On Being a Woman in Hungary

First of all, I’ll get this out of the way: I don’t think women necessarily have a harder time than men, here or anywhere else. Nor do the difficulties I am bringing up apply to Hungary alone; they exist in some form everywhere. Being alive is an awkward matter. Everyone, in some way, has times of feeling out of place, feeling plunked in the wrong era, and so forth. No two people have the same kind of aloneness, the same kind of alienation; if they did, they wouldn’t be alienated any more. So, as with most things, the picture is more complicated than can be conveyed in a blog piece. Still, Hungarian society can be hard on girls and women who do not conform to standard expectations of appearance, behavior, and roles. Being pretty (during youth, at least) often means being skinny with long, straight, sleek hair and perfect skin; being acceptable often comes down to keeping yourself within size, doing things well but being delicate, not threatening, about it. As for the roles, women are still expected to raise children and do nearly all of the housework (often on top of full-time jobs and careers). Though this is slowly changing, it will stay as is, more or less, for a long time, partly because of the incentives, partly because of the intrinsic and social rewards, and the negative comments if you take a different approach. The government offers generous maternity and family benefits. You can have a child, take two years off from work, receive a partial salary, and still have your job waiting for you.

Some of this is laudable. I would have loved to have children, but for many combined reasons, this didn’t happen. One of many factors was growing up in a generation in which we were encouraged to wait: not just to get children, but to get married, make a commitment to another person, and so on. As a result, in the U.S., a kind of superficiality took over dating; relationships were emptied of responsibility, not across the board, but palpably. If you were a woman and mentioned wanting to have a child, you could scare a man away. People strove to appear casual, even if they weren’t. From what I hear from friends, social media has made the situation even worse. So it’s refreshing to find, in Hungary, a basic understanding that relationships involve commitment, and that one of the primary duties and joys in life is to raise children.

But life takes many paths, and not everyone has to follow this particular one. Nor is it given to everyone to do so, or to follow the standard timing. That’s where it gets difficult; I sense that women here who diverge from the norm have to contend with feelings of failure, at the very least, and probably negative judgments from others. I remember last year when a girl asked, in class, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not in a relationship yet?” (It was the beginning of the year, and I was asking them about issues that were on their minds.) That’s a common teenage worry, but I think it was profound in this case.

Also, many young people, women and men, feel intense, informed anxiety about global warming. Not only do they hesitate to bring children into a world that might not be livable much longer, but they also see indifference, passivity, and paralysis around them. They distrust a system that encourages them to have babies but fails to make the world more habitable. They look around and see hardly anyone doing anything, even in their peer group. For women, this can lead to a kind of split consciousness: a wish to have children, but a distrust of the pressure to do so.

In addition, women face dilemmas over higher education. At the school where I teach, the girls outnumber the boys significantly; I have been told that this is generally the case at the gimnáziums, the high schools that prepare students for university. Boys tend to choose trade schools, as these lead more directly to jobs. So I assume that girls outnumber boys at the universities as well, at least by a little. But the picture changes when it comes to doctoral programs and professorships. There men are still in the majority and have, on the whole, the more demanding and prestigious positions. This suggests that women are highly encouraged, and encourage themselves, to pursue education and a career, but then turn to something that can accommodate their domestic responsibilities. (From what I have seen, women work extremely hard.)

I have met many young women who dislike the pressure to conform and who dream of studying or working abroad. It isn’t just economic opportunity that attracts them to other countries; it’s the belief that they could lead their lives there, and be themselves. (“Being yourself” is more of an American concept than a Hungarian one; it gets taken to silly extremes in the U.S., but there’s something to be said for it. Hungarians often think and speak more in terms of “we” than “I”; this, too, has its beauty and pitfalls.)

I do not feel judged for being different—but I definitely feel different, not just as a foreigner, but as someone who has taken an unconventional path in more ways than one. (This is true in the U.S. too.) On the other hand, I am warmly accepted and appreciated here, and am at a point in life where I don’t care so much what others think of me, except when it’s based on something important. So it would be completely wrong to say that I have faced discrimination or rejection here; the opposite is true. But I do sense people wondering, once in a while (to the extent that they think of it at all), why I go to concerts and films alone, for instance. I sense that women especially are expected to be with someone. Going to a restaurant alone is almost unheard-of. In the U.S., it is much more acceptable, especially in cities, to attend events alone as a woman.

