Archive for July, 2011

Telling people what to do, or not

July 31, 2011

I had one of those puzzle-like experiences today when I had to remind myself that telling people not tell other people what to do is telling people what to do.

Summerhill

July 31, 2011

I have been assiduously looking for a positive way of framing what’s going on in Washington over producing legislation that will raise the debt ceiling.  What came into my mind this evening was my recollection of A.S. Neill’s observation in his book about his school Summerhill, that when kids were given the freedom to choose a diet or a course of study or a schedule, for example, they did eventually reach a workable way of doing things.  So, I’m thinking, with all the analogies to kids and their behavior circulating in this family drama in Washington, maybe A.S. Neill’s experience sheds some encouraging light on how things may resolve themselves.

Legal Doctrine and multiple perspectives

July 30, 2011

When I “did” legal history, I had the training to appreciate the development of legal doctrine and the training to appreciate the impact of social forces on human interaction.  I knew plenty of other legal historians who did, too.  I also knew some who pursued the discipline as a subset of intellectual history or even as an antiquarian game (often lawyers without training as historians), and I knew some others who misinterpreted developments in the law because they didn’t understand the legal significance to the participants of what they were observing as historians (often historians without legal training).

I suspect there’s an analog to this in appraising the events of the day (all this is a further reaction of mine to Joe Nocera’s column today — my original reaction is comment 6), and probably dividing the world into (only) two approaches for interpretation is overly simplistic, anyway.  We probably need multiple perspectives in order to get a reasonably helpful bearing on what’s going on and its significance.

But I think part of the problem here is that unlike getting training in multiple disciplines in a school setting and maintaining both perspectives simultaneously (including when we merge them in some way), when we live in multiple worlds simultaneously with respect to the events of our day, it’s harder to maintain each of those perspectives clearly.  For example, a teacher maintaining their professional perspective while noticing as an adult human being a student’s emotional needs runs the risk of doing harm if they cannot follow through on their emotional involvement in a way that serves both teacher and student.  Doctors and therapists and social workers have a struggle to be compassionate without becoming burned out.  House painters may just paint over rotted wood, or they may do some light carpentry.  People reporting on political events may start sounding like the politicians they are covering.  Politicians may spend more time on tv than on writing legislation.

This is why I think collaboration among multiple individuals can be helpful.  Each individual can maintain some kind of a specialty while also contributing to the bigger picture that will emerge from their joint sharing.

The maintenance of the specialty may have its own requirements, though, and sometimes these disparate requirements of different specialties practiced by collaborating partners are in tension to one another.  And sometimes what we may like to see as healthy collaboration is really some kind of enabling relationship — it’s sometimes difficult to discern what serves our personal attachment needs from what serves a greater good, but, on the other hand, it’s also possible to mistake, out of fear, a risky but healthy collaboration, for something to be avoided.  If I’m in doubt and struggling about what’s what, I tend to ask the universe to throw me another pitch, one that I can hit more easily if that’s in order, or one that makes it clear to me to hold my swing.

family history

July 30, 2011

I read Charles Blow’s column last night about his grandfather and how the reality of service in World War II by African Americans differs from the Hollywood version.  It was very moving.

I thought about writing a comment about my own family’s experience with other people’s versions of what happened to them in World War II, but it didn’t seem appropriate to me to do that.  I thought it was more respectful to keep the focus on Mr. Rhodes.

Irrational aggressiveness and aggressive irrationality

July 29, 2011

Paul Krugman’s column today got me thinking about behavior that is irrational and aggressive.

I suspect that such behavior is generated by fear.  In terms of effective responses to such behavior, the only one I know of that seems to have any “success” is detachment, not engaging with the fear and its emotional sequelae that are lodging in the person.  Detachment doesn’t necessarily mean not interacting with the person, and certainly it doesn’t mean not loving the person.  I think it means some kind of “boundaries,” in today’s parlance, and maintaining our own focus on what we each as an individual should be doing ourselves, regardless of what is going on around us.

Now, how this applies to interactions among elected government officials I am not sure.  The United States government certainly isn’t structured the way, say, the Al-Anon World Service organization (and I’m referring to Al-Anon, for family and friends of alcoholics, not to AA, for alcoholics themselves) is, or guided by its principles (those embodied in its steps, traditions, and concepts of services, for example).  But I don’t see that our values in our founding documents or legislation preclude or are at odds with those principles, either.  I also don’t see those principles as sufficient, because a government must be concerned with service to its constituents, not just to service to its own organization (one of my puzzlements about how Al-Anon works).

So, I don’t see Al-Anon as some kind of Answer, including to our current woes in Washington, but I do think it has something to teach us about how to interact with people acting aggressively and irrationally.

Vacations and anniversaries

July 29, 2011

We used to go on vacation the week of our wedding anniversary, I think because in both cases we found the third week in August or so about when we could get sufficiently organized to do something outside our regular routine — in other words, it wasn’t really intentional, but it also wasn’t altogether a coincidence that they happened the same week.

And Willy’s death two days after our anniversary isn’t so surprising either — the pattern of people dying around a date significant to them (birthdays, holidays, or just past an event they were looking forward to) is known (and in Willy’s case, he kept asking me when our anniversary was coming).

