Thursday, June 1, 2023

Observation, Moral Beauty, and an untrustworthy world

Early in May, Medrie Purdham and I created a "First Draft" webinar for the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild.  These presentations have their own distinct form.  One writer gives a 15-minute presentation on a chosen topic, and then he or she is joined by a host--someone who knows something about the writer's topic--who will facilitate a conversation between them.  Medrie had chosen me to be her interlocutor, and I was honoured and delighted for the chance to spend time thinking carefully about poetry with her.  Medrie is an an extraordinary poet--there's no one quite like her, no one with her deep and quirky and insightful view of the world.  She is also a person who thinks conscientiously about whatever she does.  I expected that her exploration of the ethics and aesthetics of writing about one's family in "Should there be a 'son' in 'sonnet'?" would be full of insight, and it was. 

When we were chatting about our ideas over coffee the week before, and in the webinar itself, Medrie brought up the issue of observation.  She told me that some of her friends found Little Housewolf, her astounding book of poetry published by Vehicule Press, to be a kind of primer for observing one's children.  In the webinar itself, she considered the downsides of writing about one's family:  does writing about your children strip them of their privacy? Do poets feed off the intimate lives of the people they are supposed to protect? But she also made the point that should they choose some day to read her poems about them, they would at the very least feel seen

Careful observation is one of the foundations of poetry; often shaky or unsatisfying poems lack the kind of resonant detail that would have made the poem richer and more meaningful. But being seen is of another order altogether.  It's existential.  It's a mark that you are complex enough and interesting enough and beautiful enough in that complicated human way that someone decides to pay attention. And perhaps if she is an artist--a poet, photographer, painter, novelist, composer--she will attempt to capture the you-ness of you. As I work on the Abecedarius about my mother and her generation, I realize that one cause of my mother's frequent bouts of despair or depression had to do with the fact that in some contexts she wasn't seen.  She was a role and not a person.  And having written that, I realize that what I'm doing and why I chose the abecedarius form is that it demanded that I have 26 views of her, that I would present 26 facets of her, as if she were a diamond. I knew the poems were a kind of witnessing, but this idea of being seen adds another layer to that.

Perhaps the popularity of social media like Facebook or Instagram has to do with our desire to be seen, though I suspect the medium works against that.  We're more likely to work on our brand and less likely, for good reasons, to let ourselves be vulnerable.  Being vulnerable on Facebook, particularly if you are a teenager, is not a good idea. This might explain why teenagers these days, and especially teenage girls, report shocking levels of depression.  In those years between about 14 and about 28, we need the validation of being seen in a true and significant way, and if our friends and dates and mentors are too busy being on social media, they can't offer the real thing.  Perhaps they don't even know what the real thing is.

But lack of careful observation also distorts our experience of "the real world," particularly since mainstream media gives us a cynical sense of what the world is like and how people conduct themselves.  Please, I beg you--and probably not for the last time--read Rutger Bregman's Humankind.  But today I'm going to talk about cooperation. Led by Giovanni Rossi, a sociologist at UCLA, a group of researchers from Equador, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK carefully analyzed hours and hours of videotape recorded in social situations in widely different cultures.  They found that about every two minutes, one person conveyed--explicitly, with words, or implicitly, with gestures--that they needed help.  It's there in polite cliches: please pass the salt.  It's what my physiotherapist does when he wants me to do something unusual and I simply hand him my glasses.  It's with us when we stop as we drive down Fifteenth Avenue or Thirteenth Avenue because someone wants to cross or is in the midst of j-walking.  There's almost a rule in the Cathedral Neighbourhood that you stop for pedestrians, particularly when it's cold and wet. I was shopping for tomatoes and dahlias yesterday, and a woman with a walker who had explained to me that she'd sprained her ankle and was having trouble moving, managed to unseat all the plants she'd put on her walker.  Without a word, three people moved in to help her gather things up again.

What Rossi's team noticed was that 79% of the time, people will be helpful, and when they can't be, they explain why 74% of the time.  They never explain why they are helping, which suggests that being cooperative is the human default.  Of course, what these sociologists were discovering with their videos was small examples of moral beauty, the thing that most frequently prompts us to feel awe--that wonderful, affirming experience that lifts our spirits.

I almost titled this blog post "Observation, Moral Beauty, and Your Cell Phone," but I knew if I did you would give it a miss.  But first I need to confess that I caved and finally bought a cell phone.  So I'm not in quite the position I was several months ago.  I've learned a bit about how seductive it is to have a combination computer and phone in your pocket. But if you are consulting your cell phone while you are walking down the street, standing in line at the grocery store, pulling it out to answer email from work, you're missing things. You're not seeing the purple irises that are almost black in their evening glory.  You're probably not smelling lilacs.  You're missing the beauty that would feed your soul. And you're not seeing generous behaviour in the coffee shop.  You go on living in the little pod of people who are your social media friends or in the shell you make for yourself while you check emails from work on a beautiful weekend when you should be throwing a frisbee for your dog. If you want to know that the world is basically a good place--especially in this historical moment when wars and autocrats are too too numerous--you have to observe the daily life around you. If you want an antidote to the kind of divisiveness that characterizes political discourse these days, you could do worse than stop to observe the ways people cooperate daily without asking for political credentials.

Simone Weil is right:  "Attention is the rarest and the purest form of generosity."  And Medrie's poems have a truth about them in that they make observation and being seen into the beautiful, generous gift that it is. Being observant is what poetry does--or it dies on the page.  Practice being observant more often. Because it is a practice.



  1. I've always found people to be kind and helpful and good, thank heavens, because there is enough historical and current evidence proving that they/we very often are not. I just notice that although their beliefs and behaviours both politically and preachily may fall into the nutbar camp, which I find frightening these days because of the extent of the ignorance, they will almost always pull over to make sure you don't need help at the side of the highway. -Kate

  2. What you’ve observed about people’s helpfulness is confirmed again and again by Bergman’s Humankind, except that he digs down to see where our misconceptions come from and what is actually true on the street. I read a commencement address by Margaret Renkl a couple of weeks ago. She kept repeating the same phrase: “The earth is beautiful and people are good.”

  3. You can get Bregman’s (not Bergman, as autocorrect would have it, on your public library’s website for e books. If you live in Sask, it would be called Libby. Download the ap, put info about where you live and your library card number, and you can take Humankind out without leaving home.