Why does this matter? Because, for one thing, there’s a joy in attending an event alone. You can focus on it, but more than that, you’re there for the event itself, not for a social image. You don’t have to have someone with you to take in what is happening. I also enjoy being at events with others—it’s good to share things like this, and it can be lots of fun—but being alone can be great too.

Going to events alone also means that you are allowed to exist in yourself, that you don’t need someone else to make you acceptable—in general, not only at events. I am open to having a relationship in the future. I think it’s possible that someone might come along who really gets me, and whom I understand as well, and with whom I would like to build something. But it’s also possible that it won’t happen, and in that case, I am still (to quote from a friend’s unpublished humorous piece) “a perfectly legitimate human being” with a full life.

It’s a bit easier for men to go to events alone. True, this depends somewhat on the nature of the event; at a classical concert or a literary reading, it really doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or man, alone or with others. But on the whole, men are more likely than women to appear somewhere by themselves, and even to be silent and solitary, whereas women not only show up with others, but also act sociable. (On a tangent: I don’t remember ever seeing a fisherwoman in Hungary, though they must exist. It is typically men who sit silently on the banks of the rivers, waiting for the fish to bite.)

This idea, I believe, has yet to find its way into Hungarian public consciousness: that women exist in themselves: that while we all need others in our lives, we don’t need them for legitimacy’s sake, for basic human status. We can step into the world on our own, without embarrassment or shame, and the relationships, when they form, will be the better for that.

I made a few minor changes to the piece, in several stages, after posting it. It is still just a fraction of what I could say on the subject, which in turn is an even smaller fraction of what could be said.

The Limits of Education Debate

I haven’t been writing much on education lately, except when talking about literature or things happening at Varga. The reason is not at all a loss of interest. Rather, I see limits to the general debates. There’s no way to determine whether the curriculum should be more or less demanding, or whether there should be more or less group work, etc., except in relation to what already is going on. If you have a vapid or nonexistent curriculum, then there’s good reason to fight for something more substantial. If you have a substantial but overpacked curriculum, then you might instead call for more flexibility. If students do nothing but listen to the teachers all day long, then you might call for some different kinds of activities in the classroom. But if the classroom and school day are already frenetic with social activities, then you wish for more focus, listening, and quiet. Now, not all education views are reactive and relative. Some principles and practices are good more often than not. But many arguments can be resolved through simple attention to the context. What is the current situation? In what ways does it go to extremes? What counterbalances might be needed?

When I first started writing critically about education, I was responding to a particularly dogmatic “philosophy” that had taken over the NYC school system: the notion that students should be working in groups nearly all the time and that “teacher talk” should be kept to a minimum. Even teacher-led class discussions were looked down upon as being too teacher-driven. This is ridiculous; yes, it’s good to bring students to a point where they can lead a class discussion or initiate a group activity, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with teaching them things, posing questions, showing what it means to go farther into the subject. Moreover, there is no reason why students should have to work in groups in every lesson. Some group work is fine. But not all learning takes place in groups, with others talking around you. Sometimes you need room to think on your own, sometimes to listen to an extended presentation.

The Hungarian system has plenty of problems of its own. But at Varga I have found it possible to strike a combination of instruction, class discussion, and other activities. No one has a problem with that; to the contrary, they support it. I also enjoy a combination of specificity and flexibility in the curriculum: there are things I am required to teach, but I generally find room and time to include works of literature, creative writing, and more.

Many people here, students and teachers alike, believe that the system needs to be modernized. But they would balk at the idea of arranging the desks in pods and requiring small-group work in every lesson. The idea that students should be initiating the activities would likewise strike them as absurd, even though some of this would come welcome. It’s understood that students have things to learn from their teachers, and if these teachers hold discussions in which they hear and welcome different points of view, then that in itself is “modernization.”

