“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 figure out what the jungle parrots were saying to each other.
For five months, I lived with a few others in a remote farmhouse in the jungle. Most mornings, we woke before sunrise and carried a net and big speaker into the forest. We stretched the net between two trees, hid in the bushes, and played parrot calls on the speaker until a flock of parrots flew down to investigate and got caught in the net. Then we untangled the angry parrots, enclosed them in cloth bags (which calmed them down), and went home.
We measured and tagged the parrots in our farmhouse and put them in a backyard aviary. While everyone else worked on computers analyzing the parrots’ language, my job was to sit in a blind beside the aviary and press record on a videocamera whenever the parrots talked.
When we weren’t working, we killed time at an internet cafe in town. But mostly we worked, and most of the work was waiting. Waiting for parrots to fly into the net or waiting for our captive parrots to speak: both took hours. With so much time on our hands, everyone did a lot of reading. And that’s where I got into trouble.
But actually I was already in trouble. Planning from childhood on to become a famous entomologist (like my hero, E. O. Wilson), I began to doubt my path early in college. While I still loved insects, I felt confined by college life and longed for escape. So 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 gave my dormmates anything I couldn’t carry, and when sailing didn’t pan out I drifted to New York City and then Seattle. I kept busy, 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 returned to my parent’s house in San Diego, where one aimless morning my Mom convinced me to go back to Cornell.
I did, but whatever was gnawing at me had not stopped.
I started skipping classes and finals, and hid my failing grades 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 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 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 didn’t question 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.
So, depressed and purposeless, I suddenly found myself in the jungle with nothing to do for most of every day but read. And so books became my God. I trusted whatever they said. I looked to them to guide me, to save me, to give me rules for how to live. And, unluckily for me, one of the books I read was The Story of My Experiments With Truth, by Gandhi.
Gandhi achieved a lot for many people, and part of the reason for his success was that he did not yield. He followed a strict moral code that he would not bend, no matter the cost, and he expected everyone to live up to it: himself, his family, his community. And it was his total faith in this moral code that made everyone want to live up to it. I was one of them.
Gandhi’s rigid sense of right and wrong electrified me. Desperate for a value system, I clung to his words and made them transform my life. Longing to show myself “humbler than the dust,” I began apologizing to the ground for walking on it. I offered bizarre prayers at dinner, thanking each food by name for sacrificing its life for us. In accordance with Gandhi’s law of ahimsa, to live on as little life as possible, I began eating only fruits and nuts. I longed to fit into Gandhi’s idea of righteousness. The idea of doing anything that would make me wrong under his 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, leave behind all my belongings (including my glasses), and hitchhike home on the Pan-American highway, trusting in God to guide me. 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…)