The Meaning of Life from “EVST”

Posted on Posted in Community and Culture, Reflections on Life

Tom Roy is the reason I moved to Missoula, Montana.  When I visited in 2002, he was the Director of the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program, which I was considering attending.  It was a big stretch for a California girl to even consider moving to winter-laced Montana, and I figured I better go visit in mid-January to see if I could handle all the white stuff.


Tom Roy was the Director of the UM EVST program for over three decades.


Tom started talking the minute I walked into his office, making jokes and waving his arms around.  He told me the history and purpose of the “the program”–or “EVST,” as students affectionately dub it–and took me upstairs to show me the landscape I’d be studying.  It was a whiteout.


All I could see was blowing snow on the UM Oval, no further than four feet from my nose.  Yet Tom kept talking and waving his arms, pointing out the Rattlesnake Mountains, Lolo Peak, Mount Sentinel, and the Bitterroot Valley.  I nodded along like I could see them.  And he kept telling stories.  Stories about students I’d never met, who wrote books, organized rallies, started new businesses, changed the world.  Stories about how EVST was my vehicle to change the world, too.


I walked outside that January day able to see through the clouds.  I saw unexplored peaks and uncharted river valleys.  I saw unbridled potential in myself and others.  I saw the kind of world I wanted to help create.  And I never looked back.


The people in the Environmental Studies program in Missoula helped me see through the clouds and find clear direction in my life.


Fast forward a decade later, where I just spent the weekend as an alumni “mentor” at an EVST graduate student retreat on Flathead Lake.  Tom was there, along with most of the other professors who helped me wind my way through graduate school goals: Neva, Phil, Len.  And I can safely say that I received more mentoring than I gave, from the fresh-faced, inspired students and from the motivated staff.


Tom reminded me why I moved here.  Why I do what I do every day for the Clark Fork Coalition, and for the rivers and lands in this wonderful state, even if it means I sometimes lose sight of the view through the clouds.


Here’s what Tom said on Sunday: “EVST has always had this edge to it…this  energy…coupled with moral imagination. This graduate program is not about making you the smartest person in one field.  You can go anywhere for that.  This program is about making you the smartest at what most interests you, and then asking you to act on your moral responsibility to be an agent of change.  Hope is not enough.  We want to give you the tools to actualize your hope.”


Later on, as the whole group struggled through an exercise focused on answering questions about our values, strengths, and life goals, Tom interjected: “You know, it’s not the answers that are the most interesting.  It’s the questions that are the whole point, and how you frame those questions.  Answers are just the end of a question.”


What a relief.  Thanks, EVST, for reminding me that my purpose in life is not simply to solve daily problems, but to continue searching for new questions–and new beginnings–instead of endings and answers.


Sailing back to the dock after the EVST Retreat on Flathead Lake this past weekend.


P.S. My friend and another EVST alum, Matt Frank, shared this poem with us at the end of the retreat, which sums up the meaning of life pretty nicely:

  The Way It Is 
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. 
– William Stafford


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