On Bad Memories And Moving On

A few weeks ago, while stumbling around on Facebook, I found an old ‘acquaintance’ of mine: a man who, over thirty years ago, went to the same boarding school as I did. I poked around further; his page was not guarded by his privacy settings from snoops like me. On it, I found a group photograph taken in my boarding school days: a dozen or so familiar faces stared back at me. I hadn’t seen them in thirty-five years. I poked a bit further, as I clicked on their tagged faces in the photographs, and visited their friends’ lists. On one of them, I found a Facebook profile of a ‘senior,’ someone who used to be a member of the class that had supplied the prefects for my last year in boarding school. (I left my boarding school after the tenth grade, after two short years there; this gentleman was the member of the graduating class that year.) On his page, I found photographs of a class reunion, conducted on the campus of my old boarding school. There they were, the members of that graduating class, the ‘Sixth Form,’ ex-prefects included, lounging about in suits and ties,  all of them grey-haired, some pot-bellied, reenacting their glory days by posing in front of various school locations, swapping tall tales about the good ‘ol days.

I stared and stared. Here they were, the officially sanctioned bullies of the senior class in school, the ones given license to enforce the school’s draconian disciplinary code in their own particular style: they could make you run punishment drills, the dreaded ‘PD’s, for a wide-ranging list of offenses; they could hit you with cricket bats or hockey sticks, or just slap you hard across the face if you were deemed insolent; they could tell you to go get your trouser pockets stitched up by the school tailor if you were caught walking around with both hands in your pockets; and on and on it went. They could, and they did. Power of the absolute varietal was granted them, and they exercised it; here, there was no shyness to be found. And it corrupted them, if their interactions with those below them, their subjects, the ones who dreamed of becoming abusers themselves when their turn came, was any indication.

I was tempted to write, as a lurker, in the comments space, “Did you guys reminiscence about the time when you were bullies and beat up those younger and weaker than you?” But I didn’t. They’d moved on; they had to. My memories remained; they had been stirred up by the photographs I had just viewed, and I’d already found other ways to integrate them into my life. (Including writing a book, in progress, about my boarding school days.) The academic philosopher in me also said that these were not the same persons I knew; they had changed, they wouldn’t know what to make of my gate-crashing remark.

I clicked out, and moved on. And wrote here instead.

Perfect Strangers: Seeing And Hearing Ourselves

Here is a familiar phenomenon: we hear an audio recording of ourselves and are surprised and perplexed to find out we are listening to a stranger; we are used to hearing our voices from the ‘inside’; but when we hear a recording, we do so from the ‘outside.’ The timbre and tone of our voice is unfamiliar; we suddenly realize that the impact we imagine our words to have, the physical presence we think we command with our pronouncements, differs from that which we imagined it to be. Despite understanding the physics of this acoustic phenomena, it retains some of its mystery, continuing to imbue our daily conversations with an air of strangeness. A related phenomenon is finding out that you have an ‘accent’; soon after I arrived in the US some thirty years ago, I was informed of this fact, and it surprised me to no end. Where was it? I couldn’t hear it; I didn’t know what it was, even though I knew Americans spoke English in a manner quite distinct from mine.

But it is not just in the aural dimension that this perplexity arises: sometimes we observe a video recording of ourselves and find that we are strangers at home again. Our body language seems awkward, not as smooth as we hoped it be; our gestures not as practiced; our facial expressions seem to convey too much, too little; the emotions that we thought we were conveying are not the ones that are seemingly being transmitted by our bodies. As a teacher, used to ‘performing’ for ‘audiences’ of students, I am often disconcerted by my awareness of this gap in perceptions; I have never seen a video of myself teaching, though I have one of a conference presentation I made a few years ago; the viewing experience was, to put it mildly, jarring. I have never been able to view that twenty-minute video in its entirety; I switch it off after a few minutes, unable to reconcile myself to the presence of that stranger up on stage, pacing back and forth, his hands sometimes in his pocket, sometimes adjusting his eyeglasses, sometimes pointing at the projection screen.

We are used to being ‘misperceived’ because of language, of course; we write letters and essays and find ourselves unable to convey in untangled form the straight lines of the emotions and thoughts we entertain; we complain, voluminously, of how language renders us inarticulate; we seek refuge in terms like ‘ineffable’; some even invoke Nietzsche and say ‘whatever we have words for is already dead in our hearts; and so on. But we had imagined that there was at least one dimension in which we would be seen and heard clearly; and the audio and video recording tells us that even that comfort is denied us.

