What it Was is What it Is: I Don’t Know What Else to Say

At the same school, in the same department, for so long… eventually I found what seemed to be some effective teaching strategies and stuck with those, but boy it took a while. There’s been more than one teacher to have offered something like an apology, half-joking, half rueful, to all those early students, who were basically guinea pigs while we figured ourselves out in the classroom. I mentioned this in a paper for a graduate course and earned the critique of “triumphalism” – feedback from the professor, which I took as a suggestion to go ahead and “problematize my assumptions,” to use the lingo. In the moment, I bristled, the new kid in town learning how to be part of the academy, wondering what exactly had prompted my professor to claim with such certainty the question of my certainty.

Maybe I’ll just mention, since I’ve brought it up… I’ve since found the academy has an endemic logical pitfall all its own, an oddly hypocritical veneer of uncertainty: “All knowledge is provisional.” Post-modernism at its finest? Indeed, who can really say.

In all seriousness, though, and fairness, I grant the aim of the sceptical outlook. Heck, I try to possess one – healthy scepticism, to guard against arrogance and narrow thinking (… and innovation too, come to think of it, although that one maybe for another time). I value Socratic humility, which I ultimately decided not to call Socratic ignorance, and try to model it although how successfully I can’t say – especially not *joking-slash-rueful* back in those early days. So when someone with expertise in curriculum and teaching theory lay triumphalism at my feet, I thought to myself, Well, at least I ought to consider it. And I did.

And I do, and I still am. That reflective side of critique, the side you get from being on the receiving end, it can help us spot our assumptions and our shortcomings. I suspect the whole point was simply to light a fire within me. And hey, I’ve gone and written this, haven’t I? And hey, if settling into some effective teaching strategies weren’t triumphalist and undesirable, that would probably encourage complacency among teachers, or possibly even stagnation. On the other hand, after so long teaching in the same department at the same school, I suspect there’s more than one teacher who’s ended up feeling like part of the woodwork. Certainly, for me, as I’m sure for the students, there was a marked difference between me, the new guy, and me five, ten, fifteen years later. Then again–

Looking back, now, at what I called “effective”… it rounds out as, well, effective because what happened happened that way – nothing’s perfect, but all considered, my students seemed broadly to have learned what they felt were some useful things. The classroom years I spent, developing as I did to reach the point I reached, came about from the feedback I received each day, each term, as students and I came together lesson upon lesson, class after class. Details along the way, course evaluations I asked students to complete each June, reports back from post-secondary adventuring… there are always issues to address along with encouragements to appreciate, and I admit: no grand theory did I have in mind, as though I were contributing to the historical record. I just wanted to make things better for kids the following year, which eventually I think I was able to do.

Where I gave thought to improving my teaching was (a) relative to myself, (b) on behalf of my students, (c) in the context of my school. At least, that was what I thought when I was teaching. In that respect, what can I possibly say now, looking back, as to what might have been apart from what did be? I had to do something. And my life was never going to be any less full or busy or complicated than it turned out to be, so in all sincerity I did what I could. Eventually, it seemed to work out pretty well. Effectively.

Look, if somebody did celebrate triumphantly, in the classroom, facing the students, day in day out… ? What an ass! As it was, for those students who did find my teaching effective in this way or that, or worse, for those who didn’t – did I leave them with some suggestion that I basked in triumphant glow? I hope not. Like I said, I eventually found and stuck with what I thought worked, and that took years. Meanwhile, that’s the job. Isn’t it?

For me, the professor’s criticism, in whatever light it was offered, reflects more upon her embrace of uncertainty (presumably the academic embrace I described above) than it does upon my curricular relationships when I was teaching. And I heed the lesson, not for the first time in my career, that sitting in judgment of others can be a difficult perch.

The Burden of Sacrifice

My students will recognize war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, and his accounts of World War II, including a series of three columns that describe with stark intimacy the aftermath of the Normandy invasion. This week, all three will be reprinted by members of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Also well worth reading is this article from The New York Times, a tribute by David Chrisinger to Pyle, the man who told America the truth about D-Day, and the soldiers he commemorated, whose sacrifice in war leaves us all indebted.

Controversy arose over whether or not to publish a photo of Ernie Pyle in death. In this article, a different war correspondent named Pyle, the late Richard Pyle, quotes Ernie Pyle biographer, James E. Tobin…

“It’s a striking and painful image, but Ernie Pyle wanted people to see and understand the sacrifices that soldiers had to make, so it’s fitting, in a way, that this photo of his own death… drives home the reality and the finality of that sacrifice.”

Indiana University has a great repository of Ernie Pyle’s wartime stories – click here to see them

In addition to soldiers, I would add, casualties of war include the child with no parent, the home with an empty room, the people with nowhere to live and nobody willing who is able to help them. Families might live in separation as a consequence of war. Civilians can be caught or placed into the path of chilling technology and lethal weaponry. People left alive find themselves rudely displaced and nakedly vulnerable. We have seen pride and duty elapse into jingoism, internment, and genocide. War is fought and casualties suffer in many different ways.

