Being an Odd Ball

I am an odd ball. Hoinacki, Ivan Illich’s buddy:

I suspect that to enjoy this quietly exciting and ever-changing contact with reality, one needs to seek some kind of marginality from the mainstream: physical places in which to drop out, psychical realms in which to dwell apart, spiritual disciplines through which to reach and practice a healthy detachment. Perhaps one should look into vocations to foolishness, to being an odd ball, to living queerly. (Stumbling Toward Justice: Stories of Place, 90)

In the opening line, Hoinacki is referring to a simple, farming life (“quietly exciting and ever-changing contact with [sensuous] reality”) anchored in a specific place, a life outside of the institutions–schools, universities, the market system, modern medical care, the nation-state, plus certain kinds of technology–that define modern society. He argues for “dropping out” and “dwelling apart,” for a kind of detachment from it all.

His beef, like Illich’s, is with institutions. Why? Institutions deform and dehumanize human beings in many ways, yet one of these ways, the one I shall touch on here, is subtle and less often remarked upon. Each institution operates according to a set of concepts and categories that work by distinguishing between what is countable and what is uncountable and, in so doing, the institution must necessarily violate the supreme singularity of this fleshly human being, not to mention other kinds of sentient beings. This becomes especially visible–to the odd ball himself for sure–in the case of the odd ball. The odd ball as odd ball cannot find a home there for such is, by definition, impossible.

For an institution must make illegible or unintelligible the existence as well as the claims of the odd ball. It does this either by forcing the odd ball to shoehorn himself into a category that inaptly fits in order for him to have some chance of existing inside the margins of this institution or else by rendering him or her invisible and–worse–mute. Her kind of speech cannot be heard because it is absolutely unhearable. Must he make himself speak theirs, or shall he continue with his foreign poetry?

The odd ball, as odd ball, cannot register her sense of difference for difference is precisely what is impossible in the eyes of the institution. The reign of sameness is evident in the subsumable under the ready-to-hand concept (X is subsumable under concept P) or in what is assimilable according to analogy (X is like enough to concept P).

What is left for the odd ball but a positive affirmation of life apart–for a kind of mock foolishness (relative to the eyes of the institution) and for a pleasant, natural oddishness that suits him or her very nicely. The odd ball must learn to hang his hat on a tree bending over the river into which he has happily plunged his bare feet. Maybe he shall find roaming odd balls in yonder woods and maybe together they shall knit together words, ones they can sing by.

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‘It’s Not At All Hard To Be Misanthropic Today…’

It’s not at all hard to be misanthropic today because it’s plain to see that most human beings don’t care about each other or about other sentient beings all that much, let alone about what Daoists beautifully call the “ten thousand things.” Industrial civilization has ravaged the planet in only 250 years, causing global temperatures to rise, oceans to acidify, fields to be poisoned and salinated, soils to erode, waterways (via careless mining practices) to be polluted, coral reefs to collapse, animal populations to contract, global human populations to explode… One may wonder whether human beings really are homo sapiens or whether they might more truly be regarded as the messy species: the species that makes a mess of things, of their, as well as each other’s, lives, and of the places they dwell and pass through.

It is not at this global, historical level, though, that I wish to discuss our predicament (though what I have to say is very much related to our global fate); it is at the local, everyday level. What I shall term “particularist” or “particular cares” refers to my caring for this person and for this being. It’s here that misanthropy may come to mind because the lack of particularist care is painful to observe.

The bulk of ordinary evidence suggests that most human beings living today aren’t actually embracing particular cares nor are they developing or cultivating such close attachments and intimate bonds. They don’t seem to actually care in some emphatic sense about specific, fleshly other beings.

Make no mistake: to be able to care in this way requires much of each of us. To begin with, it requires right effort: it takes an extraordinarily focused mind, one capable of being diligent, to care for another being. Diligence is not to be confused with enthusiasm or bouts of excitement. No, enthusiasms, excitements, and “fevers” all wear off over time, the other–whether an animal or person or plant–can be no fun to be around on certain occasions, and then the excitable person seems to be left with no reason to persevere in attending to this being. Notice how many people are around after their initial excitement has worn off.

Secondly, particularist forms of caring require paying very, very close attention to another being. It’s not just the case, as it’s commonly said, that many people are distracted today; it’s even truer to say that a whole lot of people are checked out, zoned out, tuned out, are–that is to say–so far from being “awake” that even talk of being present is nowhere close to what it actually means to be present. Paying very close attention to this person or that animal, being very observant of how she moves, what words she uses to express herself, how she carries herself, what ticks she has, how this animal feels about itself, how this plant responds to nurturance involves mindfulness of a tall order as well as right diligence. What is noticeable instead is a profound zoning out, a checking out of life just at a time when we need people to be bright, vivid, and bound to one another. Leaning in is just a start.

Thirdly, the sort of caring I have in mind requires imagination plus deduction-drawing. One needs to image what this being’s life is like as well as tease out things, moving from the said to the unsaid. Based on what I’ve seen, how does this ant actually live? Is this slug, which I just found curled up on a dandelion leaf, suffering? Can that be gleaned from its movements? What is actually going on in the life of my friend whose absence I can feel strongly? Much of it is a sort of cobbling-together guesswork–hence the deduction-drawing. We need to piece the unvocalized,  unenunciated, and unsaid together with what has been said and done.

Fourthly, we need to be curious in order to engage in particularist cares. We should want to deeply ask, “By golly, what makes this person tick?” And we should put aside all pet theories and simple explanations. To be curious is to believe that this person or this creature, in this way like all the other ten thousand things, is a mystery, plainly. Boy is she a mystery; I can’t immediately make her out; just when I thought I had put my finger on something and pinned something down, she went and did something unexpected. Huh, what to make of that?

These are only four of the conditions–right diligence, attention, imagination and deduction-drawing, and curiosity–that make possible particularistic forms of caring. I would bet that there are more, and I would place a second bet on all these being intimately intertwined.

You have to ask yourself, “How many people are really putting in the effort with others in their lives? How many are genuinely paying close attention? How many are imaginative and curious?” What I observe is–to put all these together–a kind of thoughtlessness that entails particularist carelessness. One can feel the pain of David Foster Wallace, especially the kind voiced, however humorously, in his Kenyon College graduation speech.

Let’s conclude by sketching a picture of the caring person. Well, it’s easier to tell when one is in the presence of someone who actually cares about actual persons than it is to say exactly what that is, but let me try anyway. Caring is (a) genuinely a way of perceiving the whole of that person or as much of that person as one can perceived (it is, after all, an ongoing process) and (b) speaking or acting in such a way as to manifest that whole perception. The caring person has a knack for seeing about or in another person what he or she cares about and quite possibly has never spoken about; for recognizing, again in ways that often go unsaid, what her vulnerabilities are, vulnerabilities she herself may not be aware of; for going one, two, three steps further in seeing into how another being actually lives; for, of course, being there when the chips are down or when that being most needs another–namely, you. The caring person is not looking around to find someone else to fill in for him. Rather, he wants unselfishly to be the one other beings can count on just because they need it.

It doesn’t take any great education to care for another person except, beautifully, the sort of broader education of the heart. Deeply sadly, it’s hard to find many people who fit this description today, who act from the heart, but the heart may in the end be just what saves us from misanthropy. The caring person, being rare and refreshing, may be what redeems humankind from its messy thoughtless carelessness. May it be so.