The Not-So-Brief Soul of Wit

chasing the last laughI have not yet read the book pictured to the left (Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks). I learned about it yesterday, early in the morning, when looking lackadaisically into humor and wit. Although I had resolved to buy no more books before leaving for Hungary–no more!–I broke down and ordered this one, because it looks too good to pass up. I didn’t know that Twain was a stand-up comedian or that he went on a world tour–or maybe once upon a time I knew this, “But, being over-full of self-affairs, / My mind did lose it.” (I did know that he was friends with Tesla, but that’s a separate matter.)

Yesterday I was thinking not about comedy in particular but about what makes some people uproariously and endearingly funny. Comedy and funniness are not identical; comedy is not always funny, nor do funny things necessarily constitute comedy. Funniness has many sources: it can come from setting up and breaking logical, semantic, and conversational expectations; taking an idea to an absurd conclusion; bringing a particular rhythm, tone, and timing into your speech; performing an exquisite imitation; and more. Today I will look at one ever-gurgling spring of funniness: the ability to exult in your foibles.

We all have foibles of one kind or another; many of us struggle with them daily. A comedian takes them and makes the most of them. Human fallibility attains splendor while retaining its clumsiness and silliness.

For example, some of us can be a pest at times. I am generally patient and unfazed by things–but when I really want to get something done, and it depends on other people, I will bug them until the thing is accomplished, whatever it may be. Sometimes I feel guilty about this; I type and untype an email, hover over the “send” button, delete the whole thing, start over, and repeat the process several times until I end up just sending the thing. It’s always polite–I don’t “flame” people–but still I may feel like a pest.

So when I listen to James Veitch give one of his talks about replying to spammers, I see that he’s taking this quality–being a pest, or feeling like one–and lifting it to its pinnacle. If you are going to be a pest, whom better to pester than those who are aggressively pestering the world: spammers with spurious business proposals? Veitch managed to get one of them so annoyed that he or she (the spammer) finally replied, “PLEASE STOP EMAILING US.” Now, in daily life, with people I know or even with strangers, I wouldn’t want this to happen–I’d be sad and remorseful if it did–but with a spammer, it seems beautifully fitting.

My one objection to his talk is that, in keeping with the TED worldview, he tells his audience, “do do this at home.” He qualifies this by saying they should use fake email addresses, but still, that’s bad advice. He can do this because he has a flair for it. Others could get themselves into trouble. It wouldn’t be the same. The TED illusion–that everyone can do this, whatever “this”  may be–detracts a little from his act. The best way to share in humor and wit is to laugh along, to recognize oneself in it, while also letting it belong to someone else.  Most of us know the feeling of trying to retell someone else’s joke: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but either way, it’s not the same. Funniness is like a soap bubble. Its air is internal.

Another foible (if one can call it that) is awkwardness. Many of us know the feeling of being a little out of sorts and out of place in a setting–not quite saying the right thing, or saying too much, or not saying enough. Some comedians–such as Ismo Leikola–take their own awkwardness and turn it into a glowing orb. Many performers transcend their awkwardness, but certain comedians actually preserve and exalt it. You see Leikola stuttering and puttering around, flapping his arms, and having a grand old time.

On a different level, and in a different way, this foible-lifting is part of what I love in László Krasznahorkai’s prose. He takes you dancing in the characters’ vanities and exaggerations. When reading The Melancholy of Resistance, I burst out laughing many times; when reading Mrs. Eszter’s funeral oration at the end, I laughed myself to tears. The laughter came from the recognition of mind–not the brooding reminiscence of Philip Roth’s characters, but something inflated, clumsy, profound, absurd, and wondrous.

To make the most of foibles, comedians, humorists, and writers perceive kairos (in the ancient Greek sense of the word, not the Christian sense): the opportune moment, which comes again and again in life. Foibles are not always fun or funny, but each one has its spectacular hour or series of hours. That takes us into comedy itself. If comedy turns a potentially threatening, destructive, or even catastrophic situation into something life-affirming (or, at worst, darkly persistent), then, by playing out a foible at just the right moment, by being both flawed and exquisite at once, one can launch a round-the-world comedy tour, not like Mark Twain, but in and along an unrepeatable way.

