I am in the process of filling out an application for an M.A. program, which requires essay responses to three questions/prompts. Here is one of the prompts.

Briefly describe an experience you have had during the last year and tell how it has affected your personal growth.

It’s quite a coincidence, but I had previously been asked to develop a prompt that would lead to the most bland and unenlightening essay responses imaginable, and this is exactly what I came up with.

But when I sat down to write the thing, I actually managed to come up with something that didn’t bore me. So here it is, very lightly edited:

I have spent much of the last year doing language documentation under a fellowship from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I do much of the work sitting at a desk, but I’ve also spent about three months doing fieldwork in the Wakhan corridor, where the language that I am documenting (Wakhi) is spoken. Wakhis live at an elevation of about 10,000 feet, and they’re surrounded by mountains reaching thousands of feet higher than that. Life is difficult. Everyone is malnourished. The Wakhis are certainly the poorest people I have been among; they are the poorest in this country, aside from their neighbors the Kyrgyz, who live at a higher elevation still. It is impossible for me to be in such a situation without reflecting on why I am so rich and they are so poor. My reflections have gone in two directions: first, in recognizing how little I contribute to my life; second, in recognizing what I do contribute to my life.

I come from the most individualistic culture in the world, and even within that culture I stand out as an individualistic person. I esteem the ideal of the self-made man, and in unguarded moments I consider myself to be such a man. But here are some things that I’m not responsible for: growing up in a peaceful country, growing up in a country which has cured nearly every disease I am likely to face, growing up in a country where the rule of law is never in question, growing up in a country where commodities are bought and sold irrespective of the ethnicity of the buyer and seller. America is not a paradise; I have heard reports of oppression in America. But they are reports: they’re not things that I’ve faced, or even seen first-hand. They don’t really get inside of me and affect my outlook on life. To these basics benefits of life in a liberal democracy, I can add the investment that my country has made in my education and academic work, which I would estimate to be in excess of $200,000 for my post-secondary education alone. The most I’ve done to earn any of that money is to write an essay or a proposal. And all of those opportunities would count very little, if I hadn’t been born into a family which valued education and hard work. I acquired a passion for reading and research from my parents and grandparents; if I had been less fortunate in my parents, I might have acquired a substance abuse problem instead.

But alongside the realization of to the extent to which I am embedded in society, I have also come to appreciate my personal contribution. One is a recognition that I have much to learn – especially about things that are closest to me, and especially about things that are within my specialty. I have every expectation of learning new things, and discovering better ways of doing things, until the day I die. But I have not always found this expectation among traditional people, who can be quite uninterested in learning something new about farming, for instance. There is a humility required to learn something new. There is also humility in trusting those who have expertise. It requires arrogance to insist vehemently on receiving a course of penicillin, against the recommendation of a Western-educated doctor. I benefit from my ability to trust established medical authorities to make health recommendations, and similarly from my ability to trust other authorities for other decisions.. I recognize that I do not know better than them. Finally, for all of the benefits I have received from society, I own my personal responsibility carrying my life forward. My life goal is not to find the protection of a rich patron; neither is it to attract a loyal group of clients to serve and support me, and to keep them from becoming independent. Within the context of the resources available, I recognize that the condition of my life is my own responsibility.

These two streams of thought are at once contrary and interdependent. My willingness to learn new things exists in a context in which it is possible to do so responsibly, i.e., is largely a product of the education I have received. My willingness to try new things exists in a context where it is responsible to try new things. No matter how badly I fail, it is inconceivable that my children would starve. My trust for experts depends on the existence of trustworthy experts. My owning of personal responsibility takes place in an economic context in which one can live by one’s wits and succeed. But by the same token, the society I live in is what it is, in part, because the personal and cultural values that I have come to appreciate in myself, are widely held by others. These interdependencies have not, to now, permitted me to come to a settled estimate of my own contributions and my society’s contributions to my well-being.