Spaces

Ah, the traditional New Year’s blog post! 🙂 I have spent time away from the computer to tend to other things, among them, my own “space” for being less busy. Finding that space has not been easy, but it is the sort of discipline we human beings ought to practice in this Age of Information. Without a little inner space, it is far too easy to become anxious and overwhelmed.

So I think of Bachelard’s quiet exhortation to cultivate the creative or childhood space, which I contemplated in 2013 at about this time of year (in this post). And I think of Jon Kabat-Zinn and other writers–often classed as spiritual self-help authors but whose writings need not be considered spiritual at all (Kabat-Zinn, in particular, avoids using the term)–who remind us to be attentive, aware, mindful, compassionate even to ourselves, and willing to take ourselves away to inner stillness now and again.

I am particularly drawn to the notion that contemporary human beings can come to mindfulness through actions rather than through withdrawal from the body and the world. Really, we hardly have any other choice. Although I enjoy solitude more than most people do, I am ill-constituted to be a hermit or a renunciate. My temperament precludes noisy advocacy against injustice or for specific good causes; but I could certainly do more helping, more of the kind gesture, more listening, and more giving of the type that lets not my left hand know what my right hand doeth (Matt. 6:3).

There were difficulties this past year, and aggravations, and sufferings both personal and social. So be it; we can learn from failure and adversity. The best way to learn to problem-solve is by being faced with problems!

In his 2000 book about aging and dying, Ram Dass wrote: “My guru once said to a visitor complaining about her suffering, ‘I love suffering. It brings me so close to God.’” Well, that is another way of looking at things; and perspective matters. Creative thinking involves full analysis (even when the analysis seems intuitive, immediate) and often employs a total restructuring of the problem at hand–a widening or narrowing of scope, a different point of view, a new set of tools or skills for puzzle-solving, or quiet cogitation while the thinker digests the whole situation…which may be, for some folks, prayer.

Or poetry. When I am not writing poetry, I am always reading it. Other writers’ words open me to a sense of communal understanding, a sense that we are not alone, not a single one of us, who can hear or read or remember a poem or a word of love or praise. Even when those poems depict sorrow or suffering, for then we know we are not the only ones who feel troubled.

“And our problems will crumble apart, the soul
blow through like a wind, and here where we live
will all be clean again, with fresh bread on the table.”

Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets

Let the wind make space for fresh bread on your table in 2015 and always.

 

bread

bread

The empathy button

Human nature being what it is, and our feelings being so rooted in often physiologically-based emotions, negative responses tend to aggregate. The book I just finished reading–Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens–offers neurological, evolutionary, and psychological reasons for the human tendency toward negativity. Dozens of psychological studies concur that humans in general feel more “bad” feelings, and more frequently, than “good” feelings.

Facebook has a “like button,” as do many blog hosting pages (see below for mine!). This ingenious algorithmically-programmed information-gathering software–I hesitate to call it a device, but I guess it is–offers social media users a shortcut to social interaction, a way to show conformity and agreeability among friends, to support a statement or cause, or to indicate pleasure at seeing a photo, work of art, or shared piece of information.

Other sites, such as YouTube, have the additional option to “dislike;” and though I have not read any research supporting this inference, I would speculate that the option to dislike could lead to the generation of more negative feelings. Human nature being what it is.

If social media users cannot take the time to type their feeling-based responses and just need something to click, why not offer a “compassion button?”

I am not serious, of course. The compassion button is internal, and it isn’t an immediate gut reaction for most of us. It moves us from emotions such as anger or ideas like reason and duty to shared human experience. It takes us from simplistic liking or disliking to understanding. It takes more than a mouse click to get to compassion.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
― Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness

Continuing the discussion

The semester is almost over, and my students and I have spent a few weeks doing writing that relates to Cass Sunstein’s book Why Societies Need Dissent. As it turns out, this semester coincides with considerable current-event attention on protest, conformity, stereotyping, and other issues Sunstein explores in that text. Social media pushes the herd mentality, the “troll” mentality, and the ease of using shortcuts in thinking: justification through bad analogies, irrational responses, barely-considered ideas, culturally-entrenched concepts, knee-jerk reactions.

