Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Philosophical Gaps

One does not need to spend to much time surfing blogs, reading newspapers or magazines, or simply talking to various people to learn how eager we are to share our views with other people, whether on minor issues ("John Cusack is the best actor ever!) or major ones ("Pulling out of the Kyoto Conference was the stupidest decision ever!) Forming ideas, opinions, views about how the world does or should work, and creating a framework through which to view the function and purpose of our lives are inherent parts of the human experience. We spend a lot of time doing it, whether we are aware of it or not.

The trick, of course, is that once a belief or opinion is chosen, others are rejected; "the bookcase slides shut," as Ashbery writes in the following poem. It's true that some beliefs are more flexible than others; but if you prefer a more flexible view of the world, than you are probably rejecting the idea of absolutes or the validity of a "black and white" philosophy. You like the grays.

Fine. But how do we choose our beliefs, as we must do as humans, either quite consciously or not, and keep our minds open to other human beings who are doing the same thing? By listening to them. Listening to another person express ideas that are contrary to our own, without getting defensive or interrupting them, is just about the hardest thing to do. Holy cow, can it feel threatening. My husband and I spent years learning how to do this with each other, let alone with others. But consider this: it is unlikely that any one of us can imagine, let alone express, the entire truth of the purpose or meaning of our existence, or even of any given contentious issue. This does not nullify the vailidity of our opinions; but it does call into question where the truth actually lies.

"There's a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas," Ashbery writes. I would suggest that there is a lot to learn in those gaps, as well--realizations of truths about self, about the universe, about others--and the ability the listen to others without judging them. Consider the article about six women on both sides of the abortion debate--three pro-choice and three-pro-life--who came together for five and a half years of secret talks to foster a civilized, honest discussion about their views. They actually listened to each to other:

At the end of the five and a half years of secret conversations, the six leaders wrote an article in The Boston Globe about their experience of dialogue. None of the women had changed their mind about abortion; they had, however, achieved a genuine and heartfelt respect and affection for each other.

A "genuine and heartfelt respect and affection." Can you imagine? Isn't it amazing to think about listening openly to someone without the burden of judging them, or feeling as if you must approve or disapprove of what they're saying? And having someone else do that for you? Can you imagine getting to know someone as a human being rather than seeing them as a mouthpiece for a particular agenda? Can you imagine the power in this?

If you're tired of the baloney about the "polarization" in the United States, and talk of the "red state/blue state" nonsense (check out the purple map for something closer to the truth), you might want to see what's going on at the Public Conversations Project.

My Philosophy of Life
Just when I thought there wasn't room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea--
call it a philosophy of life, if you will.Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude.I wouldn't be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I'd sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I'd stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him--not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between.He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle's Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on.Not a single idea emerges from it.It's enough
to disgust you with thought.But then you remember something
William James
wrote in some book of his you never read--it was fine, it had the
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet
still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and
his alone.

It's fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler.Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they'd do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again.Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought--
something's blocking it.Something I'm
not big enough to see over.Or maybe I'm frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise--I'll let
things be what they are, sort of.In the autumn I'll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won't be embarrassed by my friends' dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that's the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn't even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he's
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him--
this thing works both ways, you know. You can't always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time.That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don't know.
Still, there's a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That's what they're made for!Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don't come along every day. Look out!There's a big one...

John Ashbery

1 comment:

The Defeatist said...

Your first paragraph hints at that most postmodern variation of Cartesian thought: I blog, therefore I am.