Now and Then
24 July 2018
I am taking in the earth as it moves from Texas to New Mexico. I think of Mother and Dad, of their decision to make that move, too, with you in their arms. I am grateful for both. I am grateful for you. I find myself because of the ways you know yourself. I keep learning you.
This New Mexico, this step from caprock to plains, then to rivers and mountains and mesas and cliffs, and always the vast blue, blue, blue skies, the ones Mother needed and loved and kissed with her insistence on being there, nowhere else — this New Mexico is my heart’s beat somewhere before it beat at all.
Rapturous now in Christopher’s (and my) England, I return each year to a primal sweetness for me. I run with my arms open to its simplicity and its stories of pain and of love over centuries.
I carry you with me.
5 May 2021
I am 75 now. You are 81. Mother and Dad and the big house, the willow, the vacant lots abutting and stretching our own, the winding terracotta porch, the jacks and jump rope, the pretending in PEO taffeta gowns to be on a ship from there to here are over. Only disappointment greets if we return. Returning takes us to now, not to then. Returning desecrates. Recalling resurrects. Recalling is enough.
So I recall Clovis, but I return to Santa Fe. I return to its now, its cerulean, its adobe, its native genius allowing me their worship, noticing earth touching sky, forgiving me and my kind, or maybe not. I stand under that sky and ask nothing more of this luminous and liminal second.
There I return, happily, to now.
Certain people take up residence in our minds. We invite them for one night. They arrive, smiling, standing on the door step, a huge suitcase in each hand. We wonder about the suitcases. But we say hi. They enter. They plop their bags on the floor, walk through the house opening rooms, looking through closets and cupboards and under beds. They ask where their room is. We direct them to a nice little cot in the front hall corner.
After breakfast they don’t leave. Tonight?
We wake to breakfast aromas. Have a seat.
We don’t ask.
By Sunday they have removed curtains, sold our car and are handing us a towel after our bath. They have moved their things from the cot in the corner to the canopy upstairs.
We seethe. We say nothing.
How did this happen?
Boundaries. As in none.
We’re always doing this, we reflect. People move in. We move over. People want control. We want peace.
Assert our needs? Not now. Maybe later.
Boundaries dignify. Both. And the other, under all that flapping around our space, longs for boundaries. They throw themselves across the room at us to see if we will stand. They want us to. They want to know who’s who and whose is whose. They want to be required to leave.
Only we can provide that safety. I know, it's always up to us. I hate that, too. But that’s that.
Here’s the point. We have to gawk at the suitcases.
And close the door.
Language changes. It’s right that it does.
But not yay.
Not for me. I like language as it is. You know, as I learned it. Properly. According to the rules as taught and drilled, tested and modelled by my redoubtable, walking-round-the-classroom-peering-over-your-shoulder middle school English teacher, Miss Martin. Never mind where her rules originated. And never mind how many of her rule-makers were rule-breakers defying their own teacher’s rules. Like Shakespeare.
That’s where I go wrong. Shakespeare. I love him. I revere him. Anyone who doesn’t isn’t breathing. But you can’t just say, ‘All language rule-breakers are wrong except Shakespeare.’ You can’t say that after Shakespeare no one gets to make up 1,700 words or turn nouns into verbs or invent prefixes. Either it is morally ok to mutilate language usage, or it isn’t. So I guess it is.
But just for a second, take that word: ‘usage’. ‘Usage’ should be used to refer only to language, not to things like monthly electricity consumption. The correct word for those things is ‘use’. Not ‘usage’. So you shouldn’t say ‘Your bill shows your electricity usage.’ It’s wrong. You should say, ‘Your bill shows your electricity use’. But try telling that to FirstEnergy whose passion for anything starts and stops at kilowatts. Or to your friends who wish you’d get, yes, a life.
And then there are the words that mean their opposite, like ‘bad’ for ‘good’, or ‘cool’ for ‘hot’, or ‘hot’ for ‘hot’ as in ‘cool’.
And what about making a word mean something unrelated to what it has meant for centuries? Like ‘neat’. ‘Neat’ used to mean ‘tidy’. Then overnight it started meaning ‘super’, about anything at all. Even sermons.
A person could be ‘neat’, too, even a slob who never made his bed or straighten a single drawer in his whole life.
Worst, there are shockers like: ‘none of them are here’, or ‘to happily accept’, or ‘who do you love?’, or ‘immune from’, or ‘different to’, or ‘bored of’, or ‘amount of things’, or ‘I love you doing that’, or ‘I only want the best’, and masses more.
Or take super shockers like: ‘Me and her are going’ or the great combo: ‘Her and I went with he and the dog’. (I actually heard that once.)
These infractions are 100% not ok with me. For me the beauty of life is the life of language. And language has rules. I want people to obey them because they make sense. They are wonderfully logical. But today’s butchering of the rules enters the speed-of-light-digital vat of proliferation, and instantly wrong usage goes ‘viral’, as in people become illiterate overnight. There should be a word for this massacre. Like ‘linguisticide’. Shakespeare would love that word even if he didn’t agree with it.
Actually, I do it, too. But that’s different. When I do it, it’s a creative act. It is a way to say the perfect thing for the context. It is not ignorance. That’s it. That’s the difference. If you break the rules knowingly in order to be dazzling, it is ok. What is not ok is ignorance of the rules. Or flaunting of them because you hated your childhood.
