Music, Theatre, and Goodbye

What a great way to conclude the visit to Istanbul: before attending a student performance at the school, I took a walk, and found some of my favorite musicians again. (I had not seen them since the one time on May 19.) This time I asked them their names so that I could look them up and listen to more of their music. They are Fali Talebi and Sherko Hoseini, originally from Iran. I requested the song I heard them play last week (by humming the melody); when they played it today, many people gathered around and began singing along. (You can hear the crowd faintly in the video below.)

I kept the video clips to two minutes, because of my upload limits–but here’s a second clip with most of Fali’s solo.

Here’s another song they played.

I got back to the school just in time for a joyous theatrical performance by the preparatory class. Proud parents were taking photos and videos.

And here are a few classroom and Café Philo photos from the previous days.

This feels more like a photo album than like a blog post, but as you can see, it will take a while to absorb everything that happened in these two weeks. Besides, the day is not yet over. Enough of the computer for now.

Update: As for the musician I heard on my first and third days, my first favorite, I did not see him again, and I still do not know his name. I stopped in the Mephisto book and record store to ask about him. A store clerk told me that he has been playing on the street, and only the street, for the past twenty years; he has no formal recordings. He often plays the songs of Âşık Veysel–so I got a CD and booklet of  Âşık Veysel’s work. The “aşık” (minstrel) has a long tradition in Anatolian culture; Âşık Veysel is among the most renowned. Through this booklet and CD, I will learn something about the musician I heard; through the musician I heard, I will start to learn about the Anatolian minstrels.



Yesterday, at the Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi, there was an eleventh-grade award ceremony in commemoration of Atatürk’s birthday. For part of the philosophy award, I presented copies of CONTRARIWISE (a journal of philosophy by students of Columbia Secondary School in New York City) to Selin Tunalı, whose essay “What Is a Human Being?” won honorable mention in the journal’s international contest.

More photos of this ceremony will soon appear on the CONTRARIWISE website. You can purchase a copy of the fourth issue through the website or at the journal’s upcoming celebration at Book Culture at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 27. I will still be out of the country, but CONTRARIWISE will be vivid in my thoughts.

For three consecutive years, a student from the Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi has won an award in the CONTRARIWISE International Contest. The past winners are İdil Ertem (for her poem “The Organization of Manti”) and Beliz Ürkmez (for her piece “Birth and Death”).

This year the editors-in-chief, editorial board, and Professor Terranova produced CONTRARIWISE without me; I left Columbia Secondary School at the end of June 2016 to write my second book. It is thanks to CONTRARIWISE that I am in Istanbul right now; through the international contest (created by the founding editors-in-chief), I began corresponding with Dr. Nimet Küçük, the philosophy teacher at Sainte Pulchérie. We then met twice in person in NYC. She and the school’s director, M. Abellan, invited me to the school for a short-term teaching residency; when I saw that it would be possible this spring, we began planning.

I am glad to have another week here! The visit has been beautiful and enlightening; I have been teaching, visiting classes, attending school events, and exploring Istanbul, all with the help and support of Nimet, other teachers, and the director. I am moved by their hospitality and impressed with what I have seen of the school. It has a compelling combination of formality and spirit, discipline and initiative, and learning and questioning. I have attended a math class on vectors, a music class on Debussy, and a French class where students were working on projects. I have taught two lessons so far (to four sections comprising the entire eleventh grade) and have seen the students’ great attention and participation.

The school hosts a theatre series performed by professional actors; this evening I will see Occident by Rémi De Vos, and tomorrow Yılın En İyi Kadın Oyuncusu (“The Best Actress of the Year”) by Seyyar Sahne.

This second photo (which I took on my first day here) shows a side alley and cat; I do not know whether I will find them again. Everywhere there are hilly, winding streets and alleys, each one different from the others. Even people who have lived here all their lives discover new places on their familiar walks. I look forward to many more walks over the coming week.

istanbul cat 1

Havel havalim (Koheleth)


Reading Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), I sit up in awe, drop stray thoughts, and listen again and again to the second verse (translated as “vanity of vanities,” etc.). Then I start hearing its cadences everywhere: in Shakespeare (as do others), in Mahler, in poem after poem, song after song, film after film. This poem holds millions of breaths.

I was first introduced to Koheleth as a teenager, through Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” via Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Here’s Orwell:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

For a long time, that was all I knew of it. I understood that its language was vivid and lilting and that it looked askance at the world. I read parts of it here and there–but did not begin to understand the whole until I first heard it chanted in Hebrew (just a few years ago). Then I sensed its coherence–not quick meaning, but unity and movement–and a joy mixed in with the sadness, a joy of walking through life.