It is easy, within a school and culture that values subject-matter knowledge, to have lively lessons, because all you have to do is open up discussion, and the students have lots to say. They speak thoughtfully, with attention to the text and the questions at hand. You can ask them to do this in small groups, and often this will also work well. But in systems where basic knowledge and self-discipline is lacking, then these same activities can go awry. In those cases you have to give a lot of attention to basic knowledge and basic habits. That doesn’t mean that’s all you can do, but you need to do it, and this needs to be understood and supported.

I suspect that good education has to do with a combination of opposing principles: receiving instruction and asking your own questions about it; thinking on your own and working with others; following the curriculum plan and making room for other things. The right combination is not easy to find; once found, it cannot be propagated very far. A school can have it; sometimes even a school district can have it. But educational ideas and methods tend to degrade when spread too zealously; someone takes them to extremes, another person reduces them to something banal, someone else misunderstands them entirely, and someone else insists on them (or resists them) no matter what the context. For the ideas to work well, they need to be taken in proper measure, with an understanding of where they came from and why.

I think back fondly on the schools where I taught in NYC: especially Columbia Secondary School (where I taught and led the high school philosophy program), but also the middle school where I taught for my first three years and the elementary school where I taught for a year (after which I left teaching for two years to write my first book). In all of these places, I found ways to help my students both learn essential material and do interesting work. But the elementary and middle schools were under great pressure from the system; even though the principals liked and supported my work, there were continual mantras (in training sessions and elsewhere) about being a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” To this day I don’t understand why you should have to be just one or the other.

Speaking of sages on stages, I have often marveled at my colleagues’ eloquence here. When they have something to say—for instance, at a faculty meeting or in a presentation—they deliver complete, polished speeches (without referring to any notes). I have noticed this in other contexts too. Why are Hungarians such good orators? (Not all are, but the tendency is striking.) I suspect that part of it comes from heaing so many lectures throughout their lives. They understand what it means to say something substantial and cohesive. This is comparable to people who spend a lot of time listening to classical music and jazz (or other long forms). They develop an ear for the long form.

Now, brevity has its virtues too. There’s no need to speak at length all the time. Nor should all lessons be filled with lecture. But if you don’t hear people speaking beyond a few sentences at a time, then you might not know what it means to do so, or to listen to it. Few consider how the lecture can actually prepare students for the time when they, too, will need to make an argument or give an explanation. The turns of phrase, the rhetorical rhythms, the movement from part to whole or vice versa—all of this can help students in the world.

And yet it’s possible to overdo this, or to do it poorly; lectures are not “the answer.” No single thing is. In fact, there isn’t an ultimate answer to these education conundrums. It’s better that way; if there were an ultimate answer, education itself would go to sleep.

Loneliness vs. Solitude

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Recently I received a thoughtful, respectful message from a former student (who is now at university). He was curious to know how someone like me–warm, caring, intelligent–would be without a partner, or seem to be without one, at any rate. He understood if I chose not to answer the question. I think I understood why he would ask. For one thing, young people (and older people too) wish to understand the world better, and asking questions is one of the best ways. Also, there are cultural differences at work. Moreover, it’s a question I could stand to ask myself.

I replied that my answer was not going to be anywhere close to complete, but that there were a few things I could say briefly. One was that being single is much more common in the U.S. than here in Hungary. (The difference is marked, actually.) Another was that I truly enjoy being alone–not all the time, but for substantial stretches and for certain things that I do, such as writing, biking, thinking. The third part was that the situation could change, that I was open to the possibility of meeting someone, here or elsewhere, with whom I would want to build a relationship.

All of that leaves a lot unanswered, but it’s also true. How the situation took shape–that’s a much more difficult question. If I were to do it all over, I probably would marry and have kids, and they would be grown up by now, or at least well into their teenage years. But we don’t get to do our lives over; we can only live them from the present onward, or rather, in the continual present, with memories and anticipations, but no choices except for the ones right before us, including choices of attitude.

Back to the point about enjoying being alone. Right now I want to look briefly at the difference between loneliness and solitude. I wrote about this in my first book, Republic of Noise. The distinction isn’t absolute or clear-cut; the two can overlap. Nor does either of these have to do entirely with the presence or absence of others. You can be lonely–or solitary–when someone is right beside you. So what are they, and how do they differ?

