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SRS Interviews

"Fashioning an Honorable Life: An Interview with Scott Russell Sanders," by Barbara Stahura, Science of Mind (October 2006), pp. 90-96.

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A master practitioner of the art of the personal essay, Scott Russell Sanders has also written novels, short stories, and children’s books. He has won several prestigious awards for his writing, including the Lannan Literary Award. In his most recent work, A Private History of Awe, he weaves the story of his own growing up with the current-day story of his baby granddaughter coming into mindful life as his mother is taking leave of hers. It’s a memoir about many things: the growth of his passion for peace and social justice; the inspiration that nature provides him, whether it be wilderness or his own backyard garden; a love story that began in his teens and continues today; and the foundations of his life of service through teaching and writing.

A Private History of Awe is also a memoir of spiritual development, a movement from Sanders’s childhood of Midwestern country churches to a belief in the vast web of interconnection that underlies all things—the immense power “that surges through bone and rain and everything,” as he writes in the prologue, adding, “The search for communion with this power has run like a bright thread through all my days.”

In this graceful, plainspoken memoir, Sanders follows his bright thread on the search for his own answers to deep, ancient questions about the self and about the universe, pondered both by science and by spirituality.

He began college with the intention of becoming a physicist, but, appalled by its wartime and weapons applications, he became a teacher and writer instead. In that way, he became a major literary force for environmental protection and for social justice. Today, Sanders is a professor in the Department of English at Indiana University and the author of nineteen books.

Science of Mind: “Awe” is a word that’s lately fallen far away from its original usage. Today, we say a new video game is awesome. How do you define awe?

Sanders: Like almost every word that points to something profoundly important, “awe” has been degraded by advertising, politics, and lazy tongues. In writing A Private History of Awe, I wanted to help recover the original meaning of the word, which signifies a two-sided emotion. On one side are reverence and wonder, and on the other side, terror and dread. The wonder and reverence are evoked by the great size, age, complexity, elegance, and mystery of the universe; the terror and dread arise from our awareness of being tiny, fleeting creatures in this vast and unfathomable cosmos.

SOM: Do you think we’re losing our ability to feel this emotion?

SRS: The experience of awe requires humility. It requires us to acknowledge that we are not the lords and ladies of the universe, that we are in fact fragile and transient guests, limited in our understanding and in our life spans. To feel awe, one has to look beyond the minuscule realm where humans can pretend to control things. The more time we spend inside buildings, cars, mental constructs, and virtual “reality,” the more tempted we are to confuse our little sphere with the universe. We puff ourselves up, pretending that Earth is a spaceship and we are the captains. It’s harder and harder to feel a sense of reverence for wildness and the grand whirling cosmos as we enclose ourselves inside human structures.

Much of the religious language we hear nowadays from televangelists, politicians, and other pundits seems to me lacking in reverence. When someone claims to know what God wants, how God feels, whom God hates—as so many public figures do these days—that seems to me the height of arrogance. No human can speak on behalf of the power that created and sustains the universe.

SOM: This book is, in large part, about how you learned to follow your own truth, your conscience. You wrote a beautiful sentence about that: “I had come to understand conscience as a sympathetic vibration between my innermost fiber and the force that brings new creatures into being and lavishes so much beauty on the world.” Please explain that a little more.

SRS: One’s conscience is an inner compass, which gives a sense of direction and guides one’s actions. I don’t pretend to know all the sources of conscience in me, let alone in anyone else. Obviously, we learn things from our parents, our teachers, from scriptures and books and friends. But I suspect that conscience has a deeper source, as well. It may sometimes lead us to act in ways contrary to what our society or our peers urge us to do. For me, the first great lesson in the need to defy immoral social codes came from the civil rights movement. And the first great test of my own conscience came in response to the Vietnam War. As I was debating whether to declare myself a conscientious objector, I felt a sense of kinship between that impulse in me and the creative impulse I perceived in nature. In A Private History of Awe, I cite one example of that resonance between inner and outer—the sight of a swallow gliding over a stream and dipping down to take a sip. But I’ve had hundreds, maybe thousands, of moments in my life when I sensed the power that brings beauty and intricacy into the world. I’m aware that everything beautiful fades, that every living thing eventually dies, that existence is two-sided, just as the emotion of awe is two-sided. But the creative power that has shaped and sustained the universe, including us and everything we see, is ultimately greater than the power of dissolution. I can’t prove that creativity finally trumps destruction, but I feel it deeply. Obeying conscience means to align one’s life, as well as one can, moment-by-moment, with this holy and magnificent energy.

Words like “energy” and “power” are only metaphors, of course. How to name the ultimate source and flow of things? We might call it the Tao or God or Allah; we might call it Creator, Holy Spirit, Wisdom, Logos, Wakan Tanka or any number of other names. Or we might point humbly and wordlessly toward the central mystery, the origin and shaping intelligence of things.

SOM: This book is so rich with your personal stories demonstrating how you found your life’s purpose. For you, what does it mean to live a purposeful life?

SRS: Early on, I absorbed from my parents, and also from the Bible and country churches, a sense of responsibility for serving the needs of other people. Given my talents and temperament, the best ways of fulfilling that responsibility seemed to be teaching and writing. So I have followed those two professions, seeking to help my students and my readers become more fully awake to our miraculous existence. But I might also have served people as a physician, farmer, carpenter, or scientist. There are many ways of being useful. A purposeful life for me is one that entails useful work—work that feeds or clothes or shelters or educates or uplifts or heals human beings. Work should give expression to one’s character and gifts, helping one to become a more conscious, more compassionate human being. It’s tragic when people work only for money. I understand the need for a paycheck, but if the work doesn’t feed the worker’s soul, if it doesn’t serve some real need, if it doesn’t somehow improve the world, then it seems to me a sad bargain. Why trade one’s working life for money? I’ve had the great good fortune of pursuing professions that nourish me as a person even while they provide services to other people.