Our historical record is clear for its brutality and the dispensing of lives, and any disdain for the politics that incite war might well be justified. We have so much to answer for. Yet flatly shaming war as foolhardy or inhumane is simplistic. By the same turn, dismissing observances of war as banal or romanticised might overlook the personal roots that inspired them. How do we reconcile this? Pyle is clear: despite its cruelty, war is sometimes necessary.

And when it is unnecessary? We have the liberty to have our say, but no matter our opinions or our politics, to live “in the joyousness of high spirits it is so easy for us to forget the dead.” Is this the imposthume of wealth and peace or the world of rights and freedoms? I can’t cover it all, or know every angle. For people like me, removed from war, what compels us into political debate differently than those facing imminent threat?

Beyond what I think of each war, anguish is real to those for whom war has meant sacrifice. Separate to written accounts, troubling memories are not easily and often never shared, but they are memories because those things really happened. Certainty of loss, uncertainty of fate: each is frightening, and both leave scars. Pain does not necessarily subside for no longer being inflicted. To disregard the sacrifices of war is to risk dishonoring, and nullifying, the people who made them, even as they might already be dead and gone. Particularly on an anniversary such as this, we carry the cost of their service to us. Yet their sacrifices will never amount to nothing because the debt we owe is one we can never repay. For this reason, let us value and earn our debt. As the sacrifices of war are permanent, the onus for us to honour them is everlasting.

Ernie Pyle's Gravestone
Ernie Pyle’s gravestone, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu, HI

On July 23rd, next month, the Wright Museum of World War II will be hosting a symposium on D-Day – click here for more information

This post proved difficult to compose although, with reflection, I think the answer we need is somehow to be found in what we share, in our similarities, not our differences.

“… Whose the Forest of Them All?” See What I Did There?

Imagine somebody offers you a friendly smile, but you snarl back. What might be their next reaction? Would they be amused and take it as a friendly jibe, just typical “you”? I suppose that would depend on how well they knew you. Would they be bemused because they don’t know you so well? Really, snarling at a friendly smile…? We’re perfect strangers, for goodness’ sake! Would they be confused because they’re not from around here and just can’t reckon the response in any way? A person’s reaction to your snarl might conceivably be anything—it depends on so many factors, and even in these three suggestions, one can find how-many-more details, nuances, and possibilities that take things further. Any “next reaction,” you might finally conclude, just depends on the person.

That response, “it depends,” is often criticised as merely wishy-washy yet, apparently, there’s an ironic ring of absoluteness to it, like the postmodern clarion call that nothing is true except for this statement. The reason I pose the scenario at all is to consider who really provides us with our sense of self. Supposing this person smiled at me, I might snarl in the first way, as a jibe, because I’m sure they’ll get the joke. But what if they don’t get it? What if this person even knows me pretty well, and they just don’t get it, not this time? Or what if they feel this just wasn’t the time for joking around? Their next reaction will depend on these and / or plenty of other factors. But again, I raise the scenario to consider how we gather—or, no no, to consider who really provides us—with our sense of self.

And there you have it, the issue: do we each gather our own sense of self, internally, or do others provide us with our sense of self, externally?

I don’t want to revert simply to the nature-nurture argument or chicken-and-the-egg. We seem inescapably bound to considering these by degree—hence, the absolutism that it depends. So, then, to consider by degree… the metaphor I have in mind is that of a mirror. Something someone does induces a response from me, and subsequently, what I provoke in that other person can tell me something more about myself, so long as I’m willing (and able?) to discern my self—myself?—from what they reflect. Whatever next reaction of theirs follows my snarl, this other person’s reaction serves as a mirrored reflection of me, at least insofar as this other person is concerned. If they laugh at my snarl, then hey, I guess they affirm me as a friend with an appropriate sense of humour; the jibe is appreciated, and maybe we’re even a little closer friends than before. Their positive reaction is my feedback, like looking at myself in a mirror, and my sense of self is in some way provoked on account of them by what they reflect.

I suppose there’s room to discuss a lack of empathy, here, even sociopathic behaviour—these seem also to be part of that endless list of details, nuances, and possibilities. But in acknowledging them, let’s leave them for another day.

If my snarl induces a frown from the other person, or some kind of puzzlement or disapproval, then what they affirm for me is less friendly or wonderful, yet may be just as clear—maybe they snarl back, even more fiercely, or maybe they stomp away with clenched fists. Maybe now I feel worried, in which case my sense of self could suffer from insecurity or dismay—oh dear, they didn’t get the joke! Or maybe they are saddened, and I feel smug—take that, you deserve it—or hostile—get lost, I never liked you anyway—which reinforces my sense of superiority, some kind of self-importance. The list of possibilities goes on—it depends—but, in any case, I’m able to find myself reaffirmed by that other person’s reaction. “Able to” because my snarl clearly exposes my stake in how this other person influences the way I consider my sense of self: why would I even take notice of them in the first place, much less snarl, much less take concern of their next reaction, if they meant nothing to me?

The point is that the other person’s reaction provides me a measure, a reason, a reflection by which to gauge my self as myself. Basically, thank you, because I couldn’t do it without you and everybody else, and you’re welcome because neither could you without me, or everybody else.

