Watch out everyone, this one is going to be a big-rig. In other words, long and heavy.
Warning: this post goes pretty far down the rabbit hole in terms of theology.
I. The Palo Alto Life
As I reflected on a defining trait of this city, I decided that the culture of Palo Alto values self-actualization above all else. We admire those who are working to better themselves, whether that be in intelligence, physical strength, or character. However, one of the problems with Palo Alto is its unwillingness to acknowledge that the way we choose the improve ourselves is just as important as the end goal. If you live here, you know that Palo Alto is an extremely liberal city, but for all its open mindedness, it lacks imagination when it comes to what humans are supposed to do. Not that we’ll admit that. If anyone asks, we’re quick to say that you should do whatever makes you happy. However, we act as though what will make most people happy is an education at a four-year college or university followed by a financially stable and personally rewarding career. Emphasis on “financially stable.”
After I considered the value system I’ve grown up in, I examined its effect on myself. I’ve largely adopted the liberalism that is dispensed from almost everyone around me. Ask me about pretty much any policy issue, and my gut reaction is to go with the more liberal response. I’ve become focused on my future, my reputation, my success, and myself to the exclusion of a lot of other important people. If you’ll notice, nowhere in the above description of a successful Palo Altan does it mention anything about community. We might pay the idea of community lip service, but we really don’t care about it.
One of the most obvious examples of our lack of interest in community is the way my friends and I perceive community service. I can’t speak for the entire population of Palo Alto High School, but for the majority of my class, community service is something to put on your college application. Which brings me back to self-actualization. The ideal, potential self has a different image depending on what stage of life you’re at. For young children, the ideal self is independent and well-adjusted. For high school students, it’s a college freshman. One of my friends who has a knack for philosophy commented, “in Palo Alto, college is the transcendental signifier.” Another one put it more bluntly and less hyperbolically, saying, “In Palo Alto, getting into Harvard is winning at life.”
Quick side note: Interesting article about how college has become so mythologized here.
I’ve lived in Palo Alto for six years now, and this type of attitude has rubbed off on me. I like the fact that I’ve won at life, but I don’t want to. To explain why, I’ll have to explain a little of my personal value system.
II. Grace and Community
Earlier this summer, I asked a couple of my friends if I seem like a Christian. I was told that because I don’t try to convert people all the time, I just come across as a nice guy. Well, I would like to clarify that perception. There is nothing that has had a greater impact on my life than my relationship with God. If you think about it, my belief that I have a personal relationship with an omnipotent, omniscient, GOD should tell you a lot about who I am.
As a brief tangent, I should note that I’m fine with institutions. If I wasn’t, I definitely wouldn’t be part of the largest religion in the world. The thing that irks me about Palo Alto as an institution is its hypocrisy. It reminds me of the false solvency effect. Because we claim to value to freedom and liberty of people to be whoever they want to be, we ignore actual inequalities and biases that prevent people from being free.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I want to describe the church I attend, it’s another institution which has played a large part in my life. It’s part of the PCA; more specifically, it’s a church which was “planted” in Palo Alto by a pastor who was part of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Grace Presbyterian Church is an interesting blend of Palo Alto and faith. The congregation is mostly composed of Stanford students and tech company employees, and the church itself meets at Gunn High School. However, the emphasis on grace and community sets it apart from Palo Alto in some interesting ways.
First, grace. I’m wary of making broad statements about Christianity because it is such a diverse religion, but one thing all Christians agree on is that humanity is intrinsically sinful and in need of redemption. Jesus Christ completes that redemption through his death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection. Now, the specifics of how those events accomplishes redemption are in debate (see here), but for the purposes of this post, the key aspect is that humans are undeserving of grace and can’t work to achieve salvation. In practical terms, it means that no one in the church can claim any kind of differentiation by merit, the exact opposite of what an aspiring meritocracy like Palo Alto desires.
The idea of grace changes the way Christians should act. It removes any basis for competition (not that there isn’t still competition, we are sinful after all) and acts as an intermediary for relationships. The global church is tied together through our mutual need for grace. But then a new problem comes up: now that we have been connected through grace, how do we live in community?
For a long time, I though humility was having low self-esteem. However, I encountered what I think is a better conception of humility in a quote that has been attributed to C.S. Lewis, Rick Warren, and Tim Keller. Whoever said it, I think it pithily captures the idea of humility. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” Now, even though I have been described as humble, by this definition of humility, I’m pretty terrible at it. Ironically, I used a quote about humility in my senior yearbook. Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (ESV). And that’s one of the best ways to create community. It’s something that seems lacking in Palo Alto (of course, that could just be from my self-absorbed point of view) and in myself, and something I hope to gain in the future.
That’s enough of bashing Palo Alto. Now it’s time to thank it for some of the things it taught me. First, it eliminated a lot of pride. Back in Pittsburgh, I was in a gifted and talented program called GOAL, and I thought I was pretty cool. Then, I moved out here and found out that everyone is gifted and talented: science, math, writing, music, acting, drawing, sports, video games… you name it and there’s an expert on it in Palo Alto. Second, it’s shown me a different perspective. For all the complaining I did above, I have to thank Palo Alto for introducing me to so many unique people. Their intelligence, courage, and honesty taught me a lot.
Way back in March, I made a resolution to get to know people even if it seemed like an exercise in futility. By my faulty logic, I had six months left before I had to leave everyone, so I shouldn’t make it any harder to uproot myself. However, I decided to do it anyways. In the course of six months, I became friends with people I had never met and made new connections with people I had only been vaguely acquainted with. I followed that resolution and I enjoyed it.
Six months have whizzed by, and it’s really unfortunate that I can’t observe a parallel universe where I decided to isolate myself so that I can compare my current situation with an alternative one, because even though I think I’m better off having gotten to know people it’s hard to leave them. The existence of a departure date has changed the way my summer has passed. I’ve spent lots of time wandering through the streets of Palo Alto and the Stanford campus. I’ve received a lot of advice and partial goodbyes from older, wiser people. In addition, I’ve realized how much I rely on having people I know around me. In the words of the Tenth Doctor, “I don’t want to go.”
And at the same time, I do. Boston actually isn’t too different from Palo Alto politically (recently ranked the 5th most liberal city in America) and I’m sure I’ll meet a lot of self-actualized people out there. However, it will present some new challenges and I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn and live in Palo Alto. Thank you for all you’ve given me. I won’t forget it.
See you later.