There is something lurking in the “DNA” of human beings that not only defies analysis, but also escapes all attempts to wrestle it into atrophy, or even death.
The “it” could be a defect in our capacity to accept ourselves for what we really are. “It” could be a seed of insecurity that has been ‘planted’ in the gestation of every new fetus. “It” could be a ‘crack’ in the Grecian urn that is the archetype of the perfect child, so nearly imperceptible to the parents, that it renders them blind to its very existence. “It” could be a legacy of human history of conflict, violence, betrayal, oppression and the abuse of power that needs to avenge all of the injustices that fill the stacks of all the stacks of libraries, and now digital storage cells. “It” could be that “spec” in my own eye to which I am blind, while the plank in another’s eye draws me into its size and virility.
Some might consider this ‘it’ a monumental defect of human engineering, one to which millions of gallons of ink and even more gallons of blood have been spilled in vain attempts to eradicate ‘it’ from history. We have labelled it Satan, the devil, evil, insecurity, weakness, paranoia, hubris, inequality, superiority, racism, bigotry, deceit, dissembling, self-sabotage, and even the stuff of much of what we call drama, theatre, art, music and science.
Whether we adopt as our primary definition of our species, like Rousseau, that humans are innately ‘good’ and that we learn about evil as we grow and develop, or we take as given the story of Eden, and the Fall, in which humans were depicted as disobeying God, and eating of the fruit of a ‘forbidden tree’, or we reject all philosophic premises, and hold to the randomness of our birth and lives as being the product of our experiences as if we were blank pages on which experience wrote their determinative words, painted their images and sounded their melodies…we are both blotters imprinted with genetic codes, and ‘lights’ seeking places to shine in what we consider the darkness we perceive around us.
For within the ‘it’ is a capacity to inflict harm and the capacity to heal and to love, to nurture and to support….and, although the choices we face about which part of the ‘it’ muscle to exercise are, in the abstract, quite simple and binary, the moments of our making those choices are anything but simple and uncomplicated. Perhaps, if we had been more focused on those circumstances, and less on the impacts of the decisions, (more informed by the causes and less by the consequences) we might have been more engaged individually and collectively, on ameliorating and reducing the harmful choices and thereby the tragic consequences.
When we are distraught, for whatever reason, or over-powered, or under-valued, or pressured by our own high standards or the expectations of others, we are much more likely to make choices that inflict harm both on ourselves and on others. How we perceive each moment, as to whether it is life-giving or life-depriving, generative or destructive, as well as our capacity for agency in that moment, we accumulate a repertoire of memories in which we found a respected venue for our muscle and our person. We live as if we are metaphorically listening to music written in a major or a minor key; or as if we are walking through an art gallery whose images are composed of the pastoral or the dark, the uplifting or the insulting to our human spirit; or as if we are in a classroom in which the instructor can and does pay attention to our person, our individuality, or pays attention to the equations, the theorems, the literary devices, or the dates and terms of the treaties.
Of course, each of us experiences a range of all the above experiences; yet the accumulated ‘data’ and its impact on our psyches varies with its concentration and with our inherent capacity to ‘read’ and to interpret and to unpack the meanings of those experiences. Life “literacy,” like verbal, or visual or digital, or consumer, or emotional literacy involves the capacity to put each moment into a context of both similar and different experiences and then to reflect and evaluate on the meaning of that moment. Was it one worth remembering? Was it one so painful that we pack it away for the sake of waking up the next morning? Was it so exciting and riveting as to shed light on what we might consider our future life path? Was it so complex and intriguing and disturbing that we feel overwhelmed, and seek another to process it with us? Was it one that reminds us of a situation from a movie, a novel, a story told to us by a friend, and thereby sheds light on another’s experience in close proximity?
These questions seem, at first, primarily directed to our intellectual, cognitive capacity to compare. However, in each reflection, we are also engaged emotionally, whether that is a conscious awareness or a more hidden and imperceptible experience. At the same time, in our reflections, we are ‘making meaning’ of both the experience and of who we are, including our roles, purpose and wishes to repeat or to avoid similar experiences.
Each moment, then, is freighted with potential meaning, in our own lives, and potentially in the lives of those we encounter. And the meaning is not restricted to a single frame in a motion picture that is being captured in our mind, memory and in our imagination. After several metaphoric snap shots, patterns begin to develop, combining together to ‘wash’ our metaphoric film with predominant colours, lens types (soft, sharp, narrow, wide-angle, close-up, medium and long-range) in both experiences and in preferences.
To say that we are shaped by each experience is a truism, without invoking much direct or indirect criticism. And then, to say also that through our processing of our experiences, we tend to project different experiences onto the world that crosses our path. So, for example, we experience some physical illness or pain, especially if that pain is severe, debilitating and traumatic. In those cases, we might be hospitalized, or confined to our home for an extended period. We engage in activities, sometimes competitions that bring about successes and/or failures both of which imprint their mark on our ‘film’ adding to the collection/montage/collage that is the developing story of our life.
And, of course, these micro-experiences continue through developmental ‘stages’ beginning as a toddler, a pre-schooler, and then the various stages of formal education. And there are lenses that characterize each stage, discovered by our associations with our peers. And our “depth” perceptions deepen with age, and with the variety and the variable impacts of each experience.
