Friday, January 14, 2011

Humanity's Hidden Depths: A Hodge-Podge of Thoughts

In "Words that Shimmer," a recent interview broadcast on Krista Tippett's "Being," poet Elizabeth Alexander asked "Are we not of interest to each other?"

In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby describes the letters he receives from colleagues and co-workers after his stroke:
I carefully read each letter myself.  Some of them are serious in tone, discussing the meaning of life, invoking the supremacy of the soul, the mystery of every existence.  And by a curious reversal, the people who focus most closely on these fundamental questions tend to be people I had known only superficially.  Their small talk had masked hidden depths.  Had I been blind and deaf, or does it take the harsh light of disaster to show a person's true nature? (83)
In "A Tale of Two Moralities," economics professor and op-ed columnist Paul  Krugman argues that "the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in [the] very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice."

In "The Tree of Failure," columnist David Brooks argues that civility stems from "a sense of personal modesty and from the ensuing gratitude for the political process. Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need ... conversation."

According to Brooks, in American culture, "The roots of modesty have been carved away."

If we merge the respective insights of Brooks and Krugman, it would seem that we have a tendency to allow our moral imaginations to ratify our own points of view as fact while simultaneously losing a sense of the inherent limitations of our own individual perspectives.

We think we don't need civil conversation, because we think we already know what we think and what we know.

We refuse to interest others or to be interested ourselves in what we've already decided simply doesn't interest us.

Acquiring knowledge is always about excavating and exploring hidden depths and unknown avenues.  It's about uncovering and articulating new insights and evaluating the new paths that we take to reach them.

Knowledge is not simply the act of reiterating accepted polemics and positions.

Thought tunnels and meanders and carves its way through our lives; it is permeable and protean.

It doesn't stand still and shout.  It moves and grooves.  Sometimes simple, often complex, it executes coy maneuvers and dazzles us most when its sheer obviousness is on display.

And sometimes, we need to scrutinize even the obvious from a new perspective.  At an art opening I attended years ago, a professor brought his five-year-old daughter.

As they were touring the gallery, the little girl suddenly lay down on the floor and looked up at the different installations, turning her head sideways and then rolling over on her back.

With each change in position, she crowed, "Daddy, here, come here!  You need to look at it THIS way.  That's the way you should look."

And he did.  He lay on the floor, rolled on his back, turned his head sideways, and looked.

What didn't you see today?  Who didn't interest you enough?

What are your imaginings and where are the limits of your modesty?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."