 

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

 

A Cedar Rule of Friendship

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Friendship has become like plastic wrap: stretchable over everything, yet easily poked and ripped. The word has become thin in meaning; in a Facebook context, a “friend” may be someone we’ve never met, have met but may never get to know, or have known for years. With a few clicks, you can “unfriend” someone; friendship is not a commitment but a “status.”

All of this has been said before, by many people. I am about to propose a cedar rule that can make friendship more meaningful, no matter what its depth or context. It’s difficult to follow, but it seems good as an aspiration. (I call it a “cedar rule” rather than a “golden rule” because cedar suggests durability and majesty. It’s one of the most vivid symbols in the Hebrew Bible. (See Psalm 92 and Ezekiel 31, for instance.)

The cedar rule is this: Never say anything about your friend that you are unwilling to tell him or her directly. Moreover, avoid speaking disparagingly about anyone, friend or not.

This goes for a stranger, a best friend, and anyone in between. A friend of any kind or level deserves this dignity.

I am using the pronoun “you”  not to be preachy but rather to avoid the awkwardness of “one,” the insularity of “I,” and the groupiness of “we.” Pronouns can be a pain (and I would say this to their face).

Now, some would object: What’s the harm in talking about my friend to someone removed from the situation? There’s no harm, if this conversation prepares you to speak directly with the friend. But if it replaces such conversation, it’s a way of keeping the friend in the dark about your thoughts and needs (specifically regarding the friendship).

If you are annoyed with a friend’s habits (of being late, of texting too much, of showing off, of not replying to an email, of putting people down), then the question becomes: How important is this person to me? If important, there are two choices: put up with the habits, or address them directly. Talking about them to someone else is not fair; it does not give the friend a chance to respond. The friend may think you’re fine with it all.

In addition, disparaging talk (even with the person’s knowledge) does damage and should be avoided in general. This idea is a bit harder to take; my own response would be, “so, am I supposed to pretend I just love everyone, that everyone is great, that there are no human flaws in the world? Must I avoid saying anything about Trump, then?”

No–there is a difference between criticism and disparagement. It’s possible to object to a person’s actions–frankly and fully, laying your cards on the table–without putting the person down or claiming superiority. Public figures are automatically subject to criticism because of their responsibility to the public; but even there, the criticism can hold to standards.

Jewish law forbids “lashon hara“–the evil tongue–defined as speech that says something negative about a person, is not intended to correct the situation, and is true. It’s the second quality here–speech not intended to correct the situation–that sets “lashon hara” apart from helpful criticism.

So when criticizing, be specific, do away with the sneer, acknowledge your own limitations, and allow the person to respond to your complaint. In all cases seek the good. Aristotle saw the best friendship as the kind based in good will (eunoia). While he considered it rare (and while he was probably right), its underlying principle can serve as a general guide.

The two parts of this rule depend on each other. To treat a friend justly, you must have a foundation of just speech in general–that is, speech that provides an opening for the good. With people in general, it is sufficient to avoid putdowns and hurtful gossip. With friends, you go one step further by saying directly to them whatever you would say about them, including the most thoughtful and helpful criticism in the world.

Of course there are qualifications to this, particularly when it comes to praise. Sometimes direct praise can become too much for the recipient; indirection may be kinder (and will rarely cause harm). But even there, it’s worth asking: Am I willing to say this directly to the person, and if not, why not? Sometimes people have little idea how much they are respected and appreciated; it would help them to know. Or sometimes the excessive gush has other, less honorable, causes; in that case it may be worth holding back a little, even from the wide world with its vast indifferent ears.

If the cedar rule were applied to all friendships–light or serious, distant or close, online or offline–how much the discourse would improve! Not only would people speak more kindly, but when they had an issue with someone, they would approach the person directly. What trust and good work this would engender. This doesn’t require intimacy or stiff formality; all it requires is care with humans and words. “All” it requires! This may be the greatest human challenge: to treat words and humans with care.

 

I took the photo in Central Park a few weeks ago.

I edited and added to this piece after posting it.

A Three-Act Play in Sonnet Form

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There are probably other three-act plays in sonnet form; if you know of any, please mention them in the comments! The idea occurred to me yesterday; I couldn’t resist trying it out.

The Rays of Royal Hope

A Sonnet in Three Acts

 

Dramatis Personae

King
Queen

Act 1

[Twilight. A parapet. A sword.]

King: Behold: a kingdom lies beneath my sword.
Queen: Expect no miracles. The deed is done.
King: O may we see new things under the sun!
Queen: Long may we live, and may we not be bored.

