Online Conversation | Cultivating a Life of Learning with Zena Hitz
How can we cultivate the habits and discipline required for a life of learning, especially in an age of distraction? And is such a life really worth it?
Zena Hitz, humanities scholar and author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, argues that few experiences are as formative and fulfilling as the cultivation of a rich inner life of learning and contemplation.
On Friday, September 16 at 1:30 p.m. ET, we held an Online Conversation with St. John’s College Tutor Zena Hitz who offered a compelling reminder of the intrinsic value of learning as a means for renewing ourselves and, in turn, our communities.
Thank you to our sponsor for this event: The Institute for Human Ecology (IHE) at The Catholic University of America
Online Conversation | Zena Hitz | September 16, 2022
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Molly. And just let me add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Zena Hitz on “Cultivating a Life of Learning.” I’d also just like to thank our sponsor, the Institute for Human Ecology at Catholic University. We so appreciate your support and thank each of you for coming. I believe we have around 1,100 of you registered today, and it’s just really an honor to have your time and attention this Friday afternoon.
For those of you who’ve joined us before, you may know this is, I believe, our 76th Online Conversation that we have started in our series since the pandemic started. And since that time, we’ve covered topics ranging from poetry to pluralism, jazz to Jane Austen, dying well to living a tech-wise life. All of these Online Conversations are available on our website at ttf.org and are available for viewing any time. So thank you for your support through these years. We really do appreciate it.
I’d also like to thank our 130+ first-time guests, as well as our 120+ international guests joining us from all over the world, from countries ranging from India to Ireland, Kenya to Colombia, at least two dozen countries that we know of. So if we have missed you, put your name and place in the chat feature in the Q&A box. It’s always fun for us to see where folks are joining us from.
If you are one of those first-time viewers or are new to the Trinity Forum, we work to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought leadership and offer a space for leaders to grapple with the big questions of life in the context of faith, and ultimately to come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope our conversation today will be a small taste of that for you.
Our topic today—cultivating a life of learning—is one near to the heart of those of us at the Trinity Forum. But we also know it’s not one without detractors, those who believe that the humanities, a life of contemplation, is ethereal, perhaps even elitist or self-indulgent. It’s also one that has spilled over into increasing controversy around the humanities itself. In an overloaded utilitarian society, interest in, support for, the humanities has declined steadily in favor of focusing on the applied sciences and technology, such that the humanities are now themselves often defended with the argument about the ways in which they can provide strategic advantages and real-world skills, whether by sharpening our critical-thinking capacities or equipping us for leadership or citizenship, or developing talents for innovation and design.
But as our guest today will point out, while the advantages and instrumental goods of learning and the humanities are real and significant, they are not the only or even the main reason to cultivate a life of learning. Instead, she’ll argue, learning is worth doing for its own sake as something intrinsically valuable, reflective of, and fortifying to our dignity as human beings, and a vital part of the good life. Drawing on her own experience as a scholar and tutor to both university students and prisoners, she’ll provide an inspiring and intriguing summons to consider anew what it means to engage in contemplation, think deeply, and cultivate an inner life, and the ways that doing so, while often difficult, will offer the rewards of living more wisely and well.
And so it’s a real pleasure to get to introduce our guest today, Dr. Zena Hitz. Zena is a tutor—or professor—of the humanities at St John’s College at Annapolis, the recipient of the Hyatt Prize in the Humanities in 2020, and the president and one of the founders of the Catherine Project, which builds learning communities around reading and reflection. She is also the author of the beautiful work Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life, which has received critical acclaim, been translated into multiple languages, and which we’ve invited her here today to discuss.
Zena Hitz: Thanks so much for your kind words, Cherie. It’s great to be here.
Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you here. So Lost in Thought is, it’s a wonderful defense of the value of the humanities and learning, as well as a memoir of sorts and mentions the ways that you had, in some ways, like a dual conversion, both vocationally and a religious conversion. And so I’d love to hear from you both what led you to write this book and what impact those dual conversions had on your own thinking and in cultivating your own life of learning.