Just a week ago I started learning the first few verses, with trope and all. It was then that I fell in love with the second verse.

Havel havalim, amar Koheleth; havel havalim, hakol havel.

The whole verse sounds like a sigh; this is no coincidence, as “hevel” originally meant “vapor” or something similar.

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states (in volume 3, p. 315): “In virtue of its supposed onomatopoeic origin, hebhel consistently retains the meaning of “breath” and, especially with reference to the visible aspect, although possibly delimited by the stronger ruach, “vapor, mist, smoke.” … Ideas of transitoriness and fleetingness are associated with the word when it means “breath,” and these tend to point toward an abstract connotation (cf. the LXX). This tendency is aided by the capability and openness of onomatopoeic words for new meanings.” This paragraph continues–and it’s part of a much longer entry–but I want to get back to the second verse and the joy.

The noun hevel (or hebel), with root heh-bet-lamed, appears in this verse in three forms:

  1. havel (with a long “e” and a stress on the second syllable): the construct form of hevel. This indicates that it accompanies the noun that follows.
  2. havalim: the plural of hevel.
  3. havel (with a short “e” and a stress on the first syllable): the pausal form of hevel.

This verse not only shivers with alliteration (not only of havel, havalim, and havel, but also of hakol and Koheleth), but takes a single word and turns it around and around.

Vapor of vapors, says Koheleth; vapor of vapors, all is vapor.

But even this does not recreate the morphology and cadences. Here is my recording of the first three verses. Here, also, is a wonderful recording (and video of the text) by Rabbi Moshe Weisblum.

What is it about this verse (and the poem as a whole) that brings joy?

Koheleth is not conducive to takeaways. Its message is not “enjoy life” or “fear God”; it holds up both. In terms of theology and philosophy, it stands out as one of the most puzzling Biblical texts. (I would love to take Stephen Geller’s course on it; I have taken his course on the Psalms.)

Still, for all its complexity, the poem has a gesture of learning, of seeing beyond illusions.

If success, fame, power, labor, even wisdom are all vapors, then life is anything but futile. It is possible to understand a little more each day and to walk with understanding. Koheleth is a long and wistful walk.

Image credit: I took this photo today in Fort Tryon Park. It reminded me of the second verse.

Uncertainty as an Opening

uncertainty Once in a while, for fun, I take some quiz or questionnaire that has me rate my agreement with various statements, for instance: “I like to have things planned out in advance.” What am I to say? Do I agree with it or not? Is it even possible to respond in the abstract? Yes, I like to plan things in advance. In less than two weeks I leave from Istanbul, where I will be teaching for two weeks at the wonderful Sainte Pulchérie Fransız Lisesi; from there I go to Budapest and Košice for a week. I have planned a beautiful itinerary and schedule but have also left room for the unexpected. It’s possible that the unforeseen parts will have the most meaning, as they will take me out of what I already know.

I have uncertainties in my life as well. I devoted this year to writing my second book. I have finished the second round of revisions but do not yet have an agent, let alone a publisher. People are often surprised when they hear this; they don’t know why someone would write a book without a contract. Of course it’s risky–but not nearly as risky as waiting for that elusive contract and maybe not writing any book at all! I chose to focus first on the work and only later on its place in the world. For that reason, I am facing uncertainty, but it’s worthwhile.

There’s a great comfort in locating yourself in the world, especially in conversations with others. Perceived success often has to do with having a place. When people ask, “Who’s your publisher?” it’s awkward to say, “I don’t have one.” When people ask, “How’s the job search going?” it’s embarrassing to reply, “I was turned down for job A and haven’t heard anything about B, C, D, E, or F.” I sense acutely that I am coming across as Unsuccessful. But this lack of placement–this interval of not knowing where one will be–can have great meaning and thrill.

I lack certain external markers right now; I cannot glibly say, “Oh, my book will be published by Knopf, and I will be heading a new humanities program at Carnegie Mellon in the fall.” That sounds extremely impressive and warming; I suspect that if it were true, I’d be glad. Sweet grapes these would be. The names wouldn’t even have to be so grand; there’s a comfort in having any concrete answer to the question, “Who are you and where are you going?”

But here’s the rub; if I had these externals all set up, if I had a ready-made answer, I would never have worked with the question. The uncertainty has been its own fortune.

Not knowing who the publisher would be, I persisted with the book; through this, I came to know it on its own terms.

Not knowing what my job would be, I looked at many possibilities; in seeing them, I started imagining what I could do. Had my job been all set up, I would not have had a chance to do this.

