vendredi, septembre 01, 2006

What we think we know

Often, when I am talking to someone about Sians' school, they will ask me why we're sending her to a Catholic school. She's got ADHD, I will tell them, and her dad and I felt that it she needed the extra structure (we like the idea of uniforms, too). Sian's got one diagnosis. Colin has one, his case, the name is so much broader and probably less accurate than his symptoms that when I mention it folks who know Mr. C. start disputing it with me. My friend Heidi, for example. Heidi thinks that eventually we will all have labels. People won't know us by our great cherry pie, or our willingness to lend a hand when a neighbor is in trouble. Instead they will call us by our particular disorder or personality type. We'll walk by a co-worker, and,l instead of asking how things are going in marketing, ask casually: "Hey, Julie, how are you doing with that oppositional behavior this week? Or a spouse planning a party will query their mate: "I hear you asked Mike over. Do you think his defiant passive aggressive personality will blend well with Tom's nonpathological introversion neurosis? Maybe we should put Marla between them...she is a gregarious overachiever who can help them both feel good about themselves!" Anyhow, you see where I am going. It is way too easy to paste labels on people and think that we have them categorized. Shoving those who make us uncofmortable into our boxes also assures that we may not ever really get to know them...and let them surprise us with how different they really are from the cut-out we have created. Americans often seem to think that if they look hard enough, they will find black and white answers to the small pesky questions and the large mysterious ones that dog us every day. Sometimes, we just find more questions await us. When that occurs, it is usually better to wait, and, in the words of the oft-quoted writer Rilke, live the questions, rather than create our own, inevitably cramped and possibly very innacurate answers.

lundi, août 28, 2006

Stolen from Today's New York Times

This article was too appropriate to leave out of here. As well as determination and courage, it may be optimism that compels people like Jackie to persist in showing the 'fruits of the Spirit." Optimism, an American trait, is not a cheap confidence trick. It's not all about using the rhetoric of success to ignore the truly needy. There are those in our government, both Democrats and Republicans who are evangelists for opportunism instead of opportunity...or for self-reliance without help from those better off. Affirmative action is a dirty long is it doesn't apply to their special pet road project or set-aside. Optimism about social justice is something a lot more optimistic perspective is, au fond, the idea that what one does really matters in the grand scheme. As Cohen notes, optimism is a part of our heritage...are we willing, even though challenged, to surrender it?