Zena Hitz: Right. So there’s always a different way of telling the story of how the book came to be. I mean, it was one thing after another. And then you just did what was next, in a certain way. I think, practically speaking, I had a religious conversion after finishing my PhD, my first year of teaching. I had gone through some years of struggle and existential crisis in trying to figure out what it meant to be an academic and a person of faith. And what it meant to be an intellectual and a person of faith and how one could use one’s mind without being bogged down in intellectual vices. I’m an extremely competitive person, very argumentative, confrontational. Any of my colleagues will tell you. And I like to win. I like to be the smartest. And that’s part of what brought me into academia. But, of course, in another way, I was once a child who loved books and was fascinated by animals. And even as a liberal arts student as St John’s—I was an undergraduate where I [now] teach—just reading books that seem to really matter for how one lived. So I had, I think, very—I was very lucky to have some kind of core in the background that I could try to reach towards.
So anyway, here I was in this mess of being a philosophy professor, new convert, and not quite knowing what to do with myself. And the tension became so bad, I finally just, I left. I joined a religious community in rural Ontario, Madonna House Apostolate, for three years. And I discerned out and decided to come back to St John’s, where I was an undergraduate. So it was in that moment of returning to teaching after this time of crisis and a sense of renewed purpose, returning to teaching, returning to teaching in a liberal arts context, giving up research academia more or less permanently, and thinking also about what’s happened to the university over the course of my life, because I’ve been away for a few years. So you start to see things, you see changes more dramatically when you’ve been out of step for some time. And it was obvious that my friends who worked at institutions were facing problems of a kind they hadn’t had before. You know, this was the time when all the magazines are writing about the crisis in the humanities. They don’t write about it anymore exactly. It’s kind of too far gone even to write about. And I started reading this literature and no one said anything I could relate to. That was really the golden age of the argument that, you know, “oh, philosophy really sharpens your mind so that you can go to Silicon Valley and really design some apps and climb the corporate ladder and make a ton of money.” And that didn’t make any sense to me. It didn’t seem honest. It didn’t seem why any of us professional philosophers had gotten into philosophy to begin with.
So I said, “Well, what would it be like to try to write down what actually seems to matter to me and the people I know about it?” I wrote a little essay for First Things online and that was picked up by a philosophy blog and then an editor from the press reached out to me. And so there was a book. And at the time—I always say this because I never know who’s out there, who’s in this situation—at the time when I was writing, and through the whole time I was writing the book, I felt like I was the only person in the world who thought of learning this way, because the environment of utilitarian justifications for the humanities was so pervasive and so strong and no one wrote this way, I didn’t feel. And one of the things that’s wonderful about the book coming out is that now, suddenly, I hear from people all over the world who care, who think this way, who are writing in this way, who are working, who are building institutions, who are—. So it’s a bigger world out there than any of us know. And sometimes you have to write something to find out.
Cherie Harder: So as we start out, it’s always helpful to kind of define terms. Most people watching are not going to be professional academics or scholars, but it’s a very thoughtful audience too. And so when we talk about cultivation of the inner life and contemplation, what do you mean by that and how does one do it?
Zena Hitz: So when I began writing, I used the term “intellectual life,” which is a bit of a mouthful, and my publisher hated it. So I mean, it ended up in the title, but it was downplayed from where I wanted. And at other times I talked about, I found that, “the love of learning for its own sake,” “the life of the mind”—these are all common phrases one can kind of use to try to latch onto the activity. And part of the difficulty in defining it is that it’s really quite broad. It’s commonly seen in reading or studying, but also in studying nature, studying botany or birds or molecular physics or what have you. So in a way, my argument is I’m interested in much more than just the humanities, even though I’m a humanities person. I’m also interested in this human desire to understand the world of mathematics, the world of nature.
And I think the nice thing about the word “contemplation” is that it can be even broader than that. It can really capture a lot of the moments of our lives that we think are most precious, most valuable, in which we think our lives really culminate. So you can contemplate a mathematical theorem. You can contemplate a story, a novel, a Bible story, something like that. You can contemplate God in prayer. You can, you know, one of my favorite examples, you’re spending time with your family in pure leisure. It’s nothing, there’s no agenda. And you’re just being together. And part of that value of being together, I think, is something contemplative. You’re savoring, you’re knowing and savoring what’s good about these relationships or these human beings in your life. And so it’s, in that way, you can take “contemplation” as very general. But it also, the parts of it I’m most interested in, are these parts which are more strictly intellectual. So reading, studying, pondering mathematical theorems, looking at birds, things like that.
