Agitating the Sleep of Mankind

Transcendental Media, founded by filmmaker Patrick Shen about a decade ago, has emerged with a number of beautifully shot and socially conscious films catering to philosophically minded people and addressing some of humankind's most pressing issues. One of Shen's most well known full length feature documentaries under the Transcendental banner, The Philosopher Kings (2009), holds a special place in my heart. I urge you to see it if you can. It's available on the Netflix instant queue, and it's also available for sale.

I've seen The Philosopher Kings numerous times. It has a grounding effect on me. It opens my heart when it feels closed off and brittle. It reminds me what's important. It speaks to me about about the truth of what truly defines those of us who don't work in glamorous jobs or perform boast-worthy deeds.

The film covers, in a methodical, meditative and philosophical style, the lives of several individuals who perform custodial duties at institutions of 'higher learning.' As it unfolds, and we spend more time with Corby, Jim, Josue, Melinda, Michael, Oscar, Luis and Gary, listen to their thoughts, hear about their lives, see them go about their daily work, we begin to realize that these are our teachers. These special individuals represent the very best our country - and the world - has to offer, and I consider it a privilege to have gotten to know them.

Patrick Shen doesn't pander or lecture, and neither do they. All of the film's subjects are remarkable examples what exists in all of us: imperfection and humility living gracefully, even through heartbreaking adversity. What it takes to make the most of one's life changes depending on that person, their circumstances, location, privileges, but the basic human qualities that all must nurture to find happiness and wisdom in whatever they do - humility, love, loyalty - are found throughout The Philosopher Kings.

I've long believed that our attitudes toward people who spend much of their lives in food service, in sanitation and custodial services often inform our political attitudes about more general topics like wealth creation, welfare, class and taxes. Sometimes its important to stop stereotyping, and stop equating janitorial or garbage work with laziness, poorness or stupidity. It's often something as simple as making eye contact and saying hello to someone rolling past with a broom and porter. These Philosopher Kings, not hedge fund managers, not CEOs, not Lobbyists, not Executives - are the ones who keep the spirit of our society moving forward, and the ones who we don't afford nearly enough respect to.

If you watch the film - consider it a meditative exercise rather than an educational assignment - I hope it humbles and informs you as it did me. Be sure to also watch for Patrick Shen's next films: La Source, all about Josue Lajeunesse's heroic efforts to restore water to villages in earthquake, poverty-ravaged Haiti, and The Art of Work, an artful look at crafts and trades in modern day China.


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