. Because there was so much waiting time, everyone did a lot of reading. And that’s where I got into trouble.
Here’s what I remember reading, either brought from home, purchased, or borrowed from the farmhouse’s bookshelf or from other field hands: Moby Dick, Lord Jim, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Narcissus and Goldmund, The Story of My Experiments With Truth (by Gandhi), the Gospels, several books by Ellen Gilchrist, a biography of Pablo Neruda, and one particularly nasty book called Food Is the Best Medicine.
It was Gandhi’s book that began my trouble, but actually I was already in trouble. Having just entered my twenties, I was confused and adrift. After a childhood spent obsessed with ants and filled with expectations from myself and others that I was going to grow up to become a famous entomologist (like my hero, E. O. Wilson), I began to doubt my path in my sophomore year of college. Studying insects began to feel meaningless. I felt confined by the idea of college and longed for escape. Eventually, inspired by a book on homeschooling, I took a five-year leave of absence from Cornell to “sail around the world” (that’s what I told my advisor and wrote on my leave of absence petition). I sold anything I couldn’t carry to my dormmates and drifted to New York City and then Seattle. I didn’t have a plan, but some deep dissatisfaction was working on me. I felt drawn to any books that could give me guidance, that could tell me what to do with my life. I read my first book on meditation in Seattle. Eventually, I ran out of money and drifted back to my parent’s house in San Diego, where my Mom convinced me, one aimless morning, to go back to Cornell.
I did, but whatever was gnawing at me had not stopped.
My grades dropped, I skipped finals, and hid my performance from my parents. I rented movies most nights from Collegetown Video and ate bagel sandwiches and bags of pita bread. I isolated myself and felt very depressed. I wrote a lot of angry journal entries.
After a year back in school, in deep despair, I came back to San Diego for Christmas vacation. My parents and my younger brother picked me up from the airport, drove me to the Crescent Shores Grill (where they had live jazz), and while my parents went to the bathroom, my brother told me that he’d gotten a girl pregnant with twins. The rest of the vacation was a blur. All the attention was on my brother, especially after another girl showed up and accused him of getting her pregnant too. My parents were at their wits’ end. I felt unseen and unheard, and when I told them I wasn’t going back to school, they passively accepted it. I went back to Ithaca and worked at a Greek restaurant for two months, until I got accepted as a field assistant and left for Costa Rica in March.
But the dissatisfaction was still gnawing at me.
So into this depressed, meaningless void came the powerful words of Gandhi, words that seemed to lay out right and wrong in no uncertain terms. And I had dozens of hours a day sitting in the jungle to absorb them. Desperate for a value system, I clung to these words and made them transform my life. Longing to show myself “humbler than the dust,” I began thanking the ground for allowing me to walk on it. I offered bizarre prayers at the dinner table, thanking every food by name for sacrificing its life for us. As my boldest action, in accordance with Gandhi’s law of ahimsa, to live on as little life as possible, I began eating only fruits and nuts. I was desperate to fit into Gandhi’s idea of righteousness. The idea of doing anything that would make me wrong under his rigid value system terrified me. So you can imagine the amount of self-hatred, shame, and fear unleashed when my body rebelled against my new diet and I began bingeing on any food available.
I am not sure how I made it through those binges. I think largely by planning how I was going to compensate for them by going on even more restrictive diets or even by fasting. After all, Gandhi fasted, so it couldn’t be bad for me. But it set me up for even bigger binges.
I began to recognize the danger of this cycle, and swore off diets altogether, but the bingeing wouldn’t quit. I could not stop myself. Instead, desperate and lost, I planned even more extreme acts of righteousness and self-denial. I fasted completely for three days and violently spasmed when I broke my fast with four slices of nutella toast. I decided to cancel my flight home and, putting my trust in God, leave behind all my belongings (including my contacts) and hitchhike home on the Pan-American highway. When I didn’t go through with it, I criticized myself for not being righteous enough. Only by an act of extreme self-abnegation did I feel I could regain God’s (and Gandhi’s) grace.
(To be continued…)