What Would They Look Like?

Kids rely on parents to care for them, protect them, love them.  Sometimes parents don’t care.  It takes only one unfortunate event for a parent, annoyed and irritated by a kid who refuses to shut up, to lose their patience and strike their child, hurting her, humiliating him.  Yeah, that shuts ‘em up – but it also shuts them down.

How do kids get back on their feet?  They take care of themselves – not in that brutal way they were treated, but from a way that says, “this is how you should have treated me.”

If those parents saw me now, some fifty plus years later, on one of my not so good days, I like to imagine the conversation would go something like this:

Parents:  “Hey you, why so down?  You look like you don’t have a friend in the world.”

Me:  “I don’t have any friends.  I mean, I have friends, but they’re only so deep.  I’ve been on my own for so long, and I’ve felt for just as long, maybe longer, that I’ll be alone my whole life.”

Parents:  “Really?”

Me:  “Really.  Intellectually, I know that’s not true – but that doesn’t change the feeling.  I don’t know why I feel this way – I only know that I do.”

Parents:  “Wow.  We don’t think we’ve ever met anyone who’s hurting like you’re hurting, for such a long time.  It doesn’t look like many people know this – it’s not like you’ve been beaten up, physically, so people can see the cuts and bruises.

“We don’t know why the people who meant so much to you didn’t think you were important enough to listen to, to pay attention to, to love you in ways you wanted to be loved.

“But here’s something you need to know:  It’s not you.  You are one of the most caring, loving, funny, charming people we’ve ever known.  And even more than this …

“Every human being on the face of the planet deserves to be cherished, to be protected, to be cared for, to be loved.  Not because they’re special, or deserving, or have earned these things.  They deserve it simply because they exist, they’re here – they are enough.

“Kid, you are enough.  We know you’ve been hurting a long time, carrying this hurt, never free of the pain, trying to go on in spite of it.  But it’s okay.  You don’t have to hurt like this anymore.

“You are loved.  You’ll feel lonely now and again – hey, we all do, sometime – but that’s okay.  We’re not really here to tell you that you won’t die alone – that’s a real possibility.

“We love you, kid.  We want to take care of you.  We want to protect you from this pain.  And we’ll be honest with you – we’re not sure we can do it.  But we are sure we want these things for you.”

They’d look like that.

What All Human Beings Want

Some years ago I enrolled in a comedy sketch writing program.  I had long suspected (and, of course, everyone else already knew) that comedy was intimately, intrinsically connected with some sort of “higher” way of living.  Like court jesters and Zen masters, comedians saw things the rest of us didn’t – and they wanted to let us in on the joke.  The writing program confirmed that suspicion.

The program instructors reminded me of those Zen masters.  One of them told us that, at bottom, there are four things all human beings want:  to be seen (acknowledged, recognized); to be heard (making one’s “voice” or point of view known); to be touched (that emotional connection); and to be loved (what children look for from their parents, why we have friends, spouses, that sort of thing).

I’m not sure anyone saw me or heard me until seminary high school.  In my sophomore year I got my first indication that I might be good at writing.  I wrote some essay for an English class, maybe five hundred words about how alone I felt, how angry and frustrated I would get, how I never felt like I mattered anything to anyone.  My teacher was a teacher in the best sense – he taught me how to write, but he also cared enough about the person writing it.  He made me feel like I was worth a damn.

About six years ago, a few months shy of his 70th birthday, this wonderful teacher passed away.  I cried when I got the news; I hadn’t spoken with him for at least twenty plus years.  But I’ll never forget the kindness and generosity he gave to a kid who, back then, didn’t think he had a friend in the world.

I’ve wanted to do for curious minds what Fr. Hawk did for me so many years ago:  bringing what I love to the classroom and helping people learn how to think (NOT “what” to think).  With any luck, my students might come to see in themselves a passion they can’t live without, something that shows them they matter, as well as know that they are more than good enough to enjoy everything this world has to offer.

The Dream Argument

Descartes’s Dream Argument is a classic example of what philosophy of perception calls the “argument from illusion.”  It operates on the claim that, to a perceiver, genuine perceptual experiences cannot be distinguished from illusory ones.  Because of this, two very different situations confront the common sense realist.  For naive realism, normal cases of perception are a relation between a perceiver and an external object.  But with dreams and hallucinations, there is no physical object.  Any explanation of perceptual error for the common sense realist relies solely on the perceiver’s mental state.[1]

Because of his desire to secure sense knowledge on a foundation of certitude, Descartes submitted that “ideas” act as intermediaries between a perceiving consciousness and a perceived object.  These ideas are mental representations that may or may not be causally connected to a physical object that exists independently of mind.  In both cases, whether actually perceiving a tree or dreaming that one perceives it, the person has the idea “tree.”  While the connection between idea and external object remains in doubt, the connection between perceiver and idea is clear, distinct, infallible and beyond doubt.  The existence and nature of these ideas are independent of the nature of the perceptual state of the perceiver.  Descartes’s realism has an advantage over naive realism to the extent that perceptual error occurs in the connection between “idea” and physical object.  Without an intermediary “idea,” the naive realist has no explanation.