Now, pretend there are no other people—you, alone, exist as the sole human being. You happen to be walking through a grove of, say, birch trees, obviously getting no reactions as we’ve just considered about smiles and snarls. But as the wind whishes by, fluttering leaves and swaying branches, you take in the world around you with a relative means of judgment that wades through various combinations of reactors provoking reactions from reactees: Are the trees reacting to me? Is the wind reacting to me, or the trees to the wind? and so forth. You can see all sorts of things happening, but how can you be sure what provokes or reflects what else? Some songbirds are flitting about, high up in the branches: Are they chirping at me? You might not even call them “song” birds (that is, if you even had language—what need for language, really, as one sole person?) For all we know, the birds would actually scare you, and you might rightly call them “scarebirds” or something—in this pretend scenario, with you the sole human being, we’re also pretending that you know nothing in the way of biology or flora or fauna. These are ways of understanding the world developed in the real life community of human beings, not in some pretend scenario of solo existence.

In that land of pretend, after weeks of sunshine, what might be your sense of self on the day it rained, or on the day the leaves yellowed and fell to the ground in heavier, colder winds? Would you even be considering your “self” apart from the entirety of what surrounds you? Here we are, again, at nature-nurture, only this time you might conceivably consider the two in synthesis: not as separately discrete influences—there is nature, and there is nurture—but as one-and-the-same, naturenurture, thereby placing you into the world of existence as part-of-a-greater-whole. Your sense of self could conceivably be more cosmic, in that literal sense of orderliness, and more holistic, in that sense of connectedness. To mix metaphors, you might feel a mere cog in the wheel, a mere wheel of the gears, yet entirely necessary, just the same. Or how about this: I wonder how imperative my right hand feels, as compared to my left, when I write with a pen, but they’re both pretty important when I play golf.

We can conceivably warrant our selves to ourselves, but—as we step back into the land of real life and other people—we cannot live in total oblivion of the people around us. I grant the possibility of living within ourselves as our selves, rendering the responses and reactions of any one and those alongside as nothing other than colliding self-interests, but still… That other people can authorize our sense of self—your sense, my sense—seems as inescapable, as definite, as did nature-nurture or chicken-and-the-egg.

In this little thought experiment, I’ve been wondering whether we each sense our self as reflective of the reactions we induce, e.g. the feedback we get after snarling at a friendly smile, seeing that other person like staring at ourselves in a mirror. And, if so, whether that means we’re each of us necessarily, essentially, and thereby compellingly part of a greater whole, like trees of a forest, or cogs in a wheel, or limbs to a body. And, for all this, maybe it’s only an issue because we’re able to raise the question, to begin with.

On Love

The word love has a long and layered etymological history, which I encourage you to get started tracing for yourself.

“Love” has lots of connotations in English – among them are affection, fondness, friendship, comradeship, selflessness, exhilaration, elation, narcissism, and of course, romance.

And, of course, Valentine’s Day is the go-to celebration for all things Cupid, or Eros, or whichever cherub happens to be your persuasion. After all, love just may be the most important quality we share… even if things these days seem to have two-stepped just a little closer to Hallmark than to holiday. Still though… any excuse to party, and all. Keep those bars and nightclubs full.

There might be an ironic reference to be had here about the two “al”s – alcohol and Al Capone. There are also more sobering references to be had here about the kind of culture that we seem to value. But I digress.

You can find lots of explanations for the observance of Valentine’s Day – maybe as many as the types of love – although they don’t all seem nearly as sweet as a box of chocolates or a heart-shaped cut-out. But hey, being human means being rhetorical, Big Four Bridge, Louisville, KYand the Rhetorical WHY is nothing if not sentimental, so…

Just for you, St. Valentine, a meditation on love.

 

 


On Love

The foundation of love is lasting friendship, which itself has as cornerstones trust and respect. First, take the Golden Rule as a straightforward way to understand respect, and second, we trust that the person we love will treat us respectfully, under all circumstances. Without trust and respect, relationships can’t properly recover or grow more healthy from struggles that inevitably arise. A good thing about trust and respect: they tend to reinforce each other with time and familiarity, cementing what’s good, growing impervious to what’s not. Another good thing: they can go missing, then be rediscovered later, and still be influential; it’s never too late to repair and grow relationships, as long as both people are willing. And if you had them before, you know what it looks like, for later. Clearly, there’s more to being friends, but the basis of trust and respect is essential. Without it, there will never be real or lasting love.

Love enables you to forgive without strings, without second-thoughts, unconditionally… or maybe it’s better to say that love is “how we forgive without strings.” Love makes you willing to forgive because, in the greater scope, you’d rather save and build and love the person who’s important to you than risk having things with them suffer or waste away. Not to say that people don’t get angry or have trouble forgiving; we do, nobody’s perfect, so this is the “how” thing from above: say you’re angry with the person you love, yet you find a way to forgive them because you love them, and you see that what’s long-term matters more than whatever happened just now. In life, any fight or dispute requires somebody to break the impasse and offer peace, and I think the point to take here for relationships is that love propagates that ability, that strength to step up and forgive, to let go of ill feelings. From the one side, avoid grudges and guilt-trips (and maybe even take one on the chin, whether you think you deserve it or not). From the other side, don’t suspect grudges and guilt (and don’t throw one to the chin carelessly). All of which takes you back to trust and respect, mutual trust and respect. With that said, forgiveness does not mean being weak and letting someone walk all over you – being humble is not being weak, and in that sense, forgiveness requires confidence and strength-of-self. But here, too, the person you love aids your confidence because you are comfortable being honest with them, being yourself with them, as they are with you, whether things are blissful, or stressful, or anywhere in between.