There is the ‘outside me,’ the one the world sees and hears, and there is the ‘inside me.’ We imagine ourselves to be physically ‘transparent,’ clearly visible to all, but we seem to always don a mask, one we cannot remove. We realize that our selves are personas, masks we use to navigate our way through this world, but we had imagined that was because we were selective in what we let ‘out’; but even that reminds us of the gap between what we sense from the ‘inside’ and what the world views from the ‘outside.’ Strangers in a strange land, indeed.

Chaim Potok’s ‘The Chosen’: Talking About Religion, Identity, And Culture In A Philosophy Classroom

Last week, the students in this semester’s edition of my Philosophical Issues in Literature class began reading and discussing Chaim Potok‘s The Chosen. (We have just concluded our discussions of Chapters 1-5 i.e., Book One, which details the initial encounters between Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, the book’s central protagonists.) I had not read the novel before the semester began, and had placed it on this semester’s reading list–the organizing theme is ‘the religious novel and its intersections with identity and culture’–on the recommendations of some friends who had. Thus far, this has been an exceedingly good move; I can wholeheartedly recommend the book to any other philosophers looking to place fiction on their reading lists.

This is because, as might be suspected, the book provides ample material to spark philosophical discussion in the classroom–Potok was a philosopher by training, and it shows. I had not looked at his biography too closely before the semester began, but once I began reading the book, it was blindingly obvious to me that the author had either studied philosophy extensively or was an academic himself. (The central give-away for me was the mentioning of Russell and Whitehead‘s Principia Mathematica by Danny Saunders as he describes his intellectual interests and career plans to Reuven.) Literary critics might complain about the heavy-handedness of the symbolism employed in these preliminary chapters but philosophy teachers will not complain about the fairly explicit invitation to delve into the questions of how religious faith and practice inform our sense of self, what their limits are, and how intra-group differences can be more sharply drawn than even inter-group ones. Many of my students come from backgrounds where religion has formed an integral part of their upbringing; some have attended Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish parochial schools so they can relate quite easily to the yeshiva-educated central characters of The Chosen. (It does not hurt that the novel is set in Brooklyn itself.). These students have a diverse set of reactions to the influence of their parochial education on their identities; their discussion of the themes The Chosen focuses on lets them draw upon their personal experiences in their reactions to it.

The selection of The Chosen for a philosophy class also makes an acute topical sense in these times, for the opening chapters permit an examination of the peculiar position of a minority culture–one made up of refugees and their descendants–surrounded by a dominant one, one to which it feels it must prove itself in times of war and greater patriotism, even if at the cost of having to make adjustments to its dominant sense of priorities and norms. The use of a baseball game, the playing of which takes up the entire first chapter, allowed for a discussion of the intersections of nationalism and sport too–how and why does the sport field function as a proving ground for ideological claims?

I’ve often written on this blog on how fiction helps my teaching of philosophy; the opening weeks of this semester have offered a gratifying confirmation of that claim.

On The Dissolution Of A Personal Boundary

One of my favorite pastimes when visiting my in-laws in Ohio is to borrow one of the family cars and head to the local cinema to catch a matinée show; it’s how I catch up on the big-screen action I miss out on here in the Big Apple. The tickets are cheaper; the audiences are quieter; and there are enthusiastic babysitters to be called upon. Thanks to these various facilitations, a couple of winters ago, I was able to view Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in its appropriate environment (i.e., not at home on a much smaller screen.)

I returned home just a tad deflated. Interstellar had been a dud: overly portentous, tedious at times, and much too enamored of its special effects. That was bad enough, but I had also noticed something peculiar about my viewing experience. A crucial component of my regular movie-watching at home had not been present: my regular partner in those adventures, my wife. I realized that built into my watching of a movie at home was her presence: when watching a scene on the screen, part of my reaction to it was caught up inextricably in a conscious and subconscious sensing of hers, whether horror, amusement, incredulity, and of course, sometimes, tears. (Sometimes my wife’s reactions are audible ones; sometimes, even as my eyes are exclusively trained on the screen, I find my thoughts turn to speculation about how she is responding to the same scene.)

