That Iron String

sitting in cafe 2I am writing this in my favorite Szolnok cafe, Cafe Frei, which has a warm, quiet atmosphere and an internet connection. The picture’s a bit grainy, but it captures the feel of  the place. Tomorrow the teaching begins; I have put together an outline of my lessons for the week and have begun assembling the details in my mind. There’s a set curriculum for the English classes–but room to plan the lessons, add some activities, decide on the emphasis, and more, as long as the students learn the substantial material in the books. For Civilization (American and British), there are informal textbooks too, but much room for additions. I think this is just the right combination of structure and flexibility.

I will begin with introductions and a short class discussion about education itself. Then I will bring up the CONTRARIWISE International Contest; then we will go right into the lessons.

It’s the first time, in all my teaching (except for my year teaching first-year Russian as a graduate student at Yale and my summers at the Dallas Institute) that I have worked from a preestablished curriculum. In my first three years of public school teaching, there was no curriculum for my subject (ESL);  in the fourth year, the school had a curriculum, but I was teaching a subject (literature through theater) that didn’t completely fall within it. At Columbia Secondary School, I created, taught, and oversaw the philosophy sequence for grades 9-11. So there was a curriculum, but not at the outset.

Yet although I usually didn’t have a curriculum at the outset, I advocated for one and set about to create it, not just for that year, but for the longer term. I define curriculum as a general outline of the topics, works, ideas, and skills that will be taught, as well as the key assignments. It does not have to be granular, if the teacher knows the material well. In language instruction, though, it probably should lay out the details, as long as it retains some flexibility. So much goes into teaching and learning a language that you can’t teach well from a general outline unless you have years of experience. You can teach something from an outline, but you’ll probably omit or shortchange many important topics and exercises.

That said, my “ex nihilo” or “quasi ex nihilo” beginnings will come in handy here too. Teaching in an unfamiliar country is no trifle; it takes a willingness to rearrange and recast the elements a bit, not only the external ones, but the internal ones too. For example, in American Civilization I plan to introduce students to Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (in the context of the unit on the American frontier). Although Emerson was not a frontiersman in a physical sense, he expresses an intellectual frontier that has delighted and troubled me for years and that my former students have remembered again and again. I delight in its vigor, imagination, and boldness; I am troubled by its seeming rejection of predecessors, tradition, and external wisdom. Either way, Emerson’s writing makes a mark; students and teachers come back to it over the years. The ambivalence and memorability can congeal into a few questions for a class discussion.

“Trust thyself,” Emerson writes; “every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He continues:

Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

How can writing arouse such a strong Yes and No at the same time? How can words so self-sure and resounding be simultaneously right and wrong? Also, does he make a single point, or several contradicting ones? To accept the place that “providence” has found for you, you must be alert to “the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” You cannot be entirely removed. The trustworthiness comes from both introspection and alertness, and from language, which connects one person to another.

I do not want to give too many of my own thoughts here, since there are discussions in store. “That iron string” is part of anything important I have done. Still, I have often had to stop to make sure it was in tune, and in tuning it, I had to listen to outside and inside sounds, not only from the present, but from combinations of times.

I end with a photo I took of the Tiszavirág híd, the Mayfly Bridge, which crosses the Tisza in Szolnok. It seems appropriate for the crossing into teaching (and for iron strings too).

bridge over tisza


On Human Harm and “Isms”

Yesterday a friend reminded me of Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile,” which contains these lines:

A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.


I have been thinking about the recent string of accusations, outings, confessions, public shamings, around sexual harassment, not a trivial matter. I am in no position to judge others’ situations. In the overall movement, I see both good and harm: good in the increased awareness of the problems, and harm in the lumping together of profoundly disparate situations, the reduction of human relations to “isms.”

Two thoughts come to mind. First, people harm each other in all sorts of ways. Not all can be interpreted as sexism, racism, or any other “ism.” People judge others unfairly, act on these judgments, cut people off, write people off, say unkind things about others, and overall treat their own perspective as correct and righteous. Sometimes this takes the form of a recognizable social injustice (e.g., racism, sexism, classism); sometimes it does not. To address human injustice, one must look beyond the “isms” into a basic cruelty, callousness, or carelessness, which starts with the failure to see another as a person. (I don’t mean that one should ignore the “isms”–but the “isms” are not enough.)

