22 September 2011

The Case of the Opposition

When I was a child I made a horrifying and thrilling discovery: I could win arguments regardless of whether—on the grand scale—I was right or wrong. I could occasionally argue people older, wiser, more intelligent, more knowledgeable and more correct than me into the ground. Through what precise combination of word trickery, semantics, persistence and bull-doggedness I do this, I don’t quite know, but I had both discovered this and been informed of it by the aforementioned ‘older-wiser-more-intelligent’ ones.

It was thrilling because it made me feel clever and powerful, like the person with a gun or a heavy fist faced against a person who is weak and unarmed. Like I had a secret weapon. It was horrifying because it meant that I could easily get away with technically correct rhetoric unsupported by truth, reality or anything otherwise helpful.

This is by no means a singular talent/vice. Lots of people discover over time that they can do this. Some are better at it, some are worse. But honing this ‘skill’ is a dangerous and idiotic enterprise because one may end up actually believing the dreck the mouth spits out. Whenever I may have won arguments this way it is the functional equivalent of a lawyer getting a murderer off on a technicality: a win by which all lose.

Why explore this troublesome talent of mine, when it is in fact nothing but the first-cousin-once-removed of being able to lie well? Because I think that if I’m going to deride something, I should first acknowledge my own tendencies so as to show that I don’t criticize from any great distance, but rather from terrible proximity.

Something that galls me almost more than some mere bad argument is overstating the case of the opposition. It’s a brilliant, cheap tactic, really. It works most times out of many, and it’s got enough truth in it that it doesn’t feel like quite the cheat that it, in fact, is. I mean, the opposition is opposed to you, aren’t they? Does it matter that I make them seem more populous or more vitriolic than they actually are? Does it matter if I misquote them ever so gently so that to accuse me of misquoting just makes one sound so petty? Must context matter so much? How relevant is it that I inflate the flaws of their argument to highlight the merits of mine?

Note: inflating the flaws of the opposition is not the same thing as exposing them. It just isn’t. If the opposition is wrong—if their argument is dead on arrival---then honest debate will make that known without any enhancement. The healthier, more muscular argument will win.

What planted this frustration in my mind? Well. Anthropology, actually. Small wonder that the (wishfully objective) study of humans falls prey to this, I suppose. Anthropologists do this willy-nilly, and a certain series of academic studies were the particular instigators of this line of thought for me…but you know what? Everyone does this. It’s really hard not to. It’s instinctive. Doesn’t make it any less of a cheat. We slowly, carefully build the opposition into some fire-breathing dragon, so that when we destroy it we seem a sword-bearing knight on behalf of the truth (although, I should add that anthropology would tend to shy away from that last word).

Side note: Now I like anthropology (sometimes). There must be many a good anthropologist walking the wide globe just now. But the disease of ‘overstating-the-case-of-the-opposition’ plagues the discipline, as it plagues many others.

Point being? We shouldn’t do this. Moreover we don’t need to. So. To all (anthropologists and the rest of us): take note that when you try to distort the fury or size of your opposition to make your own argument seem stronger than it may truly be, one can’t help but suspect that your argument isn’t strong at all!! Take it from someone who truly understands the inclination toward the tactic—it leads to shoddy victory.

Let the argument stand unaided. If it can…it will.

20 September 2011

Means and Ends

A musician by the name of Chuck E. Costa once decided to put a handful of Rudyard Kipling’s poems to music. For this I am deeply grateful because I have now memorized three-quarters of Kipling’s poem “If” although I’d probably have to sing it instead of say it if asked to recite.

“If” is a poem about virtues and honor in general, but in particular it’s about swearing to your own hurt. It’s about the hard virtues. The ones that don’t feel good. The ones that go against our grain. The ones that are almost impossible to remember in the moment of anger, betrayal or frustration. Or hard to remember in moments of triumph and superiority.

I had intended to post a video containing the Chuck E. Costa song, which is a slightly trucated version of the original, because it is beautiful the way he sings it. But I was unable to find it on youtube, so I simply advise it to you if your interested (the album is called "Never Seen a Jaguar" and the song simply "If")

Anyhow, here is the original:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!
There is so much to talk about and delve into in this poem—not to mention one or two bits that might be points of contention for some—that I have chosen only two lines to expound upon—those highlighted in bold: dream and not make dreams your master; think and not make thoughts your aim.