That afternoon, as I had watched Interstellar alone, I found that my affective response to its offerings was curiously denuded; I felt as if they were lacking that part which was a sympathetic interaction with what would have been my wife’s responses to the movie. Somehow, over the years that my wife and I had been watching movies together, my responses to the movie-watching experience had started to include an interplay with hers. To watch a movie without my wife present was now to experience a peculiar sort of incompleteness in it. (There is also the small matter of how, once the movie was over, I was not able to engage in any kind of discussion with her about our respective takes on it.)

Such ‘boundary melting’ can be, depending on your perspective, frightening or exhilarating. Therapists ask us to be cognizant of the limits of our selves, to not let ourselves become subsumed in those of others; we worry incessantly about our ‘personal spaces;’ and of course, many couples are asked to ‘de-couple’ by counselors in an effort to get their personal relationships back on track. And yet, as the glories of truly rewarding sexual encounters remind us, the dissolution of our selves’ boundaries can be one of those rare moments during which non-mystics can have a quasi-religious experience.

A crucial aspect of the movie-watching experience at home was communication of a very particular kind, one that enriched my bare interaction with the director’s offering. That should be unsurprising, given that what we call our self arises precisely from a kind of inner communication within us.

‘But I Am From Brooklyn’

A few days ago, I reported–on Facebook, where else–a conversation with my daughter that went something like this:

Her: Papa, where’s India?
Me: It’s a country in Asia, sweetie, on the other side of the world.
Her: We can drive there?
Me: No, we have to fly. I was born there, you know. I’m from India.
Her: But I’m from Brooklyn.

Predictably, this evoked amused and approving reactions from my friends: my daughter’s precocity of expression stood revealed. (The slight sass in her response had something to do with it, I’m sure.) My daughter’s “but,” expressed with some incredulity, is the kicker. If I am ‘from India,’ then shouldn’t she be ‘from’ there too? But she isn’t. At least one part of the supposed parental transmission of identity from me to her that was supposed to take place hasn’t. She is brown, she looks like me, we are of the same nationality as far as travel documents go, but she is not ‘from’ where I am ‘from.’  She was born in Brooklyn, she lives here; she returns to Brooklyn when she travels; she is ‘from’ here.

This conversation reminded me of one I had with my brother regarding a pair of friends of his, the children of a philosophy professor who, after working at Michigan State University for several years, had returned to India to take up an academic position in New Delhi. One day, during dinner, my brother referred to them as ‘American.’ This caused me some bewilderment; the boys were clearly ‘Indian,’ for they looked like us. They did, however, speak English with an American accent, but that did not seem to change the fact that their names sounded very Indian, they lived in India, and their parents were Indian. Why were they American? My brother said it was because they had American passports; they were American citizens. But, I persisted, that just meant they used American passports to travel. They were still Indian, surely. My brother, with some brusqueness, terminated the conversation with a quick “No, they are American; that is their nationality.”

We were offering contesting visions of an aspect of personal identity. My brother took identity to be a matter of citizenship, and the passport you carried; I took it to be derived, through some organic, biological process, from one’s parents. You had an Indian name, you had Indian parents, you had Indian features; you were Indian.  My brother had noticed that his friends, though ‘Indian’ in those respects, spoke English differently; they spoke nostalgically of their lives in Michigan; they drank cold milk straight out of a bottle. (No one did that in India; you drank your milk heated over.)

My daughter will be seen as Indian by some, and American by yet others. She might come to see her identity as a curious amalgamation of the two; her name will remind her, often, that her father came ‘from’ elsewhere. Her negotiations between these two aspects of her identity might be tortuous or not. No matter; I hope to be able to observe, and if at possible, inform them as best as I can.

The Lost Art Of Navigation And The Making Of New Selves

Giving, and following, driving directions was an art. A cartographic communication, conveyed and conducted by spoken description, verbal transcription, and subsequent decipherment. You asked for a route to a destination, and your partner in navigation issued a list of waypoints, landmarks, and driving instructions; you wrote these down (or bravely, committed them to memory); then, as you drove, you compared those descriptions with actual, physical reality, checking to see if a useful correspondence obtained; then, ideally, you glided ‘home.’ A successful navigation was occasion for celebration by both direction-giver and direction-follower; hermeneutical encounters like theirs deserved no less; before, there was the unknown space, forbidding and inscrutable; afterwards, there was a destination, magically clarified, made visible, and arrived at.   There were evaluative scales here to be found: some were better at giving directions than others, their sequence of instructions clear and concise, explicit specifications expertly balanced by exclusion of superfluous, confusing detail; not all were equally proficient at following directions, some mental compasses were easily confused by turns and intersections, some drivers’ equanimity was easily disturbed by difficult traffic and a missed exit or two. (Reading and making maps, of course, has always been a honorable and valuable skill in our civilizations.)

