Blogging, “Winky,” and More

Blogging is a kind of mental relaxation for me, and a way to start working with ideas that may take a different form later. I have just started to realize how old-school it is. Not that many people blog any more, or when they do, it’s partly to make money. I make no money off of this blog; I pay a little each year to keep adds off of it. I do make money from other forms of writing, but this is a place where I can say what I want, on my own terms and timing, and that’s how I want to keep it.

I have gotten weary of the new economy of punditry. So many people are competing to be pundits, to make ponderous pronouncements about the state of the world, pronouncements aimed at winning followers and subscriptions. Very few of these pronouncements have any lasting quality. The whole thing feels vain to me, and boring. But then, I have my vanities too.

My students (that is, one of my tenth-grade sections) read George Saunders’s “Winky” last week. The other section didn’t read it because we had too few classes left in the year—that is, just one. We have been reading a lot of stories this spring: Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” Alice Walker’s “The Welcome Table,” and now “Winky.” They are so lively and thoughtful in discussion that my planning only goes so far; things come up that hadn’t occurred to me.

It’s hard to talk about “Winky” without giving spoilers. But I’ll try. The story begins at a strange motivational seminar, in which a tacky modern version of a medieval morality tale is playing out on the stage. One of the characters, “You,” is trying to reach “Inner Peace,” but then a number of other actors, including “Whiny,” “Self-Absorbed,” and “Blames Her Fat on Others” get in the way. Finally a GoldHat appears and drags these obstacles into jail. The crowd then bursts into the familiar mantra: “Now Is the Time for Me to Win!”

Then Tom Rodgers, the founder of the Seminars reveals himself and begins telling the audience about how he learned to stop letting people crap in his oatmeal. (This becomes the bizarre ruling metaphor of the session.) Then the participants line up for the Personal Change Centers. Neil Yaniky finally finds himself face to face with Rodgers, who helps him identify the main obstacle in his life—his sister, Winky—and the main problem: “Needs her own place.” Yaniky resolves to go home at the end of the session and tell Winky precisely this.

In our discussion, the students quickly saw through the Seminars and the message they were broadcasting. You can’t just treat people as obstacles in your life, especially people close to you; you can’t solve life problems by cutting people out of your life, sending them away, etc. But they saw this even more when we were taken into the world of Winky.

Winky is unsummarizable. A little bit out there, in her own world, Christian, full of happy fantasies, but also with her shair of pain from being taunted and lonely. We see her catching herself in the middle of daydreaming and realizing she had to get ready for Neil-Neil’s return home at the end of the day. She rushes up the stairs “with a strip of broken molding under her arm and a dirty sock over her shoulder.”

The students saw that Winky adores Neil-Neil, that he is at the center of her world, and that she also takes care of him, cleans for him, cooks for him. One student was very upset by Winky’s Christian faith, her belief that she really should turn the other cheek when people abused her. “How can you let other people bully you and not fight back?” she asked. We talked about this for a while. In the story, it’s complex, because we’re supposed to see Winky’s naiveté, but we also see that she’s happy in her own way.

Neil-Neil has fantasies of his own, as we learn on his way home. A beautiful wife, a Jaguar, a feeling of power wherever he went. But he’s short and bald, and Bev, whom he apparently dated for a little while, left him, so the fantasies are far, far out of reach, except in his mind. But he doesn’t think so as he walks home; he thinks he’s on the verge of winning. The seminar has pumped him up.

And he gets home, and things don’t work out as he planned. But he doesn’t have an epiphany either. I can’t give away the ending. It’s wonderfully mundane and disturbing. I asked the students, why does the story end this way? Why doesn’t it end with him realizing that he was wrong and that he loves his sister?

“This isn’t Disney,” one of them offered.

“That wouldn’t be Neil-Neil,” another said, explaining that he clearly has limitations, and it would be too much out of character for him to have that much insight at once.

Then another student spoke. “I think we all have a little bit of Neil-Neil in us,” he said. We talked about that until the end of class.

And now is it clear why I love teaching at Varga?

We didn’t have time, but I wanted to bring my students an article, in The Economist, about how young adults in the U.S. are increasingly cutting off contact with their parents. At one point the article points to one of the causes (or at least contributing factors): “Those who decide to break off contact with their parents find support in a growing body of books (often with the word ‘toxic’ in the title), as well as online. Threads on internet forums for people who want to break ties with their parents reveal strangers labelling people they have never met as narcissistic or toxic and advising an immediate cessation of contact. This may make it easier to shelve feelings of guilt.”

In my book Mind over Memes I devote a chapter to the word “toxic” and the damage it can do when overapplied. (I bring up “Winky” in the chapter too.) Surely some situations are toxic in some way. But to call people toxic, without first trying to understand what is actually going on, can lead to more harm than the so-called toxicity itself. There are situations in life where you do need to cut someone off, and that may even be a family member. But there are many more cases where you actually don’t—where, through learning to say “yes” and “no,” and through learning more about the situation, you can find a way to relate to each other. It can have limits, it can be imperfect, but it’s still a relationship of some kind.