Those two lines are more of a knife through the modern psyche than anything else. We would all most likely agree that it is wise to not become too proud, and noble to push yourself to spite laziness and fear, and virtuous to refrain from lying no matter that others are doing so about you. But in current thought processes dreams are a sort of master, and thoughts surely are the aim, are they not?

These lines hit me hardest because I do have the horrifying tendency to let dreams become my master—to drive my thoughts and feelings, thence to drive my anger and disappointment. The dreams are not wrong, but their preeminence is. If the loss or failure of them ruins someone—sunders them and puts them to the ground—then that someone held those dreams too high aloft. They gave them too much weight. They made them god and master.

A fairly predominate theme in so many inspirational movies these days is “chase your dreams.” And that’s not wholly bad. If someone is afraid of taking risks, afraid of stepping outside and making things happen, then they probably do need to be encouraged in that manner. But underneath that benign theme lies the potential to make dreams a master that rules you ruthlessly for your entire life. It’s strange how something so sunny on the surface can be shudder-inducing after the sheen’s rubbed off.

However, even more pertinent to face against post-modern thinking is the line “to think and not make thoughts your aim.” Such a subtle, elementary idea and yet it flies in the face of much of modern western academia and of youth culture. Sitting around in the coffee-shop and producing “thoughts” and things to “think about” and mulling over the “exchange of ideas” is often—rather than the means to an end—a goal in and of itself. It becomes a game of throwing thoughts out on the table like cards to see who has the best hand.

Thinking without purpose, thinking without aim—thinking without desiring or intending any true conclusion. Thinking, perhaps, without believing there can ever be any conclusion. That's post-modernism 'to a T'; it is more than happy to run on a treadmill, dutifully moving its legs, going nowhere—exercising the mind often without knowing how to use it in real contexts to reach real solutions…or find real answers.

It just so happened that while I had already decided to write about the “If” poem I happened upon this verse in Acts:
“All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas”

And a few of the Athenians actually listened, discussed and thought until they reached a conclusion but only a few, it seems. And we are a very Athenian culture these days—in ways both good and bad. It’s wonderful to be willing to hear, engage, argue and indeed “exchange ideas”—it’s deadly not to put all that to use in making concrete choices that follow from good thought.

Point being, I don’t want to be as some high-minded cook that will go on forever adding spices and ingredients without ever feeling a need to pause and taste what it is I have been concocting. That’s what thoughts being the aim is; cooking without tasting or eating; theory without application; experiment without viewing the results; or, simply, fear. Thought in and of itself is not going to sustain you when times get rough. Thoughts, however rich and good and enjoyable, are a means to an even better end.

I know I left the last post with a lengthy C.S. Lewis quote, but he keeps managing to have pertinent things to say, so here is a section from “The Great Divorce” in which a ghost from gray purgatory-like “hell” goes up to visit an old academic friend in Heaven and decide whether or not he might stay up there. One is referred to as the ghost (and occasionally the Episcopal ghost) and the heaven-living one is real or ‘the other one’.

(the real one)
“I have nothing to do with generality. Nor with any man but you and me. Oh, as you love your own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude Salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes”
(The conversation regarding this carries on, with the ghost saying things like “ah yes, that is a point of view. Certainly it’s a point of view,” until the real person invites the ghost into heaven)
“Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?”
(and the ghost says)
“’Well, that is a plan. I am perfectly ready to consider it. Of course I should require some assurances…I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness—and scope for the talents God has given me—and an atmosphere of free inquiry—in short, all that one means by civilization and—er—the spiritual life’
‘No,’ said the other. ‘I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.’
(the ghost): ‘Ah but we must interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things”…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’
(the real one): ‘If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.’
(the ghost): ‘But you must feel yourself that there is something stifling about the idea of finality? Stagnation, my dear boy, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation?’
(the real one): ‘You think that,  because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.’
(and finally, later, the heaven-living one says): ‘Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now…Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth”

‘Think and not make thoughts your aim,’ lest we grow afraid of finding answers. When the ghost fears stagnation, what he does not realize is that inquiry for the sake of inquiry is the stagnant and cyclical thing, NOT the finding of answers and the standing on solid ground. The first is the house on sand, the latter the house on rock. One washes in and out with the tides, the other holds strong and provides shelter. Our thirst will be quenched.