August 28, 2006
Editorial Observer
What Is the Latest Thing to Be Discouraged About? The Rise of Pessimism
The early stages of the Iraq war may have been a watershed in American optimism. The happy talk was so extreme it is now difficult to believe it was sincere: “we will be greeted as liberators”; “mission accomplished”; the insurgency is “in the last throes.” Most wildly optimistic of all was the goal: a military action transforming the Middle East into pro-American democracies.
The gap between predictions and reality has left Americans deeply discouraged. So has much of what has happened, or not happened, at the same time. Those who believed New Orleans would rebound quickly after Hurricane Katrina have seen their hopes dashed. Those counting on solutions to health care, energy dependence or global warming have seen no progress. It is no wonder the nation is in a gloomy mood; 71 percent of respondents in a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll said the country is on the wrong track.
These are ideal times for the release of “Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit,” by Joshua Foa Dienstag, a U.C.L.A. political theorist. Mr. Dienstag aims to rescue pessimism from the philosophical sidelines, where it has been shunted by optimists of all ideologies. The book is seductive, because pessimists are generally more engaging and entertaining than optimists, and because, as the author notes, “the world keeps delivering bad news.” It is almost tempting to throw up one’s hands and sign on with Schopenhauer.
Pessimism, however, is the most un-American of philosophies. This nation was built on the values of reason and progress, not to mention the “pursuit of happiness.” Pessimism as philosophy is skeptical of the idea of progress. Pursuing happiness is a fool’s errand. Pessimism is not, as is commonly thought, about being depressed or misanthropic, and it does not hold that humanity is headed for disaster. It simply doubts the most basic liberal principle: that applying human reasoning to the world’s problems will have a positive effect.
The biggest difference between optimists and pessimists, Mr. Dienstag argues, is in how they view time. Optimists see the passing of time as a canvas on which to paint a better world. Pessimists see it as a burden. Time ticks off the physical decline of one’s body toward the inevitability of death, and it separates people from their loved ones. “All the tragedies which we can imagine,” said Simone Weil, the French philosopher who starved herself to death at age 34, “return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time.”
Optimists see history as the story of civilization’s ascent. Pessimists believe, Mr. Dienstag notes, in the idea that any apparent progress has hidden costs, so that even when the world seems to be improving, “in fact it is getting worse (or, on the whole, no better).” Polio is cured, but AIDS arrives. Airplanes make travel easy, but they can drop bombs or be crashed into office towers. There is no point in seeking happiness. When joy “actually makes its appearance, it as a rule comes uninvited and unannounced,” insisted Schopenhauer, the dour German who was pessimism’s leading figure.
As politicians, pessimists do not believe in undertaking great initiatives to ameliorate unhappiness, since they are skeptical they will work. They are inclined to accept the world’s evil and misery as inevitable. Mr. Dienstag tries to argue that pessimists can be politically engaged, and in modest ways they can be. Camus joined the French Resistance. But pessimism’s overall spirit, as Camus noted, “is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments.”
President Clinton was often mocked for his declarations that he still believed “in a place called Hope.” But he understood that instilling hope is a critical part of leadership. Other than a few special interest programs — like cutting taxes on the wealthy and giving various incentives to business — it is hard to think of areas in which the Bush administration has raised the nation’s hopes and met them. This president has, instead, tried to focus the American people on the fear of terrorism, for which there is no cure, only bad choices or something worse.
Part of Mr. Bush’s legacy may well be that he robbed America of its optimism — a force that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other presidents, like Ronald Reagan, used to rally the country when it was deeply challenged. The next generation of leaders will have to resell discouraged Americans on the very idea of optimism, and convince them again that their goal should not be to live with their ailments, but to cure them.

dimanche, août 27, 2006

The mystery of unselfishness

I grew up in a household well staffed with "do-gooders." They weren't at all santimonious, my great-aunt and grandmother...instead, they were happy reformers, always willing to believe the best, looking for what Quakers might call the "Inner Light" in others. The rest of the Jackson clan, brothers and sisters and cousins, were more or less involved in justice movements-some were Socialists, some were Trostkyites, many were staunchly committed to unions. My mother's generation, while less ambitious in its goals for bettering the world, still had its share of teachers, college professors and goverment workers. When I survey my generation, I see similar aspirations-many of us teach, travel and advocate for reform. Yet the energy and the optimism, my grandmother's gracious but powerful call to the duty of altruism, seems to have dimmed in some of us. It is not true that the times are more difficult-after all, my grandparents lived through two world wars. Possibly, as connected as we are around the world, we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the evil in the human heart and less optimistic about our capacity to make a dent in it. Or perhaps the answers to the question of self-sacrificial goodness cannot be found in generalities, but in the enigma of specific lives. Take my friend Jackie for example. If it were not for Jackie, I (and my friends) would not be supporting home health care for Romanian children with AIDS. Jackie went over to Romania about ten years ago and fell in love with a particular Romanian child with AIDS. So much of what she has done since she met Cogneac has been done in memory of a dying child who changed her life forever. Now a widow in Rutland, VT, Jackie is most likely closing her house, leaving her neighbors, and volunteering for a year with a Catholic religious group in a home for indigent patients living with AIDS. Would I have the courage to do something like that? I don't think so. Yet if you met Jackie, she probably would not strike you initially as a remarkable woman. She, like many of us, is victim to doubts about her own capacity for having an impact on the suffering of the world. Perhaps the differenc between me and Jackie is not in her uncertainties, nor in her idealism. It may be that where I am reticent and anxious about moving forward, she, also anxious and reticent, still decides to take the next step...the one that puts her closer to humanity's suffering, closer to the foot of the cross, more intimately acquainted with the God who sees our fears, but promises to be with us in the eye of the storm and the depth of the seas. Maybe the example of women and men like my friend Jackie will inspire more of us "nervous Nellies" to reach out to those less fortunate than us. One quivering step at a time. I think God honors those baby steps.