Love provides the encouragement to resolve something that’s wrong – a fight or whatever – because what’s so good ultimately just outweighs whatever’s bad. It’s what is meant when people say relationships take effort or work: you can be upset, even hugely upset, with someone you love. (Sometimes love is why they upset you the most!) Yet you find a way through; somehow, you want to. You’re willing to struggle through the issue because you know your relationship is worth fighting for, not against, the person you love and everything that you are together. It’s desirable work, not laborious work, and at later times, you might even find that you crave the collaboration, the synergy, that accompanies the facing of challenges. You grow to trust it and rely on it because it works. As a pair, you work.

Love also encourages two people to share equal voice on matters… important matters, and not-so-important, too… no sense of competition even enters. It becomes not a question of one or the other having to say, “Listen!” or “Give me a chance”; the equality is natural, and the first person just wouldn’t move forward without having heard from the second, just wouldn’t, as a matter of respect, until they’d heard from the other, trusting that both must speak in order to make valuable contributions that help everyone.

Love helps you to be patient. Maybe the person you love needs to learn or discover something in their own time. Maybe you want to say something, but it would be premature before the full context is there for complete understanding. Or maybe you just need time to keep a nice secret or plan a surprise. Patience can be a hard thing because it always involves curbing your own interests in favour of the person you love.

Love enables tolerance. The person you love might need a chance to vent, and even if it’s unpleasant to listen, they still might need the chance. Or say one person enjoys something that the other doesn’t… but whether you participate or they go it alone, you still put up with it, for their sake (as long as it’s not destructive or harmful), because you know it makes them happy, and you want them to be happy because you love them.

Love will require sacrifice. Sometimes loving somebody means behaving in the opposite way, doing the opposite to what you want or even need. This may be because the person you love asks you to sacrifice. Or the person you love may not understand why you sacrifice and resent you for it. You can see, then, where sacrifice, tolerance, and patience connect when it comes to love. Time can clear things up, but not always, or else not in enough time for things to get better between you before they got worse. But that’s not to say love is lost. But it will take the trust and respect of the original friendship to take on the work of recovery, which is what makes being friends beforehand so much more valuable. So you can see where friendship and forgiveness connect when it comes to love, too. Sacrifice involves so many aspects of love and thus is maybe the harshest test for true love to endure, but if it is true love, it will endure.


 

“… the real current of what love is [is the] opportunity for mutually pursued spiritual growth, its potential as THE transformative force available to us which I, too, have often thought is the true nature of love and partnership.”

– Kathleen Gyurkey, Parlor editor

 


Love incites a genuine willingness within you to try new things or change old ways, based on what you find yourself learning and experiencing with the person you love. This is not the same thing as, say, when resentful friends mutter “Ball-and-chain” or “Ever since she started seeing him, she’s so different.” The changes I’m talking about are more positive, more admirable – even something as simple as trying new foods or exercising more. What Gyurkey explains above in the quotation I’ve found true, too: this transformative nature of a loving partnership – specific to me, my willingness to try new things, to change old ways, and generally to have a more ready, unsummoned conscientiousness, I guess like a kind of empathy. My experience was all these things, a willingness to become somebody else, somebody new, as compared to all I’d been up until then. And the prospect of change was exhilarating! I felt most honestly, vulnerably willing to be and think and do things anew… almost even surrendered to it although not from duress, not at all. From inspiration. I was excited to see who I would become, to see where her influence and our relationship might take me and, thereby, her and us. I looked forward to the future, to time together, because of what it promised. Separate to romance and couples, I think a good dramatic example of what I mean is Ebenezer Scrooge, whom love changed for the better, long-term, in a way that everybody else could see and appreciate.

Love needs balance. The one person can’t be always giving and the other always receiving, the one always complaining and the other always consoling. If one cooks, then have the other do the dishes. At the extreme, just to carry the example, if one says, “Love, I will die for you,” and the other replies, “As for me, I’m not so sure,” then this relationship will not work. But wait, don’t fault only one side. The first person speaks passionately but only ought to make such a committed pledge being reasonably certain the second will reciprocate. The second person should reconsider (a) whether they’ve truly been appreciating their partner’s amazing love or just consuming it, and (b) whether this relationship is what they want at all if – as (a) would suggest – return-sacrifice just hasn’t been happening. Hmm, this is not the greatest example since no one would rationalize, “Well, since they are willing to die for me, I’d better return the favour”; two people who are willing to die for each other just are, they would just do it, and likely, it would simply be one of those deeply felt but unspoken things. Anyhow, I think the point is clear.