Cherie Harder: You know, in reading your book, it struck me that there was a little bit of a paradox in that, as you were just talking about, so much of cultivating an intellectual life is seemingly solitary or at least interior: contemplation, reflection, which is usually done by oneself. Or, you know, you even talk about “hidden learning,” that which is sort of shielded from public view. And yet there also seems to be a fairly intensely relational component to learning broadly. But a lot of the learning or the teaching that you have done—at St John’s, you’re called a tutor, not a professor—but there’s been many ways there where you have acted almost as a midwife to learning, whether it’s through students or the prisoners that you tutored and the like. And I’d love for you to reflect a little bit on that paradox: how is inner learning achieved or nurtured? Is it personal? Is it relational? Is it both? What’s the relationship there?
Zena Hitz: Yeah, that’s a great question and something which I, again, every time I try to formulate it, I come across some slightly different aspect that I decide to emphasize. I wanted [the book] first to emphasize the solitariness of intellectual life and the inwardness of it, because in so many of the stories and examples, including my own life as a child bookworm with always a stack of books—or a prisoner in a cell is a very good example, right? This person is isolated. They’re away from their family. They’re away from their community. What do they have? Well, they have this realm of learning that’s available to them, this realm that’s inside one’s mind and one’s heart. And that’s what one can cultivate when really there’s nothing else. It’s what you have when there’s nothing else. And so for me, that was very helpful for two reasons. For one thing, to tell these stories about how thinking and studying and the inner life has really been a refuge for people in extreme circumstances: political prisoners, other kinds of prisoners, people under totalitarian regimes. And also in more garden variety ways: people who are confined to the home, people who suffer from an illness of one kind or another, or who are, for arbitrary reasons, kept out of social life. So I wanted that to be there.
And I also think that for me, having been this research academic, which is very much “the world” in the sense of John’s gospel—it’s the realm of competition and status and making a mark in the world. And it was obvious to me that part of the way to thread the needle of the intellectual life and the life of faith is to pull oneself away as much as one can, to detach from matters of status or competition, and to instead find one’s own questions. And it also happens with students. Students are very anxious about talking in class. They’re obsessed with grades and performance. And the pressure has to always be, “No, just find the question that’s really driving you and share that with others, even if it’s difficult. Then you’ll start really enjoying what’s going on and being alive in the classroom. And then, of course, you also do well, as it turns out.” So I wanted to start there—I’m sorry I’m taking a little longer to answer this question than I might have intended.
But then it’s also true that I think virtually any intellectual activity, any piece of thinking or contemplation involves others. Even just sitting reading a book. There’s an author that wrote that book, and there are characters within the book that the author is sharing with you. And a lot of what I think we do in a Great Books education, like the one I teach in, is you encounter the minds of these authors and, even if they’re long dead, you see something about who they were and what they saw. So there’s a human connection at the bottom of it. And then, of course, that’s only amplified and made richer in a conversation with others about that book, where you see one piece and someone else sees another piece and someone else sees another piece and someone else sees another piece. And you collaboratively work together to understand something. And so you make possible a mode of communion, of real human connection, which is not on the basis of “you and I, we’re better than those people” or “you and I, we’re the best, we’ve made it to the top of the heap,” but rather a friendship based on something, some shared good, that you’re working at together, which is the best kind of connection, I think.
Cherie Harder: You know, I was actually really fascinated by that, the possibilities for new kinds of relationship in communion that it seemed like you were suggesting that mutual learning opens up, and the contrast you made between the way of being in the world that we normally think about—social life, competitive life, trying to get the advantage. You mentioned that politics itself is essentially based on distinctions, divisions, conflict. That’s a necessary part of it. And I—this may be a leading question—but I wondered about your thoughts about looking at our currently hyper-divided, hyper-polarized, and lonely society, what role the cultivation of a life of learning might have in terms of meeting some of the deepest needs for relationship and friendship.