Beyond that, there’s a strength that comes from letting oneself just plain not know.

I also recognized how much I have, even in this uncertainty. I thought of the harrowing uncertainty that millions upon millions of people suffer every day: the uncertainty about the next meal or shelter, or even life itself. My uncertainties are not petty or trivial–but in looking at them, I see uncertainties vastly more difficult than my own.

The uncertainty can also open up into beauty. This year I have had room to go to concerts, plays, and an opera; see friends; take walks; go biking; visit Columbia Secondary School and lead philosophy roundtables there; and plan the upcoming trip, while also devoting myself to my book and the cantillation course.

So uncertainty can be an opening into oneself, one’s work, and the world. Last week, when walking down 88th St., I saw a tree in bloom and took the photo above. At that moment, I realized that I had noticed the tree because I was not rushing off somewhere. I had a little lull in the morning and did not know exactly where I would go next. There’s a liveliness in that lull. Of course I can’t stay in it forever, but I remember it as I go on.

In fact, if I think of the happiest moments of my life, there’s one kind that stands out among the rest. It’s that brief shivery hesitation, where for a split second your soul vibrates. I have had this at street intersections, in classrooms, and before a scroll. For just a flash, you do not know the next step, and that flash holds everything. Then it goes away and you continue on your course, which now has tinges of gold.


The Beauty of Leviticus 13

In my last post I criticized the careless application of the word “toxic” to human beings. The day I wrote it, I was invited to read (i.e., chant, leyn, cantillate)  a substantial part of the Torah portion Tazria (Leviticus 12-13) on April 29. Tazria first describes the purification process for women who have just given birth and then provides instructions that Aaron, his sons, and any priest must follow when examining and treating skin disorders. The latter part–contained in Chapter 13 of Leviticus–fascinates and moves me because of its intricacy, which (in my interpretation)  represents the intricacy of the human condition. The diagnoses are anything but careless.

The cantillation here poses challenges because of the verses’ grammatical complexity and the repetition of words and phrases. Normally, when preparing to read a portion, you can associate a particular phrase with its trope (melody); here you cannot, because each time the phrase comes up, the trope will be different. You must be entirely focused on the particularities and meaning of each verse. (I had more trouble with this portion than with any I have read before–but in its difficulty lies its beauty.)

Then there are the pronouns “hu” (masculine) and “hi” (feminine), which are so tricky that they elicited commentary from the medieval French rabbi and scholar Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105). These pronouns refer not to the nouns just before them, the predicates, but rather to the subject of the verse or even the subject of the set of verses. The subject may not even be named explicitly in the verse; you have to understand what it is. So you hear both “nega tzaraat hu” (he/it is the plague of leprosy, where the pronoun refers to an earlier “nega”) and “nega tzaraat hi” (it is the plague of leprosy (or whatever the disease actually was), where “it” refers to “michvat-esh,” a feminine compound noun meaning “a burning by fire”). To make things trickier still, the two pronouns are almost always spelled identically in Torah; editions with vowel markings will have the “u” or “i” marks, but a scroll will not. (Elsewhere “hu” and “hi” have distinct spellings.)

This grammatical complexity reflects the complexity of the skin diagnoses. Some conditions are contagious (impure); some are not. Some have to be watched over time. Some conditions that look threatening begin to fade a few days later; others that seem to have faded may erupt again. Each case needs to be recognized for what it is. Here are verses 13:1-5 (courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website):

א  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying:
ב  אָדָם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ-סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ, לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת–וְהוּבָא אֶל-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אוֹ אֶל-אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים 2 When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.
ג  וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַנֶּגַע בְּעוֹר-הַבָּשָׂר וְשֵׂעָר בַּנֶּגַע הָפַךְ לָבָן, וּמַרְאֵה הַנֶּגַע עָמֹק מֵעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ–נֶגַע צָרַעַת, הוּא; וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן, וְטִמֵּא אֹתוֹ 3 And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.
ד  וְאִם-בַּהֶרֶת לְבָנָה הִוא בְּעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ, וְעָמֹק אֵין-מַרְאֶהָ מִן-הָעוֹר, וּשְׂעָרָה, לֹא-הָפַךְ לָבָן–וְהִסְגִּיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַנֶּגַע, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים 4 And if the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and the appearance thereof be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white, then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague seven days.
ה  וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן, בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, וְהִנֵּה הַנֶּגַע עָמַד בְּעֵינָיו, לֹא-פָשָׂה הַנֶּגַע בָּעוֹר–וְהִסְגִּירוֹ הַכֹּהֵן שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, שֵׁנִית 5 And the priest shall look on him the seventh day; and, behold, if the plague stay in its appearance, and the plague be not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut him up seven days more.

