Youthful narcissism

“It’s not all about you.”

zits004(Many thanks to those geniuses of the adolescent mind, Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, creators of Zits.)

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…Or is it? Psychologists, neurologists, and even philosophers seem to agree that human beings need to develop through the stage of self-centeredness in order to attain a mature sense of self-in-the-world. We do not recognize the world at large without finding a way to validate or maintain the self or consciousness that we are given.

One method of defining who that self is, what selfhood entails, is through dissent. The two-year-old who shouts “No!” establishes the foundation for the later process of expressing selfhood through making oneself distinct from others–sometimes through disagreement. As I guide my latest freshman class through the understanding of argument as reasoned discourse in an academic environment, one of my purposes is to encourage them to feel free to disagree as long as they can support their reasons for doing so. To accomplish that task, sometimes they have to learn how to “step back” from themselves a bit (see my last post).

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Yeats: “We make of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”

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I am aware that most of my students’ dissenting opinions will occur outside of the academic environment, i.e., in “real life.” Real life could benefit from a little more reasoned discussion and fewer overheated, intuition-based gut reactions and ad hoc attacks. Often what people (and students) need is what we desperately try to avoid: difficulties, complexities, challenges. Okay, I’m whistling into the wind…still, I’ve written about the topic briefly here.

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…and maybe the narcissistic 18-year-olds who come to college subconsciously thinking “it’s all about me” are actually reasonable human beings whose developing conscious awareness of self is ready, (almost), to feel the push-back of the world against the whining ego and recognize that respect and understanding require wide perspectives and differing methods of operating in the world. Maybe they are ready to move beyond mere opinion and into the realm of thinking about thinking, analysis, generosity, compassion…and facts, if we can discern what’s factual.

Maybe they are ready to begin the quarrel with themselves.

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Introspection & narcissism

In August 2014, New York Times writer David Brooks wrote about the differences, if any, between narcissism and introspection. His opinion column explored whether self-questioning and rumination might lead to self-centeredness rather than self-discovery; he begins the column with the concept of the personal journal or diary and whether that practice has value or not. (Certainly there are other methods of introspection, but for a literate society it is writing that first comes to mind).

Citing research from several psychological studies, Brooks states:

We are better self-perceivers if we can create distance and see the general contours of our emergent system selves — rather than trying to unpack constituent parts.

Interestingly, this suggestion more or less jibes with the multiple-levels-of-self version of consciousness as theorized by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett.

Writing as a means to recover from trauma or to “make sense of the world” seems most effective when the writer puts some reflective distance between experience and feeling (see The Writing Cure), although James Pennebaker’s research argues that even immediate expressive writing can help psyches and bodies to heal. Brooks outlines three ways, different from the microscopic introspection of the narcissistic diary-entry, that self-reflection can develop into something other than self-absorption.

One of them is narrative, which makes perfect sense to me–human beings are story-makers. In fact, all three approaches to introspection Brooks mentions find expression in poetry, storytelling, fiction-writing, creative nonfiction, and in good journalism.

Creating our narratives from a reflective “step away” from intense analysis helps human beings to navigate the inner and the outer worlds.

I’m seeing this approach in action with my college freshmen this semester. More on that in a later post.

Dave’s night out

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Sunday, September 14, 2014
7:00 p.m. ~$10.50

Godfrey Daniels listening room
4th St. Bethlehem PA

Ann E. Michael with Danielle Notaro and musician/host Dave Fry
featured at Dave’s Night Out

“Tonight’s Dave’s Night Out explores the artistry of regional poets Ann E. Michael and Danielle Notaro. Both are established and published poets in our community. Tonight, we will explore the art of writing for a living, the world of creating and publishing verse in this modern world, idle chatter about the artist’s life and stimulating conversation with the audience. A very unique evening in the arts.”~~

Giving in secret

“All the poems I have written were written for love.” ~ W.H. Auden

But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret…” Matthew 6:3-4

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Acts of compassion, great or small, are good for us. I state this not because of ancient Greek philosophers’ concepts about the Good, nor out of any religious dogma, but because psycho-neurological studies almost definitively align with this aspect of received wisdom. Hanson writes, “Compassion draws on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula,” which help us observe (or “read”) the reactions of others, an action critical to the survival of a social species. It turns out that when we pay attention to others, we are more likely to help them; that’s how the average human brain works.