07 September 2011

Dharohar Project: To Darkness and Back

This album (an EP actually) is a collaborative effort between Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling and Dharohar Project and accomplishes the fantastic trick of combining distinct Indian sounds (Rajasthani specifically), with British folk, gorgeous voices and lyrics that you want to eat nice and slow so as to figure out what on earth they’ve been spiced with. I’ve listened to this album over and over and I’m still sorting through some of the words. That, I think, is how it should be.

But actually this isn’t about the album so much as it’s about one of the songs: “To Darkness.” Don’t let the title discourage you—it’s an acknowledgement, not a concession. Here’s the song:

Try as I might, I could not find sufficient sources to incontrovertibly confirm my hearing of the lyrics, but the most crucial ones are consistent, therefore the lyrics are (more or less) as follows, with uncertainties in parentheses, and my comments in italics:

Take my eyes, My whole heart
In your hands, In your hands
And board the (ark)
(As it departs)
Lead me on the shore
But I will hunt no more

I have to pause here for a moment. For me songs are stories. If I don’t see one overtly told, I will dig for it. It’s in there somewhere. So we start with a mournful sound and a sense of loss, and a desire to be taken up—to give up the striving—to be led.

Hold my sin above my head,
Take me home instead,
Take me home instead.

Here they present the soft image of someone lifting a branch out of your way so that it does not obstruct. The hindrance is being held aloft and the pathway made clear for a homeward trek. Again, guidance…being led.

I will not speak of your sin
There is a way out for him
The mirror shows not
Your values are all shot

The first line speaks of forgiveness, the second of a ‘way out.’ Way out of what? The final two lines hint at it: We don’t see ourselves clearly. We don’t understand our own failings by any mere glance in the mirror.

But Oh, my heart
Was flawed, I knew my weakness
So hold my hand
Consign me not to darkness

Here we hit the heart of the song. Again the look outward, the request for guidance. The recognition of flaws, the acknowledgement of weakness. “Hold my hand, consign me not to darkness.” Of whom does the singer demand such a thing? Who can consign or ‘consign not’ to darkness? Who is it that is taking the hand and holding our sin above our heads?

Well, for one (Psalms 107:14) “He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains” and (Psalm 103:12) “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our sins from us”

I bring this song up because it is:

A.     Beautiful
B.      Intriguing
C.      Perhaps saying things it doesn’t realize it’s saying (or maybe it does, who knows)
D.     Thematically consistent with Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling’s respective bodies of work (I cannot speak as to Dharohar Project, this is my first time to hear of them).

Both of the above mentioned bands/artists are in a constant state of acknowledging deep flaws (“seal my heart and break my pride, I’ve nowhere to stand and now nowhere to hide, Align my heart, my body, my mind—to face what I’ve done and do my time”—from “Dustbowl Dance” by Mumford & Sons) and this seems a rather rare phenomenon in this day and age where most people like to think we’re all just decent fellows and lasses at heart and it’s just the times or circumstances getting us down here and there.

Both bands also hint at the ongoing struggle that ensues regarding such an acknowledgment (“Pick up your rope Lord, and fling it to me. If we are to battle, I must not be weak”—from “Hope in the Air” by Laura Marling. And “Darkness is a harsh term, don’t you think? And yet it dominates the things I seek”—from “Roll Away Your Stone” by Mumford & Sons)

Long story short? These artists talk about facing our own darkness and about wrestling with God. I don’t know whether or not these artists believe in God, but they sure seem to be shouting upward with better aim than most. I think the awareness they speak of and the longing it calls to the surface is compelling. They want to have it out with God, perhaps, but they admit that he’ll have to pull them to the surface first—we’re at his mercy. Maybe they think they’re singing into the darkness and shadowboxing against the empty air.