Loneliness is a felt lack of human company. It can come upon you when you are all by yourself, or when you are around others with whom you do not feel at ease, or when you are enjoying the company of others but missing a particular person, or even when there’s no one in particular you are missing, but you feel a longing or ache, maybe even for someone you haven’t met yet. Loneliness isn’t always bad; sometimes you need it to pull you into the world or to see things more clearly. But in its extreme forms, it can be crippling and can take hold of millions of people.

Solitude exists at many levels and takes different forms. It can be understood as a basic, elemental aloneness that we carry with us at all times. People sometimes define it as productive or healthy aloneness. But I think there’s more to it than that. At one level, solitude is part of us whether we enjoy it or not, whether we think about it or not, whether we do anything with it or not. From there, it’s possible to shape the solitude that you have. Even in conversation, solitude comes into play; it allows you to stand back from the trend and form your thoughts.

Solitude can take the form of spending time alone. Over time, I have come to find this form essential; I need it not only for writing, not only for thinking things through, but also, often, for experiencing and enjoying things. I love going on long bike rides alone, because I don’t have to talk or stop, I can just be on the road as long as I like, going as fast or as slowly as I wish, looking around me, and letting my thoughts fly. I also love going to performances and films on my own, because I can take them in fully that way. I find solitude essential (paradoxically) for learning a language.

But that doesn’t mean I dislike company. My friends are dear to me. I have friends from across the years, from the various places I have lived, gone to school, and worked. I can’t imagine my life without them. I also have room in my heart for a relationship, should it come along. I imagine there’s someone out there with whom I would get along terrifically well, who wants to build something with me, who can make me laugh, who finds life interesting, who isn’t already with someone, who is fairly close to me in age and priorities, who understands solitude, who shares some interests with me, and who doesn’t ask me to be anyone I am not. I would offer my own version of the same.

Such a thing is possible and wonderful; at this point I have no idea who it would be or how we would meet, or even whether it would happen. If it happened, I think we would meet in person, not online. It would feel right to both of us, not forced. In the meantime–that is, the main time–there is much to do, learn, and enjoy: teaching to do, languages to learn, projects to work on, places to bike to, concerts to listen to, people to spend time with, pictures to take, questions to ask, and things to puzzle through and dream.

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On Inconvenience

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I returned today from a week in Israel (two nights in Tel Aviv and five in Jerusalem). It’s too soon for me to tell about the trip; I’m still absorbing it. But it turned my thoughts, in various ways, toward the topic of inconvenience. I will knock my way into that topic; the photos will speak for themselves, except where I chime in.

I usually avoid group trips; I travel alone so that I can take things in and think. But this time I went on a trip hosted by B’nai Jeshurun, my beloved New York shul; it was a profound introduction to Israel, not only because of the insights, meetings, and itinerary, but because of the slight messiness of it all. Some of my favorite memories (right now) involve a minor inconvenience of some kind: waiting for someone, being waited for, using someone’s soap by mistake, trying to understand the revised schedule, finding the bus, relaying what was just said–little things, but all part of being physically among others, in this extraordinary place.

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On another level I felt a great and beautiful inconvenience: the bumping of one culture against another, the walking on my own and others’ holy ground, the pressing up of faith against faith (or lack of faith), thoughts against questions, road against road. Some of us avoid, others treasure these encounters. Or maybe most of us do both.

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On my last day, I met two Bedouin brothers who ran two shops; they showed me dreamy items while treating me to stories, praise, and tea. I understood this as theater and loved it for that; for those few minutes (that turned into more and more), I enjoyed being called their sister and told that I had beautiful eyes; I laughed as they played against each other, each one claiming to offer me the better deal; I admired a silver and garnet mezuzah (that one of the brothers, Hashem, had made) with pomegranate design and Hebrew inscription; and I bought more than I had meant to buy, without regret. Poetry and theater take you out of your way and gather you up, in a shop or anywhere.

