Whenever you wake up into your own skin and realize you are no longer less than, small, that you deserve to take up space, it is a very strange feeling. It’s like realizing that though you once were just a seed, you are now a tree with fruits and flowers, part of the vast network of growing things. When you were just a seed, you thought growing was impossible. If you were small and unsure like I was, you might stare at a tall oak with it’s rooted, thoughtful self confidence, and respond with: “I’ll be that? Yeah right!” But when you fully arrive at being here now, once growing has begun, there is room to meet change with joy along with the ever present fear of uncertainty that winds around the perimeter of the shape of our lives. And it seems not the case that the fear is of failure to thrive and become and the joy is for succeeding at your dreams, but that both happen in response to the possibility of success. This is because, I think, success and achievement are often thought to be the same as perfection. On the contrary, I hope to show that, in important ways, the need to be perfect (whether as a person or at doing something) ultimately leads to failure.
Human growing is probably a lot more involved and painful than plant growing. I imagine myself with a classroom full of students, my students, and feel like the seed or perhaps like a tiny plant that could be crushed at any moment. I think, yeah right. But what else is it to come into our own? What else is it to be a powerful change in the world?
I look at the book I’m reading for my dissertation, Alasdir McIntyre’s “Dependent Rational Animals.” I’m overwhelmed by the amount of information swarming my head. Questions like: is there a human nature? Are there virtues that can serve humans in flourishing no matter their culture? Is it really natural for us to form communities of giving and receiving? Can we make sense of an Aquinian vision of pity (uggghhh, I prefer sympathy or identification) or compassion, in a new context, one that does not involve God (the Christian God especially) but involves our nature as such?
Are we essentially good? Is it possible or even a good idea for us to rid ourselves of our most primitive instincts in order to act with practical rationality and wisdom, or does wisdom need instinct, can it not survive without acknowledged desire, feeling, and well-directed passion? I for one am not sure it can. I doubt that practical rationality, even when coupled with emotional balance, if there is no awareness of and way to express basic human instincts, will ever be wise. Many people think that we have perfected ourselves by not following or even acknowledging our instincts. Yet if I am right, our imperfect instincts not only make us human but allow us to develop an honest assessment of ourselves which is essential to living virtuously.
What shapes who we are and how much? I think about cultures, histories, identities, values and their justifications, empirical findings about human psychology, biological truths about the relation between us and other animals, our patterns that throughout time have proved nearly unbreakable. I stare at the tangled mess of millennia of human action and behavior and it’s theoretical, moral, and then down the road practical impact and doubt I can do much of anything at all. There are the arguments, and then there are the actual changes to be made. As long as I am confounded by the arguments and feel that whatever actions I might take to make a difference won’t be right, acceptable, the correct solution, I might do nothing at all. It seems that doing nothing is a much greater failure than is trying to make a difference without going about it perfectly.
I know it is one step at a time, but feeling so useless is terrifying. Or perhaps realizing that I could be dangerously useful is terrifying. Or perhaps the fact that I have not had the courage to stand alone with my thoughts and start to get involved with the question, with the answer, is terrifying.
When you begin, you cannot go back. You can keep a seed out of the ground, but put it in and once it sprouts, barring extenuating circumstances, there is no stopping it from becoming the plant or tree it is. It stands there, with a lot of other living things in an ecosystem of which it is an integral part, and yet it forever stands alone.
It is so firmly rooted. What is more, it is exactly what it is and doesn’t lie. Coming across an oak tree, you don’t stop and shake your head and wonder if you’re really looking at a redwood that was trying to pass as an oak tree, pretending to be something it wasn’t. People would probably benefit greatly from taking a course on life from trees: how to stand, how to stay grounded, how to keep what is valuable at the center, how to bend in the wind, how to reach toward the light, how to be fully present, fully themselves, how to be honest, how to contribute what they can to a nest, how to shade others from the glaring sun, how to gain sustenance from light, how to let go of parts of themselves that are no longer useful in the fall, how to blossom.
But in any case, whoever I am, there is no changing that now. Not on grand scales anyway. If I become an ethicist, a professor, a teacher, a creative writer, I’ll have to burst out of this shell and become something. This means making a mark on the world. This means of course responsibility. Should I be held responsible for my good intentions and all their amazing and disastrous outcomes and be left standing, like the tree weathering storms?
First, I suppose I have to be a little better at shouldering criticism. Second, I need to be a little bit better at believing in myself. But the irony of growing is that it doesn’t happen by rationally thinking it over until the right course comes along. A plant doesn’t contemplate the pros and cons of growing one way rather than another and then act accordingly. It is a process that it both creates and witnesses. This is true for humans too, I think.
We become confident, immune to misplaced criticism, graceful around well-deserved criticism, and able to believe in ourselves by living, by doing. And so it is in the throwing roots down and growing which ever way we do that we grow into ourselves, that we gain the qualities and values we want. It is not by contemplating the things we long for until we are perfectly certain that we have a fully fool-proof rational course to embark on, that we can finally walk the road of life. So perhaps if we instead try for a straight and narrow course we will in a sense fail, we will fail to grow at all because we are too afraid of making mistakes or not being good enough. It is like the saying goes, sitting on the edge of the river afraid to jump in because you might be a terrible swimmer, or forget how to float, or get snagged on a log, or get stuck in an eddy, or never learn to let go.
More imperfect arguments to come.