Accompanying our “perceptions” of our “lives” come varying levels of language to code, describe and embed in memory our various moments. Reading, too, adds another layer of a different kind of vicarious experience, as do films, television dramas, travel, and exposure to some of the interests and hobbies of those in our circle.
All of these observations may seem trite and patently obvious, not needing to be recorded in prose; and yet, one of the questions that emerge from this exercise is, “How conscious are we of the potential impact of each moment?” And, “Is our concentration keeping pace with our frenetic pace of experience, or are we more likely just trying to catch our breath, and projecting our thoughts, perceptions and wishes into the future, thereby diminishing the potential impact of this moment.
Distraction, not being fully present in each moment, has become so prevalent that we have come to expect, almost unconsciously, that people will barely hear whatever we say, brushing most of it off, as just palaver, (blah, blah, blah) that rolls off our tongues first, and then through the auditory canal of our listener and out into space. Ironically, a corollary to this “deaf ear” is the impact that we experience when our listener is fully engaged, asks questions and demonstrates both interest and energy in whatever it is that we are expressing. We are then somewhat surprised, if not actually overwhelmed by the “intensity” of the other person.
After two-plus decades in front of classes of elementary and secondary students where paying attention is the first rule of survival, it is difficult, if not impossible to shed the pattern of paying attention. And that failure to shed has brought about its own series of dramatic scenes.
Paying attention, listening to the tonal nuances, “listening” to the eye movements, “listening” to the body’s swaying, “listening” to the vocabulary, the sentence structure, the nature of the comparisons, the sinew of the questions posed, the depth of the challenge if there is one….these may be highly demanded, even required traits in a senior English classroom. Linked to their penetrating scrutiny is also an somewhat exuberant, supportive and enthusiastic response, perhaps an additional question, or an observation even of wonder and awe at both the content and the source, frequently a surprise. However, after a quarter-century of spending one’s days in such an environment, (where kids were unlikely to drift off!), it has proven to be more than a little off-putting to carry on in a similar manner among adults.
So “too intense” and “over-powering” and “too confrontative” and “immature”…..these are some of the more gentle rebuttals, along with, “You simply do not know how to ‘do small talk’!” To which the honest answer is, “I simply chose not to engage in small talk!” Adults, as we all know, but some of us refuse to join the club, operate on a different cadence, a different wavelength, a different set of impulses. Adult impulses are much more indifferent, detached, disinterested and distant. And there are very good reasons for such impulses. This kind of energy…. discloses too much; risks too much; engages too intimately; pushes the other away too often; and lowers the other’s perception of one’s intellect and one’s maturity, both valued traits in the adult world.
Another more hurtful interpretation of enthusiasm comes from a look on too many faces that shouts an idea that can be summed as: “this guy tilts at too many windmills” almost like a Don Quixote. There is a derisive quality to both the look and its implications…almost parental, certainly judgemental, and clearly not willing or eager to engage.
· And the dispiriting encounter has occurred when professional colleagues charged: “You are too close to the students!”
· and when an anal chaplain of postulants for orders (in the church) barked, “Get out and get into therapy!”
· And when a fragile, frozen and terrified bishop screamed, “That is too dangerous!” when he heard me gently suggest it was time for men to learn about their emotions
· And when an interviewer of candidates for ministry, after reading my biography, twitched, “After reading this, I am intimidated!”
Imagine the anxiety that seems to have emerged from a variety of experiences, inspite or, or perhaps because of my own naivety, miscalculation of the tenor and tone of the moment, the mood of the other, the tolerance of the other for a response that was merely intended to generate some thought, some reflection and above all, some engagement.
People talk about ‘finding their voice’ and of “being really heard for who I am”. These phrases are not incidental, accidental or insignificant. They are a cry for full recognition and acknowledgement of our person, our identity and our ‘connectedness’ to another. And when another ‘shuts out’ a person, because they find that person “too much” there is a kind of momentary and whispering last breath, of that moment. It is as if the moment has shrivelled, like a leaf wrinkling in the first frost of October. The tree did not die; the leaf merely moved into a different state, and whoever was observing that leaf, simply turns away, likely with a quiet sigh of resignation, wondering what happened to the leaf, not likely wondering whether or if the observer himself played any part in the curling tissue.
Aloneness, after a long series of similar frostiness, becomes not so much a state of self-pity, but rather a state of conscious choice. Flowing water, rapids, bird songs, dog smiles and leg-nuzzlings, Grieg’s Concerto in A minor, a snowy owl perched atop a fence post, a cardinal nestled among the cedar hedge, two swans leisurely drifting along in a quiet bay or on that part of the river that accommodates their stateliness and their elegance…..these are some of the many experiences that have come to supplement those missing from too many human encounters. Only after more than seven decades, I finally grasp Keat’s line, “if a chickadee is plucking gravel on the window sill, I am plucking gravel with the chickadee”…or words to that effect.
Slow learner, fast ager….the haunting echo of my deceased father’s wit, uttered after his own seventy-sixth, “Too soon old, too late schmart!”
We really are a part of all that we have met, including the most virulent and venomous of self-haters, the most frightened of religious bigots, the most supportive and tolerant mentors, and the best and worst formal instructors…in the academic lecture hall and in the coffee shops and in the arenas and in the theatres.
Each conversation provokes more questions, different reflections, new insights and moods that shift and shimmer like sunrise on a spring lake in autumn. Never the same blend of colours, and never static, we are like those glimmers of shot-silk playing melodies around the swans.