Love can induce ridiculous irrationality, whether as acute panic or burning more slowly over time. The clichés are out there, “crime of passion” and “temporary insanity” being of the acute nature, and “love is blind” being slower. These tend to be negative clichés, too, but I don’t mean to say that irrationality is only negative. Essentially, love can make people do or say things they may not otherwise have done or said. I stress “may not” because, without a situation, it’s hard to know consequences (as in, “He did this because of the consequences,” or “No, she did this in spite of the consequences”). And hey, obviously, everything has consequences, but if we act in search of certain ones, or if we act at the risk of certain ones, either way we might look irrational. Hollywood uses irrationality as a sympathetic character trait – “Ah, they did it for love!” – and it usually pays off with the Happy Ending, where everybody else smiles at each other, as if to say, “Gosh, do you feel as silly as me now for judging them?” It’s ironic that I turn to Hollywood for my positive-cliché counter-point, and hey! if only life were that simplistic every time… but I think the larger point is about the kind of judgment we level upon people – people we label “irrational” – who are acting out of love. I guess I’m saying (again, as long as it’s not destructive or harmful) that we ought to afford such “irrational” people a little empathy and patience before judging them.Riverfront, September 2006

Love develops your empathy. What’s more, you grow not just more willing but more able to see matters from the perspective of the person you love. And what’s more, your empathy will grow stronger with the passage of time, as you grow closer and more intimately connected with that person: seeing through their eyes, thinking with their thoughts, eventually becomes as natural to you as seeing and thinking with your own. You wind up sharing in a way that’s inseparably connected, where the two people together sort of take on the qualities of a shared, mutual person. It’s part of (but not all of) the whole two-become-one thing of marriage.

Sex alone is not love. Sex is a physical act, an actual connective joining of two bodies, and any pair of people can have sex – physically gratifying (perhaps not even) but either way, over when it’s over, regardless. But when two people who love each other, who share all these other, profound aspects of love between them, when they physically, sexually connect, yes, it’s still something physical, but I think what’s physical must be transcended, mentally / emotionally / spiritually. The physical act becomes something so much more than just the physical joining; gratifying in so much deeper a way, exponentially better than some orgasm-finish. In fact, sex between two not-in-love people eventually can drive a wedge between them, and while I’m not sure why, I can guess part of it is because it never gets any better and maybe even gets dull.

There’s also an emotional destruction that I’d argue results from sex between two not-in-love people, which is harder to pin down other than to say it happens. Maybe it’s because sex is so personal – even in a one-night encounter, to have sex is to join, and that reveals an intimate part of yourself to somebody else; you really leave yourself open and vulnerable. And if you’re that intimate and open with this somebody else how-many-times over, having sex without love, paying for the cost of fleeting orgasms with vulnerability, there’s bound to be a devaluing effect on you eventually. Perhaps you’ve witnessed this or, unfortunately, experienced it – I suspect I have. But we need love if we want a lasting, meaningful relationship that includes sex. Love keeps sex fresh and enticing, and love gives sex a reason, one beyond your ‘self’. That might sound strange, a ‘reason’. Love gives sex a context – that probably sounds strange too! – where the climax way surpasses physical pleasure. Love makes sex meaningful, and beautiful. Finally, if you were to substitute here for “sex” any other intimate physical encounters, clothes on or off or whatever, I think it’s fair to say all this still basically applies. Or how about this: whatever the case may be, intimate encounters between two people are only as meaningful between them as the time they’ve spent developing their friendship first and, subsequently, their love. But romance, intimacy, whatever to call it, needs time and can’t be rushed. It has to work for both. It might develop for you. It might not.

Love needs passion. Passion is its fuel, or no, better to say, passion is the hi-test / premium-grade fuel, the stuff that burns the hottest, the most efficiently, and (therefore) the quickest. For that reason, passion needs to be replenished more frequently. When it’s not, things grow stale, fun fades, a relationship becomes diluted by mundanities and same-ol’ same-ol’. Passion is also infectious, contagious. Your passion for the person you love excites them just as theirs excites you, and it’s a mutually-perpetuating cycle… but so is the lack of passion, which means it’s up to both people in a relationship to share the renewal of that burning passion where they found their love for each other in the first place. That’s where the other facets and benefits of love come in. If all the other facets contribute, a couple feels all-the-more exhilarated, thrilled, rewarded, making two people, deeply in love with each other, pretty motivated – selfishly, yes (as in, ‘If I do this for the other, it will give back for me because they will make me feel good’), but selflessly too (‘I appreciate all they do to make me feel good, and I want to give back to them, which will then return to me, which then I will appreciate’, and so on in the mutual cycle, without a necessary end).

I would often say, “I like who I am with you,” utterly sincere, feeling it as much a compliment for her as truth for me, something motivating and feel-good for her in return. Helping me to be a better person and feel better about who I was, she lifted me, made me genuinely happy. It was the most free, uninhibited, willing-and-able-to-be-myself experience I’ve had in adult life. And I tried my best to be something she could feel happy about; something visceral and transformative for me was a return for her, investing that part of myself into her and, so, into us – helping the other helps you, which helps you both. Win:win, and ever onwards, self-propelling. Passion. I suppose I can only truly say I had begun to commit everything of me to her, going the other way. I have never been more genuine or vulnerable with anybody as I was then, with her. I offered all of me, all I had, without pretension – that was how genuine I felt, and confident, and comfortable, and safe, to be utterly myself and feel accepted and appreciated for it. To feel loved: as motivating as motivated. I trusted her absolutely, and I offered her me, the most true love I had or even knew how to give.