Zena Hitz: So, of course, this is dear to my heart, and I do very much feel that connecting on the deepest level in the realm of learning is one wonderful way to get past our current divisions. And I see examples of it in my classrooms. We get a lot of different kinds of students from mixed political backgrounds, mixed religious backgrounds. All of the political battles in the United States, they’re being fought in the dorm hallways at St John’s. And it can affect the classroom for the negative or the community on campus for the negative if it comes to the surface. But what I’ve learned, what I’ve seen time and time again, is that when you get to the fundamental questions, the human questions, then everyone finds a way to connect. And they may not become friends permanently, you know. These are, you know, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds and actually even the grown-ups maybe even have more trouble making friends again. But that connection, it’s very profound. So I see it in my teaching every day. I see it in this work I do for the Catherine Project. It’s a nonprofit where people who are very isolated can find some community.
I do think it’s more general, though, and I do want to say that, that we lack not just opportunities to learn together, but opportunities to do all kinds of wholesome, good things together. Like we need our gardening clubs and we need our real-life playgrounds with real children playing together, not just the virtual whatever-it-is. We need real terms of collaboration and shared interests. We need to find those. And I do think that that is an antidote both to the loneliness and to that intense polarization and hostility that seems so common right now.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So one question I think people might be having as we talk about sort of contemplation of so many things and wrestling with the big questions, is usually that does not happen quickly. This takes time. And one thing very few of us have is time or extra time, leisure time. So I guess one question to you is how much time does it take to cultivate an inner life and how do you carve out time to do so?
Zena Hitz: Yeah, it’s a hilarious question because, of course, I can never find the time. I have no inner life. I just talk about it in public. But I was very inspired when I was preparing this book. There’s a couple of old books from early 20th century, which is kind of, you know, when people are really adjusting to the industrialized world and the crush of the workweek and also trying to recover some humanity from it. So it’s past—you know, you’re getting past the worst abuses of the child labor and the 20-hour day, and you’re getting into a place where you’re working a lot, but you have a little bit of space and how do you use it? And there’s two authors said, they both argued about two hours a day or maybe a little less, maybe two hours for some days a week and then 30 minutes, 40 minutes at other times. So to carve out some kind of routine where you’re revisiting the same thing every day, and I’m guessing some of your audience have prayer lives that are something like that. You know, you have to do it every day. Sometimes it’s a longer time, sometimes it’s a shorter time. But you know the discipline of checking in every day. Or an exercise routine, I mean, to be even more banal than that. So it’s a bit like that.
And I honestly think the most important thing, even more important than time, is community. You need to have someone to do it with usually. You need someone to help you study. And this is one of the reasons why I set up the Catherine Project, in order to allow people who work and who have complicated lives, who have five small kids at home, to get some support, the support they need to use the time that they have when they have it for this kind of study. I think it’s very daunting, and I’ve talked to a lot of people who get discouraged because they can’t focus on it, they can’t discipline their minds, and they think it’s something wrong with them. And it’s almost always lack of community. And, you know, and you can see it at a place like St John’s where it’s such a rarefied environment that our students read much more than they should be able to read, given their age and their background. But they can do it because they have each other. And some version of that I think is really necessary.
Cherie Harder: The question of community also raises, you know, we’re all creatures with mixed motives. We often don’t even know our own hearts at times, as Augustine talked about. How do we sort of distinguish between the love of learning versus perhaps, say, the love of status or prestige or even joining a particular community that we sort of admire? And is it necessary to distinguish it, or do we just say, well, we are fallen creatures with mixed motives and we’ll just do the right thing regardless if there’s some dross in there with the gold?
Zena Hitz: So I think my answer is going to be closest to something like the last thing you said. But I think—and I’m following Augustine here as well as, I think, Plato and Aristotle, the philosophical forbears—where we all have mixed motives. What matters is not some kind of imaginary purity, where we have only one motive we’re aware of. But the question is what’s winning, what’s really driving you? Is it the ambition or is it the love of learning? And that can be very hard to tell in a given moment. And I think being overly scrupulous about “Why are you joining this reading group? Is it to impress others or is it really to learn?”—I wouldn’t worry too much about that. But you do want to be aware of moments when there’s a crux. It’s like the, you know, the fancy professor who happens to be in your reading group isn’t there one night and you’re like, “Oh, what’s the point of doing this? They can’t even hear my smart thoughts.” You know, that’s a moment where you say, “Oh, wait a second, why am I doing this?” Or it conflicts with some other need or desire that one has. So those are the moments. The moments of conflict are the moments where your motives can be clarified and you can make a readjustment.
