Barnacles do not often occupy the thoughts of landlubbers. Most people can go for weeks without thinking about them. It had been at least that long for me when I found in my files John Gardner’s marvelous 1990 address called “Personal Renewal.” Gardner begins his speech with an arresting quotation from an article he had read:
The barnacle is confronted with an existential decision about where it’s going to live. Once it decides, it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock.
What a thought-provoking image! Who would have thought a barnacle could exercise such judgment? Yet the barnacle effectively solves many of life’s problems, like where it’s going to sleep, how it’s going to get food, what it should do during the day, or whether it should visit its relatives. Happiness for the barnacle is having a large, caring, close-knit family—stuck to some other rock. Consider the problems this solves for society: no runaway children, no injudicious bungee-jumping, no family members getting lost while conducting dangerous expeditions into unknown regions.
But the barnacle cements its own prison and becomes its own jail-keeper. We all know one or two barnacles—people who have cemented their lives into place, who are stuck where they were years ago, who have lost the will and the imagination required to seek happiness. Indeed, if we are honest with ourselves, few of us are not barnacle-like in some respect. What does it take to develop enough imagination to come unstuck?
First, you must come to understand yourself well enough to be able to see your condition clearly. This may take shaking up, or worse—cutting loose. You must come to understand how much more is possible, how spacious and open life can be. And once you have learned these things, you must be willing to change if any of this learning is to have an effect on your life. Above all the doors to our institutions of learning should be a placard that reads: Barnacles may not enter unless willing to be scraped. The highest calling of education is to demonstrate to us barnacles that we need scraping. And that what we risk by refusing to be scraped is no small thing, but our own happiness.
How can you be persuaded that this is so? Only by taking a chance and opening yourself to the possibility. You may need to be dragged to this place by a friend or by a teacher. Or you may be moved by something beautiful, something that pulls you toward it irresistibly. Have you lost all desire for such things? What do you need to do to reawaken that desire? Whatever it takes, you must do it, for little can be learned without it.
Liberal learning staves off the onset of barnacle disease, and can reverse it once it has set in. What is more, it can help us to find a meaning in life that is unknown to barnaclekind and almost immune to considerations of success and failure, as Gardner says at the end of his speech:
Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.
Barnacles have forgotten what it means to be free, and may even have lost the desire for freedom. Consequently, they usually need to be shocked into the realization that they need an education in the arts of freedom—a liberal education. Such an education requires exemplary objects of study—the most stunning books, artworks, and experiments that can be found anywhere. It requires cultivating good habits of mind and heart. It requires like-minded and generous companions with whom to study, and from whom to learn when the spirit is weak or the current is turbulent. It takes time. But little by little the cement crumbles. The barnacle comes unstuck. Then, finally, it is free to float to the surface and explore the vast ocean under the life-giving sun.
Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This originally appeared on St. John’s College Sign Posts for Liberal Education and appears by the author’s permission.