Love is wondrous. Who wouldn’t want to feel all these good things about themselves and the other, especially knowing that it’s all felt thanks to themselves and the other? People are social creatures, and being alone is not how we’re built to flourish. Love and all its facets together are proactive, which makes love self-sustaining, but self-sustaining is thanks to the effort and existence of the two singular people, together in love, if that makes sense. It’s not dependency for either person, but maybe the love itself is dependent on the willing effort of the two people – to exist, love needs both people contributing and committed to each other. Love is dependent upon the two people to sustain it: willingly, mutually, lovingly. You want to do things for the person you love, it wouldn’t even cross your mind to think twice…

 

“I am doing this for the person I love.”

“Really, why?”

“… um, er, because I love them!”

 

There’s that irrationality, basically a logical fallacy of cyclical reasoning. But it works. For all its illogic, it’s human, and it works. And for that, love and all its facets are to be valued, enjoyed, and treasured, and accepting of idiosyncrasies, annoyances, or even character flaws that the other person might have: “I love this person!” But understand: love is not blind, and not a dependency; neither of these is love. Love is not love “in spite of” the partner’s flaws, or your own. What’s good about the person you love, and what’s good between you, together, diminishes negatives as “not worth troubling over.” You may not even notice some negatives. Or, hmm, not to say we don’t notice things – foibles, irritations, worse – but some of what we notice we grow accustomed to, perhaps even fond of! But, at the core, you love that person (a) because of who they are to you, (b) because of who they are for you – and yes, I think (a) and (b) are different – and (c) because of who they help you to become, who they make you want and strive to be. As you strive both for yourself and for them in return, you complement each other – the hand-in-glove, engaged in what is really the ultimately perfect mutual trade-off of taking for personal growth and giving for relational health. Well, maybe that last bit sounds like an advert or magazine sidebar, but I still think it’s true.

Love can leave us vulnerable… even in a blog post. I think that comes from being honest, which maybe doesn’t seem so odd to say while posting on-line – how many might read this whom I have never met? It’s a big, big world, and even the most popular could still be said to live in a world of strangers. And if we haven’t been taught along the way to be wary of strangers, to not trust just any old person who comes along, then surely we’ve learned that lesson the hard way. We ought to respect everybody, fundamentally at least, if not any more than that. But I agree and think it’s prudent not to trust everybody.

Yet if we stop to consider what our vulnerability can teach us about trust and respect, and about friendship – perhaps, in our honesty, we might yet find we’ve learned a lesson about love.

Fraser River Shore, July 19, 2005

… of Robbie Burns Day

The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley…”

In observance of Robbie Burns Day and, thereby, of John Steinbeck‘s novella, Of Mice And Men, I highlight this thoughtful character study of Curley’s wife, by Leighton Meester for The Huffington Post, based upon her own stage portrayal of that character.

Perhaps above all I appreciate Meester’s nuanced intuition about the audiences who judge Curley’s wife which, beyond their relationships to the characters in the story, might suggest something about their own – our own – blind spots and hypocrisies. How often we live with daily nonchalance, oblivious to the interiority of those we encounter, and of those beyond. How much we rely on our affirmed belief of our selves.

If confronting ourselves is art’s great authenticity, then Meester’s perception is spot-on: in Curley’s wife, Steinbeck subverts our conceit – whether he intended to or not. Indeed, the best-laid schemes…

I May Be Wrong About This, But…

Before introducing the moral pairing of right and wrong to my students, I actually began with selfish and selfless because I believe morality has a subjective element, even in the context of religion where we tend to decide for ourselves whether or not we believe or ascribe to a faith.

As I propose them, selfish and selfless are literal, more tangible, even quantifiable: there’s me, and there’s not me. For this reason, I conversely used right and wrong to discuss thinking and bias. For instance, we often discussed Hamlet’s invocation of thinking: “… there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II, ii, 249-250). Good and bad, good and evil, right and wrong… while not exactly synonymous, these different pairings do play in the same ballpark. Still, as I often said to my students about synonyms, “If they meant the same thing, we’d use the same word.” So leaving good and bad to the pet dog, and good and evil to fairy tales, I presently consider the pairing of right and wrong, by which I mean morality, as a means to reconcile Hamlet’s declaration about thinking as some kind of moral authority.

My own thinking is that we have an innate sense of right and wrong, deriving in part from empathy, our capacity to stand in someone else’s shoes and identify with that perspective – look no further than storytelling itself. Being intrinsic and relative to others, empathy suggests an emotional response and opens the door to compassion, what we sometimes call the Golden Rule. Compassion, for Martha Nussbaum, is that means of “[hooking] our imaginations to the good of others… an invaluable way of extending our ethical awareness” (pp. 13-14). Of course, the better the storytelling, the sharper the hook, and the more we can relate; with more to go on, our capacity for empathy, i.e. our compassion, rises. Does that mean we actually will care more? Who knows! But I think the more we care about others, the more we tend to agree with them about life and living. If all this is so, broadly speaking, if our measure for right derives from empathy, then perhaps one measure for what is right is compassion.