And to me it is criminally not ok when ignorance becomes the norm just because a huge population of ignorant others joins in. (Like that: some would say, ‘a huge population of ignorant others join in’.) For me this is serial slovenliness, which, if I remember correctly, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, as chosen by God.
God, if you ask me, also chose the rules of punctuation, sentence construction, word definition, tense, case, adjective/verb agreement and all the other inward, invisible things going on in an outward and visible sentence. They are holy.
They’re not. I know that. And anyway, I am already defeated because the thing I worship even more than Shakespeare is the Oxford English Dictionary (especially in its massive 12-volume version – now 20) which I ‘lived inside’ in the celestial Denison Library at Scripps.)
And that’s a problem because the OED allows change. Unlike me, it keeps an open mind about what real people are doing with language. And when it sees sufficient usage of a formerly wrong or made-up word or construction, the OED blesses it. It takes its sweet time with this, (except with ‘to Google’ which took only nine years), but ultimately it says wrong is now right.
So I guess I have to, too. I have to stop minding where language is going. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we use language comprehensibly, coherently and expressively, with a bit of flair. Or maybe a lot.
Therefore, maybe the mistakes I denounce are not mistakes. Maybe they are just life evolving, inexorably, beautifully. Even when a perfectly good noun becomes a perfectly awful verb like: ‘transition’ or ,’flip chart’, or ‘handbag’, or ‘action’, or, ‘friend’, or ‘coffee’, or, or, or.
This noun-to-verb crime is called ‘denominalization’, which has today denominalised itself into ‘verbify’. I can hardly even write that. I’m with Benjamin Franklin who wrote to Noah Webster that denominalization is “awkward and abominable.”
I’m sure Franklin would have said the same about nouns that verbify by growing an ‘ise’. But I thought I would never get over the ‘ising’ (I just did that) of ‘priority’. But I did. I now think ‘prioritise’ is lovely.
On the other hand, if I’d been Franklin’s friend, I probably would have said the same about the now common verbified nouns: to chair, to bed, to seed, to man, to house, to paper, to divorce, to dress, to train, to voice ….
This is all just too hard.
But maybe, maybe, I could imagine watching a Shakespeare play in 1606 and hearing twenty words I’d never heard before because he had just made them up. Like: ‘bandit’. Can you imagine hearing ‘bandit’ for the first time? Or ‘critic’. Or ‘dauntless’. Or even ‘lonely’. Imagine there not being those words in the world, and suddenly there they are! Maybe it is inherently exciting. Maybe there is nothing wrong with it at all.
But I will never ever, ever agree to love ‘like’ when it means absolutely nothing while attaching itself like an annelid worm to the opening of a sentence following the also meaningless, ‘It’s’ and ‘you know’: ‘It’s like, you know, really great.’
Or when it spray-shoots its way around a sentence, making it sputter: ‘I am like going to my like friend’s house for like an overnight.’ Dear God.
Ditto the ‘up inflection’ at the end of sentences. Turn me loose on people who do that and, well, don’t. And when ‘like’ and the ‘up inflection’ join forces, I become a danger to society. In my quiet way.
While I’m at it, I am watching warily the gathering tsunami of ’So’. Six years ago one of my colleagues began an off-the-cuff speech with ‘So’. I kind of liked it. It seemed to honour the previous speaker. It seemed respectful.
But suddenly (and I mean suddenly, not just linguistic geologic suddenly), ‘So’, meaning nothing at all, was launching 25% of sentences. So (here meaningfully meaning ‘therefore’), good luck if you want people to start speaking without saying ‘So’ first, meaninglessly.
Sure, you can argue that ‘So’ simply replaces ‘Well’. But ‘Well’ is also meaningless.
To my pledge:
I will follow in the hallowed footsteps of Shakespeare and the Oxford English Dictionary and let language be whatever it’s going to be.
Bottom line, I will keep my outrage to myself.
One more tiny thing. Sentence Fragments. I used to hate them. I preached that every stand-alone sequence of words had to have a subject (noun) and predicate (verb). Fragments were wrong wrong wrong.
Then fragments showed up in some of the modern ‘greats’. (Of course, Joyce had been flinging fragments around since 1930. But who could miss subjects or predicates while drowning in a wash of run-ons?) By 1990 the ‘greats’ were fragmenting sentences everywhere.
Then one day I noticed that I liked it. I admitted how pacey those fragments could make a sentence. How emphatic. (Like that.)
So now I do fragments guilt-free. Almost. When I handed in the manuscript of my latest book, I ran back under the duvet, hands over my ears. But nothing happened. Fragments are fine, apparently. So I’ll have to be, too.
Regardless, this is the last you’ll hear about it from me.
I solemnly pledge.
Photo by NASA
Photo by NASA
When you get down to it, death, as a concept, is completely fascinating.
(And in case you are superstitious, you can relax because to think about death is not to bring it on. Some people are scared of that. So they won’t think about it. Really. It sounds stupid, I know. And it is. But I was. And then I got over it. Pretty much. So now I’m good. I know absolutely that death is caused by lots of things, but not by thinking about it as a concept. And if I die immediately after writing this, it will be just a classic case of disentangling ‘post hoc’ from ‘proctor hoc’, one of my favourite pastimes. Of course, I won’t be here to enjoy that. Anyway, check with me next week.)