As humans, we seek convenience and efficiency; if there are two ways to accomplish a goal, and one way is quicker and easier, we’ll take that way, unless we have reason to want the other. There’s elegance in this. Many inventions offer some form of convenience. My great-granduncle Charles Fischer discovered ways to make daily tasks easier; hence the take-up spring, the book prop, and other gadgets of his devising. When playing an instrument, we seek ease, not difficulty; a bow grip should not strain or contort the hand. That way, the music can come out.

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But take convenience too far, and you’re through with human relations. Instead of “Hell is other people,” the saying becomes, “Inconvenience is anyone outside myself.” To know someone substantially, you must let yourself be thrown off a little (or a lot).

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None of us can handle being thrown off all the time; the other extreme would be unbearable too. Too much stress and uncertainty, and we buckle; too much predictability, and we harden into planks. Nor do convenience and inconvenience come wrapped and ribboned; each one involves the other. If I take the trouble to meet strangers in various countries, I have taken on both an inconvenience and a convenience; we may speak different languages, but our interactions may be fleeting and unencumbered. If I befriend someone who speaks my language and belongs to my general culture, the initial comfort may lead into expectations. “We should really” starts to enter the conversation.

Inequality and equality both carry their conveniences and inconveniences. If I go out of my way, day after day, to help others, I have the inconvenience of attending to their needs but the convenience of automatic moral stature (and possibly escape from other responsibilities). If I relate to others as an equal and devote time to my own projects, I lose both the duties and the moral markers. So the categories break down.

The questions, or a few of many, become: In my combinations of convenience and inconvenience, do I keep enough uncertainty at the center and around the edges? Do I remember how little I know about others and they about me? Am I willing to take on new challenge and ease, not only externally, but internally? Am I willing to live not only intentionally, but with forms that come clear over time?

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This has to do with “aliveness” as described by Sean D. Kelly in a beautiful essay. “There are things that you know must be said,” he writes, “that are necessary, even though you don’t know why. And only later, in your later years, will the necessity and the significance of those statements become clear. Because you grow into them, or they grow into you. Or both.”

Sometimes an inconvenience invites us into something larger than we could explain in the moment; sometimes ease does this too. Sometimes life takes us up in a way we didn’t expect, and we ride the bumps, drink up the view, and later come to understand what we were doing. This is perplexity; this is prosperity. I think of Marianne Moore: not only “What Are Years?” but also “Poetry” and its revisions. Words, even those set down on paper or screen, do not stay still; they turn and glow, catching us off guard. Those startlements hold ease and unease; things seem brilliantly clear, “but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had.” There is simply no saying, yet there is; saying and silence join and then part ways again. For now, that’s all I have to say.

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I took all of these pictures in Jerusalem, except for the second, which I took in Jaffa (of my friends Elenor and Jenny walking together), and the sixth, which someone–Marcy, I think–took of me (in Jerusalem, just a few meters west of the Western Wall).

I made a few minor revisions to this piece after posting it.

Ways of Walking to Work

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Yesterday morning, on my way to school, I ran down into the grass to take the photo above. You can see the swans right in the middle. I haven’t seen the cygnets since early November; they have probably gone off on their own.

I have been thinking (again) about solitude, the subject of my first book. People speak in terms of needing a lot of solitude or not needing much at all, but it doesn’t come in quantities. It does not translate into “time spent alone.” Everyone has a form of it; it’s these forms that differ.

On the surface, Judaism does not  emphasize solitude; most practices and life cycle events are communal. Yet the texts could not exist without solitude; their authors, situations, and stories have to do, again and again, with standing apart from the crowd, thinking alone, going through things alone, relating alone to God, saying things that others would rather not hear. From Noah to Rebecca  to Hannah to Jeremiah to Solomon, from the Psalms to the Prophets to Koheleth to Genesis to Deuteronomy, solitude fills the words and sounds–solitude in its fullness and with all its contradictions.

How do you find your way in a tradition that is so profoundly solitary on the one hand and so strongly communal on the other? You do just that: find your way. It won’t be the same as another person’s, but it will be founded on the texts and practices. There is solitude (and commonality) in that search and study. Some have devoted themselves to the study of solitude in Judaism (see, for instance, the blog Jewish Contemplatives); others learn about it in passing and repassing.