And if we don’t care, or care less? After all, empathy’s no guarantee. We might just as reasonably expect to face from other people continued self-interest, deriving from “the more intense and ambivalent emotions of… personal life” (p. 14). Emotions have “history,” Nussbaum decides (p. 175), which we remember in our day-to-day encounters. They are, in general, multifaceted, neither a “special saintly distillation” of positive nor some “dark and selfish” litany of negative, to use the words of Robert Solomon (p. 4). In fact, Solomon claims that we’re not naturally selfish to begin with, and although I disagree with that, on its face, I might accept it with qualification: our relationships can supersede our selfishness when we decide to prioritise them. So if we accept that right and wrong are sensed not just individually but collectively, we might even anticipate where one could compel another to agree. Alongside compassion, then, to help measure right, perhaps coercion can help us to measure wrong: yes, we may care about other people, but if we care for some reason, maybe that’s why we agree with them, or assist them, or whatever. Yet maybe we’re just out to gain for ourselves. Whatever our motive, we treat other people accordingly, and it all gets variously deemed “right” or “wrong.”

I’m not suggesting morality is limited solely to the workings of compassion and coercion, but since I limited this discussion to right and wrong, I hope it’s helping illuminate why I had students begin first with what is selfish and selfless. That matters get “variously deemed,” as I’ve just put it, suggests that people seldom see any-and-all things so morally black and white as to conclude, “That is definitely wrong, and this is obviously right.” Sometimes, of course, but not all people always for all things. Everybody having an opinion – mine being mine, yours being yours, as the case may be – that’s still neither here nor there to the fact that every body has an opinion, mine being mine and yours being yours. On some things, we’ll agree while, on some things, we won’t.

At issue is the degree that I’m (un)able to make personal decisions about right and wrong, the degree that I might feel conspicuous, perhaps uneasy, even cornered or fearful – and wrong – as compared to feeling assured, supported, or proud, even sanctimonious – and right. Standing alone from the crowd can be, well… lonely. What’s more, having some innate sense of right and wrong doesn’t necessarily help me act, not if I feel alone, particularly not if I feel exposed. At that point, whether from peer pressure or social custom peering over my shoulder, the moral question about right and wrong can lapse into an ethical dilemma, the moral spectacle of my right confronted by some other right: would I steal a loaf of bread to feed my starving family? For me, morality is mediated (although not necessarily defined, as Hamlet suggests) by where one stands at that moment, by perspective, in which I include experience, education, relationships, and whatever values and beliefs one brings to the decisive moment. I’m implying what amounts to conscience as a personal measure for morality, but there’s that one more consideration that keeps intervening: community. Other people. Besides selfish me, everybody else. Selfless not me.

Since we stand so often as members of communities, we inevitably derive some values and beliefs from those pre-eminent opinions and long-standing traditions that comprise them. Yet I hardly mean to suggest that a shared culture of community is uniform – again, few matters are so black or white. Despite all that might be commonly held, individual beliefs comprising shared culture, if anything, are likely heterogeneous: it’s the proverbial family dinner table on election night. Even “shared” doesn’t rule out some differentiation. Conceivably, there could be as many opinions as people possessing them. What we understand as conscience, then, isn’t limited to what “I believe” because it still may not be so easy to disregard how-many-other opinions and traditions. Hence the need for discussion – to listen, and think – for mutual understanding, in order to determine right from wrong. Morality, in that sense, is concerted self-awareness plus empathy, the realised outcome of combined inner and outer influences, as we actively and intuitively adopt measures that compare how much we care about the things we face everyday.

Say we encounter someone enduring loss or pain. We still might conceivably halt our sympathies before falling too deeply into them: Don’t get too involved, you might tell yourself, you’ve got plenty of your own to deal with. Maybe cold reason deserves a reputation for callusing our decision-making, but evidently, empathy does not preclude our capacity to reason with self. On the other hand, as inconsistent as it might seem, one could not function or decide much of anything, individually, without empathy because, without it, we would have no measure. As we seem able to reason past our own feelings, we also wrestle echoing pangs of conscience that tug from the other side, which sometimes we call compassion or, other times, a guilt trip. Whatever to call it, clearly we hardly live like hermits, devoid of human contact and its resultant emotions. Right and wrong, in that respect, are socially individually determined.

One more example… there’s this argument that we’re desensitized by movies, video games, the TV news cycle, and so forth. For how-many-people, news coverage of a war-torn city warrants hardly more than the glance at the weather report that follows. In fact, for how-many-people, the weather matters more. Does this detachment arise from watching things once-removed, two-dimensionally, on a viewscreen? Surely, attitudes would be different if, instead of rain, it were shells and bombs falling on our heads from above. Is it no surprise, then, as easily as we’re shocked or distressed by the immediacy of witnessing a car accident on the way to our favourite restaurant, that fifteen minutes later we might conceivably feel more annoyed that there’s no parking? Or that, fifteen minutes later again, engrossed by a menu of appetizers and entrees and desserts, we’re exasperated because they’re out of fresh calamari. Are right and wrong more individually than socially determined? Have we just become adept at prioritising them, even diverting them, by whatever is immediately critical to individual well-being? That victim of the car accident isn’t nearly as worried about missing their dinner reservation.