Death is like that: just bringing it up makes people weird. And to discuss it at length, well, it’s hardly worth the ‘um’ look on people’s faces and the high-level finessing they do to morph the conversation into anything else, even taxes or skin disease. Anything.
And that’s odd if you think about it. Given how ho-hum death really is, how arrestingly ordinary, how wholesome, how absolutely-for-certain it is to happen to every single one of us, you just can’t account for people’s freeze when you raise the subject. They might smile in order to look game, but those ‘oh, please, no’ smiles fool no one.
Dying clearly is the right and proper thing to do. So we really could be fine about it. The way we are about living. Conceptually speaking.
But we are entirely not fine about it. In fact, death completely creeps us out. Dying is the thing not to do for as long as possible. And even forever if you are a cryogenicist. (I knew one of them. They really are creepy.)
Now you’d think death would be easier to consider if you’re over 70. For one thing, death is not that far off, including if, like me, your genetic pool is full of ancient people (except for the smokers, who don’t count here but were, of course, lovely in every other way). But no, over 70, 80, 90, even at 101 you can still hate the whole idea of death.
And that’s a shame because death is right there to be considered. It is everywhere hovering, knocking, peering, pacing, jumping up and down at the end of the drive. But we ignore it. Or we shoo it away. We rake the leaves, bury the dog, step on the ants, power wash the wasp holes, pad the subsidence, and look at the stars as if they, and not just their light, are for sure still there. Hardly for a moment do we stop, sit down and just think about all this dying. All this ending.
Probably like you, I was raised to believe that when creatures die, their spirit leaves the carcass to continue life in a non-physical form. We can believe that even dogs, rabbits and dragonflies have spirits. (Not so much snakes, tarantulas, or pond algae.) And I’ve been through at least four phases of belief/nonbelief about the afterlife. Recently I was drifting.
And then I came across these two facts:
1 Everything dies, even the universe.
2 Life cannot exist without death.
When I really think about those two ideas, I fall into a kind of rupturing rapture. I feel almost reverent thinking about the end. Of everything.
Since then I’ve stopped being afraid of the whole idea of ‘over’. I can almost love it. The way you can love an equation that is mostly Greek letters extending the length of a Feynman black board. (Not that I could ever produce such a string of wonder. But I am sure I would love it if I could.)
Here is my understanding of those two staggering facts:
Everything dies, even the universe.
Death is popular. Everything does it. Not just us. If it’s alive, it dies. If it’s not alive, it still dies because a) science is undecided about what life is, and so it may well be alive, and b) it ceases to be in its present form, and that is as good as dying. In fact, that is dead. Ceasing to be in your present form is definitely dead. Same for humans. We cease to be in our present form. We become dead.
And again, I appreciate that this physical deadness which is observable does not disprove a non-physical aliveness that is not observable. But that belief in an unobservable ‘non-physical’ possible reality stops us from contemplating the observable physical actual reality which is the absolute end of being. And deeply contemplating that reality is where the challenge and reward lie. At least for me. Thinking about the known reality wholeheartedly is so worth setting down the tools of belief for just a minute.
In detail, what we know is that we are atoms that exist briefly in one form – us. Then when we die, our atoms disperse (stop being us) to the stars, hanging out with other atoms until it’s time to configure into something different. (Life starts and ends in the stars. I love that.)
So, what we know, not just believe, is that everything is physical and everything dies. Even the universe.
And that’s the shocker. That’s the song. That was what got me: Even the universe dies. Even the universe. Everything.
Some astrophysicists say it like this: the universe will ‘turn in on itself’, collapsing into a ‘singularity’ which is how it began. That would be pretty dead if you ask me. Even collapsing back to the odd quark would be as good as dead. You can’t have a great conversation with a quark.
And whether its death turns out to be the Big Freeze, the Big Crunch, the Big Rip, the Big Bounce, or the Big Slurp (that’s my favourite), the universe will die.
Some do say it will take the universe 100 trillion years or more to do this collapsing, which I admit is not tomorrow. But still it is out there waiting to happen. And that means that, yes, I die but so does the universe. Eventually there is nothing at all. I feel liberated by that.
But maybe you don’t. Maybe, as I mentioned, you believe that when the body is dead, the person isn’t. I understand this. I sense the presence of dead people I love, too, everyday.
But I increasingly feel that my ‘sense’ of them is my fully alive, inextinguishable memory of them. And that seems as magnificent to me now as any imagined non-physical existence of them did before. They no longer have to ‘exist’ to exist for me.
Why, though, I’ve wondered, was this so hard for me? Endings, most likely. Humans are pathetic at endings. My physician helped me with this when he said, ‘Nancy, old age is not a disease, and dying is not a failure.’ I thought they were.
He is right. Humans won’t allow the absolute ending of something we love, human or universe. But I think we should.
Life cannot exist without death.
I didn’t know that. I had noticed, obviously, that life doesn’t exist without death. But I hadn't realised that it can’t.
It can’t because we breathe oxygen that turns food into energy, keeping our bodies alive. And that same process spins off rogue oxygen molecules that kill some cells faster than they can reproduce. Eventually these ‘wandering’ oxygen molecules destroy our organs.
