Sunday, October 14, 2012

if this is the best of possible worlds

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.
Kafka


Reader

I have never felt a particular desire to shield myself from other people's suffering or from what I see as a potentially disheartening reality. I think it is fair to say that sometimes I seek it out. Not because I want to be unhappy or try to be a martyr or something like that, but because I want to see the world for what it is, and not be confined to my limited experience of it. 

On the positive side, this has given me a keen sense of social justice and of adventure. On the negative side, this desire has also gotten me into situations that I can't emotionally handle. Once I heard someone say that pain often implies growth, and I think there is truth to that. I think I occasionally take it too far, but I think it's impossible to know if you're taking it too far until you're looking back at it. 

"Dear Kit, the key thing is managed awareness of your role in the world and history. Think too much and you know you are nothing. Think just enough and you know you are small, but important to some. That's the best you can do."

When I was in college, I was talking to my friend about some of the things that I have seen traveling and how they have informed my worldview. He asked me if the struggles all around me, the poverty in Chicago and the gang violence and all its problems, also informed my worldview.

I said I had read a book about gang violence in Chicago, and yes, I had thought about that. My friend, who had grown up in an area riddled with gang violence, had a past scarred by the physical and mental destruction it causes. He told me that if I wanted to see the places where the book unfolded he would show me; we could drive through the neighborhood and stay in the car. He deemed this as more or less safe, and while I didn't really know if that was true I agreed. I saw this as a risk but couldn't deny that I had taken other risks.

I feel like if I have a strength, it's been always curious about other people and an unending ability to allow people to show me the world as they see it.

Before my friend and I got into the neighborhood he grew up in he told me to take off the crystal necklace I was wearing and put it in the glove compartment. I did as he said. 

Typically I leave social and political commentary to people who are more informed on the economic, political and historical forces at work in constructing a society. Being in a town where everyone seems to have something to say about everything (Washington, D.C.) has changed my mind about that, but I still hesitate to try to draw synthesis or conclusions from situations that I know I don't really understand. Sometimes I just acknowledge what I know to be true from experience and leave it to other people's interpretations. Even though I filter it through my own lens just by giving the account, I try to keep my voice crystal clear like water running over rocks.  I know that understanding is not complete or whole without having lived something.  But I also know that trying to understand the world isn't limited to things that are easy to confront and accept. Refusing to acknowledge problems and inequities contributes to their inertia and is a large force in creating them.

As we drove through the area my friend told me about the events that had shaped his life there and stay with him now; someone setting someone else on fire during a fight, girls having children when they were still children themselves.  

People think of places as being haunted when they are removed and able to retain their solitude. Sometimes it's interesting to think about the past lives of the places you are in all the time. 

 I saw Eve Ensler speak the other day, and one of the most memorable things she said was that people spend so much of their lives denying what they see and feel and know, and that for any real change to happen people need to be honest about what they have experienced in the world.

I remember riding on the back of a motorcycle in Rio and seeing the favelas sprawl up the mountains with Christ the Redeemer's arms extended protectively over them.

My friend said he can never forget about the things that he has seen or heard; that they still keep him up. He said he can leave it geographically but it will never leave him.

I have a strange ability to recall certain conversations almost verbatim from years ago while still forgetting about things that happened a few hours before.  This selective ability was kind of helpful in grad school, when I had to read a lot and give lectures to my class. It allowed me to distribute what I had been reading and hearing and mentally filing into what I was saying in a way I hoped wouldn't put my students to sleep.

Also when I was a grad student I noticed other grad students' enthusiasm for the word 'pedagogy' and saying REE-SEARCH like RI-SEARCH and in general adopting alternative self-indulgent academic pronunciations for words.  I had one class where an ability to speak using grad school jargon was particularly useful, and when we were discussing different forms and construction for works of journalism I said that the diversity in structure was necessary, and that "If you boil down journalism to a formulaic mold, you wouldn't display the immense diversity that journalism is supposed to reflect that is true in life, and journalism is meant to give an account of different realities. To neglect to embody this would provide an impoverished sense of reality." 

My professor stared at me for a long moment and then said "God, don't you just love the way she talks?" I didn't know if that was meant to be serious or kind of patronizing at first, so I told him that sometimes I hear statements that are beautiful or poignant and commit them to memory and then when I say things histrionically it's basically just stringing together all the things that I have heard after they have mixed in with all my thoughts. To me, it connects a lot of things and helps me find continuity in what I observe. It's not a copy-paste sense of theft, but more like I listen to what is presented to me and I apply it to other things after I have considered and internalized it. The phrase "impoverished sense of reality," after I thought about it, was not something I invented. It was something I heard in an anthropology lecture. 

There are a lot of phrases that have stuck with me from books and things that I have heard and read, and whenever I hear someone say that something was well-said, I mentally insert "but we must cultivate our garden."





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