But they aren’t. With these beautiful, earnest words, they’re wrestling with the real, live Him—they may get a great, terrifying shock out of it if they don’t already know Him:

“…you have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters—when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes beside you in the darkness. So here; the shock comes at the precise moment when the thrill of life is communicated to us along the clue we have been following. It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry ‘it’s alive!’. And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back—I would have done so myself if I could—and proceed no further with Christianity. An ‘impersonal God’—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?

So it is a sort of Rubicon. One goes across; or not. But if one does, there is no manner of security against miracles. One may be in for anything.”

-C.S. Lewis in “Miracles”

And I think that about says it.

01 September 2011

Discipline is Not a Dirty Word

In light of the fact that language is taking certain shifts these days and words that used to have a positive connotation now have a negative or impotent one and vice versa (i.e. on So You Think You Can Dance, calling a dance “nasty” is generally offered as a high compliment. Or the word “awesome” which is supposed to mean “inspires awe” but instead, apparently, means “that's nice”—and if you’re feeling additionally expressive, it connotes an exclamation point as well) I feel the need to put in a good word for the very good word “discipline.” I don’t want it to get a bad reputation.

The word disciplined still has a fairly decent rap, but disciplinarian is not always well-treated and either word sometimes conjures in the young, modern mind an image of something rigid, binding, unrelenting and, perhaps, uncreative.

I beg to differ. It seems to me that even the most creative of people, if they truly wish to develop that creativity, will be driven to the intense discipline of honing their natural skills. I say this as someone who is not a naturally disciplined person and whatever else I am, I’m not organized. I have spurts of organization (where I will schedule whole months of meals to cook and miles to run) but generally I find discipline difficult. Which is what makes me respect its acquisition so highly.

The Disciplines:
Discipline is a tricky beast and it has a variety of meanings:

1. A parent disciplines a child: Had my parents not done this, I would likely be one of the following: a vagrant, a mercenary, a criminal mastermind, or at least in jail for something or other. I have violent and heartless tendencies, and no amount of sweet-smiled “oh she’ll grow out of it” would have tempered that. I’m STILL working on it.
2. You can study in an academic discipline: I am not so academically keen, but they call them “disciplines” for  a reason. Reading, study, research, verification, comparison, hours and hours and hours.
3. Discipline of habit/persistence: You do something enough times, the discipline becomes habit—an instinctive part of daily life.
4. Disciplined: To be regimented, organized…regularized.

For a Girl Who Doesn’t Like Grammar:
In his essay “The Weight of Glory” C.S. Lewis talks about the transformation of external discipline to intrinsic meaning saying that“…poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.”

It should go noted that the things “replaced” do not actually disappear. Grammar, law and obedience are still present, but their meaning has gone bone-deep.
Furthermore, Lewis talks about the person who aims to acquire a certain knowledge through discipline:

“His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural and proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it.”

The student, the soldier, the runner—they are working towards a reward that is not instantaneous and which they do not fully understand until its culmination. Discipline and passing pleasures are not much connected. Discipline and lasting ones are.

“…enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery,” he goes on to say. And“…the proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given but are the activity itself in consummation.”

He give the example of a school child learning Greek grammar (something I suppose few school children do these days. I certainly never did) and the enjoyment of its poetry being the proper reward for the tedious study that preceded it. Yet, he notes, the school-child could not have known how he might enjoy the poetry while he was yet immersed in the tedium. Had this theoretical school child demanded to know what value he would receive at the end of his endeavors, he would have received an explanation he either did not understand, or was disinclined to believe—because the daily study did not, to him, bear the marks of a pleasant, rewarding thing. It was a struggle, and its end was hazy.

In Language:
As I said, I have not studied Greek, but I have studied other languages and the reward of fluency is beyond concise explanation. Suffice it to say it opens up whole new worlds of political media, poetry, literature, culture, music, idiom, perspective and conversation. And it starts with the discipline of use, immersion and persistence.

I couldn't have fully known what it would mean when I was starting fresh with alphabets and vocabulary.