This is just the beginning of a long and intricate set of instructions. First, the person with the skin disorder (a rising, scab, or bright spot) goes before the priest. Certain symptoms definitely indicate a plague; others require inspection over time. But look at all those independent and subordinate clauses! Take verse 3: “And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.” The trope (which reflects the grammatical structure) is of course as intricate as the structure itself. You can hear Hazzan (Cantor) Rob Menes of Congregation Beth Shalom read these verses.

The beauty here is that only under extreme conditions is someone pronounced “impure”–and that person will then go through purification. While some of this may seem harsh and unpleasant, the whole point is to attend to each individual and to the community: to avoid isolating anyone unnecessarily or longer than necessary, to isolate those who really have the plague, and to purify them so that they can then come out of isolation.

Although this priestly ritual is long obsolete, it is not entirely different from a skin exam at the dermatologist’s office. It has other levels of meaning, though. To me this is a parable of human complexity and compassion; people have all sorts of problems and characteristics and should not be categorized crudely. If skin diagnosis is intricate and nuanced, how much more intricate and nuanced our judgments of each other can be! As with cantillation itself, the challenge is to hold the complexity.

Update: Yet there is simplicity here too! See my followup post.

The Toxicity of “Toxic”

fort tryon in springWe gain much of our strength, versatility, and wisdom from difficulties and challenges. Yet today a cult of convenience squats in each field of life. Often, when people refer to others as “toxic,” they are not just using words carelessly; they are suggesting that the people they don’t like (or don’t immediately understand) are bad for their existences and deserving of expulsion.

Would the scene in the photo exist if no one could be bothered with difficulty? It took some adventurous sculpting and grappling with stone and plants (and that’s an understatement). What about a great friendship, also a mixture of nature and sculpture? If people dropped friendships as soon as they became difficult in any way, what would be left?

Again and again, I see advice about how to eliminate “toxic” people from your life. The criterion for “toxicity” is basically inconvenience or unpleasantness. Those who speak of “toxicity” rarely distinguish between people who pose difficulties for you and people who really hurt you.

On her website Science of People, Vanessa Van Edwards, author of the forthcoming Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People (Portfolio, April 25, 2017), declares that you “deserve to have people in your life who you enjoy spending time with, who support you and who you LOVE hanging out with.” The site has been discussed in comments on Andrew Gelman’s blog; while there’s plenty to say about the references to “science,” I’ll focus on “toxic” instead, since that’s the topic of this blog post.

In her short article “How to Spot a Toxic Person,” after describing seven toxic types, Van Edwards lists some tell-tale symptoms that you’re in the presence of someone toxic.  She then assures her readers that they don’t  need these toxic people–that they deserve the company of wonderful people, with whom they can be their best selves. Here is the list:

  • You have to constantly save this person and fix their problems
  • You are covering up or hiding for them
  • You dread seeing them
  • You feel drained after being with them
  • You get angry, sad or depressed when you are around them
  • They cause you to gossip or be mean
  • You feel you have to impress them
  • You’re affected by their drama or problems
  • They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no’

Now, of the nine symptoms listed here, only one clearly has to do with the other person’s actions: “They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no.'” The others have to do with the sufferer’s own reactions and assumptions. Of course those reactions also matter, but they do not necessarily reflect meanness, selfishness, or obtuseness in the other person.

So what? someone might ask. If someone’s company leaves you miserable, don’t you have a right to detach yourself? Well, maybe, up to a point (or completely, in some cases), but it makes a difference how you frame it, even in your own mind. It is possible to keep (or work toward) some humility.

If your explanation is, “This person wants more time and energy from me than I can give,” then it makes sense to try to set an appropriate limit. If that fails, either because you weren’t clear enough or because the other person does not accept the terms, then a more drastic resolution may be needed–but even then, it doesn’t mean that the person is “toxic.” It just means that you have incompatible needs. Perhaps you were like that other person once upon a time; many of us go through times when we particularly need support or seek it from someone who cannot give it.

If the explanation is, “I don’t like the kind of conversation I end up having around this person,” then one option is to change the topic or tenor of conversation. Another is to limit its length (or try to do something together instead of mainly talking). If neither one works, there may be a basic incompatibility at stake. Even then, it doesn’t mean the other person is “toxic.” It just means that you have different interests.

