image by sarah mccoy photo

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Once Upon a September

I’m a sucker for the warm feeling of camaraderie. Sports offer that sense of shared, vital purpose.

So do wars.

Today, eating wings in a sports bar, there was a moment where some of the early games were finishing as several more games were kicking off. The Iggles had won, so we were primarily concentrating on our sticky-fingered lunching, but around us were a surprising number of Oakland fans, on their feet, watching a nail-biting finish to their game. The Raiders had just gone for 2 and were trying to hold their thin lead as the clock ticked down the last forty seconds.

Across the room though, on another screen, in another city, a giant flag was rippling over a field and a lone trumpet was singing out the anthem.

Suddenly, the Oakland fans fell silent and listened to the music as the last moments of their victory slipped by unheeded. When they began to cheer, GaleForce asked, “Did their team score again?”

“No,” I told her, “They’re cheering for America.”

It reminded me of a moment in the fall of 2001 when my best friend and I had scored free tickets to sit in the Flyers’ company box for a game. They were fantastic seats and the game was tight.

Then, between periods, the president’s post-9/11 speech was aired. Instead of refreshing their beers, people sat watching it on the big screens above the ice. Suddenly, though, his voice was cut off mid-sentence so that play could resume.

The players stood, awkward, not moving to the center, but looking around. And from somewhere, maybe from the ice, a chant began and swelled.

“Leave. It. On!”


Both teams pumped their fists in chorus with the crowd. They refused to take the ice.

The voices built to a cheer as the president’s face filled the screens again and the players and fans alike sat to watch in a palpable atmosphere of solidarity.

This time, over wings, wasn’t like that time. But Oakland fans, like Philly fans, are known more for their brazen passion than for their grace and sportsmanship. And, for a moment, all the many-jerseyed passions united in patriotism again.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Reason in a Rhimes World

An easy thing to do these days is to publicize your opinions in about 600 pithy words (she wrote, in the first of about 600 pithy words.) Then, social networks allow for small alliances to be built, for a day, on the foundation of these editorials. Who shared this vaccines post, who was notably silent on that parenting diatribe and so on. 

For these low-stakes opinion skirmishes, it’s often enough that the blogger has restated what we already believe or that someone’s words resonated with us. We require little in terms of evidence or research. In other words, we choose sides based largely on our feelings.

I often come back to this idea of philosophy as the basis for action. Your beliefs, whether you’d characterize them as religious or irreligious or somewhere more nuanced, are never neutral. They are defining principles that, like the roots of a tree, flow directly into action: the fruit of your existence.

 Except when they don’t. People who don’t know exactly where they stand, or what they believe about fundamentals (like what it is to be human, why we’re here, where we fit into our environment, and why we even conceive of right and wrong) are like an apple seed that grows the trunk of a beech and produces holly berries and pansies. In nature, we would suspect this specimen of being, gasp, a sordid kind of GMO.

Feelings are so elevated in our culture that it’s not odd to hear an educated person cut off reasoned discussion by saying, “Well, this is just how I FEEL.” To which there is no response, not because feelings are always legitimate, but because there is usually no reasoning with them. It takes cojones to stand up to feelings in a culture where they are so dangerously precious.

Conversely, a philosophy will help a person to examine his own emotions. He might find that his emotions are justified, but if he finds that they aren’t, he can master them like a hero. Noble actions are the result not of bulldozing the world with your feelings like a character in a Shonda Rhimes teledrama, but of overcoming your feelings to do what your mind, thoughtfully, has decided is more important, or more true.

The prophet Isaiah (like this leap I’m taking?) gives a dramatic warning to women, saying in chapter 32, “Tremble, you complacent women; shudder, you daughters who feel secure! Strip off your fine clothes and wrap yourselves in rags.” It’s not sound exegesis, but it’s also not a huge stretch to imagine that in our physical First World comfort, we feel a parallel false security in the personal, inconsequential nature of our opinions. But complacency about the weight of ideas and the state of our own thinking leads to scary places. 
Zombie movie places.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Isaiah wasn’t actually sent to turn Israel’s hearts and minds. He was sent to harden them. Which reminds me of this frustrating fact: emotional people have a predictable response to rational argument: the greater the evidence that their position is wrong, the more staunchly they dig in their heels. This is why college campus debates are vitriolic: the kids come for the fight, not the counterpoint.
But we aren’t Israel and this isn’t 740 B.C. We get a chance to do more than Rhimes-culture demands of us: think through the ideas behind things before we decide how we feel about them. What does the band Imagine Dragons mean when they sing, “It all comes back to you?” and is it true? Do you have to choose between Heidegger and metaphysical traditions, or is that a false dichotomy? Can there be multiple opinions on a question decided in a lab?

When I read opinion pieces on anything from free-range parenting to racial profiling to intervention and national sovereignty, I notice a common thread: most arguments are surface and personal. Rare is the writer who starts by stating overtly his philosophy on, say, human depravity or goodness or some such foundation from which to form his conclusion logically. So we can only hope that readers seek out the roots of ideas before they click “share.”

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Knowledge and Humility

There are three common reactions to kids who quote Shakespeare and Cicero. Some are impressed (your kids must be so smart!) some are intimidated (you must be a supermom!) and some are indignant (you raise trick ponies!). The answer to all of these is, not coincidentally, also the ultimate aim of learning the Shakespeare and the Cicero: humility.

Proverbs 11:2 is one of many variations on this Biblical theme: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.”

Wisdom and knowledge are among those paradoxical achievements, like maturity and leadership ability, where cognizance of one’s deficiencies is the primary mark of attainment.  Therefore, when we memorize and synthesize information, it is in the pursuit of the humility that characterizes true wisdom.

The adage, “a little knowledge is dangerous,” contains a warning like that in Proverbs: if a few trivial facts have you running to show off your big brain, any truly knowledgeable person will soon ask a question that reveals the depth of your research, and pride will indeed precede disgrace.

American education paired with self-esteem parenting leads to just this balloon of ego. An example I often come back to is the American assessment of foreign language abilities. It is entirely commonplace to hear American students, with a few years of language class completed and a sum vocabulary of colors, numbers, and food names under their belts, announce confidently that they “speak French.” Conversely, Eastern Europeans, who are often essentially fluent in three to six languages, will insist (fluently) that they “don’t speak English very well.”

A phenomenon happens when you begin to amass knowledge and to discuss it with a caring mentor: you develop a sense of your place in the world and in history. And the effect of this perspective is both to humble and inspire. Memorizing history impresses on you that most great things happened before you and without you. You are a tiny cog. But learning about a Joan of Arc or an Eli Whitney also teaches a child to aspire to heroism. You learn the lessons that led to great falls and great victories and you choose which to emulate.

May we always repent when a little Cicero goes to our heads. But also, may we always know how to clarify our aims. Much modern learning is aimed at utility. Classical, Christian learning has in its sights the development of wisdom, and the wise are first the humble.