Friday, September 08, 2006

balance and turmoil

[Author’s note: this took a long time to write. It’s not my longest entry so far, but some of the events it refers to prevented its composition from coming to completion in a timely manner. The result, I fear, is that it may seem disjoint at points. I hope the general argument and mood remain clear.]

Summer is movement. Summer is change. All of life is, really, but since I belong to an academic community, I sense that the activity of most of the year occurs in a relatively restricted area, while summer brings unfettered agitation.

Here’s a small part of what I did this summer: I watched and helped many of my best friends move away from Ithaca more or less permanently. I attended two weddings (I know that’s very much on the low numeric end for many people, but weddings generally come few and far between for me, especially since many of my high school and college friends married while I was in Africa). Among my friends who stayed, several of them needed help moving from one home to another. I myself had to prepare to leave for a shorter time. I fell in love. I traveled several thousand miles to three very different parts of the continent. It seems like everything was either going into boxes (in a physical sense, for packing) or coming out of boxes (in a metaphorical sense—explosive life bursting forth, expanding beyond what had been conceived possible, enveloping new worlds and enchanting one in new directions).

I figure the last thing the blog world needs is a maudlin mediation on goodbyes, so I’m writing about movement—both its continuation and its cessation. The last few weeks have been marked by a great deal of movement; although that statement is true physically, I’ve experienced it primarily internally. An odd occurence for me. I once saw part of a personality profile for my dad, which stated something like “Jerry does not mind change so much as being changed.” In many ways, that description has applied to me, also, for many years. I’ve lived in three states and on two continents (about to add a third continent to the list). I’ve been student and teacher, worked at jobs from a box office to a lecture hall, and I’m still not sure what I want to devote my life to doing. Yet through all the varied milieux in which I’ve lived and worked, I’ve essentially handled things the same way. To a large extent, I described how I handle situations in my first essay on time. And what I wrote there is that my philosophy of handling life asserts an essential immutability about the state of things. My life has been safe despite all the apparently significant changes I’ve made and projects I’ve tackled. I have made good choices, been prudent even in situations some might find risky. I know how to find balance in life.

In complete contrast to that evenly measured way of living, I feel like my life has been overturned in the past months. Events have happened so quickly that I’ve barely had time to breathe in between, much less weigh a response. I’m being a bit vague, but those who know me can divine some of what I’m talking about. It’s exhilarating, to say the least. I’m enjoying it.

Here’s the thing, though: life can’t be spent careening from one event to another. I’ve had friends telling me for years that I need to slow down. And I have learned that important point, to an extent. I reach out to both the intensely emotional and the soothingly calm. You have to look at the stars. You have to sit at a coffee shop and read. You have to sprawl out with friends and chat for a few hours. You have to find a quiet way to meditate; for me, it’s often sealing myself off for an hour to listen to Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3.

(Fortunately, at least for this discussion, stargazing has been a relaxing activity for me of late. Times have been when the depths of space overwhelmed me with their gaze. The first time I made Hannah lie back and look at the stars, I think she found the immensity a bit terrifying, as well. But now she tells me that they help her find peace and calm.)

Moderation and mediation—that is, balance—are essential to productivity. That’s sort of what I thought this entry would be about when I started it. One functions best when one is even-keeled. It’s okay to dive into spontaneity and craziness once in a while; in fact, it’s even advisable to do so, so that one doesn’t become wooden and anesthetized in one’s approach to life. But even the times of cool-headedness and the times of brashness must be held in balance with each other (not necessarily in terms of duration, but in terms of the effect they have to encourage growth in one’s psyche).

I’m struggling with whether that last statement is wisdom or timidity. No one could ever describe me as an extremist, but I’m beginning to think a position originating from calm is less vibrant than one originating from fervor. It’s time to pull in some words of the experts—a selection of observations from the smattering of philosophers I’ve read.

Aristotle spoke on moderation from an ethical perspective. For a long time I would have agreed with him. As recorded in the Nicomachean Ethics, he comes off as somewhat long-winded on the subject, so I’ll sum up rather than quote him at length. The key phrase is “virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate.” The idea here is that excess and defect are the potential flaws in one’s action (he categorizes moral behavior as an art, and first notes that art in general can suffer from excess and defect), and so one must determine what these extremes are and aim in between them. For example, courage is the intermediate virtue between cowardice and bravado. To further support his argument, he observes that “men are good in but one way, but bad in many.” The image is of a target with virtue at the center and a surfeit of vices on the edges. To stray from a balanced, moderated path is to fall into error.