Now, of course there are people who use, harm, and control others. There are those who gossip aggressively and meanly, promote themselves at every possible opportunity, or treat others  as their servants. When describing such people, one still doesn’t have to use the word “toxic”; a clearer description will lead to a clearer solution.

Why does this matter? The concept of “toxicity,” as applied to humans, has become a fad; people use it to justify writing off (and blaming) anyone who poses an inconvenience or whose presence doesn’t give constant pleasure. Philosophers, theologians, poets, and others, from Aristotle to Buber to Shakespeare to Saunders, have pointed to the moral vacuity of this practice. Yet the “toxic” banner continues to fly high in our hyper-personalized, hyper-fortified society (and always over the other people).

There are ways to be around people and still hold your ground, draw provisional lines, and take breaks. It’s possible to limit a relationship without deeming the other person awful. It is not only possible, but essential to public discussion, substantial friendship, and solitude. Who am I, if I must dismiss and disparage someone just to go off on my own or be with others? Doesn’t that cheapen the subsequent aloneness or company?

As for whether we deserve to be around people we love, people whose company we enjoy–yes, of course. But we also deserve to be around those whose presence is not so easy for us. When appropriately bounded, such a relationship can have meaning and beauty. Some of my best friendships had an awkward start; they grew strong when we let each other know what we did and didn’t want.

I hope never to call a person “toxic”; if it’s my reactions that trouble me, I can address them appropriately; if it’s the person’s actions, I can find a more specific term.

Image credit: I took this photo in Fort Tryon Park.

Update: Here’s an article by Marcel Schwantes (published in Inc.) advising people to cut “toxic” co-workers from their lives as a way of keeping “good boundaries.” Here’s a quote:

5. Cut ties with people who kiss up to management.

They will go out of their way to befriend and manipulate management in order to negotiate preferential treatment–undue pay raises, training, time off, or special perks that nobody else knows about or gets. Keep an eye out for colleagues who spend way more face time with their managers than usual. The wheels of favoritism may be in motion. Time to cut ties.

What? You don’t even know why the person is spending “face time” with management. Why conclude that it’s “time to cut ties”?

This anti-“toxic” stance of this article (and others like it) is much too self-satisfied and self-assured. 

Public Privacy

heart-on-a-platterWe have been worn thin by publicity, especially in the internet era. Private life, as it was once known and protected, has ceased to exist, except for those who protect it defiantly. On the one hand, this “openness” brings people out of isolation; they can now speak of their experiences in ways they could not before. I remember when it was considered shameful to bring up family problems or divorce; children often felt that they could not tell anyone what was happening at home. (That still might be the case—but there’s more of a sense that it’s good to speak up.) Also, people went through personal tragedy without knowing that others had been through similar things. Today it is easier in some ways to find support, and this is good.

But the spillage of personal life carries dangers. It has become the new norm to put your heart on webcam, as it were—so if you wish to be more reserved, you are on your own. Also, the boundaries are unclear and can vary widely from situation to situation. A normal disclosure in one context could easily be “too much information” in another; with no ill intention, people can intrude on each other with their words, or can appear rude and standoffish for holding back. This confusion of boundaries can hurt friendships, working relationships, and family bonds.

This “public privacy” cripples discourse as well. (Hannah Arendt, writing more than half a century ago, describes this as the submersion of the private and public spheres in the social sphere.) Newspaper op-eds, radio shows, and other media and formats are now filled with intensely personal stories, which you are not supposed to challenge. If you try to do so—and few dare—you risk being written off as heartless. It’s personal, after all.

Moreover, to share your private life is to shed your guilt—or so goes the belief. In his essay “How Publicity Makes People Real” (in Moral Imagination), David Bromwich discusses how this “broadcast intimacy”—through which people seek some kind of public expiation—prompts people to disclose things to the masses that they would not tell their own families. The success of this process, he writes, “depends on the puzzling fact that the irrevocable passage from depth to surface can be experienced as a relief.”

I was stunned by a recent New York Times piece by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” The author writes from the deathbed, it seems; she says, “I need to say this (and say it right) while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.” She explains that she was diagnosed in 2015 with ovarian cancer and had to give up her plans and projects. She proceeds to describe her wonderful husband, Jason, and to express hope that the right reader will find him and start a new life with him once she (Rosenthal) is gone.

The problem lies not with publishing a farewell to her husband, or writing about cancer and impending death. All of this can be done with grace (and even privacy). Rather, this excruciating context makes it difficult for anyone to question her gesture of offering her husband up. That gesture, as I see it, should not be protected from criticism; any thoughtful and civil response should have a place.