But I think that a mixture of vanity and the desire to impress people and the desire to win an argument and to be the smartest person in the room, that’s always going to be in the mix. And the really important thing is to be just constantly putting oneself under pressure for something more than that, for something that’s deeper and more profound than that. And another actually excellent way of doing that is to push yourself to learn things that are uncomfortable for you—that are not so uncomfortable that you can’t stand it, but just a little bit of a stretch. Always be stretching yourself. And then that humility is also going to help you to keep your motives in the right order. If you’re struggling, if you’re like me and, you know—at St John’s I end up teaching historical texts in math and science a lot, which is not my main skill, and I’m always put on my back feet because I can never seem like the smartest person in the room, because it’s just not quite my wheel-house. But I always learn a ton and it keeps me in a better, I think, in a better shape than I would be otherwise.
Cherie Harder: So I also have to ask, you know, previously we hosted Jonathan Haidt on this series, and not only Haidt but, much earlier, David Hume [was] making in some ways a similar argument, that so much of what we think of as “thinking” is actually fairly motivated reasoning. It’s more akin to marshaling arguments for something we’ve already decided, rarely on the basis of reason. And so would like to hear from you how you distinguish between essentially indulging or ruminating in motivated reasoning and actual thinking or reflection.
Zena Hitz: So, you know, it’s funny, I don’t think there’s any quick rules. It’s a real—it takes time to cultivate awareness of motivated reason in others. It’s always a bit easier in others. You can practice on others. [Laughs.] And then just see it in yourself. I mean, one sign is that the conclusion stays the same, but the reason changes. That’s a sign that something is up. That’s not quite right. But you can also, you know, there’s a kind of classic qui bono, you know—why is this person saying that? Who benefits from saying that? And I think we all do this in a way automatically. If it’s something that’s costly for someone to say, if they’re making themselves vulnerable by saying it, or paying a price for saying it. And likewise, if it’s ourselves, if it’s painful for us to say it, if it’s frightening, if we feel that we’re stretching, that’s a sign that we’re working against some motive and for something that’s different. It’s not, you know, these things aren’t cut and dried, but it’s a sign. So it’s one of the reasons why in the book I talk so much about suffering and pain, is that I think that those are, in the intellectual life as in other regions, they’re signs that something good is happening, that we’re growing in a particular direction. Again, that needs qualifications, limitations. It’s not that pain is always good, but it can be a sign of real thinking, real learning. And we can kind of try to make ourselves more sensitive to that.
Cherie Harder: Before we go to questions from the audience, I need to ask: I think most of us probably want to love a life of learning and maybe do so very much in the abstract, and yet at the end of the day are often exhausted, tired. Vegging out just sounds so appealing. And I’d love to hear from you how one cultivates or regains a love of learning that might have shrunk just with toils, cares, pressures, lack of time, and what you do in your own life to cultivate that love.
Zena Hitz: Well, what I think has always helped, not always, but has helped me as an adult is experience, knowing that—so, for instance, if I sit down to write something, an essay or a book or an article or what have you, I spin my wheels for days, weeks, sometimes a full month. I just, I can’t focus on it. I can’t get my head into it. And then suddenly I’m in it, and I can think through it. And then things start moving and the whole thing is underway. So perseverance—and again, community is important for that—enough at the beginning so that you have enough experiences of knowing that it will start working and how wonderful it is when it does. And then to just keep returning to that same thing. And again, something like a daily attention to it is usually helpful.
And just build that sense of the pleasure of doing it and knowing that it’s not going to be automatic. I mean, people talk this way—I’m about the least athletic person in the world—people talk this way about running. They say, “Oh, when you start running, it’s so painful. And then you reach this moment where it’s just, it’s like freedom.” Now, I’ve never gotten to that point in my whole life, but I believe that that’s what—I have experienced something like that in intellectual things. So I think really—but again, community is crucial. So, you know, if you don’t have someone in your own community or in your own family, I would encourage you to take a look at Catherine Project or one of the other—there’s tons of online, wonderful online resources now for people who are trying to find communities of learning. And I think actually Jessica Hooten Wilson also hosts a site where they’re all put together. So I would just really encourage people to reach out and find others to learn with and just to trust that it’s all going to be—you can do it. It’s a human thing. And it just takes struggle and perseverance. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Well, we have a ton of questions from our viewers all lined up. And just as a reminder to those of you joining us, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. So, Zena, a question from Molly Lewis, who asks, “What are some of the ways we might learn how to ask questions better, or ask better questions, in conversation with others, especially if we instinctively prefer to win rather than encourage dialogue?”
