Shared Experience

I mentioned in a previous blog that the commonality of human experience is more important than the differences that are stressed in what we loosely call studies in “cultural diversity.” The best way to make this point, it seemed to me, is to quote from one of the books I have been reading by Japanese authors. I could choose many such passages, but one struck me as particularly apt since I am “crawling toward death,” as Lear would have it, and it is the Fall of the year. So I will quote at some length a reflection written by an elderly man I found in a novella by Junichiro Tanizaki titled The Reed Cutter.

“. . .with every passing year my sense grows stronger of a loneliness, a dreariness in autumn, a seasonal sadness that comes from nowhere, for no reason. ‘The sound of the wind awakens me,’ ‘Stirring the blinds at my door, the autumn wind blows’ — it’s only after we’ve reached this age that we come to understand the true flavor of these old poems. But this doesn’t mean that I hate the autumn because it’s sad. In my youth I liked the spring best of all, but now I look forward more to autumn. As we grow older we come to a sort of resignation, a state of mind that lets us enjoy our decline in accordance with the laws of nature, and we come to wish for a quiet, balanced life, do we not? And so we derive more comfort from a lonely scene than from a gorgeous view, and we find it more fitting to lose ourselves in memories of past pleasures than to indulge in real pleasure. In other words, for a young person, love for the past is nothing but a daydream unrelated to the present, but an older person has no other means for living through the present.”

As I say, the universality of human experience, the fundamental humanity that we all share, is much more interesting than those trivial things that we focus upon in our “cultural studies.”

Acting Our Age

Having finished reading Edmund Burke’s reflections as a break from reading Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, I returned to the final novel in that group and was immediately struck by a remarkable paragraph. The hero of the series of novels, