Saturday, May 27, 2017

Finding One’s Niche, Destiny, & Aiming for Good

Now that the Spring Term 2017 has closed, I’m drawn to reflect on the Good Stories course: purpose and possibilities, intentions, redirections, serendipities. In looking over open-ended notes from the final days, I’m taken back to the inception of Good Stories, back to re-read a mostly-forgotten blog composed when planning for the first session some six years, over eleven hundred students ago. In January 2011my deliberations about the purpose for Good Stories concluded:
Cooperation depends on maturity, not naïveté.  Civilization advances partially through the detection and treatment of cheaters.  Boyd [author of the primary textbook] states that our stories teach us how to do that.  My engagement in this text meshes forward into my appreciation and high value for integrity.  The compelling story consists in the truth of the word and speaker infused inseparably.  Society urgently depends on such storytellers/leaders as well as citizens with story savvy who discern lies and cheaters.  Discernment depends on purification.
     Over the fifteen times the course ran, we did engage stories featuring betrayal and deception. While we searched out applications to both the individual and the local level to discern lies from truth, the themes that resonated more frequently and strongly focused courage, perseverance, love, and on the pair found in the subtitle of the course: peace and justice. In concert with the textbook, Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, our course progressed through four levels of explanation, culminating in the Particular Level
     Boyd illustrates the particular level:
“even highly creative persons create in distinctively personal patterns. Shakespeare learned from the opportunities and examples of the drama of his day-blank verse, rhetorical exuberance, multiple plots, the genres of tragedy, comedy, and history-but from the first extended them in his own way, becoming, as his work matured, more idiosyncratic in vocabulary, phrasing, imagery, meter, speech construction, characterization, scenic structure, plot development, plot parallelism, emotional change and range, and sheer artistic confidence. By working at their own kinds of problems intently, geniuses can build on their expertise, their peculiar neural networks, their own mental materials and methods, rather than reinventing elements and methods each time from scratch. Even writers with a high inclination or a high determination to maximize novelty will reach positions and discover practices distinctly their own that they continue to recycle and recombine in their own way." (p. 356, Kindle 4039-4044)
     Boyd explicates this level and its application to moral sense most thoroughly in his focus on Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss, and specifically in Horton Hears a Who!
Part of what makes the story so satisfying, indeed, is the delicate balance between our admiration for Horton's having the courage to stand up for himself despite the pressure of his entire jungle community and young Jo-jo's having the decency to respond to the pressure of his community. Both nonconformity and conformity have their claims. This kind of symmetry may not be consciously noticed even by most adult readers, yet it contributes naturally to our sense of the rightness of the story. In his case, Horton has good reason to resist the other animals; in his, Jo-jo has good reason to join his fellow Whos. (page 374; 4244-4248 Kindle)
     In Good Stories, we applied the particular level to the production of the final Digital Media Project. The assignment was explained:
DMP3 shows movement toward the Particular Level where the previous three levels are best engaged, both now and in a future vision, for “truth” in answering the big questions of peace and justice, in a specific response to the individual’s destiny, gift, opportunity, and responsibility. DMP3 shows the transformation necessary to move toward destiny (including humans' progression toward cooperation) and the transformation develops through challenges.
     Evident in a note written on May 12, the day after the last class, I see one of those words emphasized—gift. Perhaps emerging over the fifteen terms as most important to me was a wish and intention that the course serve as a gift to the lovely students, in ways like grandchildren—especially shown in the tears of the one staying as all others left the room to say, “I don’t want it to end.” If our time together led to the gift of stories, our course doesn’t end. As the May 12 note put it:

“Gift” closes up inaccurately, like a flower that reverses into a bud instead of opening into the fullness of the bloom. Yes, it moves toward the petal-dropping moment, a direction threatening, calling to the edges of our misguided mind the specter of death. But, “No problem,” as the now-phrasing gives it. The gift from God, the distinctive mark to each being, is a giving, continuous flowing, not owned by us. That unique fingerprint of now, the DNA of one’s true identity, dare not be mine but only known to be the longing, pulling toward and uniting with the source.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Love Inseparable from Justice, Mercy, Compassion