Unfortunately, human beings often stop paying attention once we think we have ascertained another person’s intentions and have passed an internal judgment upon them. We tend not to attend past that initial observation. Thus, we may miss actual intentions. Usually this miscommunication of intent leads to problems, but not always. Some people desire to hide their deeper intentions, and not because those intentions are “evil” or even merely narcissistic.

Viz: W.H. Auden, as portrayed in this quietly-written, reflective essay by Edward Mendelson in The New York Review of Books (March 2014). Mendelson begins:

W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.

Auden was a Christian who had an often challenging relationship with his religion (being homosexual did not help with the dogmatic wrestling match). In this essay, Mendelson says that “Auden had many motives for portraying himself as rigid or uncaring when he was making unobtrusive gifts of time, money, and sympathy. In part he was reacting against his own early fame as the literary hero of the English left.” The author also looks at Auden’s era: Fascists, Nazis, dictators, and how they managed to sway so many potentially and otherwise “good folks” to bad causes, the use of “good/evil” in the literature and intellectualism of those times and the writers who used celebrity to lionize their causes–a posture Auden found distasteful.

Yet Auden was willing to make himself distasteful, socially awkward, arrogant, in the service of a hidden compassion. There’s no good word for this in English. “Modesty” does not suffice. “Humility” does not quite hit the mark, either.

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It seems to me that Auden, and others like him (there are others, many undiscovered), chose to follow Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:3.

A contemporary person may ask why all the modesty. After all–a good deed is a good deed. Does keeping it “hidden” increase the inherent goodness? Are anonymous philanthropists somehow more authentic to the concept of compassionate giving than those who allow their names to grace buildings and organizations? Those people who benefit by good works and kind acts–surely they feel a desire to thank whoever is responsible, so why disguise the giver?

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One possible answer: compassion does not need a specific object, though that is generally how we learn compassion in the first place.

The gratitude a human being feels when he or she is the receiver of a kind, anonymous act has no immediate object. We do not know whom to thank. Although the receiver’s response may initially be one of suspicion, in most cases the sense of gratitude will be directed more widely into society; the receiver of a kindness is more likely to be kind to others, to perceive others as potentially benefactors or at least to view other people with less suspicion and envy–because the secret donor is somewhere among all of us.

The secret gift works to spread compassion to all sentient beings.

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It turns out that, as far as the brain is concerned, doing good sets up a kind of feedback loop. Doing good for others improves how good we feel in general. Not how good we feel about ourselves in an egotistical way but how good we feel mentally, emotionally, and even physically.

Love is all you need

Love is all you need

We not only write for love. We live for love.

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Books, burning

“Every burned book or house enlightens the world; every suppressed or expunged word reverberates through the earth from side to side.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation”

I have taken this quote out of context–Emerson wrote this sentence as part of his reflection on compensation: he was questioning the received doctrine of his era that evil-doers flourish on earth and the just do not, therefore Heaven is God’s compensation for the trials of being a Good human being. Emerson did not accept this doctrine out of hand and theorized that, through just laws, people could make compensatory actions operable on the earth. He recognized, too, that sometimes evil people fail to thrive and compassionate, just people manage quite well. The received wisdom was merely received, not wise. Nonetheless, I find “Compensation” essentially dualist. And it is, truly, a sermon.

In the paragraph that contains the above words, Emerson suggests that there is always compensation of some kind for any act, for good or ill, that suppression cannot be maintained–the volcano will surge eventually–that the martyr never dies in vain because from his or her action will arise, in time and through the flaws and the perfections of Nature, some form of (often surprising) compensation. Hmm. Sounds a bit similar to Karma.

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And I am thinking, again, of books and what they offer. My students tend to consider books as information solely (I do not generally teach the kind of young person who reads novels or philosophy). This is, we have been reminded continually, the Information Age–so that approach to books seems well-founded. Then there are our other means of information-gathering, largely through technological devices. These phones and various screens are mighty distracting and designed to be so. Yes, Fahrenheit 451 was prescient. Does the book-burning in that novel begin a revolution? Not in the predicted ways.