Zena Hitz: That is a great question and it’s something I think about every day because in the style of teaching which I have, we’re really meant to, as a faculty member, lead a conversation and not just pontificate endlessly, which is always what I’d like most to do because I have so many thoughts and opinions. So I think that, just take a—I mean, this is a stupid thing to say—just take a deep breath. Sit back, take a deep breath in the conversation for a second, and try to figure out what it is that you personally want to know or what you think your interlocutor wants to know, or what you think maybe doesn’t make sense about what they’re saying, but in the form of a question like, “How do you understand how this fits with this?” So that’s a bit of a confrontational version. But there are questions like that which are more open. The more open you are to the answer, the better the question is, and the more sincerely it’s your question. So part of the art of it is getting to know what it is that you yourself are puzzled about. Ask that question. The biggest fault is to ask a pedagogical question where you’re, you know, “If I ask this, they’ll have to think this.” That never works. Ever, ever, ever. So you ask your own questions.
Cherie Harder: I want to combine two somewhat similar questions from Jeff and Jonah. Jeff asks, “I’ve come to believe that my purpose is to live an examined life. How do I translate that into action that helps the world?” And somewhat similarly, Jonah Gould asks, “As a retired person, sometimes we wonder why we’re here and how our inner thoughts matter now that we’re no longer part of the producing world. Yet, I feel drawn to thoughtful and intellectual pursuits. How can this best glorify God?”
Zena Hitz: Okay. Those are great questions. Let me answer the second one first. So the thinking and the reflecting and the contemplating itself glorifies God. You can see that more clearly if you’re—if you lose trust in that—you can see it more clearly if you share your thoughts with someone else or if you write about it. But I think it’s one of, I think, the amazing things about the world: it’s not just the elderly. There’s all kinds of hidden people out there who are full of thoughts and wisdom and learning and experiences. And it’s so rich and you know about so little of them if you’re just a regular media consumer and you go through your world, you know, not having too much contact. There’s so many individuals like that. So another, again, another thing to think about is who else is out there like you who has these thoughts and reflections, and who might you share your thoughts with? Who might you listen to, to hear theirs? And how might you sort of make these thoughts even more fruitful than they are already? That’s one thing.
As far as making the world a better place, I think one of the things I became persuaded of—and this was really in a way my original existential crisis, was how could I be a good person who made the world a better place and an academic, which just seemed like the most self-indulgent crap that you could do? And what I came to learn is that thinking and reading and conversing are really human goods. And if you can find a way to share those with others, you are doing what we Catholics call a work of mercy. We all know that providing clothing or food or shelter or medical care, these are all works of mercy. They’re all acts of charity. But helping someone to think and to work out their own ideas is also an act of charity. So the question is really how, given your life and your circumstances, you can best do that. And sometimes it’s very simple. It’s teaching your children and talking to your coworkers, being a good member of a meeting about some meaty issue. And sometimes it’s becoming a teacher or doing teaching or writing or something like that, something a little more—or tutoring at a community place. You’ll be shocked at how hungry people are for it. Once you start looking for the hunger, you will see it everywhere. It’s one of the things I find most astonishing about this part of my life is seeing just how many people are just dying to have a conversation, read a book, think about something. And find those people and share what you have with them.
Cherie Harder: So Jenny Savage asked, “How did your experience in a religious community lead you back to a life of the mind?”
