There be dragons!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Et in Arcadia ego



Loss. I'm struck today by the idea of loss. Why do we as men need to lose in order to learn? I once had a nubile young filly of a student ask (after one of my more lugubrious lectures on the sorrow of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) why we couldn’t just be happy? Why were loss and pain necessary? Couldn’t we just go through life being happy and cheerful and kind? A good question. Wrong. But a good question, and perhaps more profound than she conceived.
When I was a freshperson in college I failed my first class. I was an arrogant goober at the time (not that that has changed too much) with ridiculous visions about college as a place of higher learning, where intellectuals equally concerned with virtue, thought, and looking good would sit about sipping cappuccinos in the sunny vestibules of the Georgian windows of the Wren building and discuss the forms of Plato. What a dope I was. Anyway, this math class I was taking began at 8AM. And interesting? If you can imagine a bowl of old socks you get an idea of how exciting this class was. I was number 382 in the class, I believe, and well, I stopped going to class. After about 3 weeks of not showing up to class I jokingly asked a classmate of mine “So, when’s our next test?” “You mean when was our last test?” he replied. The next morning, after my skin had recovered from the alabaster shade it had acquired from this conversation I raced down to the class and tried to explain to the teacher that I had been sick yesterday when the test was taken. I needed to have a note from the nurse to confirm that. But I was too sick to come to the class so how could I have gotten to the nurse? Too bad. Rules is rules. So I trucked over to the registrar to drop the class (it being the last day for drop/add). You need a signature of the professor from whose class you are dropping, by the way. After hoofing it to the math building to find the professor whose coveted signature I so craved I climbed the three flights to his office and found him gone home early for the day. So I made it a point to attend every class after that even if I fell asleep in each one (which I didn’t; only 85% of them), to take every quiz even if I didn’t do so hot on them, and to turn in every assignment (both of which I was able to complete). My plan seemed irreproachable and guaranteed of success. As a note to anyone reading, when your jaw hits the floor after reading your posted class rank at the end of a semester, it’s best not to try to walk out the door before you pick it up lest you tread on your own incisors and put a hole in your foot. There’s a giddy sort of feeling that sets in as you walk out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the math building knowing that you have ruined your entire career as a mathematician in college and will now be condemned to aeons of remedial math 101 classes. It was particularly hard to walk past the Wren building where hordes of good-looking J.Crew models hung out in the Georgian windows sipping their cappuccinos and laughing at me behind their Plato texts. That was particularly hard. The odd thing about failing a class; it completely liberated me as a scholar. After I failed that first class I thought I could do anything. That loss turned my vision of learning completely around; without it I wouldn’t think or act about education today nor have any of the lenience I have on students currently struggling under my tutelage to aspire to some level of rhetorical eloquence.
But enough of me. What do you think of me?
Seriously, I am intrigued by the idea that, as humans, we don’t learn without loss & pain. Studying itself is a form of loss & pain (anyone taking a physics course will agree with me on this). We learn from physical pain. We learn from the loss of loved ones. We learn from tragedy and horror and sorrow. We don’t learn near so much from happy stories, or happy experiences, or happy moments. Life isn’t about the moments that take your breath away; but maybe it’s about the breaths that take your moment away. In other words, maybe our learning must be through pain b/c we’re such naturally arrogant beanie-weanies. It’s always our moment, our popularity, our thoughts, our desires, our needs and wants. To hell with anyone else. I want what I want. The world will bend to my will; and you poor slobs that think you’re important will just have to love me and despair. Learning, true learning, comes not through the gratification of our vision of the world, but through a molding of our vision of the world to conform with that which really is; the truly real. So in order to effect such conformation we have to have the ego stripped away like onion layers; battered, beaten, shaken up, not stirred. Our knowledge of the truth is only made real when we stand without armor in the immensity of the real and perceive our own smallness and insignificance. We are no more than number 382 and our petty little sicknesses and whinings matter little in the classroom of the truth.
But my real amazement at this phenomenon is not so much at the how but at the why? If it is pride that necessitates the learning through pain, why would we be made such? B/c of fallen nature? But even that term “fallen nature” is a language by which to talk about something inherent in our being as humans. What is that thing? Pride? That too is a way of talking about this thing inherent in us as humans. Why is it that we can’t “all just get along” or we can’t just be happy and kind and cheerful? I know the end mechanics of such a Donna Reed education (by the way, Donna Reed kicks tail on any beautiful woman popular in cinema today. Look at her! She was a beauty in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” All the longing, desire, hope, erotic draw about which Plato rhapsodizes is there in Donna Reed!!!)... the end mechanics of continued prosperity, or the how, is that we become complacent, more desirous, insensitive to the world and its suffering. But the why? Why are we this way? What miserable beings we must be that we can’t even answer the reason why we can’t answer this question.

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