Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can we be sad anymore?

"Sorrow is the ultimate type both in Life and Art. Behind Joy and Laughter there may be a temperament, coarse, hard and callous. But behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. Pain, unlike Pleasure, wears no mask."  (Oscar Wilde, De Profundis)

I am wondering--in this cold, comforting winter evening--if we know how to be sad anymore. A strange question, that. Are we not a nation, a people, a world--in the grip of an epidemic of depressive disorders? Have we not stared into the face of existential angst and grinned, spat, screamed, and run away? Do we not have a severely over-taxed social services system trying and failing to deal with the sadness of millions and their consequent "coping" behaviors?

But I am not talking about clinical depression or philosophical anxiety. I am talking about being sad--sadness that is not floating free but is a direct and reasonable response to loss, disappointment, or wounding. This is a passion, among the many passions we flash all over social media, that seems shameful. We hide it; we sublimate it; and we joke about it. Thus, those "coping" behaviors are actually evidence that I am onto something.

I have no studies to cite nor even explanations to offer. I only notice that the Hebrew Bible saw fit to include a book of Lamentations, perhaps so that people had some words in which to address their sorrow to the Divine, amongst their fellow sorrowers. And we have Facebook. I see far more people joking about needing another drink, or a weapon, than I see people honestly saying, "I am sad." Speaking out of the ugly roots of my own experience, I fear that this is how we deal with sadness now. Perhaps we seek medication or therapy, or perhaps we medicate ourselves. Or perhaps we stuff it all down into the narrow little pressure cooker that is anger. The first solution can be appropriate, in certain contexts and for certain disorders. Sorrow, however, as a response to a reasonable cause, is no disorder. Yet even of this sorrow, I fear, we run away in fear.

Spinoza defined sadness as the passion by which the mind passes to a lesser perfection. When we are sad, he believed, we feel our power of acting decreased. This is undoubtedly true: to be sad is to feel weak and vulnerable, as if the hard shell of armor one has spent a lifetime building has been ripped away by violence. Here, perhaps, is an explanation of our fear. But if the armor can be ripped off--and this must be possible if one is to be human--then it was really illusory to begin with. Sadness therefore shows us something profound and true about ourselves, and about those other people we have been protecting ourselves against. Invulnerability in human life is a lie, and its sentimental accoutrements are more often than not cruel. In embracing sorrow, we embrace an emotion that the youngest children and oldest survivors share. Mass hiding of a feeling does not make it disappear. So, passing through sorrow--feeling its wounding, crippling attack--might actually increase our power of acting in the long run, insofar as it brings us closer to that most helpful of creatures--other human beings.

I take it this was part of Wilde's point. "Clergymen," he says, "and people who use phrases without wisdom, sometimes talk of suffering as a mystery. It is really a revelation. One discerns things that one never discerned before. One approaches the whole of history from a different standpoint. What one had felt dimly through instinct, about Art, is intellectually and emotionally realized with perfect clearness of vision and absolute intensity of apprehension."

Such apprehension is precious. Perhaps we ought to resist the urge to flee from it. It is not really so frightening. Sorrow has a natural lifespan. As Montaigne says, "evils have their life and limits, their sickness and their health." Should sorrow attempt to usurp the time of our whole lives, that is when to seek help of a different kind. But it is not in itself an illness, and it will not alone destroy us. It may be time to step out of costume, and let ourselves feel an emotion that wears no mask.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

An Exquisite Contradiction

“He burns with spiritual intensity—and he desperately wants to be something in the eyes of the world. An exquisite contradiction, because what lurks near the center of his spiritual life, but without actually living there, is the thought that he should desire and expect to be nobody and nothing to the world.”

In my experience, this quotation fits nearly everyone* who teaches at a church-related university, or preaches to a public, or posts about faith on Facebook, or blogs about it.  I make no exception for myself.

Fellow teachers, preachers, posters, and bloggers, I would love to know what you think.  If you're moved to post in the comments here, or on your own preferred forum, you will have my admiration—and I do not mean that ironically.

*There is a class whom the quotation does not describe.  This is the cynical "pragmatist" who burns with no spiritual intensity at all.  But he has learned that if he simulates such a person, playing a role, he can acquire power for himself by exploiting those who do feel the contradiction.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On Speaking in Code

I recount to you a fable, told me lately by a friend.

The meeting had been called to discuss a Technique. Strictly speaking, techniques serve external ends, and this was no exception. Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in 1981 that participants in the dominant culture avoid evaluating ends, knowing only how to reason about means. Over Three decades later, we have overcome such thinking, having now figured out how to avoid evaluating means as well. It is so simple. We just designate them "best practices." Like any good candidate for a term with mesmeric force, this one has long outlived its roots, which no doubt fed in a soil of rigor, scientific study, and dedication to efficiency.

So, the people came together to discuss the Technique, which they were sure was a Best Practice, well designed to achieve its Ends. But it turns out that the attendees also had ends of their own.

After long discussion, a young woman offered a contribution. She was frustrated with the Technique, she said. She had never been wholly satisfied with her attempts to implement it, and she felt that perhaps it did not serve its Ends very well. 

An older man volunteered a reply, in a congenial tone. "Do not worry, Young Woman. After years of implementing the Technique, I too have had frustrations. You must have confidence that, in time, and with practice, your use of the Technique will improve."

The young woman failed to switch codes. As a result, two people did not achieve their ends.

Hers included: (1) arguing that the Technique should itself be questioned, or perhaps even abandoned, and (2) accomplishing (1) without offending her colleagues.  She succeeded with the second part of (2) but only at the expense of failing completely with (1). Although she had said that the Technique might not serve its ends, her senior colleague had fixated on her expressions of frustration and humility, and he had assumed that she was in distress, asking for help.

His ends included (1) helping a junior colleague in an empathetic way, and, presumably, (2) not sounding condescending. His is the tragic case: he failed in both.

It was at some point in graduate school that I realized that I spoke in a code that my male peers did not understand. Any expression of self-doubt, or hesitation, or polite demurring--they took to be expressions of incompetence or ignorance. Few of these men were jerks. They just had never learned the code that women use so naturally (though it be our second nature) with one another. And to be fair, we didn't know their code either. We assumed that their expressions of self-confidence were signs of insufferable arrogance, when they were more likely just moves in an intricate game.

At the peak of my frustration over the obstacles meeting women in a male-dominated field, I was advised repeatedly not to write about such things--at least not yet. And I sympathized with the advice. Not only did I see the ways in which such writing might keep me from being "taken seriously," I agreed with Simone de Beauvoir that the topic of women can be irritating, especially to women.

But watching interactions that resemble my friend's familiar fable have convinced me: charity requires speaking out about such things. Otherwise these poor people will never understand, will remain forever blind, will never achieve even the noblest of ends.

If women are to play the game with those who cannot hear us, we must, at least in limited contexts, learn to codeswitch, even if I much prefer the gentler tenor of our own code. But many men can and truly want to hear us. To effect this end, the codes cannot remain secret, and women cannot remain silent about themselves. Understanding silence, after all, itself requires immersion in the most advanced of codes. It is often too much to ask.