Seeing that the process that keeps us alive also slowly kills us, I no longer separate living from dying because both are happening at once. We are the living. We are the dying. Both.
The makers of life are the destroyers of life. Life cannot exist without death.
That changed the whole issue for me. It meant that I had to be not just accepting of death, but grateful for it. Grateful for this, nature’s most exquisite symbiosis.
Soon I started giving thanks for death.
Now I cherish the ending because it creates the beginning that becomes the being.
BeginningBeingEnding. (Is this, I wonder, the real trinity?)
With a measure of awe I now honour the sheer poetry of life’s built-in finishing.
Cultivating a Love of Scrutiny
Consider this from James Clear:
Rather than trying to be right, assume you are wrong and try to be less wrong.
Trying to be right tends to devolve into protecting your beliefs. Trying to be less wrong tends to prompt more questions and intellectual humility.
‘Try to be less wrong’. Whoever does that? For one thing, it is a big job. It goes against what we are rewarded for. In school, for example, the point is to get things right. You usually don’t get A+ by being a bit less wrong.
And in the world of work, being wrong is a disaster. It can get you fired. Being right can get you promoted until you become one of the higher-ups who are often the most wrong and steeped in how right the wrong is. Organisations don’t recruit on the basis of loving to discover how wrong we were. Imagine seeing this in the ‘want ads’:
We are seeking a person who has no investment in being right. They need to be someone who understands that humans get things wrong most of the time, someone who will strive to get things a bit less wrong each day.
Wouldn’t that be refreshing?
Or how about this for a reward path:
People who have the most knowledge and are the best at implementing it will be rewarded only when they demonstrate joy at discovering where they were wrong, and excitement at figuring out what would work better, and then mastering that, eager to discover down the road what was wrong with it, too.
That would be amazing. And that would be at least a nod to reality. Because that is what the real world of knowledge and practice actually is. Mostly we are wrong about what we know, and mostly our actions, therefore, are flawed. Our real job, then, should be to be thrilled to discover the flaws or gaps in the ideas and their action, and to figure out how to improve them, how to be ‘less wrong’ about them. But you’d never know that from the confetti-dropping hullaballoo rewarders make over being right. And the contortions people get into, making the wrong seem right. Power, it seems, punishes scrutiny.
So, how about we stop right now? How about we decide to be thrilled to discover error in what we espouse and do? I know that is tricky. Especially when we adore what we espouse and do, and most especially when what we adore is a body of personal thought and practice.
Adore vs Love
A word on this distinction. I use ‘adore’ here on purpose. We can love an idea and not slip into adoring it. But when we think an idea is so beautiful and workable it should be left alone and not scrutinised, we have slipped into adoration. Adoration is dangerous. Especially, again, when the object of worship is a body of personal thought and practice.
Thought vs Product
And a moment on that distinction. On the one hand, adoring (i.e. not examining) operational or commercial ideas and action associated with, say, a product, or service, or business team, or radio programme, or fashion, is only somewhat dangerous because those ideas and actions are about things outside ourselves. They are objective, practical. So if they are flawed, we will know soon enough because they will not work in the ‘marketplace’. We will get feedback from ‘users’, fast. Of course we can ignore or reinterpret the feedback and stick with the idea/action, but down the road that is likely to cost us.
On the other hand, adoring (not examining) ideas that we hold subjectively and practice personally is chill-makingly dangerous. Usually we ourselves and the people who think just like us and do just what we do are our main feedback system for the idea. And the feedback usually is, ‘This is wonderful!’ And because the ideas are subjective and the practice is personal, and because we adore both, we can’t see the gain from being open to their flaws. In fact, we can easily regard scrutiny of them as something to be feared and fought and denied entry. For certain we rarely know joy at the prospect of seeing where our ideas are wrong or incomplete.
This sliding from love into adoration may well be, as Trisha Lord suggests, a consequence of our having begun to identify with the idea. We begin to adore the idea when it has begun to be part of who we think we are. So deciding to notice flaws in the idea can feel to us like the decision to notice flaws in ourselves, in our very being. This can feel too threatening, and so we quickly develop defensiveness towards any scrutiny of the idea (i.e., ourselves). We fast become wary of, and then resistant to, scrutiny of the idea.
Maryse Barak, reflecting on this reluctance to notice flaws, said: ‘Scrutiny of an idea I love demands my courage, my intent to discover, my understanding that things may fall apart, and that when they do – I don’t. I can keep thinking and letting new information allow new levels of coherence’.
When an idea we love falls apart, we don’t. Yes. Our ideas live in us, but they do not comprise us. (Monica Schüldt, conversation)
Thinking about this reluctance to scrutinise, I would speculate that there are roughly three camps of ‘thought-and-personal-practice’ enthusiasts. When asked how they feel at the prospect that the ideas they espouse might be wrong, they might have one of three answers:
I love it every time I see something new we had missed, or something wrong with what had seemed right. I love figuring out what would work better. I look forward to those moments of discovery.
I am happy when changes to the thought and practice are made, but I feel frightened when I am staring an error or new feature in the face. I do not keep my eyes open eagerly for those moments of discovery.