I find her gesture troubling, not only in itself but in combination with a detail in the piece. She mentions that in her most recent memoir (written before her diagnosis), she invited her readers to suggest matching tattoos (that they would actually get). She thought this would be a great way for reader and author to bond. She ended up taking a suggestion from a 62-year-old librarian; the two went to get tattoos together.

I responded with the following comment:

You write: “In my most recent memoir (written entirely before my diagnosis), I invited readers to send in suggestions for matching tattoos, the idea being that author and reader would be bonded by ink.”

That, to me, goes against the bond between reader and text, a bond that can strengthen, weaken, release, or otherwise change over time. The reader does not have to be on display; he or she can think, dispute, laugh and cry in private. The author, likewise, needs no permanent token of the reader’s devotion; to write and publish something is to trust that readers will arrive.

I find privacy missing from this piece overall–not because you write about a personal experience (which many writers do, even those who tend toward privacy), but because you seem to try here, as before, to bond with a reader in the flesh.

Not all bonds have to be in the flesh; not all have to be known, seen, etched, or advertised.

That said, I recognize the pain and grief that you are facing.

At this point there are 1,124 comments. The overwhelming majority speak of being in tears over the piece, finding it the most beautiful thing they have every read, etc. There are only a few outliers—and some of them got snappy comments in response. Some people even said that only a heartless person would read the piece without crying.

My point here is not that Rosenthal did something wrong. There is more than one view of the matter. Many took her piece as an act of love and courage; there’s much here that the readers cannot see or know. Nor is the problem (as I see it) with her piece in particular. The problem is more general: Such excruciating revelations call for only one kind of response. You are supposed to join in the chorus of sympathy or be a brute.

Because pieces like this are so common, because it has become the norm to put not only oneself but one’s loved ones “out there,” public discussion has lost some of its verve, diversity, and questioning. (Of course many other factors have affected discussion as well.)

Personal stories are essential; they have beauty, they can help both the teller and the hearer, and they can transcend the particular situation. But there are stories and stories; a story should not be protected and praised because it’s personal, and people should not be afraid of questioning and criticizing a story’s content, premises, or style.

There is reason to be wary of genres and platforms that encourage unanimous mass responses. Literature at its best, no matter what its content or form, helps us speak and think on our own.

On Stopping Hate

rally-2Yesterday I attended the Stand Against Hate rally in Philadelphia to protest the desecration of Mount Carmel Cemetery and the recent wave of hate and violence against many individuals and groups. I do not often go to rallies, but this was too important to me. I took the train—brought work along and got a lot done—walked two miles in sun and breeze to Independence Mall, and joined with the hundreds who had come from near and far. I am glad I did and glad that there were so many people there. It was a great and affirming event.

As I listened to the speeches and songs (sung by wonderful choruses—including the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy Student Choir and the Mainline Unity Choir), I asked myself whether it was possible to get rid of hate, and if not, what could be done to curb it. Hate, it seems, is part of our makeup; in some ways it functions to define us.

I hate a certain kind of syrupy prose, so it would be easy for me to hate a writer of syrupy prose. If pressed, I would claim that it was the writing I hated, not the person, but it’s all too easy for one to slip into the other. It’s not bad to hate certain syrupy prose; those antipathies spur better writing. If I see syrup in my own prose, I take out a spoon and scoop it out. Begone! But derision itself is harder to scoop; it slides past the object into a larger field.

So instead of stopping hatred, which will probably be with us forever, I would try to stop the slippage. People often speak in terms of hating the deed but not the perpetrator, or hating the sin but not the sinner. There’s much more to it, though; it also involves recognizing how little we know about another. But what does this take? It seems to have to do with halting oneself, seeing one’s own limits. It also requires some laws and safeguards.

It also has to do with recognizing what we have in common: first of all dignity, but also history, family, friends, yearnings, emotions, thoughts, questions, needs, duties, and more. It is no trifle to hold the door for someone or help someone carry a baby carriage down the stairs; this not only shows courtesy but allows both the giver and receiver of assistance to see something in the other.

How, then, do we build these parallel understandings: that we know little about others, and that we have much in common?

The first way is through spontaneous acts of kindness and courtesy–helping an elderly person across the street, welcoming someone to sit next to us (in response to the question “Is this seat taken?” and hundreds of other daily possibilities.

Another is through structured acts: volunteering, participating in events, visiting other countries and parts of the U.S., and reading opinions and perspectives that differ from our own.

Another is through building and enforcing laws that protect people’s rights, electing responsible and honorable leaders, and fostering civic education.