Act 2

[Midnight. Darkness. An antechamber.]

Queen: No more, no more, ennui! The cord, the cord—
King: Eh, would you end so soon? We have no son….
Queen: Of light I speak! Please pull the tassel, hon.
King: As you command, so acts your loving lord.

Act 3

[Morning. A terrace. Coffee and croissants.]

Queen: Now that the sun hath cast its rays above….
King: Let us say “has”—we live in modern times—
Queen: So let us cast our hopes. I sense a child.
King: I hope with you; I hope with all my wild….
Queen:  Longings and songs, the purview of my love….
King: You said it well, my lady. And it rhymes.

 

Painting: Georges Seurat, Man Leaning on a Parapet (1879-1881). Courtesy of WikiArt.

Villanelle: Goodbye to a Guitar

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This is my first villanelle in a while. The last one was a few years ago, I think, but I didn’t keep it.

Goodbye to a Guitar

Goodbye and getting rid are not the same.
I lift you up and lay you in your case;
you echo as though hollowed of my claim.

I played you rarely and I played you tame,
but still you rumbled forth your chordal lace.
Goodbye and getting rid are not the same.

I strum amiss and try to slap the blame
by rapping on the crack that splits your face.
You echo as though hollowed of my claim.

One day, in chords alone, you asked my name,
which might have spelled an end to this embrace.
Goodbye and getting rid are not the same.

“I could have dropped you in a dump of shame,
brushed off my pants, and shrugged at your disgrace,”
you echo, as though hollowed of my claim.

O may you play in sweet strong hands, in fame
or home, and may my ear pick up a trace—
goodbye and getting rid are not the same—
…..
You echo, as though hollowed of my claim.

 

I made three small changes to this poem (two punctuation changes and one word change) after posting it.

Guitar painting by Mark Beck. Courtesy of the Herron Guitars website.

Languages and Bikes

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People often ask me how many languages I speak and how I manage to learn them. I have a hard time answering the first question; I reply, “It depends on what you mean by ‘speak.'” Languages require upkeep; if I don’t practice a language, I become hesitant in it, and my accent grows thicker. Good pronunciation is much like playing in tune: essential to the music. Considering all of this, I often believe that I speak only English. But I can converse in several languages, read silently and aloud in a few more, and bumble around in a few more. The challenge is to get better at them.

As for the second question, how I do it, there’s nothing I “do” except steep myself in the language, way above my level. I don’t learn languages systematically. Or rather, the systematic learning is just one part of the whole. I learn by listening–to songs, poetry, prose, everyday speech–and sticking out my neck and making mistakes, saying things I don’t know how to say yet. A sequence of lessons can help. But if I were to limit myself to language classes, I wouldn’t get very far. This has less to do with the quality of the classes than with the limitations of language classes overall. I need the confrontation with words, sounds, and constructions that I don’t yet understand. For instance, yesterday I made some mistakes in my translation of a Hungarian folk song, but those mistakes were important. Two mistakes I caught on my own; at least two more I saw with help.

Sometimes it’s good to wade through language, with minnows around the ankles and pebbles and mud in the toes; sometimes it’s worthwhile to take up one of the pebbles and look at it for a while. From the photo above, which I took in Albertirsa in September, and from some other sources, I learned that there are at least five Hungarian words for bicycle: “bringa,” “kerékpár” (literally “a pair of wheels”), “bicaj,” “bicikli,” and the lovely old-fashioned “vasparipa,” “iron steed.” “Bringa doki” (in the photo) clearly means “bike doctor.” “Bringázz a munkába” (found elsewhere) means “bike to work.” The etymology of “bringa” is unclear. “Bringa” and “vasparipa” are my favorites here; I bet that if I refer to my future bike as a “vasparipa,” I’ll get some quizzical looks.

Wait: it seems that there are even more words for “bicycle”! Holy spokes; this is getting better and better. Here’s a list: vas, bicikli, vasparipa, bicaj, bringa, kenyérgőzös (“bread-steamer?”), vasszamár (“iron donkey”), velocipéd, kétkerekű (“two-wheeler”), drótszamár (“wire donkey”–a third favorite now), cajga, canga.

This stuff is both fun and substantial. I can learn a lot even when puttering around. That’s another great thing about learning languages: there are times for intensive study, times for utter bewilderment, and times for sitting back and enjoying a word or ten.