The fad of cutting off relationships, and justifying it blithely, is nothing short of monstrous.

But “Winky” does much more than teach a lesson, and it leaves a lot unresolved. (The story is not punditry, thank God!) The students were able to take this.

The title of this blog piece promised “more,” but that will have to wait until next time.

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.

The Humanity and Humanness of Apology

fort-tryon-1Every once in a while, a piece pops up about the “right” and “wrong” ways to apologize. A new one, by Jane E. Brody, appeared today in the New York Times and followed the same pattern. I have copied my comment below (with a few minor edits, which I have indicated in bold). While the article makes some good points, its dogma gets in the way. After the block quote, I will explain where Brody’s argument becomes too rigid.

This article contains one essential piece of wisdom: that apologies should be sincere, unfettered, and brief. Beyond that, though, the author went too far in putting forth a formula.

In Jewish law [I said “tradition,” but it’s actually law, with qualifications], one is supposed to ask three times for forgiveness; if one does not, one has not done one’s part. The Rambam (Maimonides) writes of this in Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), 2:9-10. According to some, though, a person should ask for forgiveness only twice, since the third request would oblige the other person to forgive. In any case, the act of asking opens the door. At the same time, one should not view those “three times” as foolproof. This is a human gesture.

But what if you do not know exactly what you did wrong? Should you avoid “I’m sorry if” and force an interpretation onto the situation? Or should you instead offer a preliminary, tentative, qualified apology, with the understanding that you will make it more concrete when you understand more? An apology should be truthful; if you do not know the truth, are you supposed to pretend? Is it not better to show your uncertainty?

Moreover, we are all fallible, as are our apologies. A slightly misworded apology should not be cause for a sneer. (“She said ‘if.’ Ha! That shows what kind of person she is.”)

In short, while there are right and wrong forms of apology, an overly strict formula can actually stand in the way of right action and feeling. [I would revise this last sentence but am letting it stand, since I make my points below.]

Brody begins by distinguishing easy apologies from difficult ones–and suggesting that in the latter case, the wording makes a great difference: “Instead of eradicating the emotional pain the affront caused, a poorly worded apology can result in lasting anger and antagonism, and undermine an important relationship.”

But she then goes on to describe an apology that, according to the psychologist and author Harriet Lerner, she (Brody) performed perfectly. The result, too, was perfect. Homemade jam and friendship.

So what do the rest of us mortals do wrong? She loses no time in getting to our errors.

First, she says that the apology should be brief, sincere, and unfettered. When people qualify their apologies or focus on the other person’s feelings, they are avoiding their own responsibility. There’s no disputing this, except that sometimes we don’t know exactly where we went wrong or how the  other person felt. Ideally an apology is “unfettered,” but not all circumstances are ideal.

Second, according to Brody and Lerner, a request for forgiveness should not be part of the apology. I find that restrictive and incorrect. In asking for forgiveness, I can show humility and acknowledge the mutuality of the situation. I have hurt you, and I am now also hurt by this rift. Of course a request for forgiveness should not be pushy–but if you do not include it, it may be unclear what you actually want. The other person may think no reply is needed.

The offended party, she says, does not have to forgive (that is true); he or she can do something relaxing instead. She quotes Lerner: “There is no one path to healing … There are many roads to letting go of corrosive emotions without forgiving, like therapy, meditation, medication, even swimming.” Granted, but isn’t forgiveness preferable, when possible? If you have received an apology and are capable of forgiving, is it just as good to go to a spa?

But all of this seems tangential to an essential point that Brody does not make: Whenever possible, an apology should involve face-to-face conversation or some other human dialogue. Maybe a letter initiates it. Maybe a long, involved conversation is unnecessary. Maybe it takes thirty seconds to make up. But the people should have a chance to hear and see each other. If they cannot meet in person, they can approximate the meeting in the mind and heart.

This is especially important in our internet-driven era, where many conversations take place by email, texting, or other “messaging.” It is as difficult to convey your intent by email as it is to understand someone else’s. Face-to-face conversation, or even a phone call, can turn misunderstandings to mist.

In the absence of conversation, a letter can become an impossible performance, especially if you are supposed to say everything just right, and especially when expert after expert lays out the “dos and don’ts,” essentially encouraging the offended party to judge and dismiss the apologizer. Get those words right, says Brody, or you may cause lasting pain. And then it’s your fault!

That, in my view, goes against the very spirit of apology, which involves recognizing oneself and another as human.

Note: I made some minor revisions to this piece after posting it–and edited it again later. The substance remains unchanged.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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