Another is through schools: teaching subject matter in all its glory, posing challenging questions, bringing students into dialogue and discussion, and creating an atmosphere where intellect and art are respected and cherished.

Another is through literature, history, and art, which have a way of surprising the soul and accompanying us through our lives.

Another is through mathematics and science, which have a common language across cultures and help us understand the relations between the abstract and concrete.

Another is through dialogue: learning from others, discussing easy and difficult questions, telling and hearing stories.

Another is through gathering and speaking against acts of hate: affirming that they are unacceptable and something else is possible.

Maybe all of this involves an internal gesture. It’s hard to describe, but it has to do, I think, with keeping oneself in check, recognizing that one is not the master of the universe or the arbiter of human nature. This sounds like an intellectual understanding, but it’s partly visceral too. It’s the dropping of hands, the halting of steps, the catching of impulse in an instant.

In his challenging and exhilarating book Human Dignity, George Kateb takes up the difficulty of dignity and proceeds to defend it. Human dignity, according to Kateb, has two aspects. It is founded, first, on “humanity’s partial discontinuity with nature”—that is, the special gifts and responsibilities of humans—and second, on the equal status of all humans. These two principles may be in conflict with each other—human dignity may have inherent contradictions—but it is better, he argues, to deal with the conflicts than to break dignity into pieces or dismiss it altogether.

Those ideas guide me when I stand against hate. It is not that I imagine that we will ever eradicate hatred from ourselves or others. Rather, I affirm something greater and more difficult: my responsibility to help build the world, and my profound equality with everyone. Along with that, I remember that what I see and know is just a speck of what exists.


Photo credit: Thanks to the kind person who took this picture.

Note: I made a few additions and edits to this piece after posting it.

Cura te ipsum

self-portrait-with-the-idol-jpglargeWe hear the sayings “Physician, heal thyself” (from Luke 4:23) or “Physician, Physician, Heal thine own limp!” from Genesis Rabbah 23:4. Self-help is not an industry; it’s part of life. No matter what our age (beyond, say, age 3), profession, or situation, we not only solve many of our own problems, but figure out some of the solutions. In doing so, we may draw on all sorts of advice or wisdom from the near or distant past, but we decide how to apply it.

The self-help industry, then, is misnamed. It isn’t about self-help at all; at its worst, it is about selling you a product that supposedly will help you. To sell it, the creator or marketer tries to convince you that it’s better than anything else out there and that it addresses the problem in a novel way. This involves ignoring or dismissing (or simply not knowing) past wisdom.

Let me backtrack: I see two kinds of books that aim to help you find your way through life. One kind is a book of knowledge or wisdom; it draws on what has been known and said and does not promise you any big or swift answers. It leaves you to arrive at your own conclusions. The other kind excludes previous wisdom for the sake of appearing new or original. Here the point is not to give you perspective but rather to put forth a particular idea, program, product, or plan.

This explains, in part, why some self-help literature, and the journalism surrounding it, pays little or no attention to philosophy, literature, or even classic psychology. Oblivion blows a blizzard over what has been said before. In her New York Magazine article “Forgiveness Is Not a Binary State,” Cari Romm writes,

Forgiveness, clearly, is a highly personal choice, speeding healing for some and precluding healing for others. But what does it even mean to forgive, anyway?

It’s something we haven’t been asking ourselves for very long — it wasn’t until 1989 that psychologists even started to really study forgiveness — but psychologist Harriet Lerner believes we’ve been too hasty to rush into an answer. In her new book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, Lerner argues that we’re flying blind: Academic research and conventional wisdom alike emphasize the positive effects of forgiveness without having reached any clear consensus as to what the act of forgiving really looks like.

Wait a second–who says we haven’t been asking ourselves about the nature of forgiveness for very long? Just look up “forgiveness” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and you will see a long and detailed entry, with reference to works through the centuries. But there’s much more, even in the psychological literature. Jung wrote extensively on confession (and the accompanying forgiveness); other scholars around the turn of the twentieth century began examining the psychology of religion, which included concepts of forgiveness. (See, for instance, Edwin J. Starbuck, “Contributions to  the Psychology of Religion,”The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 9, No. 1 [Oct., 1897], pp. 70-124.) It is true that psychologists have been studying forgiveness more intensively than before, but the topic is by no means new.

