Thursday, June 2, 2011

Blindness and Significance

I recently read William James' essays, "On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings" and "What Makes A Life Significant."

Both lectures were published in 1899, in James' Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals

In "On A Certain Blindness," James examines "the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves."

I think a lot of James' observations have relevance for how we think about the things that matter to us and how we perceive the efforts of others.

In "What Makes A Life Significant," James argues that in dealing with others, "The first thing to learn ... is non-interference with their own peculiar ways of being happy, provided those ways do not assume to interfere by violence with ours."

I think it is sometimes difficult not to interfere (or advocate interference), particularly when we see someone living a life or following a course of action that we judge to be somehow "wrong," when viewed from our own perspective.

What I like about James' advice, though, is that it is a reminder to at least attempt non-interference--to value the impulse to stand back for a moment before leaping into the existential fray.  

In many cases, even if we simply paused before interfering in the lives of others, we would significantly change the way in which we interact with everyone around us.

According to James, "No one has insight into all the ideals. No one should presume to judge them off-hand. The pretension to dogmatize about them in each other is the root of most human injustices and cruelties, and the trait in human character most likely to make the angels weep."

I like this: "No one has insight into all the ideals."  It's so true.  

I think the only way we can begin to attain insight into some of them--a mere handful over a lifetime, if we're lucky--is to listen to others.

And we can only listen when we refrain from constant interference.

At the end of "On A Certain Blindness," James advises his listeners to "...tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands." 

In this essay, James notes that, in general, "We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life's more elementary and general goods and joys."

However, "[t]o be imprisoned or shipwrecked or forced into the army would permanently show the good of life to many an over-educated pessimist."

I think of this quite a bit, when I hear people complaining about their own particular circumstances or hardship, or when I find myself kvetching more than usual.

We all have a right to complain, and some more than others.

But I often wonder, if all of what we have in a given moment were swept away or transformed into something we hadn't even remotely conceived of, what would that lost moment look like from our new perspective?

Would it seem so bad?

We live in a world of over-educated pessimists; I think it's the brand of individuality that contemporary culture rewards and applauds.

I wonder, though, what the under-educated optimists of the world can teach us.

In "What Makes A Life Significant," James wonders, "if we cannot gain much positive insight into one another, cannot we at least use our sense of our own blindness to make us more cautious in going over the dark places?"

I think we can.

I think that, on a daily basis, we need to learn and relearn the value of caution.  We need to constantly remind ourselves that we may at any given moment be treading blindly through someone else's darkness.

For me, this is the essence of respect for others.

Ultimately, this is my favorite observation in "What Makes A Life Significant":
"In God's eyes the differences of social position, of intellect, of culture, of cleanliness, of dress, which different men exhibit and all the other rarities and exceptions on which they so fantastically pin their pride, must be so small as practically quite to vanish; and all that should remain is the common fact that here we are, a countless multitude of vessels of life, each of us pent in to peculiar difficulties, with which we must severally struggle by using whatever of fortitude and goodness we can summon up. The exercise of the courage, patience, and kindness, must be the significant portion of the whole business."
Fortitude and goodness; courage, patience and kindness.

The common fact that here we are.

In the end, this is the significant portion of the whole business we call life.

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