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Goofin’ at the Refectory: A Memoir of Interfaith Beginnings

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living.” My school friend Mark and I were talking while walking the tree-lined, leaf-strewn path that took us to the University College Refectory. Of all the crazy notions, me telling him what Socrates said. Mark was a classics scholar who lived in the same dorm as I did at University of Toronto. He had probably read Socrates’ remark in the original Greek written by Aristotle, and was wondering if I was trying to impress him, telling him what this Greek guy said. Maybe I was. It was typical of things boys did then. But this thought picked up from class had lodged in my brain. I was finding out philosophy was attractive to me—a way to impose order on the rabble of emotions.
Mark just gave a kind of dismissive snort in reply as if the notion was irrelevant to his life. “You know Socrates never actually wrote anything down, don’t you?”

Spiritual Seekers and Truth Givers
Spiritual Seekers and Truth Givers
The unexamined life

Although he was also trying out the role of rock and roll organist in a local band on the weekends, he’d very early on decided his direction in life. Learning and teaching the Greek and Roman classics was probably the one thing he felt he could do well, and ultimately, he did become a tenured Classics professor. I think examining his life was not something he needed or cared to do at the time. And anyway, if I felt my life was unexamined, what did I hope to find out by examining it?

Mark wouldn’t stay at the Refectory for very long. This student hangout at U. of T. was a refuge for those avoiding responsibility, seeking relief from the strain and boredom of their classes. He would say hello to friends then be off to his next class; didn’t goof off that much, only if he could get his schoolwork done at the same time, which he was usually quite capable of doing. He could work well with distractions in the room. It astonished us at the dorm one night when he revealed he was high on acid while taking notes and studying Greek history.

The Refectory, like other college coffee houses of the old days, was full of talk as well as clouds of cigarette smoke, the room all astir with the excitement of change, changes in society, our personal lives, our shifting identities. Beneath the haze of tobacco fumes, the scent of patchouli. Sometimes people made change sound like something you could take down off the shelf if you just paid the right price—or took the right drug. Find a guru, wear a fashionable outfit—Presto, Chango. You could be transformed, have a new liberated lifestyle.
The talk about psychology, birthed in our now godless scientific age, figured in our discussions in a big way, post-Freudian pioneers blazing new pathways to integration of the self, opened up for the immigrant fugitives of the church who lagged behind.

It may seem we frittered away valuable time that should have been applied to learning Chaucer, Milton, J. K. Galbraith and Herodotus, but we were actually making new discoveries of useful, more relevant paths to pursue. Some were actually skipping class of course.

So maybe you think I’ve been found out, caught rationalizing this deviant behavior, portraying the college goof-offs as higher minded than they really were. Some grasped at the opportunity to test ideas for real change that was in those discussions. We looked outside church and school to find ways to grow and self-realize, concepts that fought to emerge above the fatalistic din in my head that said, “No change is possible.”
Maybe our collective disappointment with blood families and relations was why we began to refer to the group of friends as “the family.” Later on some of us even founded a commune and tried living together.

One couple, Michael and Sue, had discovered the Vedanta teachings of Vivekananda (Hinduism) and were planning a trip to India: Sue and I got to talking in the Refectory and I learned more about it. It was a day when I shared my enthusiasm for Carl Jung who I was reading for the first time, “Jung says, Christ is a symbol of the self, an archetype representing the whole person, not an identity just centered on the ego. I think that’s what I’m aspiring to be—a whole person.”
“That’s what you can obtain through yoga teachings and meditation, a knowledge of the Consciousness and Being behind the Universe—Satchitananda, Dave, Bliss! Consciousness existed in the Universe before even the Earth was created.”
“I think Jung says something like that also.” I believed in Jung’s ideas about the symbol-producing aspects of the unconscious, myths to reintegrate us into a healthier life, but it was an intellectual path. Sue and her boyfriend were taking action, studying the path but also planning to have a teacher. “Where will you go in India?” I asked her.
“We’ll join the Sri Aurobindo ashram, an educational center he started a long time ago. We’ll learn to overcome all this Western materialism and junk we were raised with.”

When Western society seemed to have decided against the reality of God and gone along with Nietzsche’s declaration, “God is dead,” the orphaned children turned to other sources where something like God might be found again. A power drawing us forward to some indefinite goal also led me to Asian religions, at first specifically Hinduism from India, probably because of Beatle George Harrison, his fan-followers and Sue and Michael of course, who left for India. We expected them to come back. But they never returned.
When my hometown friend Chris, an architecture student, undertook his search for truth, he settled on the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. My college dorm friend, Mark, was led by his love of blues singer Robert Johnson to make a pilgrimage to the unholy crossroads of the Blues, where music from the South Side of Chicago intersected with country blues of the Black American South. Another friend, Peter, went north during summer break to work on a road crew under the hot sun. He came back ennobled by labor, extolling the virtues of the working class and the life.
Each of us followed his muse, his grail, and shared their inspiration with the others. We enjoyed each other’s discoveries. It was a time before choices solidified, before we went our separate ways. Not long after however, the family broke up; most of them moved away. Chris was killed in a freak accident on a construction job in Labrador, crushed by a pile of heavy pipe that came loose. He’d only completed his second year at University. I still see and talk with Mark and others now and again.

The examined life can help you choose a direction that brings more pleasure, wisdom, spiritual guidance, even wealth, maybe leading you to find a role where you can serve the community. Unfortunately, dear Socrates, I did not take my next step on the path based on any logical examination of my life. It was a whirlwind of emotions and crazy, out of control circumstances that ordained my future, and blew me down an unknown road.

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