In Running:
Another discipline with which I have become familiar is that of running, and it being a raw physical example doesn’t exclude it from being just as relevant.

When I first-very-first started running I was resistant to the discipline of it. I balked at the mere idea of doing an exercise just for the sake of exercise, which is how I saw it. (I still have a slight aversion to treadmills for their going-nowhere-ness, even though I have used them when they were what was available.)

I remember the first time I ran a mile and a half. I remember how excited I was. I remember two miles. I also remember how long those two miles took me and it was laughable. There was a lot of on-off start-stop running over the years, but eventually a habit formed out of sheer mercenary necessity: I was joining the Marine Corps and I had to be able to run 3 miles in a certain time. And I didn’t want to just pass the test. I wanted to ACE it.

Only now do I know that the rewards of that discipline far outweighed my perception of them. I thought “I’ll have an impressive run time, and be fit.” That happened. But more than that. I found the joy in running. The thrill of a good clip, or a wild trail, or of jumping over things (like snakes). The joy of sunsets and sunrises seen from a dozen different angles. The adventure of happening upon new roads, paths, nooks and crannies. The confidence of increased endurance and knowing how this could be used not only on my behalf, but on behalf of others.

This is one example of a discipline that did far more than present me with its known end of ‘fitness’ and a high-scoring run-time.

In Work:
I suppose it goes without saying that military-types are forced to make an intimate acquaintance with discipline of all kinds. Drilling is a quintessential example of this. In physical training. Martial Arts. Or in rifle drill and marching.

One movement. Conducted over and over. And over. ‘Till you bleed. ‘Till your bruised. ‘Till you want to fall over.

The end result? An instinct of the muscles so inherent that your mind need not translate for your body in order for it to know what to do. This is an example of an utterly pragmatic discipline that can also be used in mercenary fashion. You may not realize its worth until the day that your body reacts precisely as it must to the right prompt without it having ever occurred to your mind. Obviously this can be misused as well. Pavlovian responses can easily be good or bad, but in military environments they are about creating survival/offensive/defensive instincts that the average individual may not inherently possess.

This is where the word “discipline” acquires some of its negative connotations. People see uniforms; uniforms connote uniformity; uniformity makes people think of automatons. I—having been in the military—understand but disagree. We forget that we are GLAD when we have created instinctive physical reactions for ourselves when—say—we’re in the car. We turn on the blinker without thinking, check the mirrors, and our foot switches between brake, gas (and/or clutch) without our mind having to get involved. If we had to think too hard about it, this would be a problem. Like I said: this visceral sort of discipline can be well or badly used.

In Everything, Really
So there are disciplines that produce joy in their own right—true, deep joy—and there are other disciplines that have less monumental, less bone-deep rewards but which are satisfying nonetheless: I have been working on simple disciplines which make life smoother…like putting things away in a drawer and a closet when I am done with them. It’s so basic, but I have a tendency not to do it. I’m practicing. The thing is, I find it unlikely that the heights of my joy in life will come from putting a shirt away in the closet. But you know what? There is a tiny sigh of contentment when I think of the tedious work I’m saving myself from so that I have time to do other things…like run, or write this blog post.

So no, you may not necessarily have giddy highs when you scrub down the bathroom on that day that you have disciplined yourself to always scrub it down. But nor will you feel overwhelmed. And besides, a job well and consistently done does make me smile. Sometimes it actually does make me feel a little giddy. Without the discipline it might just make me feel exhausted instead of satisfied.

Take it from someone who had to be disciplined at a higher rate that most of her siblings because she was such a hellion—from someone who dreaded growing up because she thought it would not consist of sufficient tree-climbing and irresponsible running-about—from someone who prefers oblique paths to properly angled ones—from someone who is a fence-hopper and a roof-climber—from someone who finds grammar a scary and unknowable monster of a thing…I like real, true discipline. And boy do I ever need it. Disciple comes from that word. And discipleship.

For some people who have better natural inclinations than I, the verse “He will die for lack of discipline…” in Proverbs may seem extreme. But maybe not. Even the highest quality material still needs to be tempered, honed. It still needs the dross burned off.