On Curiosity, Confidence … and Eustace Conway

4 Sep

Eustace Conway as pictured on Gilbert’s biography.

Eustace Conway likes to tell the story of how, one winter in the North Carolina mountains, he shot a deer, only to find it still clinging to life. Conway decided to end the deer’s suffering by taking a knife and puncturing its neck – only to have the deer fight its way back to its feet, thrusting its eight-point rack at his attacker. As Conway tells it, man and deer wrestled ferociously until it finally died; covered in its blood, Conway thanked the deer for the sacrifice it had made, so that he might go on living.

“And that is what I call feeling connected to your groceries!” Conway told a crowd of several hundred students on Tuesday, August 28th, at Assumption College.

Those students shouldn’t have been stunned: They’d read at least parts of The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about Conway, including a stirring version of the above anecdote. But Conway – long-haired, bearded and tall, talking without notes as he paces back and forth – has a way of making an impression. It doesn’t hurt that this advocate of living close to nature has taken some wild risks to test his survival capabilities, and managed some bizarre exploits along the way, from crossing the country twice via horse – once riding the horse, and once with a buggy – to founding Turtle Island, the patch of North Carolina wilderness where those who are hardy and idealistic enough tackle the humbling challenge of living as Conway does. (Most quit in frustration.)

While Conway acknowledges that he struggles when it comes to making compromises with those who wish to emulate him, he keeps trying because his theme of connection cuts both ways: While Conway derives some of his intense sense of purpose from living as close to nature as possible, he also sees it as his destiny to persuade others to do the same. Hence the public speaking, hence the telephone, hence the television show Mountain Men – in which he appears, even as he ridicules its lack of realism. (The producers wanted to film him peeing uphill, he told Assumption students.)

But while “connection” was a key word for Conway, about halfway through his talk I jotted down two other “c” words – ones I’m not sure he even uttered in the talk. Those words: “Curiosity & Confidence!” I scribbled them down just as it hit me  that Conway was basically unfolding a narrative of American self-education: Even as Emerson valued Thoreau for the latter’s ability to actually build a canoe (rather than just write about one), I admire Conway’s cycle of reading about some wilderness skill and then trying it himself, and then reading more so he could understand the deeper context – and then trying even more.

Eustace Conway is experiential education personified.

Which is why he shows up here, in a blog devoted to stories of service. Sure, there are other good reasons for him to fit here: Conway sees his lifestyle as one that cuts against the “me now” way we treat the environment, as well as an endorsement of kinder social and foreign policies in which we are more respectful of others. But as an advocate of community service learning, it’s his combination of curiosity and confidence I most want students to bring to their service.

The curiosity, of course, to explore how they fit into the broader context of not only nature, but also of community, locally, nationally, and globally. How are the lives of others different from our own? What can we learn and apply from all those differences? What do we have to give? What would we get back in the process of giving it? In what ways might others surprise us?

In what ways might we surprise ourselves?

The second of which brings us to confidence – the belief that in service we might be capable of far more than we ever guessed. I don’t just mean this in terms of noble self-sacrifice, but also in terms of skill sets. The community service narratives I read at the ends of each semester recount dozens of instances in which students felt distrustful of their own abilities, whether they were going to tutor children of immigrants or clear trails, engage ex-convicts or work on a farm. Sometimes those volunteer engagements lead to career choices, based on the affirming of abilities they never knew they had. And, upon learning their new capabilities, they have a few less excuses for not taking their service further.

Of course, sometimes volunteers find out what they’re not suited for – or at least what they’re not ready for yet. Like the many dropouts from Conway’s Turtle Island, they may leave frustrated at how the reality fell short of the idealized vision – just as Conway winds up frustrated at his own inability to relate to the people whom he’s trying to reach. But hopefully even disillusioning volunteer experiences help us chose more wisely in the long run, without renouncing the commitment to serve.

There is something to be said for situations – and for people – who push us out of our comfort zones into a broader awareness. Eustace Conway is one of those people – and I find inspiration in both his successes and his frustrations. I try not to set myself up for quite so much frustration – Gilbert depicts a man whose ambition is unattainable. “People used to say to Eustace, ‘if you touch only one life, you’ve had an effect on the world!’ But Eustace was never satisfied with that. It was his intent to alter the very destiny of humanity …” While that seems spiritually foolish, a surefire setting up of one’s self for failure, it guarantees that he has touched, mostly likely, a thousand such lives over the years.

Gilbert goes on to share the example of a young man named Dave, and how Conway shared with him a message of “mindfulness” in which you should “Revere your senses; don’t degrade them with drugs, with depression, with willful oblivion. Try to notice something new every day. … You can never become a real man if you have a careless and destructive attitude … but maturity will follow mindfulness even as day follows night.”

When that young man tearfully announced that he thought he should leave Turtle Island and go home, he found Conway comforting, offering compassion and advice that he still found valuable 15 years later. “He told me I was free to go home … And I did go home, but when I got there, I found that something had changed in me. And the rest of my life was changed.”

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