 

I made a small addition to this piece after posting it.

 

 

“Az erdei dalos madárnak is van párja….”

e8efb2131afd2eacedf4cef1f4f1fa53--postage-stamps-journalingThroughout my life, I have listened to folk songs and music from around the world–Bulgarian, Russian, Polish, Brazilian, Cape Verdean, Bengali, French, Irish, Dutch, Israeli, Hungarian, and many other songs and traditions. Folk songs and music go right to the heart. In a sense they need no mediation. But their meaning can be especially opaque; it can take years to understand them.

So it is with a Hungarian song I encountered, “Zöld erdőben de magos” (“A green but magical forest”). It starts out with an aching loneliness and then moves into revelry, ending with some kind of wild romance with a young “Gypsy” girl (“cigány lány”). From a modern standpoint, the song has a troubling aspect, especially at the end. That’s often the case with folk songs; they express passions and prejudices that “civilized” society rejects (on the surface, anyway). Keeping this in mind, I love the song’s intensity and allusiveness. It hints at a story instead of telling one. It creates motion. It reminds me a little of the songs in Federico García Lorca‘s Blood Wedding (Bodas de sangre)–and of Carlos Saura’s film as well. But I will need a long time to get to know it; translation is no simple matter here, and even a good translation does not come close to revealing all the meaning. (I have found no English translation online, but it may well exist in a book or CD booklet.)

Here are the first two verses, with my rough translation, and here’s my attempt at singing them (I am a beginner in Hungarian, but singing helps me learn). For the translation, I started with Google Translate but found it utterly unsuited to this task, so I corrected it as well as I could. Then I received some additional notes from a friend. It seems that sejehaj has no translation; it’s an interjection comparable to “heigh-ho.” The translation below incorporates my friend’s translation into my own (with her permission).

Zöld erdőben de magos, zöld erdőben de magos a juharfa,
Kicsi madár, a fészkét, kicsi madár a fészkét odarakja,
Az erdei dalos madárnak is van párja,
Csak én magam egyedül, csak én magam egyedül vagyok árva.

Rózsa, rózsa, rózsafa, rózsa, rózsa, tearózsa levele,
Nem beszéltem, sejehaj, nem beszéltem a rózsámmal az este,
A zsebkendőm is nála van a zsebébe,
Visszahozza, sejehaj, visszahozza, ha akarja az este.

In the green woods, in the green woods, the maple trees are so tall,
Little birds build, the nest, little birds build their nest.
The forest song birds have their mates,
Only I alone, only I alone am an orphan.

Rose, rose, rosewood, rose, rose, leaf of rose,
I did not talk, sejehaj, I did not talk to my rose in the evening,
My pocket handkerchief is in her pocket,
She’ll bring it back, sejehaj, she’ll bring it back in the evening if she wishes.

I learned the melody and rhythm from a beautiful performance by Szalonna és Bandája (with the singer Eszter Pál).

I found another recording, entirely instrumental, of a different and lovely melody of the song:

I look forward to finding out how much more I understand of this song in one, two, five, ten years. First the words may come, then the musical forms, then the associations, then the song’s history, then all of these together in new ways. Or the sequence might be different or nonexistent. Understanding comes in stages, with detail and clarity, but it is not a procession.

 

 

Image credit: Hungarian postage stamp, courtesy of Pinterest. (I changed the image after posting the piece; the earlier one was of a nightingale’s nest.)

After I posted the piece, a friend sent me an accurate translation of the song; I incorporated some of her translation in mine (with permission). If anyone else (who knows Hungarian) wishes to comment on the translation, please do not hesitate! It is a work in progress, and these are just the first two verses.

Pictures and Permission

IMG_4110When it comes to photographing my fellow humans, I am often in a bind; I prefer candid shots but don’t like to take photos of people without their permission. But there is a middle way; sometimes, through asking permission, I make a genuine connection, even for a few seconds, which leads to a lovely photo. So, while I didn’t ask permission to take the photo to the left or immediately below, all the others have permission and a story.

IMG_4116Yesterday a friend told me about the medieval festival (an annual tradition) in Fort Tryon Park, so I decided to go see it. I had caught the tail end of it two years ago and missed it entirely last year. I headed up the hill around 3:30 in the afternoon. It was a glorious day. All sorts of things were going on: a human chess game, knights in battle, music, magic tricks. Many people had dressed up for the occasion. I saw many colorful and elaborate costumes, but this was the most beautiful of all. I asked the woman whether I could take her photo, and she said yes and beamed. When I complimented her costume, she said, “I made it.”