I wish we would stop trying to improve this and just get on with espousing and practicing it. These ideas and practice are so good, they don’t need to be better. I don’t enjoy scrutinising them. Practicing and teaching and spreading them are what give me joy.
Clearly most idea-adorers and practitioners are in the third camp. But even idea lovers in the second camp only sit on the shores of scrutiny.
And yet – and this is what matters so much to me – only in scrutinising the body of thought and practice we love, only by noticing and discarding inferior features, and discovering new vigorous ones, can we protect its viability. Only when we ruthlessly examine it ongoingly does its best form have a chance to emerge and endure. Only then can it gradually make a down-the-road, pervasive, positive difference in the world. Without this joy in finding the flaws and gaps, and correcting them, we almost ensure its relegation to the shelves of ‘interesting’ but easily sideline-able notions.
We also need caution. As we adopt scrutiny as an essential feature of honouring the ideas and practice we love, and as we then build changes into them, we need to join Monica Schüldt in scrutinising that very act of change. She would ask: ‘How can we be sure that what we think are improvements to the body of thought really are improvements? How do we ensure we do not replace what was actually better with something new which we have put on a pedestal only because it is new?’
Cultivating a Love of Scrutiny
Enter group size.
Now things get serious.
It is hard enough and important enough to ‘want to notice where we are wrong’ when we are in small groups (probably six or fewer ) to celebrate, learn more about and confirm the efficacy of a set of ideas and personal practice. But when we gather in large groups, the scrutiny of those ideas and practice can become nearly impossible. Large groups in my experience almost always discourage scrutiny. And the larger the group the less inclined its members can be to prove themselves wrong.
Here’s one possible reason why. If we hold dear an idea, and if that idea has, as Lord suggests, become part of our personal identity, we can feel a need for it to be completely right. So the more people who gather to say it is right, the more we can feel confident that it is right. The more people who think so, the more likely it is so. And then before you know it, ‘self’ identity has become ‘us’ identity. Soon, as Claire Andrews said, ‘we have begun to care more about “us”, than we do even about the original idea. The very idea of “us”, whenever that emerges, can discourage scrutiny of the idea that drew us together originally because “us” suggests a “them” and encourages barriers and harder structures - real or imagined. So there's a problem not only with how the group sees itself and its “group idea” but also with how it relates to the wider world.’
Add this ‘the-us-has-to-be-right’ phenomenon to our having been practically bludgeoned each time we pointed out flaws in a revered idea growing up, and you can almost guarantee that espousers of a loved idea will meet in large groups to espouse it further, and soon to adore it, certainly not to question it.
There is a feeling aspect to all of this too, an insidious one. By collectively embracing the idea and practice, we not only get to feel right, we also get to feel good. Looking around and seeing how many people there are who share our support of this idea and, therefore, how right the idea must be and, therefore, how good we must be, too, for advocating it makes us feel really really good. And when we all feel really really good as a group, that really really good feeling can make us think that meeting in larger and larger groups to promote the idea is an actual need that should be filled. So we proceed to create larger and larger groups of espousers.
What’s so bad about feeling really really good in large groups?
Andrews again: ‘Large group euphoria keeps people from scrutinising the ideas that make them euphoric’. In large groups the temptation is fiercely to coddle, bow to and just not see the dicey bits of the ideas and practice we adore. We seemed to be systematically socialised against scrutiny.
But without that scrutiny the body of thought and practice eventually stagnates, codifies, stops breathing. The larger the group, the easier the kill.
Some go even further and argue that scrutinising in large groups goes against human nature. Ruth McCarthy’s take on this view is particularly cogent, I think. I would paraphrase her this way:
When it comes to groups, human nature makes us prefer belonging to scrutinising. Of course, in cellular evolution Nature does produce random new ‘ideas’ (mutations), and the errors in those ‘ideas’ keep the organism from reproducing, so only the ‘good in the idea’ survives long term. In that way Nature does love to find errors and dispose of them. And therefore, at the cellular level, scrutiny can be said to be natural.
But in humans this ‘biology of scrutinising’ conflicts with our 'psychology of belonging’. Observably the natural drive to belong in groups usually overrides the natural need to scrutinise.
Therefore, we are never going to agree to develop in ourselves a love of scrutiny, especially in large groups, because that would seem to threaten our belonging.
So we choose to belong. Not to scrutinise. Just look around.
When we do, we see this ‘need to belong’ overriding the ‘need to scrutinise’, often horrifyingly. We see it in political rallies of all sorts, ordinary ones, and dramatic ones like Nuremberg 1933 and Washington 2021. We see it in churches, too, especially Megachurches. We see it in personal growth movements. We see it also, of course, in cults from James Jones to QAnon.
Can you imagine a speaker at a large such gathering saying, ‘We are almost certainly wrong about a lot of this. We are here today to discover where.’
It just won’t happen because the point of the large gathering is implicitly to adore this ‘now’ version of the idea, not to question it for the sake of its future. And that’s the concomitant problem: we don’t usually think in ’futures’, in ‘long runs’. We think in ‘nows’ and ‘next weeks’. Maybe ‘next quarters’. But ‘long runs’ are so, I don’t know, boring? Ungraspable? Un-now?