Somewhat aside from all this, but not really… I partially accept the idea that we can’t control what happens, we can only control our response. By “partially” I mean that, given time, yes, we learn to reflect, plan, act, and keep calm carrying on like the greatest of t-shirts. After a while, we grow more accustomed to challenges and learn to cope. But sometimes what we encounter is so sudden, or unexpected, or shocking that we can’t contain a visceral response, no matter how accustomed or disciplined we may be. However, there is a way to take Hamlet’s remark about “thinking” that upends this entire meditation, as if to say our reaction was predisposed, even premeditated, like having a crystal ball that foresees the upcoming shock. Then we could prepare ourselves, rationalise, and control not what happens but our response to it while simply awaiting the playing-out of events.

Is Solomon wise to claim that we aren’t essentially or naturally selfish? Maybe he just travelled in kinder, gentler circles – certainly, he was greatly admired. Alas, though, poor Hamlet… troubled by jealousy, troubled by conscience, troubled by ignorance or by knowledge, troubled by anger and death. Troubled by love and honesty, troubled by trust. Troubled by religion, philosophy, troubled by existence itself. Is there a more selfish character in literature? He’s definitely more selfish than me! Or maybe… maybe Hamlet’s right, after all, and it really is all just how you look at things: good or bad, it’s really just a state of mind. For my part, I just can’t shake the sense that Solomon’s wrong about our innate selfishness, and for that, I guess I’m my own best example. So, for being unable to accept his claim, well, I guess that one’s on me.

A Kind of Certainty: V. Fleeting Uncertainty

Click here to read Pt IV. A Kind of Faith

 


A Kind of Certainty

5. Fleeting Uncertainty

Like a vast sea of experience is all that we know and learn and encounter every single day. We are but tiny ships bobbing and rolling upon its waves, its currents steering us here and there. How on earth do we discern and decide what we value, what we believe, in order to collaborate with others in meaningful curricular relationships? (I almost wish I could just be waylaid by pirates, or something.) For me, one way to decide is to consider our shared motives, and find incentives to collaborate from there. Notwithstanding the degree to which people are educated, or by whom, everybody has motives.

But we do not all necessarily have a particular destination or a future port-of-call. So the aim for curriculum appears to be that of shaping motives to coincide with the current state of affairs such that, in a broad sense, people can (a) function – a measure of the self-ful[1] – and then (b) contribute – a measure of the selfless. Upon this vast sea, we are not so much bound for any one destination as we are bound to assist each other, each underway to wherever best suits our particular circumstances at that time – yours for you, and mine for me – and let the tangents direct us as they will.

Education, I have come to learn, is learning to have more than a destination or purpose of my own. It is to convoy with others and have faith that they do the same for others and for me, and putting in to decidedly worthwhile ports-of-call on the way. On the way, we chart our courses, but as similar as the ocean might look any given moment, wave after rolling wave, no two moments are ever exactly alike. To that degree, everyone must chart on their own. How intentionally we aid each other, how much or how little we trust, how sincerely we navigate, it is our shared curricula that will determine how effectively we undertake any particular decision we are ever likely to face, alongside whomever we find ourselves. The more we convoy in earnest, the safer we will be. With that kind of support, what is it that would sink us?

One final cautionary note: if and when some finally do make landfall somewhere, with certainty to their decision, we must acknowledge that their perspective will shift dramatically from those others who remain, however more or less certain to remain, at sea. Not everyone wants to remain at sea, and such variances our curricula are obliged to accommodate, if not fully comprehend or appreciate. There on that solid shore might be a tighter homogeneous culture that yields a more one-sided – or dogmatic? prejudiced? – communal certainty all its own. On that shore we might find a trade-off that sets the communal trustworthiness of the bobbing convoy against the stable individual footing of landfall. Yet somehow we all must sustain what we share, no matter the differences that may arise between sailor and landlubber – and why?

Because what remains the same amongst us – indeed, that which makes us who and what we are – is what we have in common. Common to all of us is being alive, being a person, being a human being, someone deserving of a basic respect for human dignity. Each of us, all of us, every one of us. We are all people. In this regard, really all that differs between us is where we are, and when. For people to think in any way differently than this about other people is narrow, delusional, perhaps cruel, and flat-out wrong. That may hardly feel a satisfactory closing, maybe even anti-climactic, but who ever said learning was meant to be entertainment?[2] Learning’s the thing wherein we catch the conscience of each other.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read Pt I. An Uncertain Faith

 


Endnotes

[1] Forgive the invention, “self-ful.” I hesitated to use “selfish,” which tends to connote self-seeking and self-aggrandizing behaviour (in that colloquial sense of “No, you can’t have any of my ice cream”), and taking inspiration from the Bard, I just made up a word of my own. Likewise, I do not use “selfless” in some altruistic way so much as simply to counter “self-ful”; as a pair, I intend them to signify simply the notion of there being, for each of us, an intrinsic “me” and plenty of extrinsic “not me’s.” Further, with my students, I would liken self-fulness to each one’s academic efforts and scholarship, and selflessness to voluntary service and community stewardship of whatever kind. The longer-term idea was teaching students to balance these as required by kairos, by circumstance – an appropriate time for each, and the wisdom to know the difference.

[2] Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a curricular role for those gnarly amphibious surfers, after all.

Hawai'i Summer 2008
Teacher at work: catch a wave to catch the conscience?