Solitude may involve long retreats, but it often takes the form of a brief cocoon of thought. Sometimes, no matter where I am, I need to step aside in my mind to reconsider things; this can happen within seconds, but it’s still solitude. Those few seconds can make the difference between understanding something well or poorly, handling something gracefully or ungracefully, or acting wisely or unwisely. Solitude allows us to exist in full dimension.

Some will object that this is just reflection, not solitude, but no, it’s solitude too. You can’t reflect in this way without standing and thinking apart. Solitude affirms that there’s something beyond the first appearance of things, something that calls for introspection, analysis, feeling, creation, and relinquishment, or some combination of these. Solitude wraps and unwraps itself; it retreats and returns.

That’s why it makes little sense to describe someone as “solitary” or “social.” We are all complex combinations of both. Some may seem aloof but have strong daily relationships. Some may seem gregarious but keep most of their thoughts to themselves. For some it depends on context, time of day, and stage of life. But whatever shape our associations and detachments take, they influence each other. It is our ability to step back that allows us to shape our actions, to listen to others, and to protect ourselves from sheer impulse and reactivity.

Some see “thinking” and “doing” as mutually exclusive; in their view, the “doers” are the real people, the ones getting the work done, while the “thinkers” are just inconvenient clods of contemplation. To those people I would say: if that were so, you would not have a house to live in, for there can be no architecture without thought. You may not particularly enjoy thinking (any more than some others enjoy making things with their hands), but that does not mean you can do without it. Someone has to do the heavy lifting, someone the light; sometimes it’s a lifting of planks, sometimes of ideas. Give respect to both, and life will have meaning and housing.

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On Being Welcome

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Yesterday I treated myself to two films at Film Forum: Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (an old favorite) and The Teacher (by Jan Hrebejk, the director of Divided We Fall, with Csongor Kassai in one of the lead roles). Not having seen The Teacher before, I was taken with its subtle treatment of a rather flat premise: a new teacher, who happens to be chair of the Communist Party at her school, begins extorting services and favors from the students and parents. Ben Kenigsberg’s New York Times review does not do the film justice; there’s much more to it than he suggests. The texture of Hrebejk’s films–the music, pacing, dimness, gentleness–stays with me long afterward. This film lent itself to a kind of soul-searching, not only through its subject, but through its moods and ambiguities. Kassai has become one of my favorite film actors, and I loved the others too. Each parent and child shows a mixture of confusion and principle, timidity and strength.

The soul-searching: I would never extort things from my students or their parents; all the same, do I always use my power justly? This question does not end; I must ask it again and again. Also, when witnessing abuses of power (in any setting), have I spoken up, or have I accommodated the situation? The film brings out how mixed we are: how easy it is for any of us to justify our comforts and push difficulty away, even believing that we are doing the right thing. I could have been one of the parents objecting to the petition; I could have been the head teacher in her state of relief when the meeting, which she reluctantly called and led, seems to come to nothing.

But that’s not what this post is about. While waiting in the lobby (an ample wait, since I had purchased my tickets earlier in the week and had arrived early), a boy of about thirteen or fourteen asked me, “Are they letting people in yet for Pierrot le Fou?” He held a big bag of popcorn in one hand and a soda in the other. I told him that we were on standby; he nodded and stood by. He was all by himself. When we were let in, I went ahead; he came along and sat down two seats away from me. He seemed absorbed in the film; now and then I heard him laughing. At the end of the film, either he or someone else nearby exclaimed “Cool!” He got up and left.

I was tempted to ask him (before or after the film) what had brought him there; it isn’t every day that you see a thirteen-year-old attending Pierrot le Fou alone. (Of course it isn’t  every day that you see Pierrot le Fou, so here we have the un-everyday within the un-everyday.) Did he know someone in it? Was he a young director? Did he know what he was getting into? Why didn’t he laugh during the “Est-ce que vous m’aimez” scene (or did he, maybe)? This time, I found the scene wildly silly and sad, but I don’t know how others took it.

