Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cutting Facets in the Gemstone of Life

Jon Katz writes a blog called Bedlam Farm Journal, where he shares his meditations on animals, writing, photography, and life in general. Recently, he’s written a lot about change and growth and countering the negative vibe in the media. A few months ago, he wrote,

“Like many culture debates, discussions over Positive Thinking have been hijacked by extremists, opportunists and professional depressives. People argue that you can get what you want by wanting it. Others that the world is a dark and evil place, and that should never be forgotten.”

Polarization by extremists is ubiquitous; we see it in politics and in breast feeding, in religion and in parenting, in education and in science. Extreme positions make me nervous. I’m happiest in the middle, sitting happily on the fence, enjoying a view of the big picture, yet vulnerable to attack from both sides. I’m the one trying to negotiate a compromise, find common ground, and shift perspective to a happier place where we can all get along. Na├»ve, yes, but that’s my interpretation of Positive Thinking.

Like Katz, I don’t think you can get what you want by wanting it, and people who deny there’s anything wrong in the world are lazy and saving themselves the bother of making the world a better place. But those who focus only on the bad, on how everything is going down the tubes, on how the End is near, drive me batty, too. They are whiners who are also lazy and saving themselves the bother of making the world a better place. What’s the point, after all?

Opportunists take advantage of these polar impulses of humanity. Self-help authors and talking heads strike the mother lode when they get Oprah-fied, and mass media freaks people out in an effort to win audience share. Technology means we are bombarded with these polarized messages constantly.

A few years ago, I came across a quotation from Elizabeth Bowen that struck me as profoundly true:

“If you look at life one way, there is always cause for alarm.”

I encountered a lot of “professional depressives” in academia, where hyper-specialization dangerously narrows people’s perspectives on the world. An English professor at Duke, Dr. J, once told me I could NOT double major in chemistry and English because the two subjects had nothing in common. I made sure never, ever to take a class with him. Professor J’s perspective was sadly limited, like the palette of a man who will only eat sour food. More than two decades later, my fascination with science remains strong, even if I didn’t make a career of it. I find a lot of philosophical common ground between science and English these days, and both have made it easier for me to cope with being the mother of an autistic child.

One of my graduate school professors, Dr. H, felt that any literary theory other than the one he preached was not only misguided but terribly wrong, and he graded students accordingly. His class was not a place for intellectual growth and open exchange of ideas.

But another of my graduate professors did promote intellectual growth and open exchange of ideas. Dr. Nancy West, a Victorian literature scholar with a strong interest in media studies, once shared a simile with me. A piece of literature, she said, is like a gemstone; each different literary theory cuts just one facet, but what really makes a gemstone sparkle is lots of facets. A piece of literature means more, sparkles more, when it's looked at from multiple perspectives.

Isn’t that a wonderful image for life? When we consciously look at life from lots of points of view, we see it better, it sparkles more, and it is much more vibrant and interesting.

Consider this thought experiment. First, imagine the feeling of standing in a mountain meadow with land rising up above you and falling down below you. Are you there? Can you feel the sun, hear the insects and pikas and birds? Can you smell the wildflowers and grass and the spongy moss under your hiking boots? Can you feel the cool mountain breeze ruffle your hair?

Next, erase the mountain scene from your mental eye and imagine standing on a beach with a sand dune behind you and the whole wide ocean in front of you. Can you feel the sand between your toes and the warm breeze whipping your hair and salt spray sticking to your skin? Can you hear the seagulls and the waves, and see the skittering of crabs and fountains of water shot up from the sand by mollusks? Can you smell the salt and sea wrack?

Now, can you tell me which view is right?

You may have a preference, of course, and be drawn to one more than the other, but both of these views are part of the gemstone of the world. Is one right? No.

I only know Jon Katz through his blog, which means my acquaintance with him is seriously limited, but I think he’s sitting near me on that fence in the middle. When I wrote him an email to express my appreciation for his blog and to share Dr. West’s gemstone simile, I did not expect a response. Katz is a published author with a huge blog readership. On his blog's contact page, he clearly states he cannot read, much less respond, to all the messages he receives. To my delighted surprise, however, he graciously replied to my email.

Our brief email exchange isn’t the sort of scintillating philosophical discourse others would pay money to read, but it was very satisfying nevertheless. If the Internet is good for nothing else, it allows people to connect briefly, find common ground, and move on in the certain knowledge that they are not entirely alone. Katz’s life has been very different from mine, and he’s in a completely different stage of life. But we’re both thinking along the same lines.

I’ve also gathered a new tidbit in my growing collection of evidence to support my belief that fence-sitting is a healthy place to be because the view is divine. In his reply, Katz wrote:

“I think academics have the same problem journalists and many writers do. They only talk to each other. One thing I love about where I live is I can't get away with that. I have to talk to farmers and sheriffs and pastors and unemployed highway workers and that keeps me a bit in perspective, I think. I think of the world as a collection of tents, and I am not welcome in most of them, which turns out to be precisely where I belong.”

Too often, we get mired in our own narrow point of view, stuck in our own tent. Our perspective gets distorted by that narrowness, and we have to work hard to open it up, look around, and realize that everyone isn’t seeing the world the exact same way.

In the process, ironically, we realize that we’re not all so different either.


  1. And as my wise husband says "If all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail!" (I'm not sure if he's quoting someone else or not). Thanks as always for your post!

  2. Harriet Skelly (hskelly on SCS)Wednesday, December 09, 2009

    You rock! This was an excellently written and thought provoking piece!

  3. Academia can be a strange world. The open-minded, excited by ideas, true liberal arts professor is hard to find. There are too many students and citizens willing to accept what they're told because life is so much less complicated when we neatly delineate right and wrong and demonize the opposition.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!