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I have some saddish stuff to say–not necessarily immediately, but eventually, and not continually, but at least occasionally.
And you will perhaps feel the urge to, in those timeless words of Mr. T., “pity da fool.”
Please don’t. Or please, at least, don’t feel any obligation to do so.
I’ve come up with literally (the literal “literally”, not the figurative “literally”) dozens of arguments against your pity (and may share some later), but for now I’m going to share just a few and, I hope, concisely.
It’s not that I’m opposed to pity per se. Pity, in its purest form is truly divine. Indeed–and especially within the last 18 months–I’ve gladly given and received it, a lot. And to those who have been the source of what I’ve received: thank you, deeply and sincerely.
And maybe that’s part of my aversion. I’ve received so much and I’m not sure I’m worthy of any more–certainly not any more than anyone else. Yeah, just the thought of it makes me feel guilty.
Pity can also be a bit oppressive. In some sense it implies a response of further sadness. It can be a sick cycle, really. You pity, the one pitied is further immersed in sadness, provoking more pity and so on; and if we’re not careful, we all end up depressed and suicidal. Well, okay, it’s maybe not so bad; it can be, but, thankfully, someone usually eventually gets the point and jumps the loop (which, unfortunately, still sounds like a euphemism for offing oneself). And I do hasten to clarify that the proper response isn’t to carefully tiptoe around the sadness. The pitied know they are sad and your careful avoidance only accentuates what a mess they’re in. As best you can–for what it’s worth, IMO, take it or leave it, et al.–don’t shower the pitiable with obligatory pity but don’t pretend there’s nothing wrong or that it can’t be talked about; just be and be honest. I know that’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
Yaknow, come to think of it, that’s my main point. I want to probe this stuff, walk through it, unpack it. I want to dig into it like it’s a clearance rack of genuinely underpriced, actually valuable stuff (we all have stuff that matters to us; pick yours–it need not be material stuff–and the metaphor will work). Not the crap that’s usually–brightly and hopefully, in large, friendly uppercase letters on a field of obnoxious orange–emblazened with that invitation. There’s something good amidst the crap, buried perhaps, but still present.
It’s not so much a clearance sale, but more like an unwanted shopping spree. You didn’t buy it–at least you didn’t mean to. But they took your money–took more than your money, took most of what mattered or made any sense or had any value, at least most everything that you could hold and call, however imprecisely, your own. However unwillingly, you’ve paid the price. And, now goddamnit, you’re going to get something out of the exchange (though even calling it an “exchange” is the kind of affront that makes you want to throw up and punch somebody simultaneously–which would be a neat trick and, I imagine, potentially both satisfying and uniquely effective).
So now the price has been paid and all that’s left is to pick through the cheap baubles and find something worth salvaging. And what I’d really like, if you don’t mind my asking, is someone at my elbow to say, “Yes, Joel, that’s a keeper” or “Please, no. You don’t want that worthless sh**; just let it go.” This is a blog. Blogging is about open expression and dialog. Let’s dialog.
And here’s the other thing. I’m sometimes sad, but I’ve no interest in being morose and I will in one moment weep but even in the apparently same instant laugh–perhaps, you might think, inappropriately. I want to have fun and be amused and, frankly, whether you like it or not, I’m going to. I also want to be ruthless with the truth, want to beat it to a bloody pulp if I have to, and if either of us is tentative or inhibited, that kinda gets in the way. My point: if you want to laugh, please do; if you want to confront my intellectual dishonesty or sloppiness, please do. Don’t worry that the protocol of pity forbids it.
Well, that’s probably plenty of mixed metaphors for now (I have more and will pull them out later, lest you feel it is not).
I’m asking you not to pity or at least not to excessively express pity. More precisely what I’m asking is that you feel no need to pity. It is a favor; I don’t deny it. And you may deem me unworthy of such a favor and presumptuous to request it. But, there, I asked.
More transparently, I confess to you that this whole business of pity and obligations and expectations ends up functioning as Resistance. I will say more of Resistance but for now know that it is essentially this: not writing. Which brings us back to the beginning: I have some things to say–some things I feel I should and must say. Perhaps my request will deflect a few distractions. If nothing else, this public declaration is cathartic and helps me step around them. Come up they will, but I said I didn’t want them, so, no offense, I’m stepping past them. In truth, I’m still quite open to pity; I’d just rather not be bogged down by it here (ha: blogged down), if that makes any sense . . . and even if it doesn’t.
In homage to his T-ness, with an obtuse allusion to Adobe, I’m considering marking the most ostensibly pitiable posts with the category “PDF,” yaknow, so you’ll be warned. And I admit, I think it mildly clever. Very mildly. Almost unnoticeably. Don’t pity that I’m cleverness challenged; that’ll really piss me off.
There’s a ton of stuff that’s rolling around in my head, some semi-clever or marginally profound ideas, several of which I’ve already started to put into words and several more that I’m hoping will eventually get there. But I’m not ready with any of it.
So then I open yesterday’s mail and discover that one of my favorite teachers died on Deb and my wedding anniversary. Her name was Sallie Scott. She deserves more than this, but I know from experience that if I don’t get something down now, my sense of inadequacy will only grow and I won’t write anything.