In other words, the gamut of human social psychology in 140 characters or thereabouts, with links, memes, and dudgeon.

A case in point that appeared on social media last week is a photo of a black man holding a sign that reads, “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he robs a store.”

That was a photoshopped “joke” in which someone altered the last line of the protester’s poster. The intent was to assert that Michael Brown had robbed a store before walking down the middle of a Ferguson street, and the intent was clearly meant to suggest that Brown deserved to be shot by police–or, at any rate, to suggest that he was not “innocent.” I agree with the poster even in its altered state because I propose that none of us are innocent, and that none of us deserves to be killed. A suspected robber should be tried by jury and should be considered innocent until proven guilty because that is the way US law reads.

I do not claim that “It’s that simple.” Indeed, the situation is far from simple, which is why it feels so fraught and inflames such exertions of logic, law, and character defamation, and so many conflicting opinions–not to mention Facebook “purges” and irate newspaper columns and public protests. These are reasons that discussion can be useful. We need to continue the discussion, even though it is awfully difficult to do so.

~

If only we could listen to other perspectives. If only we could engage in discussion. I listened to two of my male students talking about being stereotyped. One claimed he was seldom troubled by harassment and not really bothered when people tried to stereotype him. “You’re not black,” his friend responded, “You’re Latino, or whatever.” The first man held up his arm: “Hey, man, I’m darker than you. What makes you black and me not?”

“Neighborhood. Money.”

“Look at you, bro! You’re wearing $185 shoes and new jeans. Dollars to donuts your family has more money than mine.”

They continued in this fashion awhile, sometimes asking me what I thought. If it was history that made them different, couldn’t the black man put it behind him? And he didn’t even really know much about “his” history, it turns out. If it wasn’t skin color that made one man feel less sure of himself on the street, warier, even in a “good” neighborhood, to what could it be ascribed? Was it just a personal issue? A neurosis? Was the Latino man clueless, or oblivious? Or just lucky up to now? Are these issues of confidence, self-esteem, bravado, or fear? Social issues or private ones? All of the foregoing?

And how does all of this relate to how young people of any background, religion, or color comport themselves in the world, deal with society and its assumptions, codes, expectations?

~

I teach writing. My job consists in instructing students in the perhaps arcane code that clear, concise, informational, and persuasive writing requires if they are to succeed in writing for academia and, later, the world of business information. I tell them: “This is what you should expect others/authorities to expect of you. It’s your choice to follow the conventions or not to follow the conventions, but you need to at least know what the conventions are.”

Meanwhile, I hope they recognize that they should follow the conventions of the rule of law; and if they choose to oppose the law, they should do so with forethought and initially, at least, within the structure of the law. But bad laws do need to be changed, and bad protocols need to be changed, and unarmed people should not be killed for brooking authority; and stereotyping–a very natural and automatic human behavior though it is–should be consciously questioned, even though yes, that can make the discussion difficult.

Some endings

On a bleak wet day: thinking about revising my poems. The pile of “needs work” drafts appears daunting; I have put off for too long the required work of rethinking, the hard, conscientious effort–and unstructured time–necessary to the craft. I have always enjoyed the task of revision because it offers a chance to revisit the initial urges of the poem and to refine and reconsider my ideas, but lately my motivation has abandoned me.

I notice, above, all of the words that begin with “re.”

Latin: “in the matter of” or, (res), “thing.” But as a prefix: “again,” likewise, to indicate a backwards or repetitive motion.

revise   §    require      §      revisit     §    refine   §

    rethink    §     reconsider

Maybe I am eager to move forward instead of always going back. Nevertheless, one method of moving on is to complete what one is working on so as to create a sense of closure. Sometimes, all a poem needs is a better ending.

When I think of revision under that perspective, as a means of completing an unfinished job in order to prepare for the next, new task, the pile seems slightly less unmanageable.

And by way of re-envisioning the endings…Molly Spencer’s blog The Stanza offers a good list of closure options here.

sunset1~The ending of a day~