And yet, ‘long runs’ are all that an emerging good idea and practice can count on. It is the long run of an ever-scrutinised good idea that allows it to change society. Democracy, universal education and freedom of speech seem to me to make the case for scrutiny-as-friend.
So, if I were an emergent idea and practice, and I wanted to make a long-term positive difference in society, I would want to be questioned ruthlessly, improved and questioned again. And I would run like mad from large groups of adorers.
I would be not quite as concerned about small groups. Although humans can still be nervous in small groups, there is usually less face for us to lose by being different there, by questioning things, by looking for oddities, by saying, ‘that’s funny,’ and wanting to look harder to see the aberration. Small groups are usually less intimidating, less punishing. And so less ‘sameifying’. They are less euphoria-making. In a small group a loved idea stands a better chance of being developed, tested and persistently freed of its flaws.
In considering this challenge, Laura Williams pointed to the words of Steve Carroll: ‘To know a thinking environment [an environment of scrutiny] is to experience the frightening freedom of breaking from the herd.’ She went on to ask, ‘How do we ensure we can do this when we are in large groups? Can we break from the herd and still be in the herd? Does the herd move with us?’ Interesting questions.
So if it is the integrity and longevity of a body of personal thought and practice we want, we probably want to think a hundred times before loving it into adoration, and before fanning that adoration in large groups.
In the face of this challenge I would argue that our ‘biology of scrutiny’ is every bit as robust as our ‘psychology of belonging’. We just need to summon it and give it a work out. It will soon lift a tonne. In doing that we will know joy, true joy, the joy of embracing an idea by stepping back from it and seeing it, by rejoicing in the discovery of its flaws, or its formerly invisible features, that suddenly change our understanding of it. This joy in noticing the need for change is unmitigated joy because it is honest. It is eyes wide open. It is humans awake.
Also, joy in ‘that’s funny!’ moments sits beautifully with joy in 'that works!’ moments. In fact, I think we can be truly joyous only if we love both being wrong and being right. People who know joy only in being right worry they might be wrong; people who know joy only in being wrong worry they might be right. People, on the other hand, who take joy in both don’t have to worry. They can just walk forward with a lilt, keeping a look out.
So I would like to see our world feel really really good about being really really good at scrutiny. And especially at the scrutiny of the very ideas we are afraid to scrutinise, the ones we love.
And I would like for the world to start every group gathered around a loved body of thought and practice with the injunction to scrutinise it as we go. Monica Schüldt again said it well:
‘What do we do when we meet? We question.’
I long for us all to sit impatiently for the moments when we spot the anomaly or gap, face it and say, ’Hooray, we were wrong!'
My sister asked me what I think the purpose of life is.
I haven’t answered her. Mainly because I don’t know. If anything, I doubt there is one.
A lot of people think that this question bounces around our sophomore year in college and then disappears. No. It haunts us, drives us, throws most of our plans into orbit around a completely different sun. Nevertheless, there is an entire industry devoted to helping you find your purpose and fulfilling it. There are steps, apparently, you can follow to ‘be on purpose’.
I’ve never been interested. I follow my heart, my values, my unanswered questions, my joy, my moments of exhilarating congruence, my insatiable interest. But not my purpose. Who is important enough to have a purpose?
I think life’s purpose is life. That’s it. Life seems to want to keep going as long as it can, and to leave more life as its legacy. It organises itself and the environment to do that. Any other purpose, I suspect, is something we driven humans make up.
And humans are good at that. We are, as far as I know, the only life form that can make up stuff. We can imagine things and happenings and people that are not real; we can create ideas (even such revered concepts as justice, virtue, holiness, privilege, truth) that are by their very nature not real; and we can put into language all of this made-up world so that other humans begin to take it on, too.
Purpose, it seems to me, is just another of those made-up things. There is probably no objective purpose to our lives. Except to be alive until we aren’t.
But making up a purpose is not a stupid, pointless thing to do. You could even argue that because we have the capacity to conceive of a life purpose in the first place, and that doing so gives us peace and energy and can lead to things we interpret as useful and joyous, we should search for it. And find it.
I’ve known that enjoyment, too. For example, I once concluded logically that the purpose of a person’s life is to be fully who they are, uniquely, to express their talents and personality and qualities as truly and consistently as they can.
So I decided to wonder about myself as a unique person. And it gave me a kind of permission to go for the things I really wanted with my life: 1) to notice what helps people to think for themselves, 2) to teach and speak and write, 3) to love and 4) to create a beautiful home. So I did. And for these 37 years since, I have known great happiness. Some pain, too. But more joy. And, I admit, a kind of coherent sense of who I am.
So if one’s purpose is the lived expression of one’s unique self, good. But I don’t really buy it. I can, and do, live my unique self without for a second thinking it is my purpose. Because I don’t think I have one, except, as I say, to be alive.
I even think that recognising purposelessness in life has some dazzling benefits. The key one is freedom. Once we can let go of needing a purpose, or needing life and our institutions and our relationships to have a purpose; once we can stop trying to figure out the reason for joy and pain, suffering and success, destruction and invention, we can settle back and take in life in the wondrous detail that is out of our reach when we are anxiously pursuing purpose, when we are injecting into every outcome a meaning of some sort; when we are racing towards some ephemeral (because made up) meaning in it all.