I have not yet read Harriet Lerner’s book Why Won’t You Apologize? in full, but it seems to dispense too readily with forgiveness. On p. 54, she writes: “Some cultural groups place a high premium on apologies and forgiveness. Others do not.” In other words, she seems to suggest that its value is relative. In an interview with Forbes, she says, “We do need to find ways to protect ourselves from the burden of carrying anger and resentment that isn’t serving us, and to grab some peace of mind. We can achieve this with or without forgiveness.” This ignores one of the main virtues of forgiveness: it helps reestablish some form of relationship, even a silent one, between the two people (and even between them and others). Sure, we can “grab some peace of mind” elsewhere. But isn’t there more at stake?

Her book (which I will read) is not the point here, though. I take issue more directly with Romm’s article and with the widespread practice, especially in so-called self-help literature, of exaggerating the newness of an idea. When it comes to books of wisdom, I trust and respect those that acknowledge what has come before, even if they proceed to question, criticize, or overturn it.

Romm’s larger argument in the article (and Lerner’s, which she cites) is that people mistakenly see forgiveness as binary: Either you forgive someone entirely, or you’re caught up in bitterness. But this simply isn’t true; there have been subtle discussions of forgiveness over the centuries.

Forgiveness involves coming to see another person, an injury, and one’s own anger in a much larger perspective–and, from there, restoring some kind of relationship, even an unspoken one. (I think of Raymond Carver’s story “A Small, Good Thing.”) Such forgiveness is not always possible or desirable, but there are reasons why people long for it and seek it out. This is no pathological inclination, unless human connection is now deemed a disease. In that case, empty the libraries and close down the theatres. Declare language defunct.

Image credit: Paul Gaughin, Self-Portrait with the Idol (1893), courtesy of WikiArt.

Note: I made some minor edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Forms of Not Listening

youre_not_listeningIn my previous post, I discussed the intense activity of listening–but what are the dangers and losses of not listening? Before addressing this question, one must identify the various kinds of “not listening.”

There’s “not listening” where you willfully plug your ears. There’s also the kind to which I am prone: where your mind wanders, and you lose track of what the person is saying. Often a person’s word will trigger a thought, which in turn triggers another thought; before I know it, I have gone far away in my mind. Usually I catch myself quickly, but sometimes not.

There is also the kind where the words go “in one ear and  out the other”–that is, where you make no attempt to assemble or remember them.

But the kind I will focus on today is perhaps more insidious than the others: where you decide, in advance, that you know what the person is going to say, what the piece is going to sound like, etc. When you listen, you hear what you have already set out to hear; you exclude what does not fit. This includes listening to silence; you cut it to your own prefabricated interpretation and ignore the range of possibilities.

Anyone is capable of this kind of error; what’s more, we often commit it unawares. It is all too easy to fit a person’s words (or lack of words) into our existing models. This is the essence of prejudice; we sum others up and shut out what doesn’t fit our summations. Or, if we are listening to a piece of music, we shut out its uniqueness, or the particularities of the performance; it becomes “just another” Romantic work or what have you.

The danger lies not only in the reduction of others, but in the accompanying hubris. The person who listens badly in this particular way assumes that he or she is right and does not need to hear anything more.

Now, some of this is inevitable; we have to filter the sounds and speech that come at us. We can’t take it all in; sometimes we have to make quick sense of it and proceed from there. Also, to listen to something well, one must shut out other things; the very act of selection requires not listening to everything. Still, one can recognize the incompleteness of the gesture, the existence of something more.

Listening to silence, or near-silence, challenges everything in us; we rush to make sense of “nothing.” We are terrified of the expanse of “nothing”–the possibility that it could mean thousands of things. I think of–and question–the ending of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine (the first novel in The Alexandria Quartet):

Soon it will be evening and the clear night sky will be dusted thickly with summer stars. I shall be here, as always, smoking by the water. I have decided to leave Clea’s last letter unanswered. I no longer wish to coerce anyone, to make promises, to think of life in terms of compacts, resolutions, covenants. It will be up to Clea to interpret my silence according to her own needs and desires, to come to me if she has need or not, as the case may be. Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?

This passage has puzzled me for years. Yes, everything depends on our interpretation of the silence around us–but is it correct to interpret it according to our own “needs and desires”? Is it right to expect others to do so? The narrator hints at something beyond these words: that a reply would be false at this time, and that time itself has a role to play. But that differs from interpreting the silence according to one’s needs and desires. The narrator’s own expression has flaws (which propel us into the second book of the Quartet).

To listen to silence is to know that one does not know what it is. To box up silence is to presume oneself above it, folding the flaps and tying the strings. Pride consists in packaging the infinite.

Image credit: “you’re not listening”  by Jesslee Cuizon.

Note: I made minor edits to this piece after posting it.