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More prescient writing (found, by the way, in books): Neil Postman, back in 1985, commenting on the prescience of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World in Postman’s must-read cultural criticism, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In his foreword, Postman writes

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

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Is there compensation for being drowned in a sea of irrelevance? What might that look like?

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Perhaps these are a few of the reasons I often need to turn from information to poetry.burning

 

Poetry Readings~September

Please check out my Events Page here, especially if you are not too far from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley or Berks County. I will be participating in two quite different poetry events during the second week of September.

The first event presents the culmination of a years-long project of collaboration between educators/writers/photographers Hernán Pereira, Pamela Daza, and Lucia Ramos in Iquique, Chile and Dr. Karen Jogan of Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. There will be a gallery of photographs in the library at Albright and a celebration of the book’s publication the evening of September 11. Arturo Prat University and Albright College have been able to sponsor this project through a competitive teaching innovation project. The book’s title: So Far..So Close/Portada y Contraportada: Contemporary Writers of Tarapaca & Pennsylvania.

The anthology presents poets from both Chile’s Atacama Desert region (Tarapaca) and Pennsylvania’s eastern/northeastern counties. Interviews with the poets provide insightful mini-biographies and are accompanied by wonderful photographs. Here’s mine:

photo by H. Periera

photo by H. Periera

I have previewed the book, through the magic of .pdf files, and found it fascinating to read about the backgrounds of these writers, their writing processes, their creative influences.

The Pennsylvania writers include some colleagues I have known for awhile, yet the editors’/authors’ choice of inquiries and the settings of the photographs evoke aspects of these writers that inform and delight. It should be an interesting evening, and the public is invited.

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The second event takes place in Bethlehem, PA at Godfrey Daniels–a listening room/coffeehouse in the American Folk tradition. Dave Fry, folk troubadour extraordinaire, hosts a monthly “Dave’s Night Out” concert there at 7 pm on Sundays. Most of the time these events feature singers and musicians; but Dave branches out to storytellers and, on Sunday the 14th, to poets Daniel Notaro (author of Limn the Mask) and me.

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We’ll be reading from our work and conversing with one another, with Dave, and with the audience. $10.50 at the door.

 

Dissent, controversy, & opinion

It may be obvious that, in this blog, the writer tends to shy away from highly controversial contemporary issues–with the possible exception of my occasional strong views on education–even though philosophical and critical arguments are part of my job and integral to my life interests. One possible explanation is that I am, as Charles Schultz memorably popularized, “wishy-washy.” (This strip is from 1952, © Charles Schultz):

Peanuts

And a little destructive criticism from 1959….

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Indeed, my students sometimes get annoyed with me because I do not take sides during class discussions of controversial topics. “Don’t you have an opinion?” they ask.

Why, yes, I do. It is not my job to share my opinions with students, however, as much as it is my job to make them think more than once about their own opinions. It is also my job to help them navigate the complexities of critical thought, weighing “both sides” (and pointing out that many controversies have many more than two sides), and learning that perspective can deepen understanding and sometimes even alter opinions. This approach is far from wishy-washy; it is courageous. It can be risky to analyze rationales and points of view that differ from your own, and risk takes courage.

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A good book that explores the courage it takes to analyze and, often, to dissent from the normative view is Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent. Sunstein argues that truly free societies need to permit dissenters room for expression and criticism; he provides evidence that without dissent, societies fail to thrive through change. Because growth is a change process, societies that resist change too rigidly fall apart.

This year, my class and I will be exploring Sunstein’s text in an effort to recognize the kind of thinking and evidence needed before one writes an essay. I hope they apply these ideas in their freshman Philosophy course.

I hope they apply these ideas in my course, for starters…

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Argument has a negative connotation in American English, so many critics substitute the word discourse. I have no problem with such a substitution: the term discourse seems to connote politeness and respect, behaviors necessary for useful dissent and analysis of alternative perspectives. The philosophical argument, whether taking place in philosophy class, conference hall, or koan, operates most productively and insightfully when predicated upon mutual respect for differences.

Dissent as discourse may not be the most natural behavior for human beings, but it is something we can demonstrate and coach in the university classroom.

With any luck, both students and teachers may be able to apply the techniques to other areas of our lives. Along that vein, here’s an easy-to-interpret Buddhist explanation from New Lotus on how to approach argument in the Buddhist way.

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