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Monday, July 14, 2014

Challenging Certainty


I have found that one of the effects of retiring is that I say, about almost anything, "It's not my problem."  Does the Faculty administrator insist on assigning all offices, even though she doesn't know the needs of individuals? (This is just one instance of administrative goofiness--a synecdoche of sorts.) Not my problem.  Are bobcats digging up my parking lot again, two years in a row? Not my problem.  Are trucks and SUVs taking up two parking spaces, leaving fewer for the rest of us? Not my problem. I have time for the extra bit of walking and it isn't beastly hot or pouring.  Though I do wish that the Parking Office would ticket them for this and perhaps even give them a dedicated parking lot with larger stalls as far away from central campus as possible.  (How else are we going to make these enormous vehicles ethically indefensible?)  But really, it's not my problem.

I've even found myself uttering this about world events.  I surprised myself this weekend when I read about the death of a young Palestinian man, Mohammad Abu Khdeir who was burned to death by youths from the Haredim, an ultra-conservative Jewish sect.  Now the Israelis and Hamas are now trading rockets back and forth, and Israel has killed 100 people in revenge for the three Israeli men who were kidnapped.  Not my problem.  Really, we should be past this kind of lunacy. Thinkers like Jonathan Haidt and Joseph Heath have summarized a lot of the work done on how we think and reason--or fail to think and reason.  We know a tremendous about how our brain divides people into "in group" and "out group," particularly when there are threats to our survival.  We know how to short-circuit those tendencies.  Even more, we know that our evolutionary brain is really only suited to live in small tribes on the savanna; but we know as well what to do about this. Seemingly, the work of thinkers and scientists hasn't sifted down into our everyday ways of solving conflicts, but the knowledge is there if anyone cared to lift their head above the fray and think. How long ago was it that Gandhi said "An eye for an eye makes men blind"?  (There were also reprisal rapes in India this weekend.) There must also be excellent histories about the similar conflict between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, between British loyalties and forces and the IRA; these could provide a model of how to short-circuit endless antagonism.  I'm appalled at the amount of willful bloody-mindedness that is going on in the Middle East (and not simply in Israel; Syria is another example.)  Perhaps in that part of the world, where our brains began, we simply haven't evolved much beyond our chimp ancestors. But really:  not my problem. I don't give these issues as much mind room, and today I surprised myself at the gym by simply turning off the TV, which I always tune to CBC News (because I hate coming in at the middle of a story and leaving before the end of the story.  So today I turned it off and with all my "not my problem" energy, I set a new record for myself).  Things are really bad on Eastern Ukraine, but this is not my problem.  

So what is my problem?  When you retire, it's hard not to be aware that you are beginning the third act of your life and that the narrative is going at some point to veer away from whatever comedy you have cast yourself in.  There's an intensity, a seriousness about this phase of life that walks right along with the sense of liberty and exploration, all holding hands.  When Darryl Whetter learned of my retirement he congratulated me on having "thinking time." Exactly so, I thought.  But why?  Am I going to spend the next twenty or thirty years of my life thinking so that I can die with wisdom and dignity? That seemed to me a little self-indulgent and a tremendous waste of time. I knew Darryl was right, but I haven't been sure what this thinking was supposed to be about and how it would make any difference to anyone but me.

I was quite sure earlier this summer that my garden was my problem.  I have an enthusiastic Henry Hudson rose that is unstoppable and now huge.  When it's in full bloom, you can smell roses from the street and frequently people on their walks stop to do just that.  I felt a little bit like Clarissa Dalloway who once commented that she loved her roses and didn't that help the Armenians or the Albanians (or whomever Richard was going to do something about in committee that afternoon)?  I continue to feel that beauty helps. Perhaps as my roses lift someone's spirits, they are like that butterfly in the Amazon which might change our weather by flying this way rather than that?  

The Globe and Mail interviews a writer every week, asking a slate of questions, some of which are asked of everyone. One of these is "Would you rather be famous in your lifetime and then forgotten, or a legend after you die?"  I hate this question, but it did help me focus my own query.  It has seemed to me really important that I think and that this thinking make its way into my writing, informally in my blog, more formally in poetry and fiction. But I'm not thinking about fame.  I think it's a pretty good bet that I will never be famous.  

What I want to do with my writing is to find the people with whom I can have conversations.  Starting "conversational hares" may be one of the most important things literature can do.  Don't you feel, when you've read a wonderful book or a poem that blew you away, that you want to talk to other people about it--but only after you've had a conversation with the writer herself or himself? (I finished Miriam Toews's wonderful All My Puny Sorrows this weekend, and boy, do I want to talk to her!) The writing has created a prompt to consider a problem and then left you a space to think in, a compelling setting for you to do your own thinking.  Think of that setting as a room, perhaps one with comfortable reading chairs in which you can think more deeply or one with nothing but hard-backed wooden chairs which make you sit at the wrong angle. You may decide it's more comfortable to stretch out on the floor for a good long think, and that your discomfort will keep you awake longer. Your thinking may be challenged by the writer, but she may also be on to something you've only intuited--she may see this more clearly. Now you can think about what this idea or world view means to your own life. You may have to consider what this language or that character's experience tells you about how to live.

The idea of art as an occasion for conversation does actually have something to do with problems in the Middle East and the Ukraine.  It challenges the whole notion of certainty. I have felt for years that evil existed when people were certain they had the right line on something.  I don't care whether it is the notion that the market will solve all social problems, whether it's a view that people of different races or sexual orientations are suspect (if not evil or stupid), or whether it's a religious belief that is intolerant of the beliefs and lives of others. The moment you are certain, you have absolved yourself of the responsibility to think. But the artist's aim is to get you to think alongside of her, to get you to have a conversation with him about the matters at hand. "We're in this together, this business of figuring out what the good life is for us," the artist says.  "Let's walk a while together and see what we figure out."    


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