Which reminds us that driving while trying to navigate was often stressful and sometimes even dangerous (sudden attempts to take an exit or avoid taking one cause crashes all the time.) The anxiety of the lost driver has a peculiar phenomenological quality all its own, enhanced in terrifying ways by the addition of bad neighborhoods, fractious family members, darkness, hostile drivers in traffic. And so, Global Positioning System (GPS) navigators–with their pinpoint, precise, routes colorfully, explicitly marked out–were always destined to find a grateful and receptive following. An interactive, dynamic, realistic, updated in real-time map is a Good Thing, even if the voices in which it issued its commands and directions were sometimes a little too brusque or persistent.

But as has been obvious for a long time now, once you start offloading and outsourcing your navigation skills, you give them away for good. Dependency on the GPS is almost instantaneous and complete; very soon, you cannot drive anywhere without one. (Indeed, many cannot walk without one either.) The deskilling in this domain has been, like many others in which automation has found a dominant role, quite spectacular. Obviously, I speak from personal experience; I was only too happy to rely on GPS navigators when I drive, and now do not trust myself to follow even elementary verbal or written driving directions. I miss some of my old skills navigating skills, but I do not miss, even for a second, the anxiety, frustration, irritation, and desperation of feeling lost . An older set of experiences, an older part of me, is gone, melded and merged with a program, a console, an algorithm; the blessing is, expectedly, a mixed one. Over the years, I expect this process will continue; bits of me will be offloaded into an increasingly technologized environment, and a newer self will emerge.

Notes On Meditation Practice – II

Meditation induces two interesting forms of self-consciousness that do not arise during the actual sitting itself. They are, rather, ways of regarding the practice of meditation as it meshes with the rest of the meditator’s life.

First, the meditator is self-consciously aware of the fact that he is one. The normal, ongoing processes of identity formation and maintenance now include the attribute, ascribed to oneself, “engages in a meditation practice.” This is not innocent; for better or worse, ‘meditation’ carries certain connotations with it. These include, at the least, dimly perceived and understood stereotypes about the kind of person who does meditate, and why they might do so; by becoming a meditator, some of those stereotypes become ways of regarding yourself.  For instance, shortly after I began my practice, I found myself kicking off what looked like turning into a heated argument. As I did so, I felt curiously abashed and undignified, and a thought, unbidden, came to me: this was not how those who engage in meditation practice are ‘supposed to behave.’ I was supposed to be one engaging in a practice that induced calm and dignity, but here I was, squabbling like a child. Overcome by a sudden awkwardness, I retreated from my previously grimly defended position and began winding down the argument. I wanted to retreat from this zone of my loss of composure. This has not always been the case; on many occasions, I have blundered straight into the heart of a meltdown, and emerged with very little of my former grace intact. But that new perspective on myself has not gone away. It remains, lurking on the edges of my consciousness of myself, reminding me I now engage in an activity supposed to be changing me and making me into a new person.

Second, meditation is self-indulgent and the meditator knows it. Forty minutes a day is ‘too much’ to spare; none of us, especially here in this city, have that time to spare. As such, the very act of sitting down and shutting out the world’s demands feels like a supremely, virtuously self-centered action. You deny the world its claims on you–even as you carry thoughts about it into your mind, and yet, for those twenty minutes, remove yourself from its embrace. The awareness of the sheer subversiveness of this act–in a world-context in which there is an unceasing demand for our time and attention–is a liberation. It brings with it a curious sensation of power; to step away from this world feels like an empowering act, an assumption of agency in a situation where we are used, all too often, to bemoan the loss of ours. This awareness too, becomes part of our identity; it becomes an attribute to ourselves; it changes who we think we are.

Aristotle said that we are what we repeatedly do. Sitting in meditation, with a regular practice, makes you a meditator; that change, by itself, without any other extravagant claims, is a significant one.

Note: The first post in this series is here.