Essay - Tracy Durnell

Tracy Durnell has helped administratively with time and computer expertise over the years since her 2003 trip with Arete. Full of fight, substance, she has emerged as a strong and dependable leader. Here, in her essay, we gain a personal glimpse into the world that she sees today, her boldness and idealism, her caution and wisdom. We are fortunate to have her.

Bill Taylor

I want to make the most of my one shot at life. I’m 27 and already sensing how swiftly time passes. I’m making big decisions that shape the path of my life; I recently got married and adopted two kittens, and my partner and I are discussing how we want our life together to move forward. On top of my personal life, I have my goals and aspirations for my work life and creative life to consider. Through an active and honest quest for arête, I hope to find a purpose for my life.

As I ponder what story I want my life to tell, I’m inspired by the history we studied in preparation for my Arête trip (2003) and in college. Defining individuals arose for each era and region of history; their actions, ideas, and art exemplify the best (or worst) of a time period, and their lives became stories that transcend the daily existence of that time. Society remembers historic figures for how they impacted humanity – for their creations, their ideas, their wars. We read biographies of those we admire and those we loathe to learn from their lives and decisions. I’m inspired by these life stories to find purpose for my own life. Just as we define historical figures by their deeds and works, my deeds and works define me. To the extent that I can write my own tale, I seek excellence in all aspects of life – arête. (In this essay, I write of arête applied to our entire Being, not just arête of a particular element.)

My personal pathways towards arête draw from each dimension of my personhood – my personal life, creative life, and work life. As a human, I aim to treat others fairly and kindly. As an artist, I seek excellence in my graphic design, writing, and photography. As a worker, I strive to support my coworkers with quality work. And yet, even if I accomplish all my wishes for self-improvement, I don’t feel I can claim overall personal excellence without helping others.

Mere survival is not an accomplishment of arête; to validate my ephemeral existence, I feel I must contribute to humanity. If the world is utterly unchanged when I cease to exist, my life has been without meaning. I make meaning for my life by creating positive change for people and the planet. Self-improvement alone will not achieve my full potential.

Those who seek arête should try to leave the world a better place than we were born into. Society is seasoned and shaped by its individuals and their creations. We cannot create without the help of others, so we must in turn help others. Scientists learn from, refine, and refute their predecessors’ research; as Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Artists build from their predecessors, whether they adapt earlier styles or react in opposite to create entirely new styles. Information “wants to be free” – reasonably accessible – and we finally live in a time where information can be easily shared worldwide through the internet. If what we learn or make can help others, we have a duty to share it. Humanity need not reinvent the wheel.

Although others determine our legacy, we can shape the possibilities of that legacy by making our choices with intention. Legacy arises from intent, and purposefully trying to craft my own legacy feels presumptuous and inauthentic. We must sincerely seek to be proud of ourselves, not do what we believe will make the world proud of us. I’ve narrowed my focus for building a legacy into themes. Since 1st grade, I’ve had visions of transforming the world into a utopia (sadly I can’t remember my 6-year-old vision of utopia!) – and as I’ve aged and accepted that my beliefs are far from mainstream, those visions have been concentrated into specific causes I want to promote. My causes are protecting wildlife, promoting art, encouraging critical thought, and minimizing environmental impacts. I focus using my skills towards these causes, combining self improvement through creative interests with my dreams for society, all in quest of arête.

To successfully practice a value like arête, we must deliberately incorporate that value into our decisions. Given the finite energy and resources available in a lifetime, we must prioritize our activities, balancing daily demands with our long-term goals. Daily life is to a lifetime as weather is to climate; the message of a life is an aggregate of its day to day. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in daily life that "we must work on our lives the way we would work on any other project," as Chris Guillebeau wrote in his long essay The Tower. We must actively devote time to pursuing that value if we hope to achieve it.

An unconventional life requires courage – we cannot expect to live like everyone else if we want to find deeper meaning. We must have courage to turn down commitments that don’t match our goals, to submit our work to scrutiny, to create and act and think differently as we try to build something new and better.

Over the past four years, I’ve been volunteering in my free time to improve my skills and support “my causes”. While I’ve learned a lot, my approach has been unfocused; I’ve wiped myself out while making little impact. A sampler of activities: writing graphic novel reviews, tracking wildlife, creating a “zero waste” wiki, helping coordinate the Arete West Facebook presence, and designing and building websites for two non-profits. While these support my causes and personal goals, each activity requires its own administration – scheduling, coordinating, training, research. My efforts have been inefficient in terms of energy invested versus results garnered.

In the process of making our choices, we will have to sacrifice things to meet our goal. This spring, I started a new approach to my arête quest: choosing a single project that encompasses many of my goals. I created a blog encouraging people to experience and get inspired by nature – through the blog I can improve my writing while promoting art and wildlife conservation. But I’ve been forced to cut back on my other projects – no more reviews, tracking, wiki, building other websites. To paraphrase David Allen, we can do anything we want, but we can’t do everything we want. We must choose.

Arête requires balance; we must balance our goals with our daily existence – and we must balance self enrichment with support for others. I do seek to leave a legacy of some kind because having a legacy means that I made a difference. Using my goal of arête to guide my choices about how to spend my time, I hope to both improve myself and create value for others.

Tracy Durnell
October 2012