Second–a more difficult point–often the people who hurt us do not mean to do so. That doesn’t excuse their actions, but it requires imagination of us, imagination to see that perhaps there was something more going on, something not to take personally. As in Frost’s poem (which has subtlety upon subtlety and will not be reduced), “one flight out sideways” would be enough to change a view.

This point could easily be misread; I am not condoning any kind of human harm or suggesting that all kinds are alike. Nor am I disparaging calls for justice. I suggest only that in some cases we can expand our understanding and perception of the possible. This takes imagination; we do not know what another person means, wants, or thinks. Our knowledge is incomplete at best. To exercise imagination is to see ourselves more fully; each of us, has hurt someone without wanting to do harm–or even consciously wanting and trying to do good. This isn’t just a matter of “good intentions” gone wrong but of our limited knowledge and vision. Seeing our own unintended wrongs, we can conceive of goodwill in others, and vice versa.

I’ll go even farther: We can do harm when trying our darndest to do good. I think of the sweet little song “Too Much Giving” that I co-wrote with Mahlah Byrd, who died in 1994. Sometimes the very effort can overwhelm and upset others; it can come across as a demand or grand show. Generosity requires a certain lightness. There must be a spirit of forgetting, looking away, continuing into the day.

Frost brings up the bird as a kind of “by the way”–and that “by the way” becomes the subject of the poem, as he marvels that someone could have left the wood-pile behind. Frost’s “by the ways” are full of wit and sadness; it’s in those pauses and deflections that the reader gets to see and hear–not fully, not permanently, but with a short gift of clarity.


Image credit: Photo of Robert Frost, courtesy of the blog A Bright, Unequivocal Eye.

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

Noah and the End of Endings

Noah's Sacrifice

The following post is not only for those of Jewish faith, or even the religious in general; the Biblical verses on Noah and the flood transcend particular belief.

As I prepare to read three aliyot of Noah* this coming Shabbat, I am moved by the divine shift in these verses. Genesis 6:13 reads,

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל-בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי–כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, מִפְּנֵיהֶם; וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ.

And God said unto Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

God doesn’t destroy them all, though; He saves Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives. They must survive and bear the kind of loss that makes a whole life reel. The survival must be its own good.

I think of “Still, Citizen Sparrow” by Richard Wilbur, who died on Saturday at the age of 96. I quote just the last two stanzas (starting with the first full sentence):

…. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where

He rocked his only world, and everyone’s.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah’s sons.

“Forgive the hero”: The one who goes through all this cannot possibly be pleasant. People do not want to see what he saw. Because his whole manner reflects what he saw, they find him “unnatural.” But Wilbur hints at something beyond the suffering. Through seeing “the towns like coral under the keel,” through riding that tide where it was so “high and weary,” Noah changes the world.

I have many thoughts on the poem, but I’ll return to Genesis now. Here there’s no hint of Noah’s thoughts, no mention of his suffering. We only get to picture the destruction along with him: the waters rising fifteen cubits high, all flesh dying, all life being blotted out, except the life in the ark.

But when the earth dries, Noah, after stepping out of the ark at God’s command, builds an altar (without being so commanded) and makes burnt offerings. God smells the sweet savor and says (Genesis 8:21-22),

וַיָּרַח יְהוָה, אֶת-רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ, וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי.

עֹד, כָּל-יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ: זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף, וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה–לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ.

And the LORD smelled the sweet savour; and the LORD said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’

There is extensive commentary on each word of this; I will focus here on the reversal of “the end of all flesh.” It was really “the end of all flesh with a few worthy exceptions”–but even such an end, according to these verses, will never happen again. The end has ended.

These verses show a permanent shift in the divine. What happened with Noah could happen only once; maybe that is God’s atonement for the toll it took, but in any case, a changed God emerges, one who will never again smite every living being.

But the reason is strange: “for the imagination [purpose, plan] of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” One would think that human goodness, not evil, would dissuade God from acting in this way again. Rashi comments,

from his youth: This is written מִנְּעֻרָיו [i.e., without a “vav,” implying that] from the time that he [the embryo] shakes himself [נִנְעָר] to emerge from his mother’s womb, the evil inclination is placed in him. — [from Gen. Rabbah 34:10]

So one can understand these verses as follows: I, who created humans, must bear responsibility for who they are. Their evil is not just their own doing; it has been with them since their birth. Although I may punish them (and allow them to harm each other), I will never destroy them altogether, because their condition comes not only from them, but from me.