But that confluence of memories may explain why I was thinking earlier this evening about how both after a vacation and after a death I have felt so ready to live my life differently, to stop being stuck in certain behaviors or attitudes, to maintain a healthier perspective — and how difficult I have found it to maintain that stance.  Kind of like New Year’s resolutions, maybe, but with vacations, we get a real interruption to our normal patterns and regular routines, and with deaths we get an interruption to our normal emotional patterns and routines.

Maybe the thing to do is to take those experiences as giving us some kind of awareness of how things could be different, and then work towards that vision with sustainable small increments until we get there.

A spiritual story from a consumerist source

July 28, 2011

I sometimes think we’ve gone so far with consumerism in our society that somehow the pendulum will start to swing back.  When I read the following blurb in the context of a solicitation to buy a piece of furniture, I thought, “Well, maybe we’re on our way:”

The story goes as this: It’s set in the Eastern Jin Dynasty era. Zhu Yingtai is the daughter of a wealthy family. She strongly desires to attend school (although women attending school was discouraged in that era), so she disguises herself as a boy. There she falls in love with her best friend and classmate Liang Shanbo. After he discovers her true identity, they vow to marry. Later, Zhu finds out her parents have arranged for her to marry a wealthy man. Liang is so heartbroken he becomes very sick and eventually dies. During Zhu’s wedding processional, she passes Liang’s grave and begs for it to open. It does open, and Zhu throws herself in the grace. Their spirits turn into beautiful butterflies and they fly off together, never to be separated again.

It’s from a company called Wisteria.

Consensus Reality

July 28, 2011

What if our agreed understanding of “reality” is such that it cannot be sustained, that it contains the seeds to its collapse?  What if it needs a little tweaking?

Perhaps because I’m no economist and perhaps because I tend to see in other people’s thinking ideas they may not have intended, I see in Paul Krugman’s notion of the “Confidence Fairy” the possibility of another fallacious belief as well.  I think Prof. Krugman’s Confidence Fairy is about the claim that what the private sector needs is “certainty” in order, for example, to create jobs (and that certainty will be produced by tax cuts and lax regulation).  But what I’m wondering is this: maybe we have  a collective assumption that whatever we decide to do can be made to serve the greater good well enough to keep our human society perking along, that there is some equivalent of “grace” to ensure things work out okay.  This would be a “Confidence Fairy” who sort of picks up after us, and my concept of her would be that she’s a fantasy of our confidence that our behavior has no impact (instead of a fantasy that the only missing ingredient in our situation is confidence in the future through some sense of certainty — that deficiency I would recast as a lack of faith in forces larger than ourselves).

As I discussed in my post about Rumi and Shams, if we are willing, the universe will block our human missteps.  But willingness is necessary, not for some moralistic reason, to my way of thinking, but because willingness makes us sufficiently open to greater forces to allow them to work through us.  If we are strong-arming everything through our intellects and have closed minds, this “universal help card” doesn’t, and can’t, help.  Grace requires some amount of cooperation on our part, might be another way of thinking about it.

The last factor I will mention here is how we reinforce our misunderstandings with our words and our thoughts, and become trapped by them.  “If we can think it, it must be true” clearly isn’t our belief when we hear ideas from others we don’t share, but I think we are more prone to believing it about our own words and thinking.  I hear this notion as an undercurrent in some theology and philosophy in western cultures.  If our thinking is merely human cognition, it may easily be a “sport,” an aberration that has no universal significance and should be quarantined, if you will, restricted to its original context.

I think our dry human thinking needs to be informed by an openness to other human mental activities, in order  for us to remain on course and not go astray.

Gender changes

July 28, 2011

My son recently wrote a paper on the effect of changing the gender of Hildy Johnson from a male in the play The Front Page to a female in the movie “His Girl Friday,” which was based on it.  My son found understanding the nature of the relationships well enough to follow the writer’s points was easier with a romance than with old fashioned male workplace relationships (the entire first act of the play was somewhat impenetrable to him).  I felt somewhere in the middle, being able to imagine how men like my grandfather (born in 1889) and someone (born 1907) I was close friends with when I was in my twenties and he was in his seventies, might have behaved.  This then got me wondering how long the interplay of the sex roles in “His Girl Friday” would actually itself be comprehensible — just how timeless is our current concept of romance actually?  Made me wonder further what kind of relationship will be used as the next vehicle in a remake of the story.

Rumi and Shams

July 28, 2011

I was reading an introduction to some poetry by Rumi, and not surprisingly it discussed what could be pieced together about the facts of his relationship with Shams.  It spent some amount of time discussing whether Shams intentionally disappeared or was murdered, and had noted before earlier episodes in which Shams was driven from Rumi’s circle by others and then fetched back by Rumi’s son at Rumi’s request.

I do understand the historian’s desire to read the historical record, but I think we would all admit that here there’s apt to be a spiritual element involved, given the nature of the bond between Rumi and Shams.  So, it seems to me more appropriate to interpret Shams’ (final) disappearance from Rumi’s temporal life as one of those instances in which people who possess a willingness to do what serves are blocked from doing what doesn’t, despite their best mundane efforts to do themselves what they think would be a good idea.  Shams left twice quite alive and was brought back both times — Rumi, I guess, didn’t get the message, to live apart.  Maybe neither of them could bear it, or one of them couldn’t bear it, and so the more voluntary version of a separation didn’t work for that reason.  Both of them must have had enough willingness for the universe to do for them what they couldn’t do for themselves.  Which I find impressive with respect to them as individuals, and comforting more generally as a reflection of how we can transcend our attachments even when we can’t.