Zena Hitz: Well, that’s a great question. It was a—Madonna House is a very interesting place. It’s an unconventional sort of—I call it the St John’s of religious communities. It’s unconventional in many ways. Very sort of traditional in others, but unconventional in others. So they had sort of a piece of most of the aspects of human life. And there was an attempt to do what they called restoration in Christ with rural life, with farming, with growing vegetables, with orchards, with housecleaning, with chopping wood, with some general features of rural life, but also things like running a shop or the various other activities that you might undertake in a little tiny village like that. And there was also a really excellent reader’s library in this place. But of course, I was already in my late thirties. I had been teaching for some time. I was already a scholar. So for me, it was a huge sacrifice to go to this place thinking I might go forever and really put all of my intellectual talents and interests, as they say, on the altar, and really try to figure out what I was going to do with them—where one possibility was that I just didn’t do much with them. You know, they would find their way into other parts of my life. And of course, that’s true of so many people. I wouldn’t have anything to complain about. There are so many people who have wonderful minds and they never had the chance to develop them fully. And instead, they find all their magical ways out in through teaching or nursing or being a parent or what have you. Or great conversations in the taxi. So I had to look at myself as that is one real possibility.
But, of course, the intensity of that kind of experience and also the wholesomeness of the whole thing—like, I was very much living a human, full life, low-tech, in nature with really good people. And I had to really think about what mattered about the life of the mind, not just in an abstract way, but in a very concrete way. Who in my community was interested in this? How could I use it in ways that were helpful to them? So it had a bit of two sides. On the one hand, there was this sense that I—that won out in the end—that I was sacrificing too much and I had to go back and do some teaching. But on the other hand, also a sense of how little it was to be intellectual and how it could really be a part of an everyday life, even if it wasn’t maxed out in the way that I imagined that it ought to be.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Victoria Martineau, who writes that she had experienced some profound childhood trauma and grew up with relatives who were bookworms. And she writes, “Their identification with fictional stories and characters impeded their perception of reality, and they had no sense of how to interact with other children in a positive and healthy manner. They eventually grew into adults with serious mental illness. It seems that they never learned healthy and adaptive social behavior. How would you address an issue like this where the over-identification with fiction can lead to an inability to interact successfully within society?”
Zena Hitz: Wow. That’s an incredible question. And in a way, I feel a bit out of my depth in it. But let me try something. One thing to say is that it is actually the topic of quite a lot of great literature. Don Quixote. Huck Finn, in a certain way. Madame Bovary. These are all stories about people who read too many books. The stories infected their minds and they became incapable of human functioning. So paradoxically, I think, one can understand that kind of pathology even through the world of literature.
Now, my instinct, practically speaking, and it wouldn’t be something—I don’t think I’ve ever encountered quite like what you’re describing. I definitely have encountered in myself and in others the use of intellectual life as an escape. And then the antidote is to try to connect the world of books with the world of reality, and that connection can be a challenge to make. And I think it requires things that are not intellectual. I think it requires safe environments, kind people, certain kinds of support. And it’s maybe not— the books are being— they’re just being used as a means to an end to the problem. They’re not, I don’t think, themselves the problem. The problem is the inability to connect. And you would have to address that more directly, I think. But I, again, I feel that I’m a bit out of my depth in that question, but thank you for it. It’s a fascinating and wonderful question.
Cherie Harder: So we have a question from an anonymous viewer who asks, “Is age diversity and other types of diversity important for intellectual communities?”
Zena Hitz: I think it’s wonderfully important. There’s nothing like having a wide mix of human beings at the table. It, you know, it’s one of the things that’s lost in, I think, our current society. It’s something I’ve been thinking more about maybe as I get older, my parents get older. But I think intergenerational living is something that’s healthy for all of us. And we see different ways that different people at different stages of life engage with books and ideas, and that’s very valuable. One of the wonderful things that happened at St John’s when I was away all those years—going to grad school and then being in a religious community and so on—we got all of these international students, tons of them, for quite a long time. It’s dried up a bit. I think it’s been more difficult for international students in the US. But we had students from every part of the world, and the conversations about the books were very exciting and interesting in that light, and it really I think is true—it’s both true that these things have an appeal that’s universal. There’s something human—and I really believe that—in intellectual life that anyone, no matter what their walk of life, their age, their background, their ethnic background, their gender, etc., anyone can connect with. But it’s also true that that particular stamp, that particular path of life that this person’s traveled, it affects that in really dramatic ways and it helps you to learn. So I’m a big fan of it.