But there’s more happening here. God says  this after smelling the “sweet savour” of Noah’s sacrifice–and it was unprecedented among sacrifices, sweeter, maybe, than any that came before, because Noah performed it after horrific survival–survival at the cost of peace of mind. Noah’s sacrifice, his suffering, has already been enough by any standard, but he adds the formal sacrifice, which moves God to speak “in His heart [or mind, or seat of intention]” (אֶל-לִבּוֹ). So there could be a meaning like this:

Just as I answered evil, so I now answer good; evil will always abound, but good can change even the heart of God. I am changed by Noah’s obedience and piety, and not only by his character and actions, but by his life, this cherished life, this life that was everything all along. Accepting this sacrifice, smelling its sweetness, I cannot be the same God as before; I cannot put an end to all life, even with a few exceptions, ever again.

Whatever one’s religious, agnostic, atheistic or other views of life, one can imagine these verses, and within them, a God profoundly shaken by the goodness of a man.

What does this mean here and now? It doesn’t mean that we should stop worrying about destruction; the threat of destruction is real. Nor does it mean that the good people are rescued and the bad ones destroyed. It means, maybe, that any of us can sit with goodness, take it in, and, as a result, change forever how we deal with others.

So difficult it is to take in goodness; goodness itself is difficult. It isn’t always recognized; sometimes it’s mistaken for something else. Even when recognized, it isn’t easy to accept or fathom. Receiving another person’s goodness, one also receives the loneliness, the singularity. I don’t know exactly what it does, this “sweet savour,” but I think it leaves a person slightly gentler than before.



*In synagogue services, when Torah is read, the portion is divided into aliyot (honors with blessings). A member of the congregation, or sometimes a guest, is called up for an aliya; this person recites the blessings before and after the reading. In the past, the person receiving the honor would also read the Torah verses; today there is usually a separate reader. The reader chants the text according to cantillation principles. I will be reading at both the children’s service and the main service; hence the span of verses.  (This is my last Shabbat at B’nai Jeshurun before I leave for the ALSCW Conference and then for Hungary.)

The English translations of the Biblical verses are from the JPS 1917 edition (courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website). In two places I added alternate translations in brackets.

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

Image: James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Noah’s Sacrifice, Gouache on board, c. 1896-. The Jewish Museum (New York City).

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 mess, 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


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.

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.

On Giving Things Up


Last week, in a conversation about my upcoming move to Hungary, a friend asked me, “How could you give up your apartment here?” I found this question difficult to answer; after all, we are defined in large part by our willingness and unwillingness to give up certain things. For me, giving up an apartment (under these circumstances) is easy; for someone else, it may be unthinkable. But I struggle with other material attachments. When sorting and packing my things, I have paused for a long time over books. I can’t bring many books with me, but I find more and more that I don’t want to leave behind. I am just putting them in storage–they won’t be gone–but I won’t be able to take them out of the shelf whenever I want.

Extreme circumstances–a war, flood, earthquake, fire, or other calamity–can force a person to give up things that otherwise would have seemed indispensable. Even a minor life change requires relinquishment of some kind. All the same, in large and small situations, each of us has a unique response to things that stay and go. Whether in times of ease or difficulty, no two people attach in the same way to their possessions, surroundings, and relationships.

Why is it easy for me to give up my place? After selling my apartment in Brooklyn, I chose to rent (rather than buy) an apartment so that I would have greater flexibility. I wanted to be open to future possibilities. So in a way the departure was already built in; I just didn’t know what form it would take. I love the neighborhood–particularly Fort Tryon Park–and am grateful for the two years here. It was an ideal place for writing my book (which is inching toward publication, by the way; there’s no concrete news yet, but I see light ahead).

So one answer to the question is, “This was part of the plan, before I even knew what the plan would be.” But another answer has to do with my sense of home. In my adult life I have spent years in one place or another–over a decade in New Haven, seven years in San Francisco, thirteen years in Brooklyn, two years in upper Manhattan, and seven Julys in Dallas. I am not one to move around continually. But I have no single home; each of these places is still a home for me, and there will be more.

Home does not exist for me without homesickness and longing for unknown places. Those are two different longings, though they combine at times; homesickness is a longing for a real or imagined home, while that longing for other places–places that aren’t home–pulls a person away from home, away even from homesickness, into travel and exploration. In his video introduction to his Shudh Sarang-sextet, Iván Fischer describes his search for a single word for such longing, something along the lines of “farsickness.” He had a wonderful Hungarian word, elvágyódások, but could not find a title in English that conveyed what he wanted.