No longer needing there to be a purpose for everything also prevents our hurtling into dangerous mystical dead ends, where we either crash or collapse into a kind of insanity of claiming that failure of purpose is purpose itself.
We stop saying, for example, things like: ’It was God’s will that her family would be murdered so that she could learn about the moral depravity of mass murderers and seek to help such people by becoming as a psychiatrist herself?
Really? So this all-powerful, all knowing, non-physical, infinitely good God created unfathomable loss and grief for this young woman so she could discover and live her purpose?
Or different but just as bad: ‘The murders both were and were not part of God’s purpose for her. The nature of God is a mystery. We must just have faith that the mystery makes sense in the world of divine purpose.’
But if we can let go of needing to establish and defend purpose in everything, we free ourselves to do other things with the time and energy it takes to construct and re-construct a defence of the terrible. We can just face it, think about it, get help, solve it, and move on down an unstupifying road.
I know a man who agonises about his life purpose most of every day. He is now 80. He still does not know what it is. He has done good things over these years, really good things, some of them moving, creative, joy-making. He is still influential in others’ lives. But it is not enough. It does not feel to him like purpose.
I often think that he could have such sweet moments, thousands of them, to contemplate the beauties of life around him and through him, to leap a bit from the sheer specialness of being alive and of mattering to people, if he could only see that he will never figure out his purpose. Because there isn’t one.
Except to live and be as fully alive as possible. And that takes presence.
And that takes a big goodbye to purpose.
Or maybe not. Maybe there is a purpose to each human life after all. If the purpose of life is life itself, and the realising of that purpose is the living of life until it is over, maybe the purpose of each human life is to be as alive as possible every minute. And maybe, therefore, the question to drive our days is not, ‘What is my purpose?’ but ‘How can I be fully alive today?’
I’ll think about that.
When I was 22, I found myself among Quakers. I was a new teacher in a new Quaker school in Sandy Spring, Maryland. It was the stimulatingly unstable 60’s. And a hotbed of anti-Vietnam War protests. And general iconoclasm. The boys refused to cut their hair; the girls refused to wear bras; the faculty refused to drive anything but a Volkswagen Bug; and everyone refused to be impressed by Richard Nixon. Except me. I had a pro-Nixon sticker on my ‘unconscionable’ Chevrolet 396 Impala four-door. I thought the War was a good thing. And I thought dressing immaculately was a moral issue. But they hired me anyway. That was the first clue. They liked me. Life as I knew it was over.
The second clue was that the student body and faculty gathered for ‘Meeting for Worship’ every single morning and sat in quiet for 15 whole minutes. I was pretty sure for the first semester that I was going to die of not speaking.
The third clue was the Community Meeting once a month. Anyone could speak and say whatever they thought. This day’s meeting was about the War. Everyone spoke against it. So I stood. I said I thought the war was good. I said that if we pulled out, the communists would invade the US. I said we had to fight communism over there so we wouldn’t have to fight it here. I sat down. No one shushed me; and when the meeting was over, no one shunned me.
The fourth clue was the next day when the Head of the English Department, Peter Kline, said to me, gently, ‘Nancy, I am interested in your stand on the War. You said that you think the communists would invade the US. How exactly would that work?’
‘Well,’ I said, sitting up straight, ‘they will come to the shores of New York City.’
‘I see,’ Peter said, as if he were talking to a sane person. ‘And then what will they do?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘then they will, they will march to Washington and then all the way to New Mexico and kill us all. They will fly, actually. I smiled.
‘And how exactly might they get that far do you think?’ Peter asked, truly interested.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘Yes. Well, they would, well, I am not completely clear about that detail as a matter of fact.’ I looked at him. ‘I’ll think about it for a few days, and get back to you.’
I got up.
‘That would be great,’ Peter said, again gently.
And that was that. Peter went back to work, and I went back to nowhere. How were the communists going even to get to New York City and not be wiped out by our iconic military (that I defended as if god), never mind get to New Mexico, 2000 miles further on?
Something dropped off bits of itself all around me. I guess it was my carefully constructed, carefully unexamined life. Eventually I was standing there with only my empty mind to prop me up. I had promised Peter I would think about this. In effect I had promised to think for myself. Maybe for the first time in my life.
Hard as I tried I could no longer make the War make sense. I wanted to. My twin brother was fighting over there. I needed for the war to make sense. What if he died? It had to mean something. And for three days I tried. But by Monday I no longer could hammer that War into anything remotely reasonable.
How exactly would that work?
Is that what the Quakers do, I wondered? Ask and listen? And an independent mind is born.
I see the sun on your face. We were, only a few months ago, sitting outside the Italian café on the square in London. You handed me a copy of Learning To Saunter. I held it to my heart. And you said to me, ‘I have discovered that when I write about economics and social change in my essays, I write from rage. But when I write about it in my poems, I write from love.’ We smiled at each other, a silent saying of a life-time of understanding and struggle and release. I marvelled at you.
From the first evening I met you 13 years ago, I marvelled. That night I discovered that you had been in the audience during my talk on women and power, and I was so grateful that I had not known you were there, your reputation as a formidable and important thinker and woman in the world having preceded you -- I was certain I would not have been able to put two words together. Awe has teeth, but it is a silly thing. When we met after the talk, we embraced as if we had known each other forever. Perhaps we had.