IMG_4115 Then I saw a boy in an epic sword battle with his little sister. I asked the mom whether I could take a photo, and she said yes–but just at that moment, the girl hurt her thumb and started to cry. I walked away so as not to be in the way. A few minutes later, I came back, the brother and sister were at it again, and the mom asked them to slow down so that I could take some good pictures. I caught the tail end of the pinnacle of the fight. The slow motion only intensified it.

After witnessing such a display of martial arts, I was due for some music, so I found some troubadours. With permission, I took their picture, and they played for a few seconds. Then one of them asked, “You’re taking photos, not a video, right?” I assured them that this was so. Then they played a spirited song, and then another. I stayed for a while.

Yes, I will miss Fort Tryon Park. But probably this very thought pushed me to speak to these people and take these photos. I am usually shy about that sort of thing, but running out of time can make a person bolder.

 

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Fall Gratitude

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In celebration of this autumn day (a welcome change from the heat of the past few weeks), I offer some short and memorable readings.

The first is Jeb Sharp’s essay “On The Wind in the Willows and Going Home.” I was tempted to quote it, but the part I wanted to quote deserves everything preceding it. After reading the essay online (months ago), I found the journal in which it is published, Clockhouse, and ordered a print copy, which sits now on my desk. It’s coming with me to Hungary. (The desk is not.) It’s one of the most moving essays I have ever read.

The second, which I have mentioned here before, is William Lychack’s magnificent (and very short) story “The Ghostwriter.” (If you don’t have access to JSTOR, you can find it in his story collection The Architect of Flowers, which, like Volume Three of Clockhouse, will come along with me.)

The third and fourth are poems: May Swenson’s “Water Picture” and Edward Hirsch’s “Wild Gratitude,” both of which I first read about thirty years ago and reread with different understanding today.

Hirsch’s poem holds all of this together, including the photo above, taken earlier this month, of the ceiling of the Ady Endre Libary, formerly Baja’s synagogue, and the one below, from this morning’s outing to the corner store. I wish I knew what the cat saw at that moment; I’m pretty sure it was something I did not see.

atm cat 2

 

 

Goodbye to a School

De-oude-basisschool-in-Paterswolde-Noord-foto-Annemarie-Machielsen

Over forty years ago, for a year, I attended school in the Netherlands, in the town of Paterswolde. It wasn’t quite a one-room schoolhouse, but it came close; you can see it in the photo above. There were three classrooms; each room was shared by two grades. I think there were thirteen of us (and only five girls) in the sixth grade. Then their were the fifth graders, some of whom became my friends. I have stayed in regular contact (at least once a year) with one friend from that year and have been in touch with others off and on.

I just learned that this schoolhouse will soon be demolished so that an expensive housing project can take its place. Somehow I took for granted that this lovely building would stay. I remember our teacher, Meester van der Meer, teaching us how to find one percent of a number (“een, twee, HUP, en een, twee, HUP”). He turned math into song–not nursery rhymes, not singsong chants, but his own melodic explications.

Outside, during recess, we played marbles (“knikkers”). This was a dangerous game; we could actually lose our favorite ones, if we weren’t careful. At the end of the game, we would tally up our gains and losses. The ones who came out ahead would say, “Ik hep winst” (“I have profit”); those who lost a marble or two would admit, “Ik hep verlies” (“I have a loss”).

In the photo, you can see the bikes parked in front; there were many bike racks in back. Lunch lasted about two hours; we biked home and returned. Sometimes we had lunch at each other’s houses. No invitation was needed; we just showed up.

Several of my friends from that year will be taking a memory tour on bike, before the building is gone. They will stop and visit the school.

I don’t know which is stronger right now: sadness over the loss of the school, or awe over this memory tour. I suppose the two go together, but I still hope for a twist, a happy idea, a last-minute decision to keep the place intact.

 

Photo credit: Annemarie Machielsen (courtesy of rtv Drenthe).

 

The Difficulty of Dignity

IMG_3777On October 23, a week before leaving for Hungary, I will lead a philosophy roundtable at Columbia Secondary School on the topic of human dignity. Our texts will be Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech “Solitude of Self,” and a short excerpt from Immanuel Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. This excerpt begins, “In the kingdom of ends everything has either value or dignity. Whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.” That strikes me as a good starting point.

