Harrison Middleton University

For Each Summer, There Is Siddhartha

For Each Summer, There Is Siddhartha

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.

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March 29, 2024

Thanks to Jennifer-NeToi Claiborne, a 2024 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post. 

When the air is warm, the smell of rain and honeysuckles fill the breeze, I know that it is summer and it is time to return to Siddhartha. I first read this book in the summer of 2000, when I was in the midst of a great change in my life. It was the summer prior to entering my freshman year of college. I was walking through my local library on the way to the copy machine (yes, it was the early 2000s and we went to the library to make copies). I saw it on a list of books recommended by the library. I was drawn to the blue cover and I decided that I was going to read something important that summer. 

The start of Siddhartha did not initially intrigue me, and honestly to complete it became an enormous chore. At that moment in my life, I had not yet learned to appreciate the journey of the text. This would not be the first time I would be challenged in this way to engage with something, when I lacked the experience to truly appreciate its meaning. However, finishing the book was enough for me at the time. 

There was one thing from the book and that moment in time that remained with me during my freshman year, “Although Siddhartha fled from the Self a thousand times, dwelt in nothing, dwelt in animal and stone, the return was inevitable; the hour was inevitable, when he would again find himself, in sunshine or in moonlight, in shadow or in rain was again Self and Siddhartha, again felt the torment of the onerous life cycle.”  At the time, this meant something completely different for me. I imagined that this was how I was going to recreate myself in college. I would somehow be someone different, and this was also cautionary for me. I didn’t want to engage in miraculous change only to end up being the same person. 

A hard-fought academic year later, I found myself in reflection. I had moved on campus in the fall, and moved off campus and back home in the spring. I had a boyfriend in the fall and now we were edging closer and closer to a break up. I realized that I was incredibly smart and completely disengaged from my academic work. And my desire to reinvent myself was an ultimate fail. I picked up Siddhartha once more. This time, I was different, and I understood more about myself, than the year prior. It was June, my grades were in my mother’s hands, and I felt a mere shadow of my sister, a math major and a natural academician. 

That summer of 2001, I read Siddhartha. I mustered up the courage to return to campus and live there, and also give myself permission to do whatever I wanted. Odd, only because when I entered as a freshman, I believed that I could just wake up and “be” with no intentionality. For the first time,  I began to ask myself – who am I? So, I did what teenagers do. I partied. I joined things. I nurtured this other version of myself with all manner of distraction. And on the other side of this, realized that the Self was still in question. I did not read Siddhartha in its entirety that summer before junior year. I did read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and for the first time I began to think more deeply about beauty, pain, and love. 

For the next four years, there would be no Siddhartha. I read only for school and then after graduation, I would read only for work (having taken a position as a 7th grade English teacher). Little did I know that I was on the verge of another great transition. I had the opportunity to leave home and move to a bigger city, and I was taking it. I had to make several arrangements to move from Jackson, Mississippi to Baltimore, Maryland, and in the midst of packing up my things, I found a notebook, where I used to write down quotes (from movies, songs, poems, books, and things that people said-yup I am a lit nerd of epic proportions!) There I found between a Jay-Z lyric and a quip from a former classmate, a quote I had written down from my failed Siddhartha attempt of 2002, “What is that you wanted to learn from teachings and teachers, and although they taught you much, what was it they could not teach you?”  I thought for a moment about everything I had gone through in college. I thought about everything that this new experience would teach me. And with that, Siddhartha was saved from the donation pile. 

Siddhartha and I  were on the road to another adventure. Graduate school, new friendships, new loves, and career pursuits had me on my own quest for enlightenment. What is the Self? Who is the Self? Navigating the currents of philosophy and delving into the intricacies of different cultures and ways of being shaped my understanding of life’s cyclical nature.

As I reflect on Siddhartha’s journey, I know that charting one’s course involves not only navigating uncharted waters but also actively weaving the narrative of one’s own story. It’s a journey marked by the courage to defy the expectations and societal norms, daring to put pen to paper and script a unique tale. Accepting criticism along the way (from both external and internal forces) becomes a compass for self-improvement, acknowledging that constructive feedback is the ink that refines the narrative. So, we travelers must embrace the art of introspection and adaptation and know that missteps are inevitable in this authorship of life. 

I’ve marveled at the transformative kaleidoscope that time and experience have woven into my readings. As a wide-eyed and naive freshman in college, Siddhartha seemed like a distant echo of a world I was just beginning to explore and understand. Revisiting it each year, the novel continues to reveal a spectrum of complexities I couldn’t have grasped in my youth.

Each reading seems to reflect not only my intellectual growth but my personal growth as well. Remaining a constant examiner of the human experience, I find that Siddhartha’s lessons have deeply  intertwined with my personal journey. Embracing the cycles of growth, self-discovery, and motherhood has become integral to my narrative, reinforcing the importance of being attuned to the perpetual transformation inherent in both the human spirit and the world around us.

There are always other books. New writers for me to enjoy and old writers for me to discover. Yet, no matter where I am in life, I find that I am home in Siddhartha

Photo credit: Shutterstock/vasanty

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