So to answer the question, I would have to explain my sense of home, homesickness, and longing for the faraway. That could take a few years; in the meantime, the relations might have altered or shifted. For most of my adult life, I have not traveled much abroad, but the few trips I took on my own (to Kyrgyzstan, Argentina, Lithuania, Turkey, Slovakia, and Hungary) became part of my daily thought. The move to Hungary is more than travel; I don’t know what it will become, and I look forward to finding out.

Isn’t this true for everyone? Doesn’t each person have a sense of home that is difficult to explain to others, that changes shape over a lifetime, and that gets pushed and pulled in unexpected ways?

Back to the sorting and packing….


I took this photo in Baja, Hungary.

On Staying Intact

transfer bridge

I was partly kidding when I suggested that if we all pitched in now and then with gardening and philosophizing, we would get things done, it wouldn’t be so terrible, and no one would have to be roped in for the long haul. But a more serious question has been on my mind: Is it possible to do something one doesn’t normally do and doesn’t like to do, or something about which one has mixed thoughts and emotions, and still stay intact? I realize that “yes and no” is too simple an answer, but if explained properly, it seems correct.

What does it mean to stay intact? It means that you retain roughly the same thoughts and preferences as before, as well as the strength to honor them. If I generally don’t like commercial action thrillers but go with a friend to see War for the Planet of the Apes (which I have no plans to see), find myself enjoying it a little, but still know that I would not choose it on my own, I have stayed intact. I have neither betrayed myself nor become a different person; I just tried something out of the usual for me.

Or take a trickier example: Let’s say I have a friend who does not like some of my other friends. I can spend time with this person, in private or public, without fearing that I have betrayed others. Sometimes this can be challenging, but it’s possible.

Or suppose I attend a religious service of a faith other than my own. Up to a point, I can participate without worrying that I have gone against who I am. There is a breaking point, though, generally understood by all. For instance, if you are not Catholic, you can sing the hymns and join in the responses (according to your comfort) but should not take communion. In holding back here, you show respect for yourself and others.

Another tricky example: Suppose I attend a demonstration that generally reflects my views but differs in some particulars. If I participate without assuming (or letting others assume) that I have given up my differences, then I have stayed intact. (In this case, the demonstration becomes a statement in itself, so a participant may have difficulty differentiating himself from it.)

Why does it matter to stay intact? It affects your participation in the world. If you believe that an experience will turn you into that thing, whatever it may be, then you might avoid it, for fear of becoming someone you don’t want to be. If you believe that you will stay intact, you can walk confidently through the world and try all kinds of interesting things.

So, now for the “yes” and “no” of the matter. It is possible to do something without becoming it, yet each of our experiences and actions influences us and our directions. Moreover, some experiences affect us profoundly and surprisingly. We can’t always control what comes of them. Also, some distinctions and markers of identity lose importance over time, while others gain importance. Someone who formerly took pride in not being a “poetry person” may come to question whether such a type exists. But a poet who initially admired both Yeats and Auden might come to favor one over the other.

It’s possible to stay intact, but not completely.  We’re continually reshaping around the edges. Sometimes the center undergoes a whirl. Still, even with that, it’s possible not to cave in to each suggestion or sensation. The wisdom of when and when not to resist, how far to venture outward, and when and how to go home can be found in books, but only partly. Each judgment is lonely.  But there’s something grounding in seeing it as judgment, and not just as fate or folly. In many senses of the phrase, we get to make up our minds.


I took this photo of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge while biking along the Hudson last Friday. See Nick Carr’s photos as well.

As usual, I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Weeding and Watching

gardening When people tell me that philosophy isn’t their thing, I figure they can’t possibly mean philosophy as I define it. Some other kind of philosophy must unimpress them. I don’t think I could do without it, nor would I want to, though I think in various ways, not only philosophically. Philosophy, as I understand it, involves not only questioning a premise but building a structure of questions. For instance, what questions do we need to ask, and in what sequence, to arrive at a better understanding of happiness? I enjoy thinking and reading about such topics, discussing them with others, and going off on my own to think some more. This isn’t  just fun; to an extent it informs how I live.

But when it comes to gardening, I throw down the gloves. I am not a gardener! Some, hearing this, may assume I have misunderstood gardening, since gardening (as they understand it) goes rake in rake with joy. But no, I  do not like gardening. I am not supposed to spend extended time in the sun; beyond that, I dislike the crouching and the continual feeling (usually confirmed by others) that I’m doing something wrong: that I failed to pull up a weed or succeeded in destroying an important legume.