At these philosophy roundtables, the discussion takes surprising directions; while I prepare in advance, I do not know what to expect. I am fairly sure, though, that we will spend some time discussing the difficulty of dignity. That’s an inexhaustible topic, so it will not hurt if I lay out a few thoughts here.

It’s easy, when speaking of dignity, to point to egregious violations, such as those we see in the current U.S. presidency. It’s important to call out the egregious and to separate oneself from it (“I deplore this; this is not me”). But take away those extremes, and no one has mastered dignity. Everyone has difficulty with it; each of us fails in some way to perceive and honor others.

If dignity consists in that which is beyond all value and cannot be replaced, then we ignore or harm dignity when treating each other as dispensable or replaceable. Now, we all have aspects that are replaceable; that’s a different matter. If I leave a job, and someone takes over my responsibilities, that person has replaced that aspect of me that fulfilled those responsibilities. Still the person has not replaced me as a whole; I, like the new person, am irreplaceable. Not only did I bring something unique to the work, but I exist beyond it, as does any worker. Also, we often have qualities that we wish to slough off; those qualities do not deserve special honor.

How do we treat others–that is, entire people–as dispensable and replaceable? One common method is gossip. (That doesn’t happen to be my weakness–I gossip “hardly ever“–but don’t worry, I have plenty of other foibles.) Gossip, especially vicious gossip, creates an in-group and an outcast; the outcast has no say, and the gossipers assume that their own words have more status anyway. Also, gossip takes one aspect of a person–one mistake, one unpleasant quality–and treats it as the whole. Now, there’s gossip and gossip; some gossip is on the gentler side, but all the same, it takes advantage of the person’s absence.

But you do not have to be a gossiper (or slanderer, or libeler) to have difficulty with dignity. There are many other ways! For instance, if you try too hard to befriend people who don’t reciprocate, you risk ignoring or damaging their dignity; you assume that your own wishes are worth more than theirs (or that you know what’s good for them). On the other hand, if you shut people out unreasonably, if you push away people who show goodwill and kindness, you are reducing and tossing their gestures and sometimes, with that, their very selves.

If you chronically show up late for appointments and dates, you are rattling others’ dignity by making your day more important than theirs. But sometimes there’s dignity, or at least courtesy, in slight lateness (for instance, when arriving for dinner); it gives your hosts a little more time to prepare and relaxes the expectations. Etiquette has dignity bound up in it, but etiquette taken too far becomes judgmental and self-serving.

Online communications can affect dignity in all sorts of ways; a too-long email can overwhelm, whereas a short text message, in certain contexts, can reduce or erase conversation. Twitter seems to have a built-in indignity; it’s set up for eruptions of semi-thought. Brevity itself isn’t the culprit; it’s a certain kind of brevity, a dismissive kind, that runs rampant online.

Why is dignity so difficult? There are numerous possibilities; one is that we live inside our own minds and do not know what it’s like to be someone else. Everything we do, think, or feel is from our own perspective; while we can experience empathy, it’s essentially an act of imagination. Because of this, it is all too easy to treat others as slightly less real than we are. There’s supreme difficulty in seeing others.

Then there are the limits of a day and a life; there’s only so much we can take in, only so much room we can make for others. People reasonably set up their lives with concentric and sometimes overlapping circles; they have their inner circle and then successive outer rings. Distance can have dignity too–there’s dignity in strangers and privacy–but it’s all too easy to diminish distant people, to treat them as existentially less important.

Is there hope, then? Yes; first of all, dignity is inherent in us and cannot be given or taken away. It can be recognized or ignored, strengthened or damaged, but it stays. (I recognize that some dispute this, but I hold to it for now.) Second, there are thousands of ways of moving closer to it. Just as it can be bruised, so it can be healed. Treating others as beyond all value–that’s the work of a lifetime, but it’s possible,  thought by thought, gesture by gesture, mistake by mistake, repair by repair.

 

I took the photo in Albertirsa, Hungary. You can’t really see the grapes (except for one cluster), but they are there. When I looked at this little vineyard (in person), at first I saw no grapes at all. But then I started noticing one cluster after another.

For an extraordinary investigation of human dignity, see George Kateb’s book on the subject.