5 AM-ish is the perfect time for coffee, especially on May 25, 2017, when the world turns sepia-toned, the tin roof echoes the gently falling rain, the robin joins in, not exactly singing but offering unabashedly itself. And the Amish-made rocking chair on the back porch, along with the man in it, creak just a bit. 
     Most Thursdays for the past decade would likely have found me at Starbucks when the door opens, 5AM, often the one on the corner of the Beltway and Route 1, pondering matters academic, like everybody else, wondering. Whatever: how we got here, how to get out without completely betraying the soul. 
     I don’t think humans are born nice and we’re not born mean either, but it sure looks like it. There’s a book within reach of my desk called Just Babies, mostly not-yet-read, but the point is that we’re born, at least most everybody is, with a capacity to prefer goodness and even with discernment of good guys. Just—as in born-with justice. Even before speaking or walking infants can choose the person who was nice, looking away from the actor who meanly stole the toy from another child, preferring the one showing love.
     What happens? How can so many people fail to see corrupt wanna-be leaders who are going to betray them without batting an eye? How can folks choose to watch a network spewing lies and hate? And then go to church, even send missionaries! The good book, just about any of them, warns of this. Freedom, this gift given humans, means suffering and most would rather not. The textbook we used in Good Stories preaches reciprocal altruism and asserts the necessity of imposing disincentives even to persons who collaborate with and who do not resist the evil-doers.
     Other good books teach purification. The person who wants to stone the one caught in adultery is not to be hated or vilified. The resistance needs to come from a clean heart because harboring hate destroys. So the person who committed the horrific hate crime on campus, the persons who support a power-crazed politiican, those who maim horses to win competitions—all these should be stopped but best not by those calling them nasty names. 

     Somehow love is still the answer. And it must be a love greater than we have grown, one inseparable from justice, mercy, compassion.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Human Choice

If we accept the wisdom of “there’s nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), we might be liberated from the shut-down of saying/doing what’s already been said/done. Freedom and change, renewed and evolving, are also truths alongside the nothing-new. And words, although in print they appear unchangeable, they, too, are ever moving, even if at glacial speed. 
     Then, if I don’t have to wait for the perfect, or even the right, beginning and if I escape from the fear of being redundant and looking ignorant of a previous tome, then what guides the choice of word and act? Yes, I am familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy, and I’m often drawn to the fitting of the niche, the resolution by the hidden treasure, the parable of talents (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-28). More compelling as a model for living in freedom glimmers the “path of attraction.” 
     But “attraction” invites the amusement park or, more darkly, Dante’s circles of Hell littered with tortured bodies laid waste by lust, hate, greed, and other evil turns of power. As evident across history and certainly flagrant on the pages of today, human choice runs to waste and to harm. That the holy books overflow with commands and with hell-fire consequences makes sense as a force to hold against the dark side of our nature, waiting for maturation, for developed capacity to know better and to choose more wisely, more generously, more compassionately. 
     Sufis tell of the “animal soul.” My favorite storybook, Rumi’s Mathnawi, like the recurrent seaside waves, each still unique, sends the current that offers insight and inspiration for living on the path of attraction. There’s no attempt to hide from satanic allure, even if it looks like small pleasures, like “no-harm” fouls. To be hooked by the animal soul is so easy. The true path demands recognition and dealing with human tendency to choose wrongly, even to stay stupid, to doze or drug.
     But, by grace, we taste the divine. By discipline, by obedience, by following a guide, by seeking after knowledge and by surrender of selfish power, a person recognizes the true, the eternal, joy, peace, love. . . 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"The Eternal Now"

How to start when “there is no beginning; there is no end—all my life’s a circle.” Into this living moment, now, eddies the past, the ones who have passed over, also the unspoken and the wished-unsaid. Across the mirror dances foresight, prophecy, dream images not yet enfleshed. And all this already writ: the Paradise poems, the book of Job, the Four Quartets, “the horse who scents the living grass…will ever after run.”

The sole justification for tapping out again what has already been given is because. The moving finger has its own revealer. The Prophet’s recorded message says over and over again that the words had been delivered before and before that. And still the spring graciously bubbles forth with drops recovered from the ocean. The only reason praises, slips aside one more veil. One glimpse of the Beloved, a whisper, even in a dream, if that, drives the caravan oasis to oasis to paradise. Or it is. It is enough. 

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