Me and Teddy Trying to Figure Out Me, Grand Canyon Version





Yesterday afternoon Teddy and I travelled to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We camped along FSR 688, which is dotted with large dispersed campsites. The next morning we hiked along the South Rim (pictured above).

2/2/2018 — Groundhog Day (Journal entry) 

I pitch our tiny tent alongside a giant Ponderosa, but Teddy stakes out a spot farther down the dirt double-track. I drag the tent to Teddy, who squats under another Ponderosa, HIS Ponderosa. We take a brisk walk at dusk, enjoying the last little bit of light and warmth.

In the evening Teddy burrows into my doubled sleeping bags, keeping me warm as the temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Frost gathers on the tent, and the nearly-full moon lights up the sky. Every now and then I emerge from the sleeping bags for a sip of freezing IPA, a Tucson delicacy.

Lately I have been reading two new books a week. I cannot stop reading and thinking! Tonight I am reading Yuval Harari’s, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. Coyotes howl in the distance, causing Teddy to stiffen beside me. I learn that Homo Sapiens likely exterminated a related species, the Neanderthals, after mating with a few of these caring homos (a situation canines seem to have avoided!). I pause on Harari’s reconstructed picture of a Neanderthal girl:


She looks so peaceful.

I do not romanticize our hunter-gatherer past, as some men do. Rather, the story of how we emerged as the triumphant species tells me something about what we might be in the future. Also, I am curious about what I, Sarah Jansen, might be. How do I live in a way that is more true to the story of an evolving, improving humanity?

To some extent, most of my adult life has been unusual: eating vegan, having few possessions, limiting my exposure to the mass media, studying and conversing deeply, eschewing dogma (both religious and scientific), and seeking out solitude and adventure in nature. It is the way of life that feels most natural to me. Meat, tons of stuff, an overstimulating and busy environment, casual relationships, superficial ideas and conversation, dogma of any kind, unvarying routine, constant company — these are my worst nightmares!

Tonight I am trying to imagine a somewhat different form of life — something that works for me but is still recognizably human, perhaps even recognizably American. I do not know what my life will look like, but I do know that time is the only valid currency in life.

“I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor – such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps – what more can the heart of a human desire?”

Leo TolstoyFamily Happiness













Me Trying to Figure Out Me: Scrambling and Reflecting on Freedom

Quite a lot has happened in the last two months. It was a personal drama of sorts: me trying to figure out me. I am sure my friends and family tired of it — me constantly talking about me. I spent a lot of time with Teddy (my dog), friends, colleagues and family.


Me & my good friend Anita at Arcosanti. (I kidnapped her and took her to a commune!)


Solo camping in Joshua Tree (Black Rock Canyon), on my way to visit my baby niece. (What do I do when I camp alone? I drink beer and read books. It’s awesome.)


Wonderful conversations about Confucian ethics with a colleague visiting from China

I also spent time with my students. My philosophy freshmen completed their final exam, which consisted in conversations about justice, drawing on all the ideas and arguments they studied fall semester. I left the (very spirited) “exam” kicking myself. Why hadn’t I *started* the course in this way, with informal conversations between groups of students? It occurred to me that the best way to teach Intro to Philosophy might be to spend a week or two just talking about what we all believe and sussing out where the agreements and disagreements are (and what questions they are interested in). I plan to try this next fall, when I teach Intro to Philosophy again.

It is odd teaching something like philosophy at a university, because philosophy is fundamentally about self-examination, i.e., examining one’s own beliefs, attitudes, orientations, etc. And formal education tends to be impersonal, in part because of the power differential created by a grading system that, quite frankly, has no place in the humanities. Humanities students should be in pursuit of the project of becoming more human and more free. The entire grading system militates against this project, which is one of many reasons why academic humanities is increasingly irrelevant. I feel like I spend half of my teaching energy guiding students toward questioning grades and the value placed on grades. It is exasperating sometimes. Some of them never learn, but some do. Some go on to measure their “success” by their own standards. Some go on to question my authority, which I encourage.

It has been a long journey getting to this place myself, but, at 33, I can honestly say that I mostly measure my success by my own standards. I have seen enough in my life to question any external standard of “success”. As grades and rankings become more and more meaningless, I rely more and more on observing people, institutions and my own self. I make my own judgment, thank you very much! And this is what I would like for my students — to think for themselves. I hate telling anybody what to think, which makes me a pretty poor professor sometimes. I do not like “professing”. I do not like playing the part of the expert or the authority. I do not even like being the center of attention; in fact, I mostly hate it. Sometimes I wonder whether I even belong in academia, but I soldier on. I’m not actually sure I will continue teaching after next academic year. I may “retire” in 2019, leaving a budding academic career behind me. Or I may teach part-time. It depends on whether I believe I am doing something truly valuable.

Freedom is a funny thing. I have never been so “free” in my life — zero debt, savings and investments, a good car (which takes me to amazing places), excellent health and a rock solid education behind me. I own very little in the way of material things, but I have so many rich relationships in my life.

At first the sense of unbounded freedom made me miserable. I tried to find ways to get rid of it — land another tenure-track job, throw my savings into some real estate, enter the wrong relationship, etc. But all this scrambling just made me miserable. Perhaps it is better to gratefully accept one’s own freedom as a rare and beautiful thing. And since I have always wanted to write books, I am going to write another book. And then maybe another and another. Why? Because I can and because I want to. 🙂 And if nobody reads it, I will not be any poorer for that!

Happy 2018!