It is difficult for common sense realism to account for interpretation because it emphasizes the role of the physical object.  There is no sign of what, if any, active role the perceiver plays in dealing with these objects.  The common sense realist account of perception says nothing about whether different perceivers perceive the same physical object in different ways.  An adequate philosophical theory of perception, which explains both perceptual error and interpretation, cannot help but become some sort of critical realism.[2]

[1] Jonathan Dancy, An Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1985), 153.

[2] Ibid., 151.

Engagement, Connections, Emotions

I used to be an officer in a part-time faculty union.  Following the successful renegotiation of the union’s contract with the university, I proposed to the other union officers that now was the perfect time to ask our members how they felt about their adjunct faculty organization.  The idea met some resistance; the leadership’s usual take on membership surveys is to issue them before negotiations, to discover what members wanted to improve in their agreement with the administration.

To ask members what they thought about the union after negotiations seemed counterintuitive.  To which I replied, “I don’t want to find out what they think about the union; I want to find out how they feel about it.”

Crickets.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Sometimes I forget that every organization – from monoliths like Amazon and Walmart, to the lowliest lemonade stand entrepreneur – wants and needs results.  More often than not, feelings must be set aside to accomplish the tasks that will produce those results.

However, any organization that fails to recognize or chooses to ignore the feelings of the individuals who comprise it runs the risk of forgetting why they’re an organization in the first place.  No organization goes forward without understanding, fostering and promoting the well-being its members, as well as encouraging its members to do likewise for one another and for their collective voice.

All of us from time to time face challenges that, as much as we want to handle them by ourselves, are more than what any one of us can handle.  It is exactly challenges like these that brought that part-time faculty union into being nearly 20 years ago; and as long as these challenges continue to exist, the need for organizations like that adjunct faculty union will continue to exist with them.

I wanted our members to think about what it means to them to belong to the union.  The organization is valuable, strong, and committed to the goals of fair compensation and positive work conditions because ITS MEMBERS are valuable, strong, and committed to these same goals.

I was slow to realize that the other officers strongly disagreed.  One went so far as to say, “the survey is about engagement, but your article is all about feelings” – implying that engagement and feelings have nothing to do with one another.  I cannot describe how frustrating it was to try to get these folks to explain exactly what it was that they had against feelings.

If an organization’s sole goal is to get things done, feelings must be ignored and denied.  But if the goal is to accomplish those tasks AND work collaboratively together, feelings must be acknowledged and recognized.  Anything less is a recipe for discontent, resentment and, ultimately, dissolution.

When Is It Time To Quit?

I want to be loved, I wish someone would love me, I hope someone someday will love me.  But I guess those things are pretty intangible; without a real person in a real time and in a real place, hopes and desires are for indeterminate objects, for imaginary things.  When I’m interested in someone, I want them to love me, which in my case means I want them to treat me like I matter, that I’m important to them, that they care about me.

The therapist says I expect them to do this – even in the face of overwhelming evidence that, at least in this one case, the person I care about is incapable of doing this for me.  I don’t know that I expect them to do this, I thought to myself – I want them to do this, I hope they will see how much I want this and that they will give me this – but to say I expect them to do this doesn’t feel quite right.

For hope springs eternal, right?  In novitiate, in one of my spiritual guidance interviews with the novice masters, one of them told me that I seemed to be someone without hope.  And at that time, I said yes, you’re quite right – I wasn’t very hopeful about anything at that time.  I experienced the majority of my life as though I was invisible, that people either didn’t see or didn’t care about whether I was happy, or sad, or anything else.  I hung on to the master’s comment as if it were a life preserver – its immediate effect was that someone DID see me (even if they didn’t care about me) and that just maybe, as contradictory as it sounds, the way out my hopelessness was to be hopeful.

Doing that on my own was incredibly difficult – antidepressants like Prozac and later selective serotonin reuptake inhibiting prescriptions helped deal with the neurophysiological part of the hurdle.  Slowly but surely, a hopeless person was becoming hopeful in spite of their hopelessness, not unlike an overweight person loses weight in spite of being obese.  There are real physical and psychological barriers that stand in the way of getting better, feeling better.

So, right or wrong, I believe in the power of hope.  In the course of my life, I have hoped that, sooner or later, someone I loved would love me, I would become a teacher, I would become a priest, my mother would love me.  But when do you decide to say, “no, I’ve tried, and it’s just not working”?  When do you realize that you’ve only been fooling yourself, that it’s time to throw in the towel, that it’s time to quit?