22 centuries later, Henrik Ibsen disagreed with this perspective on ethics. Not by mentioning Aristotle directly; I’m not sure the passage I just described is what he had in mind. In the play An Enemy of the People (En folkefiende), the character Aslaksen is a paragon of prudence and restraint, and in Ibsen’s presentation this makes him a mediocrity and a turncoat. Dr. Thomas Stockmann is seeking to warn his town of the impending health dangers from the public baths. Aslaksen is initially supportive, but he makes clear under what constraints he believes they should operate:
Aslaksen. We shall proceed with the greatest moderation, Doctor. Moderation is always my aim; it is the greatest virtue in a citizen—at least, I think so.
As soon as it becomes clear that repairing the baths will demand a large amount of financial support from the citizens of the town, Aslaksen complains to Dr. Stockmann that he has misrepresented the situation. (Aslaksen expected the situation to resolve itself sans sacrifice.) When Dr. Stockmann insists the problem cannot be ignored, he is increasingly ostracized by the community, led by Aslaksen, at the prodding of Dr. Stockmann’s brother Peter, the mayor and chairman of the Baths Committee.
Aslaksen. By the votes of everyone here except a tipsy man, this meeting of citizens declares Dr. Thomas Stockmann to be an enemy of the people. (Shouts and applause.) Three cheers for our ancient and honourable citizen community! (Renewed applause.) Three cheers for our able and energetic Mayor, who has so loyally suppressed the promptings of family feeling!
Aslaksen is at least partially a straw man. He speaks of “moderation” when he means preservation of the status quo and avoidance of anything which costs him (or the people he represents) anything. He is, in fact, extreme in his caution, not moderate at all. I think Ibsen’s point in creating him is to say that when one is guided by anything other than devotion to truth, one will become devoted to that ideal and slavishly follow it to the detriment of truth.

Although Ibsen was a playwright rather than a philosopher, it seems likely he was influenced by Kierkegaard. For Kierkegaard, the truth always lies in the individual, never in the masses. Very nearly the last line in An Enemy of the People is spoken by the doctor in defiance of the town’s abuses on him:
Dr. Stockmann.I have made a great discovery. … It is this, let me tell you—that the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.
For Kierkegaard, the self is developed by sharpening and intensifying. The opening of The Sickness Unto Death defines the self as a being bare before God, reaching towards and uniting the eternal and the temporal. It is a great and terrible way to conceive of one’s self. It also heightens the sensation that we are responsible for what we do and experience in this life; we cannot shuffle off to another, or to a collective (as Aslaksen does), the task of finding our fulfillment.

I've already described in a previous essay the “knight of faith” from Fear and Trembling; I will return to the knight throughout my life. This is not a man of moderation. He has cast himself, at least, fully upon God’s grace. As Kierkegaard describes him, one would think he has taken the impossible step of casting all of existence upon that grace. He is larger than himself, even though he may have a bourgeois appearance. He has emptied himself, and the glorious thing is that he is filled because he trusts in God. No self-restraint can bring about that kind of fulfillment.

I use these three authors to show something of the development I’m seeing in myself. From a careful observer to a moderate risk-taker, I am reaching towards the courage to plunge fully into life. I am grateful for my past of mediation; I have been trying to relate to others’ perspectives my whole life, and I think that has equipped me well to counsel and dialogue. But there is fiery passion in me that is only beginning to wake, and I feel the time has come to seek that out and find what I am to do in this world.

Last spring, I read Secrets of the Heart, a collection of short poems and narrative works by Kahlil Gibran. The opening story, “The Tempest”, tells of a man who seeks out a hermit to understand why he has left human society. The hermit tells him he has not found human society, as it stands, to be capable of providing real sustenance to the spirit. He left to find what is truly important in the universe. I used a passage from this story as my signature quote for a while:
Among all vanities of life, there is only one thing that the spirit loves and craves... It is an awakening within the spirit; he who knows it, is unable to reveal it by words; and he who knows it not, will never think upon the compelling and beautiful mystery of existence.


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