All that said, I enjoyed some modest gardening in Fort Tryon Park yesterday. The volunteer shift was from 10 to 2; I lasted from 10 to noon. I felt bad about leaving early, but then I thought: isn’t that better than not volunteering at all? For those two hours, or most of them, I enjoyed the weeds and lilies (listen to Hannah Marcus’s gorgeous song by that title). It’s possible to stretch beyond my preferences without going to far: to garden just enough, not to the point where I never want to garden again. Also, within those limits I didn’t have to worry about having to extricate myself; the extrication was built in. I could stay true to the “hardly ever.”

IMG_3668 Today, with some friends, I watched the partial eclipse from Central Park. Many had gathered with special glasses, cylinders, colanders, and other instruments; others stopped by and asked to borrow glasses. We were thronged with excitement and curiosity; I could not have wished for a better crowd and sky. I thought about how these two things go together, the weeding and the watching. To make such a gathering possible, someone had to pull the weeds and clean the litter. Someone had to work out some basic natural philosophy. That person didn’t  have to be someone else; it could be any of us, if we went beyond our usual hesitations and complaints. Then again, no one, given free choice, really has to do what he or she dislikes doing. My only point is that it’s possible and, within limits, possibly even fun.

IMG_3672Thus beauty and labor depend on each other. There would be no point in gardening if it didn’t give people a garden, no point in philosophy if it didn’t open up understandings. It’s easy to delegate the labor to others, but it’s more satisfying to take part, within reason. Short shrift may bite and sting, but a short shift may save the day.

In this last picture, a woman is holding a colander so that the eclipse will project onto the paper below. Others stand by and photograph the paper. The dogs fixate on other things, whatever those may be. People pass through the park. We start to think of things we have to do. Time and schedule press in. Sun and moon slowly let go of each other.

I made a few changes and additions to this piece after posting it.

What Is Civics Education?


After the Charlottesville violence, there will probably be renewed calls for civics education.* But what is civics education? Any initiative needs a clear understanding of it.

Here is what I would offer. Civics education conveys, develops, and enlivens the premise that a country is built on principles, structures, realities, and interpretations, and that each of these has internal contradictions and contradictions with other elements. Civics education would help students understand (a) what these principles, structures, realities, and interpretations actually are; (b) where they come from, historically and philosophically; (c) how they have coincided or conflicted with each other over time; (d) how one can grapple with these confluences and contradictions; and (e) how one can apply this understanding. In addition, such a curriculum would bring out the relation between external government (government of a country or smaller political unit) and internal government (government of the self). A civics curriculum that built this kind of knowledge, questioning, analysis, and introspection would be fine indeed!

So, for instance, the principle of “pursuit of happiness” runs into frequent conflict with the principle of equality, but both are essential to this country and part of its foundation. How does one reconcile them? Answers may be found in philosophical works, court cases, literature, and more, but such answers are not final and do not solve everything. The question stays open, continually calling for new responses, not only in the political arena, but in our minds and lives.

A civics curriculum would include but go beyond courses in government, philosophy, and history alone; it would involve arts, languages, literatures, mathematics, and sciences, since all of these help us understand who we are, who others are, what is known and unknown, and what matters.

Very well, you might say. When and how will this great education come about? I say that it already exists, in places and in pieces. The challenge is to lift it up and make it stronger. This will require, among other things, renewed dedication to secular education–that is, not education that denies or diminishes religious faith, but that builds a common basis and mode of discussion among people: a basis of knowledge and a mode of reasoning, imagining, and listening.

This may sound grand and far-fetched, but I have seen it in practice. I sensed these qualities in my best high school, college, and graduate school classes; I have found them when visiting classes taught by colleagues. I see them in the philosophy roundtables and philosophy journal at Columbia Secondary School. I experience them each summer at the Dallas Institute and look forward to reveling in them at the upcoming ALSCW Conference. In addition, I find them when reading, listening to music, visiting other countries, speaking other languages, and writing. These are some of the contexts I know; how many more there must be! This practice exists, in other words; it just needs attention, recognition, and strengthening.

Image credit: Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1516 edition.

*The term “civics education” may seem redundant, since “civics” already denotes a field of study. I use it to refer not just to the field but to the ways of teaching it and the subjects surrounding it.