She was only 59 when she passed. She taught at Big Sky and Sentinel High Schools in Missoula, Montana. Sallie Scott affected me deeply. I only had her for one class, Humanities, which I took in my junior year, but it was probably my favorite from all of high school and it was certainly the source of many of my fondest memories of those teenage years. The facts that I developed a deep appreciation for literature (and especially for William Blake), that I finally concluded that a literary (v. systematic, dogmatic or philosophical) approach to the Bible is the most frutiful, that I believe that we, the Church, can do so much better, and that I still aspire to write all owe a great deal to her guidance and inspiration. The following is a random recollection.
She had the most amazing wit and, as I recall, she was the most delightfully sarcastic instructor I have ever had. I won’t name any names, but one of my friends would sometimes try to fake his way through an answer when called on in class. My friend was a bright and funny young man and not a bad student, but sometimes he got it wrong. Mrs. Scott would listen attentively and thoughtfully and then proclaim, with just a touch of mirth and, yes, derision, “Clean miss, Jim.” It got to the point that it was so much fun hearing her say that I would secretly hope for him to be called on and be wrong. I’m so sorry, Jim. And I’m sorry I mentioned your name, but it just didn’t sound as good without your name at the end of it.
Mrs. Scott seemed to genuinely enjoy everything we studied and, as I remember it, she was laughing all of the time. If she wasn’t overtly laughing, there was a laugh hidden somewhere in her voice or in the corner of her eye.
Mrs. Scott was not too tall (okay, she was short), but she was a powerful and commanding presence. And as I’ve already mentioned, she didn’t coddle.
Mrs. Scott recognized my background and was always calling on me to explain a biblical story, when it was appropriate. This did a few things for me. 1) It made me nervous that I was going to get something wrong, but then increasingly confident that I did know a thing or two. 2) It opened my eyes to the pervasive, foundational and profound impact that the Jewish and Christian scriptures have had even on so-called secular society and culture. 3) It fostered a growing disappointment and discontent that so many in our culture–especially those who claim to literally stake their eternal lives on it–know almost nothing about the Bible. BTW, just to be clear, Mrs. Scott clearly did, as she often demonstrated by filling in a fact or two that I had omitted; I think she was just calling on me to be nice.
I really didn’t know much about Mrs. Scott’s faith, but I knew that she knew the Word and appreciated it as a literary masterpiece and the source and subtext for most of Western literature and philosophy. As it turns out, in her life outside the classroom, she was a woman of great faith. And, in the end, her sense of the story and beauty of Scripture have come to mean so much more to me than the sense of theological correctness I had heard most of my life, up to that point, from the Church.
Mrs. Scott introduced me to Northrop Frye, with whom I don’t always agree but whose sprawling prose and enduring belief in an eternal narrative, the ubiquitous Christ, type and archetype are still essential to my understanding not only of literature but of all art and life.
Again, recognizing who I was and what I valued, Mrs. Scott lent me two books that year that continue to rock my world.
One was Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion,” the famous psychologist’s scathing critique and ultimate dismissal of religion. By no means did the book undermine my faith. Instead, as I am sure she expected, it gave me deeper insight and respect for valid perspectives that are different from mine. In fact, some of Freud’s critique hurts because it’s true. On the other hand, much of what he says derives from flawed presuppositions and thinly veiled prejudices of his own. In any case, Sallie respected me enough to challenge me to find out for myself.
Sallie Scott is also the person who introduced me to William Blake. In fact, she handed me a facsimile edition of Blake’s illuminated landmark, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The world could not contain the volumes to express what this did for my world view. The image of plate 5, the inverted horse and rider, is forever engraved (and, I suppose, water-colored–inside Blake joke) on my mind. And the accompanying text is, to this day, among my favorite passages from all of English literature. Here’s an excerpt:
“But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is call’d Satan.
For this history has been adopted by both parties.
It indeed appear’d to Reason as if Desire was cast out, but the Devils account is that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.”
Realize, I was in a fundamentalist church and I believed what I was being taught there (and, if I’m honest, to a great extent, still do). To me this looked like it might be blasphemy (forget the provocative text and images; consider just the title) but I loved it. And it had so much more depth than the spin-doctored sermonizing and prooftexting to which I was accustomed. As I would find out, Blake was a devout follower of Jesus and meant not (at least not only) to deride the Church but to rescue her from the bondage to which she had submitted.
I had already come to realize I couldn’t follow the Falwells and Robertsons of this world and was unwilling to accept their narrow and, frankly, false, interpretation of righteousness. In Blake I found a friend, mentor and source of great solace when all the world around me seemed finally insane. Blake, like Mrs. Scott herself, was unafraid to laugh at the self-important defenders of propriety; William and Sallie were willing to boldly fight for freedom and human dignity even if the church or larger culture felt that such values were somehow inconvenient, extraneous or out of place. Blake understood and articulated the truth that the Holy Spirit acts preeminently in imagination and exuberant creativity and not at all, as we so often suppose, with oppression and accusation, with “mind-forg’d manacles of fear.”
Sallie, I will always remember your humor, your passion for literature and thought, your loving concern for your students, your insight and thoughtfulness, your intelligence. And I can’t ever forget your face–that sometimes sardonic, but still somehow gentle, smile and those laughing eyes–or your voice. Thank you for who you are and how you lived and what you taught and thank you for changing so many lives as I know you did mine. I have no doubt that you are laughing still.