I decided not to ask him any questions or bother him at all. I remember what one of my former students said a few years ago: “You know you’re accepted when people don’t make a big fuss about your presence–for instance, when you can go to a play and just be part of the audience.” I remembered, also, what it was like to be a kid and have people coo over me, just because I was a kid. (It wasn’t fun.) Why should kids have to justify themselves wherever they go, sit, or stand? So I left him alone. I was delighted, though, that he had the gumption to go to a movie–this particular one, no less–on his own.

But then, I must have looked rather young when, at age fourteen, I went on my own to concerts and plays in Moscow. No one bothered me, and that was grand; I could enjoy them on my own terms. Sometimes I invited classmates (or they me), but most of the time I went by myself.

Those times of liberty, of being able to explore not only your physical surroundings but works of art, music, theatre, dance, and film, help give you a foothold in the world, and not only a foothold, but a way of loosening it, a lift into the unknown.

 

Image credit: From a YouTube video of the “Est-ce-que vous m’aimez” scene, acted by Raymond Devos and Jean-Paul Belmondo. (I prefer the Vimeo one because it’s a little longer and shows Pierrot escaping at the end.)

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

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. 

Beyond the Introvert-Extravert Divide

Over at New York Magazine, Drake Baer has been challenging the introvert-extravert dichotomy with vigor. “‘Introvert or Extrovert’ Is the Wrong Way to Define Your Identity,” declares one October article; an article from July has a similarly bold title (“Why Declaring ‘I’m an Introvert!’ Limits Your Life“). In both articles, and in some earlier pieces, Baer emphasizes the complexity of personality and the influence of occupation and context. I would go even farther than he does—for instance, I am skeptical of the Big Five model of personality—but I applaud his boldness and subtlety.

The introvert issue has been so overhyped that it swept other discussions into its hot air. It created a “groupthink” of its own. In 2012, a few months after Republic of Noise came out, I was interviewed for an Education Week article on introverts in the classroom (as was Susan Cain). When speaking with Sarah Sparks, I emphasized the distinction between solitude and introversion. Solitude is essential to education (in some way and in some form) regardless of one’s personality type. Instead of trying to make the classroom amenable to introverts (who are a highly diverse bunch, with a wide range of preferences and needs), pay attention to the subject matter. It just isn’t true that “introverts” prefer online discussion to class discussion. If you are approaching the subject keenly, your class discussion will not be dominated by table-thumping loudmouths anyway. People will have to think, because there will be something to think about. Of course you should pay attention to the students—to their ideas and unique qualities, not their type.

But these points were left out of the article;  Sparks and other reporters continued to present issues in terms of introverts and extraverts. I have wondered why. It seems part of our country’s tendency toward polarization. It isn’t so far removed, in other words, from the climate of the election. It is all too easy to identify yourself with an oppressed group (in this case the introverts) and let someone else tell you who  you are and what you need. Someone shows up who seems to tell your story, explains how you and your kind have been mistreated, and promises a revolution.

But maybe this isn’t quite your story; maybe your personal oppression (to the extent that it exists) comes from many places, including the self; maybe liberation lies not in an uprising of your personality type but in good independent thought. I don’t mean that one should reject all alliances, but no alliance should demand a reduction of the mind or soul. There should be room to challenge not only the dominant train of thought but its underlying suppositions. There should be room to say, “this isn’t quite right.”

I see Baer’s articles as a promising step in that direction. A shout-out to Melissa Dahl too.

Note: I originally mistitled the first Baer article; the error is now fixed. Also I changed “Big Five theory” to “Big Five model”; stay tuned for more on this.) I made a few minor edits later on.

Lectures, Teams, and the Pursuit of Truth

One of these days, soon, I’ll post something about teaching. Since I’m not teaching this year, I have had a chance to pull together some thoughts about it.

In the meantime, here are a few comments I posted elsewhere. First, I discovered, to my great surprise, that Andrew Gelman seeks to “change everything at once” about statistics instruction—that is, make the instruction student-centered (with as little lecturing as possible), have interactive software that tests and matches students’ levels, measure students’ progress, and redesign the syllabus. While each of these ideas has merit and a proper place, the “change everything” approach seems unnecessary. Why not look for a good combination of old and new? Why abandon the lecture (and Gelman’s wonderful lectures in particular)?