SOM: It was clear to me as I read your book that you believe in the connectedness of all things. How would you describe that Oneness and how do you connect with it?

SRS: I’m only an amateur in the study and practice of mysticism, but everything I have learned convinces me that the world’s mystical traditions converge on a central insight, which is that beneath the seeming division and variety of the world, there is an underlying oneness. In my own moments of insight, I have felt a sense of merging with that unifying source. I have experienced this communion in meditation but also in wilderness and in response to great music, literature, and art. That unity is the deepest truth about ourselves and our world, whether or not we acknowledge it. In all our dazzling diversity, we are actually expressions of a single power, and in certain moments of clarity we recognize that fact. Much of the time, we are so intent on our private agendas, so enamored of our egos, that we feel cut off from the whole. But that’s an illusion. We aren’t separate from the great unity. I have tasted this truth, and I have found it confirmed by the great spiritual visionaries.

Science reveals the same truth. It teaches us that the universe is an integrated whole, every part affecting every other part. Science rests on the premise that the entire universe works according to the same rules that we observe operating in our own neighborhood of space. All of physics and chemistry, all of cosmology, assume this unity. So we have not only spiritual traditions telling us that the universe is one; we have science telling us, as well. There are many paths to the experience of this unity, but each one requires us to at least momentarily elude our egos and let go our illusion of being separate selves. When that happens, we experience reality as it is, as one.

SOM: You quote the Gospel of John in the book: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” These are dark times for many people. How do you keep the light shining for you?

SRS: These are dark times. The earth is very crowded and becoming more so all the time, and this crowding causes more and more damage to the biosphere, more and more friction among people competing for land or water or other vital resources. At the same time, we have ever greater technological power at our disposal, and this amplifies the effects of our aggressive and violent impulses. An angry person or nation armed with nuclear weapons, with conventional bombs, or even with jetliners can do far more damage than the same person or nation armed with arrows or stones. Even our seemingly peaceful actions, such as burning fossil fuels, are threatening the natural systems on which all life depends. The electronic media bring us news of atrocities, disasters, and crises from every quarter of the globe, every hour of day and night. And thus anyone who is paying attention is aware of more suffering and strife, more danger and harm, in more places, than our ancestors could ever have known.

Given this unprecedented flow of information—not knowledge, not wisdom, but information—it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scope and number of problems we face. Young people, especially, may fall into despair. When my son was seventeen, we had a terrible quarrel, in which he challenged me to tell him why he, or any member of his generation, should feel hopeful about our prospects for confronting these problems. Four years after our quarrel, I published my answer in the form of a book called Hunting for Hope. I believe that all of us who are parents, teachers, or elders of any sort owe young people an honest accounting of our own grounds for hope. I’m not talking about the cheery optimism that one hears from politicians and advertisers and boosters. Optimism is the blithe confidence that things will turn out just fine regardless of what we do. Today, only a fool could believe that. On the other hand, hope is the conviction that no matter what the circumstances are, no matter how dire the situation, we can always do good work, and good work is always worth doing. Hope arises from the conviction that we can draw on resources within ourselves, within our cultural inheritance, within our community, within nature, and—if one takes a religious view of things—within the realm of spirit to face even the gravest challenges. I may not be optimistic, therefore, but I’m hopeful.

SOM: How do you maintain hope?

SRS: I try to balance my awareness of problems, both local and global, with a sense of gratitude for the blessings of my life. While there is much pain in the world, there is also much joy. Alongside the ugliness, there is beauty. In A Private History of Awe I describe how, as my mother was dying, my first grandchild was learning to walk, learning to speak, unfurling like a blossom. In our awareness of losses, we should never forget the gifts. For me, those gifts include the many people I love, a warm house to share with my wife and children, nourishing meals, books, music, sunshine and rain and the glorious spectacle of nature, and the chance to do useful work. These gifts make me a privileged man, and I feel the responsibility that comes with such privilege. These and countless other blessings are a source of comfort and meaning for me even while wars rage, famine and genocide claim countless lives, entire species perish, and the biosphere tilts out of balance. I am only too keenly aware of these and other calamities, and I do what I can to address a few of them. But at the same time, I cherish the simple pleasures that my life brings to me. It would be ungrateful to let our concerns about the world—important as those concerns are—drain away the purpose and joy from our lives. We can carry on the work of healing only if we ourselves are whole.

I also maintain hope by remembering what we are capable of at our best. Clearly, humans are capable of great selfishness, shortsightedness, and violence, as history abundantly proves. But we are also capable of generosity, altruism, fidelity, and affection. Just as I believe that the creative impulse in the universe is more powerful than the destructive impulse, so I believe that our own deepest nature is cooperative and compassionate. When I am dismayed by new evidence of our hatred, vengefulness, and aggression, I recall our capacity for understanding and kindness. Those impulses are the more durable.

As a teacher, I find that the most thoughtful young people are the most likely to feel daunted by the world’s problems. I urge them to pick one problem and work on it locally. If you’re concerned about world hunger, I tell them, then go work in the community kitchen. If you’re concerned about violence against women, work at the women’s shelter. If you’re concerned about the extinction of species, volunteer for the local land trust. If you agonize over homelessness, go swing a hammer at the latest Habitat for Humanity building site. Don’t just keep fretting about the ills of the world. Roll up your sleeves and do something. Such local work is not all you can do, or should do, but it’s a place to start. None of us is called to save the world. The world is too big, too complicated, too stubborn in its ways for any combination of us to “save” it. All we are called to do is to act kindly, responsibly, and attentively within the limits our lives impose on us. If enough of us do that, the healing will begin.


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