Meow

The following is an excerpt from an email exchange that took place between one conversation partner–I guess I’ve renamed her “S.”–and me from this past weekend. I pick up the thread about education in Tuesday’s post. Till then, A.

Dear S.,

There’s a rock on my desk. (A fine opening line!). It’s black. Away from the light and on the desk it’s black still. I turned it over in my hands, thought for a moment of Beckett’s sucking stones, and then put the rock to the light. By this time, it was morning. I brought the rock to the window and held it in my hands and turned it over again. Then…  The flowers were like henna, were like bundles of fruits, were like the purple leaves that grew freely in my mother’s garden.

It was a gift, we know this because you told me so, but a gift of a kind that threw light on its being a gift. The gift first lures us, as it were, allowing us to see it as if it were an ordinary object that conforms entirely to our expectations. But then it entreats us to take a second look. When we do, we are surprised that it was other than what we had thought or expected. A good gift humbles us, revealing to us that our ordinary ways of perceiving won’t do it justice, implying also that our ordinary ways of being do life a grave disservice, taking the breath from life.

I think there’s something here about error being inextirpable from being human. Hegel insisted that modern philosophy got off on the wrong foot, with the idea that, since Descartes, doubt must be introduced in order for it to be vanquished and replaced, in turn, by absolute certainty. We think of life certainty as being not just the desideratum but also the default setting and yet, so long as we think this, we err doubly.

We err doubly and, in so doing, fail to learn. Hegel’s approach would be to show us how we started off in error because our conceptions of life and the way that life revealed itself may be discordant. Hegel, ever stern-browed, was on the path to telling a joke. Error in judgment, reason, and conduct must come first (so far, so good) as if we leaned into our perceptions, so that learning may come after, arriving with our whole person acknowledgment of our errors together with the object’s ‘demand’ that we make amends to it and to life.

The troubling implication is that education today, and parenting by extension, presumes that error is anomalous, perfection being a worthy and unquestionable ideal, and that good parenting is about getting along nicely, without any hitch. Perfection, the unfulfillable, external ideal lying beyond all too human existence, throws light on our very human blushes, as if our blushes arrived from elsewhere and could never be our own. Perfection is the fear of error captured as a frieze.

But good parenting is not like that. Parents get angry, they melt down, they yell, they almost lose it; they try one thing and then another; they get nothing from self-help nonsense; they err and err again, thus grasping the pain and release of the gift. The important point, however, is that they “show their errors” to their children, show their strengths as well as their weaknesses, but also that they are able to get the hang of putting their hand–just so–on the back of the neck, of brushing their child’s hair–just right–at the right moment, how–in sum–to set things to right. “Come here, old lady–thank you for putting away my bonnet–kiss me.”

This is the path of wisdom. Error, which must come first, won’t always have the final word; love will, love being (in this context) the strength to make and perceive errors and to make amends during the pianissimo moments. Love of children: a montage–a cat cozying up gingerly, rubbing her head against one’s hand.

Andrew

*

Dear Andrew,

My cat is rubbing his head under my chin, after having sat for a while in front of the window sill, where she gazed longingly at the morning doves cooing on my fire escape. I love the sound of those doves because it reminds me of my adolescence in Florida: the heavy humid mornings and swaying Spanish moss…

Children are incredibly forgiving. With them, if a parent is honest and brave enough to acknowledge her errors, amends can be made and love accepted wholeheartedly.

I think there’s so much pressure today surrounding the conceit of being the “perfect” parent. The other day P told me how, years ago, he had received this nasty 16 page letter from a professor somewhere in the Midwest that she had  CC’d to 65 people in the company, because they had run an article saying that it was OK for a mother not to breastfeed her child if it wasn’t working out; suggesting that formula was OK as well. The professor accused P of supporting the formula industry. I wonder what she would have said about the anecdote that P told me of the time when he playfully tied his 7 year old to his chair with masking tape after having asked him 20+ times to sit down during dinner. His son giggled and wiggled the whole way through dinner. Would she have called it abuse?

When I first started working on the stone, it wasn’t so black, more of a dark gray, which got darker and darker as I worked on it. At first, I was annoyed, but then I surrendered to it: my hands and the stone clearly had more in mind than my pen. The stone wove its mystery on its own: through me but not without me.

S.

Most Americans are highly apologetic…

Most Americans are highly apologetic. The few who aren’t are considered, by the campaigners for the apology, to be altogether too arrogant indeed. Yet, in most cases, the effusive may be as much in error as the abstainers, the apology failing to suit, pushing us further apart.

The apology’s native soil is the infraction. If I have wronged you, intentionally or not, then my unbidden apology seeks to make amends.** Your wholehearted apology must also come unbidden and be given gently. Provided the open hand meets the outstretched arm, the guilt of the former is nullified in the reach of the latter.

Apart from guilt culture, apology’s first home, social mores also elicit the support of the apology and this when a convention has been broken. Seeing an old lady but failing to offer her my seat immediately would be a violation of etiquette, and an apology would be in order. Even though the old lady is not harmed (or not unduly harmed) by the slowness of my reply nor would she be harmed by standing for a spell, even though (that is) there is no wrongdoing, the apology reveals my failure to recognize prevailing social distinctions: that the old are higher than the young, that parents are more senior than children, that guests are more vulnerable than hosts. The apology, in this social setting, is a memory of shame culture, a memory now dying out. (On the distinction between “guilt culture” and “shame culture,” see the late Bernard William’s excellent book, Shame and Necessity.)

The truth is that most of our missteps are neither wrongdoings nor shameful acts but errors in judgment. They are follies which, as such, serve to illuminate our lack of wisdom, our shared human frailties, and our common misunderstandings. Suppose you are in need of hearing the right words and suppose I am properly aware of your needs. It does not follow that I have the judgment (phronesis) to know what words exactly will be fitting and needful. I may be aware that you have needs, aware that you have these needs, aware, in principle, that I can furnish these needs, but not sure exactly what words or actions would be suitable. More likely still, I may only be aware of the latter once the essay has gone arrant: after having tried out some formulation or some gesture and then found it wanting.

And what are we feeling now? Heaviness, almost like a debt incurred on both our parts. Anything else? Yes, the loss of what Hegel calls a “friendliness of life,” the demise of  gaiety, the end of elan; in essence, a small tear. An apology, though yearned for by the young and the unwise both, should not be called for nor is it mete. On the contrary, an apology can do nothing but cleave us further. Something more subtle, more pianissimo, is called for: the silent, atonal music of mutual pain, the cultivation of patience long into the night, and, in the morning, the slow trying out of new words and actions in hopes that a few may prove right. In the best of all possible worlds, we would merely close our mouths and then make love to each other.

End Note

** A solicited apology is a contradiction in terms. Once one has asked another for an apology, both have lost.