In these years of knowing and loving you, I have often stood back, exploring you, your huge rightness in the face of wrong, a sun in itself, exposing lies, endorsing hopes, beckoning the green shoots. I have seen you run into the surging southern sea, warming it I was sure, and skip on its shore. I wanted to be like you. I wanted to be as authentic, as bold, as uncompromising, as clarion a voice for just and real and required-of-right as you were.
In the sun on the square this August, we talked and talked and talked. For those hours I wanted time to stop; as I had for all these years every time we met, I wanted to understand life as you did. I wanted to memorise the way you were a woman, the way you charged and waltzed all at once. I wanted to learn you. You lived liberation.
We ordered lunch. And I knew absolutely that when the server brought the bill, you would disappear to set straight something not right in the system. And you did – you asked the waiter whether he would personally get the tip if you paid with a credit card. He said no, he would get only a portion. You asked to see the manager. You asked the manager how much of the tip on a credit card payment the server would get. 3%, he said. What happens to the rest of it, you asked? It goes into the company. But we pay our servers more than other restaurants, he said. How much more, you asked? Other restaurants pay the minimum wage; we pay 50 pence more, he said. Could you live on that, you asked? And before he could answer, you said, please change your policy so that at least the server gets the full tip. He has done an excellent job. And today I will leave my tip in cash.
It was never straightforward having lunch with you. And I cherished every minute. And grew. And knew love, universal and particular.
It was you who, in 1995, insisted we could find better wording for the Transition Question. That question was a long, labouring ladder of a thing when I taught you and Christina and your group. And it was with you that the question found its present form, still complex but elegant, and to whom hundreds of breakthrough, life-changing moments owe gratitude. I can see you there in that chair, thinking, and then breaking into irrepressibility, again like sun. And how right it is that that question has been described as ‘a sure road out of victimization.’ Such was your life’s work.
From the first days of knowing each other we found we had a common passion for radical economic change in the world. I loved our discussions about it. You were the only person I had ever known who was developing and communicating ideas for systems that would be truly different from anything attempted before, and that would be good for all people and inspiring of initiative and enterprise of all kinds. Again I marvelled at you. And I thought that I would someday soon be able to be with you for long enough truly to learn the things I needed to learn in order to communicate your ideas in my circles, too. I now regret the assumption of our having forever to do this, but I am grateful that you wrote your book and that now I can study it and summon the essence of you to be with me while I learn.
You were unapologetically white, and with every breath insisted on the liberation of Black South Africa. You taught me how white lives can progress Black freedom, all freedom. You said that we are free only when we are all free. I knew that. But until I knew you, I did not know it. You did not wait for perfection; you leapt forward willing to blunder, though you usually soared; you did not hold back, ever; you stood up all of your life.
We went to church together in Gugulethu. It was the month that †he church had opened its service to the sharing of the anguish and the formerly unspeakable detail of AIDS in families, in all of community. The service had already begun. I was nervous about being late. You weren’t. I walked in behind you, studied your ease, your beaming, your knowing we would be welcome, your containment and your wide horizon of love.
Again, I tried to memorise you, to feel what life must be like knowing what you knew and walking hand in hand as you did with everyone, assuming people would be themselves and would want you to be yours, too. So I imagined that I was fine. I learned fine from you. I listened to the beautiful percussives of Xhosa and thanked you in my heart for leading me here, for loving us all so much.
We shared a dream. But it was you who made it come true. You had said you wanted to teach the Thinking Environment in South Africa. I encouraged you, but it seemed so big to me. My focus then was on the tiniest part of ‘part III' and what to do when the thinker thought the assumption was true but I did not, and I did not know why. I did not know even what true was, not cognitively yet. I was stewing. You were reaching. Again, you did not wait for perfection. And again I learned.
Now the way the independent thinking is blossoming in South Africa takes my breath away and is our dream awakened, stretching, becoming itself. You gave the nine of us to each other, with you in the centre, and now in the centre of our collegiate heart forever.
As women passionate for change, we both reached for the world. But you walked right straight into its waves, and swam.
Four years ago, we leaned together over the stone wall at Cape Point, a thin separation of us from the meeting of two seas and from the mesmerising imponderable end of Africa. We had driven that road from Kalk Bay, gathering up the miles and then the inches to that wondrous tip. My first time in Africa and feeling I could reach my fingertips and toes to either end, and somehow feel it, massive and containable all at once. I felt from here. Maybe our ancient chromosomes remember. We are all one. I felt that with you. I still cannot sleep on flights to South Africa. I can only think in awe of it and wonder exactly where we are and how coming home it feels to me. I can see your face when I arrived that first time. Your home. Mine. Welcome.
Margaret, thank you. Thank you for walking the earth as a giant and as a little girl, as a luscious, passionate female, as a vast intellect, as a force and as a twinkle, as a sister. And thank you for how much of you you left behind for us to savour all of our lives, and for us to cherish.
You asked me once where I loved most to be in the world. And I said, ‘Two places: With Christopher and in the middle of a sentence in search of the perfect word.’ You hugged me and said, ‘I know’. Thank you, our dearest M, for finding your perfect words and for leaving them for us to hold and for us to build on.
This world is forever better because you were so very, very you while you were here.