Last week I visited Jekyll Island, Georgia as part of a leadership program. If you have never been to the Golden Isles of our state, I hope you will make an effort to visit sometime. Not far from Jekyll you also have some incredibly preserved treasures like Cumberland Island and Sapelo Island. The entire region provides a rare and amazing combination of beaches, wildlife, restaurants, and recreation. Truly something for everyone in this beautiful part of Georgia.
One afternoon we went on tour with Joseph Colbert, Yank Moore and other members of the Jekyll Island Authority Conservation team—a group charged with everything from protecting nesting loggerhead turtles and dune systems to preserving the integrity of tidal marshes. They showed us how they tag and track alligators, rattlesnakes, armadillos, turtles, bobcats and more in order to understand patterns, threats, and ecosystems. The diversity of wildlife was fascinating, but I have to say the most intriguing part to me was the discussion around prescribed/controlled burning.
Feel the Burn
Fire and burning is part of the natural cycle and ecosystem. Our modern human tendency to suppress fire actually increases the presence of invasive, homogeneous plants and weeds, effectively killing native grasses and flowers, and in turn reducing plant and animal diversity. Prescribed burns not only limit the damage of future fires caused by lightning or other sources that could severely damage the habitat and animals, but they also eliminate intrusive and dominant plants and brush that actually hinder the emergence of the far more diverse, vibrant, beautiful growth underneath. Ironically, the dominant, invasive, homogeneous plants and brush that grow in fire-suppressed areas are more flammable, so when fires do occur the damage is far worse. (These are the Clark Notes. Apologies to all students of ecology, agriculture, or members of the fire service world who may be cringing at my very rough summary.)
Listening to Joseph describe the process and rationale of controlled burns was convicting. It made me realize we often allow the known and visible to limit our vibrant, full, beautiful life and the possibilities that exist deeper in all of us. Pain (burning/fire) is inevitable, but short-term discomfort or perceived danger is a necessary part of a rich, diverse, flourishing future. Too frequently we inaccurately associate homogeneity with safety.
If you are a graduating senior…
You are almost done. Congratulations! Seriously, congratulations. You may have always expected to graduate high school and move on to college, but in reality tens of thousands of American students do not. You’ve worked hard and accomplished a great milestone in your life. Well done! But… (you knew that was coming, right?) now the hard work lies ahead. You can see it as hard, or see it as an opportunity.
Sure, it would be easy to go off to college and keep doing what you have done. On some level, you have a recipe for success. Good grades, achievement, leadership, contribution. All good things. But what lies beneath? What do you know is within you that is going to require some burning to bring forth? What scares you but excites you? What do you want to be, to accomplish, to achieve, to explore? College is an opportunity for finding those things.
I am not saying you have to completely reinvent yourself, but I implore you to spend time this summer, before you leave home, to reflect on why you are going to college and how you are going to intentionally grow, thrive and develop there. Be bold enough to burn. Be courageous enough to peel back the top layer (as impressive or pretty as it may appear on the outside) to expose those parts of you perhaps only you know or believe have been suppressed, so they can rise and flourish. The process is not easy or painless. But Joseph would tell you, and I’m telling you, most people twice or three times your age know suppressing the fire is far more damaging in the long run.
If you are a junior/sophomore…
In terms of college, it is easy to only see the top layer. You know where mom and dad went to school. You’re surrounded by the big schools or popular schools in your state and region. You read the list of highly ranked schools that are commonly cited in articles. You’ve been told about the “acceptable” or “expected” schools for a student from your school, community, or neighborhood. Burn them down (the ideas—not the schools!). The landscape of higher education, like the biodiversity under the visible, dominant intrusive top-layer is rich, vibrant and beautiful. But it will take some work to lift it up and see it.
So when schools email you or send you invitations to visit; when you receive brochures in the mail or someone from a school you’ve never heard of calls you; when colleges visit your city or school next fall, I urge you to pause and consider. If you do not at least dig down, burn through, and explore the variety of options you have, you will continue to see your choices as limited and suppressed. And that is not what the admission process is supposed to be. Instead it should be dynamic and life-giving. In the end, you should only go to a highly visible school after you have recognized and considered all your options and then chose it.
Regardless of where you are in this process, I challenge you to not accept what is in front of you because it appears safe, comfortable, or acceptable. And that does not only apply to colleges, my friends—that applies to life in general. Safe, comfortable, acceptable, homogenous… if too many of those adjectives are your rationale for anything, you have some burning to do. You will be glad you did.
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