But I listened to the keynote address (that the blog post announced) and heard a much subtler story. Instead of trumpeting the “change everything” mantra into our poor buzzword-ringing heads, Gelman asked questions and examined complexities and difficulties. Only in the area of syllabus did he seem sure of an approach. In the other areas, he was uncertain but looking for answers. I found the uncertainty refreshing but kept on wondering, “why assume that you need to change everything? Isn’t there something worth keeping right here, in this very keynote address about uncertainties?”

Actually, the comment I posted says less than what I have said here, so I won’t repeat it. I have made similar points elsewhere (about the value of lectures, for instance).

Next, I responded to Drake Baer’s piece (in New York Magazine’s Science of Us section), “Feeling Like You’re on a Team at Work Is So Deeply Good for You.” Apparently a research team (ironic, eh?) lead by Niklas Steffens at University of Queensland found that, in Baer’s words, “the more you connect with the group you work with—regardless of the industry you’re in—the better off you’ll be.”

In my comment, I pointed out that such associations do not have to take the form of a team—that there are other structures and collegial relations. The differences do matter; they affect the relation of the individual to the group. Not everything is a team. Again, no need to repeat. I haven’t yet read the meta-study, but I intend to do so.

Finally, I responded to Jesse Singal’s superb analysis of psychology’s “methodological terrorism” debate. Singal points to an underlying conflict between Susan Fiske’s wish to protect certain individuals and others’ call for frank, unbureaucratic discussion and criticism. To pursue truth, one must at times disregard etiquette. (Tal Yarkoni, whom Singal quotes, puts it vividly.) There’s much more to Singal’s article; it’s one of the most enlightening new pieces I have read online all year. (In this case, by “year” I  mean 2016, not the past twelve days since Rosh Hashanah.)

That’s all for now. Next up: a piece on teaching (probably in a week or so). If my TEDx talk gets uploaded in the meantime (it should be up any day now), I’ll post a link to it.

The Dialogue of Thought with Others

I have not yet read Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, but it will be among my next books. In an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (quoted by Cynthia Haven), Jon Nixon writes, “For [Arendt], thinking was diametrically opposed to ideology: ideology demands assent, is founded on certainty, and determines our behaviours within fixed horizons of expectation; thinking, on the other hand, requires dissent, dwells in uncertainty and expands our horizons by acknowledging our agency. It is the task of education — and therefore of the university — to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible.”

What kind of thinking is this? We talk often about “critical thinking” but don’t define it carefully enough. According to Arendt, it is the “dialogue of thought.” It is both introspective and responsive. Both aspects are essential.

Let me play with this idea a bit. If your thoughts are introspective but without dialogue, you end up in a rut; you have nothing to temper or shake your view of the world. You go around and around with the same thoughts; maybe you negate them, maybe you insist on them, but you get used to seeing them swirl around, clockwise and counterclockwise, the same ones over and over.

If you are only responsive, then you have no response at all; you depend so much on what others say that you cannot understand their words. You seek wisdom but then accept or reject it flatly instead of taking it in. You seek knowledge but apply it without imagination or play. You fear the opinion of others but crave it at the same time.

The life of the mind, the kind Arendt holds up, requires a combination of aloneness and dialogue — but what combination? It is unique for each situation and person; it does not stay constant but must be recalibrated again and again. It breaks apart and comes together. There are moments of clarity and rapport and longer stretches of fumbling. The very search for the right proportions is individual and particular; my thinking will not be like anyone else’s, but its very character makes it capable of dialogue. In other words, to have a life of the mind, one must be prepared for constant and subtle dissent: not the opinionated kind, but the kind that allows for the unusual.

Depend on the opinions of others, and your thoughts become rags, with no firmness or fineness of their own.

Insist on your own opinion, and your thoughts become sticks.

The ideal, though, is not a pair of knitting needles with yarn, although that has its own place. There is no instrument or product here, at least not the kinds that can be delimited. There is only life, and in life there is everything.

  • “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

  • Always Different

  • 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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