from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Superficial notions of evolution 

It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.

The words above, from “Dry Salvages,” the 3rd of the “Four Quartets” of T. S. Eliot, seem appropriate to my current state of being. This is a personal reflection on the world as I experience it. Stop reading now if that doesn’t interest you.

“Superficial notions of evolution.” That phrase catches my attention as I reflect back upon the past week or so. But first let me offer some context for the reflection that will follow.

Today is the last of my 10 days of Spring break. The time has not been totally free from responsibilities. Far from it. Oh, to be sure, my responsibilities to my primary occupation as teacher have been minimal - a little planning, most of which I have deferred until today. And like many, it has been during the past few days I have finally addressed my taxes. I have completed a review for an educational professional journal. I have done many of the household tasks that are inevitably deferred during the business of my ordinary life. And I have even had the time to write online extensively, not only the diaries I have done for dailykos and elsewhere, but also in extensive participation in email lists that intersect my life.

But I have reserved time to just “be,” to really listen to music, to sit and allow our five cats to crawl over me. And I have read, books as well as news publications. And I have reflected.

This diary is titled with a phrase from the poetic selection. It was one of two possible choices, the other being :we had the experience but missed the meaning.” I see both expressions as key to the reflective process I have been undergoing, even if that process has not heretofore been demonstrated in what I have publicly written.

We are concerned about where we find ourselves and our nation. We look at the near past and there is much to concern us. We worry about what the future might hold. For many of us our concerns and worries serve as a motivation towards action, towards trying to rectify the wrongs we perceive. Such is the basis of hope, even of having any meaning at all in our lives. Perhaps we opine “if only” as if were we to change one - or even many - things in the past the place in which we would now be would somehow be more salutary and the future would be one in which we could have greater confidence. Perhaps it is my aging (I turn 61 in 38 days) but I wonder if we do not delude ourselves.

Eliot offers to us a caution, one perhaps derived from our human need to understand. If we look at events and cannot mentally organize them it confuses us, even scares us. If we cannot make “sense” we tend to withdraw to a point that what confronts does “make sense.”

As I reflect on our political discourse, most of it seems to presume simple cause and effect, linearity. It ignores much of what we have learned in recent years about the physical universe, at both the extreme micro- and macro- scales. The insights of systems theory, especially of the subset known as chaos theory, somehow rarely enter into how we address the world around us. Perhaps the idea of “superficial notions of evolution” might inform us that our thinking is too limited. When we are able to step back and use a different lens our understanding changes:
“And approach to the meaning restores the experience in a different form...”

I am arrogant. I presume that I can understand the world around me, that I can sufficiently make sense of it that I can thereby justify the actions upon which I embark. Absent this arrogance I might well be paralyzed by fear or at least by anomie, lacking any point of reference that could inform my potential actions.

I hope in my sixties I am also at least partially humbled by the experience of knowing that my arrogance is insufficient. I am regularly reminded of this in my role as teacher when my adolescent students ask questions or offer perspectives I have never considered - in some cases they are but 1/4 of my age, and yet are able to expand my perspectives in new ways.

I choose to participate in the civil society and political processes that shape much of the world around me. I bring to that participation a unique set of experiences - that might reinforce my arrogance, except that I know I have such uniqueness in common with every other person around me. My understanding of my own experience is imperfect, known only “through a glass darkly” because I was in it, absorbed in what I was doing at the time, and even subsequent reflection does not give me complete understanding. And if I cannot have complete understanding of my own experience, how can I hope to have even sufficient understanding of the larger world to justify taking action, of seeking to make judgments and decision not only for my own benefit as I understand it but also for that of the larger society around me?

“but the sudden illumination- “

There are moments for all of us when things make sense. We may not be able to succinctly place that sense, that understanding, into words that will connect with others. Although to us the clarity is absolute our understanding may remain illusive to others, even ineffable. When we encounter someone who is motivated by such a moment, we may recoil because we do not understand, or we may surrender any critical facilities and follow blindly, because we are drawn to someone who seems to possess a clarity we feel we ourselves lack.

I spoke of arrogance. It is arrogant of me to write this, or anything else directed to a general audience, many of whom I will never encounter in any other fashion. How dare I presume that my expression can in any way have any meaning for them, much less the meaning I think I intend? It is foolish to believe that anything coming from my absolutely unique set of experiences can haven meaning for others, particularly when my self-understanding is so imperfect, incomplete.

“And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.”

Here I am reminded of many things. What first comes to mind is Gandhi’s “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” If I want others open to different ways of seeing and experiencing, so must I be open. That requires me to take the risk of expression, a risk born perhaps of arrogance, with full awareness that I may find the response I receive shatters the understanding which undergirds that expression - because the interchange with others connects me with their absolutely unique experience, which of necessity confronts me with a challenge - to listen and thus expand my understanding, or to defensively reject and be trapped inside the limits of my own experience.

Perhaps it is because of music that I do not remain trapped. When I take the time to really LISTEN even to a piece I know well, I often find myself in a new place, or rather, experiencing a familiar place in a new fashion. Yes, the sounds will connect with places and times of my past, that is familiar. But I am not precisely the same as the last time I experienced that music, hence my reaction to it, my experience of it will be different, perhaps subtly, perhaps significantly.

What does all of this have to do with participation in our civic and political processes? Poetry has the ability to use language to take us beyond language. Since I began with poetry, let me conclude with poetry, with two more selections from “Dry Salvages” that - at least to me - speak to the question I have just asked. The first is from the very beginning, and the second from a bit further on in the first section of the poem.

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget.

And under the oppression of the silent fog
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
The bell.

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