One of the Worst Times of My Life

I had a difficult time wrapping up the master’s portion of the graduate program.  The oral examination consisted of topics / questions / issues in the history of philosophy.  Even as I think about it now, I’m not exactly sure what it was I was supposed to have expected.  I guess what I learned after failing it miserably was that, while my examiners wanted to see what I knew and what I didn’t know, maybe more importantly, they wanted to see whether I was comfortable talking about these topics with them, whether I would respond with expansive enthusiasm.

Now at the time, I was much more comfortable being concise.  When one of them asked me a question, I would answer – briefly.  No more than thirty minutes in, I started seeing something in their faces, something that said I wasn’t doing well.  I pretty much shut down for good.  They began asking even easier questions, and mostly all I could say was, “I don’t know.”

So the examiners decided that maybe I would do better with a written exam.  About six months later I took it.  I thought my ordeal was over – but one of the examiners was not satisfied.  So the next remedy was that I should write a master’s thesis.  Took about another six months, but I did it – fifty or so pages on the topic of philosophical complementarity.  Even then I think the same examiner voted against accepting it – so it passed two votes to one.

That night after the oral exam was easily one of the worst times of my life.  I had planned to celebrate passing the exam with a couple of friends over dinner – but I was an absolute mess.  I went to my tiny student housing studio apartment, turned off the lights, laid in bed curled up in a fetal position, and cried myself sick.  My friends did come by, knocked on my door – but I didn’t answer.  They soon figured out that things didn’t go well, yet still wanted to go out, encouraging me, telling me to forget about it, it wasn’t the end of the world.  I was inconsolable – it was the end of my world.  I was as shell shocked as I had been after I first came back from the seminary in January 1979 – all at once, the world in which I thought I was meant to be was gone.

Potential, Possibility, and “the Annihilation of the Future”

If you’re able to buy food, clothing, shelter, and other basic life necessities, and can take care of yourself and your family, you know that motivation by itself is not enough for economic security.  Not everyone thinks this way; some people think the biggest (or even only) reason anyone in this country of wealth and opportunity is poor is because they choose to be poor; hard work, determination, and a little bit of luck are all one needs to overcome poverty.

But this misunderstands the causal connection between motivation and poverty.  Lack of motivation does not cause poverty – poverty causes lack of motivation.

“[W]hen you are approaching poverty … [you discover] the fact that it [poverty] annihilates the future” [emphasis added].  The quote is from the end of the third chapter of Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell’s first book.  Published in January 1933, Down and Out draws upon Orwell’s own experiences of poverty and unemployment some seven to eight years before its publication.

I was struck by this quotation’s direct implications for the ideas of potential and possibility in our lives.  Without an implicit belief about the potential we can bring into being, that the dreams we dream are part of what we need to do to make those dreams real, both potency and possibility “die on the vine.”  When you’re poor, the immediacy of your poverty crowds all of your mental space; there are no thoughts (and there cannot be any thoughts) of what might be – since survival is all that matters.

Hence Orwell’s “annihilation of the future.”  Think of the vast volumes of human ingenuity, imagination and creativity that go unrealized because so many of us have to scramble just to make ends meet.  The “side hustle,” in addition to one’s regular job, is touted as just part of the new normal in America – a tacit admission that no one gets by on a single paycheck anymore.

Do NOT accept this “new normal.”  Despite what we want to believe, whatever good fortune we enjoy has only a little to do with us; our economic security is rarely in direct proportion to our efforts, or what we think we deserve.  At a minimum all of us deserve life’s basic necessities (e.g., food, health, and shelter).  Without these, there is no future – for any of us.

Reframing for Revelation

A friend wanted to know what I thought about the concept of “reframing.”  I asked her what she meant.  She replied that, in trying to come to terms with some of the more painful experiences in her life, her therapist asked her to “reframe” those experiences, to see whether anything positive might be extracted from them.  But she couldn’t shake the feeling that reimagining these experiences in this way felt inauthentic, that the meanings of those experiences were inextricably tied to their original “framework.”

Now I can see why being told to “reframe” an experience seems somewhat false, fake, maybe even dishonest.  But many people may think the opposite – for them, “going with the best truth” or “looking on the bright side” seems false, contrived, even naïve.  “Reframing” may seem false because it lacks content – it only tries to “reassemble” the event or issue.  By contrast, “looking on the bright side” may seem more authentic because it brings out content – albeit in a “predetermined” way.

The difference between “looking on the bright side” and “reframing the issue” concerns whether meaning (content, reality, truth – it goes by a bunch of different [yet similar] names) is a matter of definition (“reframing”) or of intuition (“looking on the bright side”).  If “reframing” seems false compared with “going with the best truth,” then meaning is a matter of intuition; if “reframing” seems more true than “going with the best truth,” then meaning is a matter of definition.

But this isn’t an “either/or” matter – meaning requires both intuition and definition.  A famous line from the history of philosophy captures the idea quite well: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”  In other words, if all you have is definition (and no intuition), you don’t really have anything worth having (“empty”), and if all you have is an intuition (and no definition), you have content but without any direction (“blind”).

Long story short:  “reframing” is bogus if it only reshuffles the pieces of the experience puzzle.  But, if reframing reveals some new meaning or content or information ABOUT the experience not previously realized, then the concept will have some practical value.

In an Instant, the World Changed

I was fitted for my first pair of glasses one month shy of my ninth birthday.  My teachers were tipped off to my nearsightedness when I sat in the front of the room, squinted and still couldn’t make out what was on the board.  The definitive test came at home, after Mom must have been given a report about how I might need glasses.  She held a newspaper up about fifteen feet from me, and I said yes, it was all pretty much a blur.

It’s not like I knew any different – I thought fuzzy and blurry was how the world naturally presented itself.  These were part of its charm, not defects to be corrected.  Silly me.  Mom made an appointment with an optometrist downtown – I don’t think any of the kids were wearing glasses yet, and Mom wasn’t a big fan of any kind of doctors in the first place.  The trek was a new experience for both of us.

The eye exam was a piece of cake – far less intimidating than MD visits, and not nearly as terrifying as a dentist appointment.  I do not have fond childhood memories of our dentist.  Getting cavities drilled out and filled with mercury amalgams was unpleasant enough for a six-year-old without being ordered to “stop crying or I’ll REALLY give you something to cry about.”  Jerk.  Just another instance of the little traumas growing up that I don’t think any kid ever really forgets.  They survive, of course, and make the most of their pain, but memories of the abuse never seem to fade.

Back to eyes – the optometrist writes up a script for corrective lenses.  We go to the optician counter to get measured, pick out some lovely frames (a turtle shell pattern, medium brown), then schedule a time to make a second journey to pick up the glasses in two weeks.  (I’m still blown away when an eyeglasses shop tells me they can make my glasses in about an hour.)

Two weeks later we return for the glasses.  The optician brings them out and puts them on me.  She asks, “how do they feel?”  But the question doesn’t register at all – I’m too busy being amazed by just how sharp and clear everything looks!  It’s not unlike the difference you experience once you’ve switched from regular definition television to high-definition:  the TV seemed just fine before, but the new TV makes you realize just how much clarity and detail you had been missing.  Seeing through the glasses with my eight year old eyes was like this:  the world was just fine before, and the way it looked to me was the way I was used to seeing it.  But now – WOW!  Is this what it looks like?  Was it always this sharp, this clear?  The world changed in a single instant, and I could no longer believe that it was a fuzzy, blurry place.

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.