I don’t always like the way that it’s implemented, diversity. I don’t think it should be a bureaucratic matter. I don’t think it should be decided top down by bean picking. What I’ve seen in most of my experiences is that when you have a community that really is open and that really knows how to be welcoming, the diversity happens on its own. And sometimes you need to make some efforts at the margins, but the diversity of people who are interested in this kind of thing is real. It’s a fact. It doesn’t need to be artificially imposed, but it does need to be welcomed, accepted, brought into the fold, recognized as good and wonderful as it is.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Kevin Rhoden. Kevin asked, “Much of what’s been discussed so far are suggestions for developing an inner life for those who are already convinced that it’s a good thing. In your experience, what are paths to convince someone the inner life is worth developing in the first place?”
Zena Hitz: So that’s a great question. And it’s a common criticism of my work that I’m preaching to the choir. And in a certain way, I want to bite the bullet and say, you know, it’s never been my—I know people who are really talented at persuading people who would never ordinarily take an interest in intellectual life to be interested in it. I’ve known teachers who could do that in a classroom. They’d go in a classroom of complete zombies and persuade them that philosophy was the best thing in the world. I’ve never been able to do that. I think that part of what has gone wrong in our way of talking about these things is that people who are already committed forget why. And they lose their confidence in what they’re doing. And they get discouraged very easily. So in a way, yes, I am preaching to the choir because the choir is a wreck. The choir needs to be preached to. And I don’t mean to— it’s preaching, I hope, and it comes off as light. It’s an encouragement for all of us to think about why this kind of thing matters, but why it really matters to us, not how I might justify it to someone who, in the abstract, I have nothing in common with. I mean, if I had a real person in front of me, I would find something I had in common with them and I would go at it that way. But in the abstract, I talk from my own experience, and if people can connect with that experience, that’s wonderful. And if they can’t, then I hope someone else comes along and persuades them, persuades them to do the kind of thing I’m talking about.
Cherie Harder: Zena, this has been fascinating. And in just a moment, I’m going to give Zena the last word. But before that, a few things just to let you know about. First, right after this Online Conversation is over, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. We’d love to get your thoughts. We, as I mentioned, we read these every time. We try to incorporate your suggestions and recommendations to make this program ever more valuable. And as a small incentive for filling out that feedback form, we will send you a code for the download of a free Trinity Forum reading of your choice. There are quite a few of our titles that Zena has—of the original work—that Zena has mentioned in her work, so we would particularly recommend Augustine’s “Confessions,” Simone Weil’s “Wrestling with God,” Cicero “On Friendship,” Aquinas “On Happiness,” and Dorothy Day’s selections from The Long Loneliness.
In addition, for everyone who registered, we will be sending around tomorrow an email with a link to this lightly edited video, along with a bunch of additional readings and resources if you want to go further into some of the content discussed today. And speaking of resources, I want to announce that we will also be highlighting a new resource we have available and want to offer, which is our book club box, which is intended as a reading group starter kit to start your own reading group, to cultivate a community of learning exactly along the lines that we’ve been talking about. So we just rolled that out this week. We highly recommend that to you, and we’d love to hear your stories about what’s happened in your own reading groups that you’ve started.
In addition, I want to invite each of you here to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people interested in the mission and programs of the Trinity Forum, and work with us to advance the goals of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought. There are quite a few benefits and advantages of becoming a member of the Trinity Forum Society, including a subscription to our quarterly Trinity Forum readings, our daily list of “What We’re Reading” list of recommended feeds, and as a special incentive for those of you who join the Trinity Forum Society or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Zena’s book, Lost in Thought, which we highly recommend to you.
Next week, we’re excited to mention our next Online Conversation. We’ll be hosting Augustinian philosopher James K.A. Smith to discuss his new book, How to Inhabit Time. And there’ll be more information on that Online Conversation both on our website at ttf.org and the chat feature. And you should be receiving an invitation for that as well.
Finally, as promised, Zena, I want to give you the last word.
Zena Hitz: Don’t be afraid to learn. Never be afraid to learn and to think. That’s my last word.
Cherie Harder: That may be one of the most succinct last words I’ve ever had in a Trinity Forum Conversation. Zena, it’s been a real pleasure to get to talk with you.
Zena Hitz: Yeah, same here, Cherie. Thank you so much. Pleasure to talk to all of you.
Cherie Harder: Yes. Thank you to each of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.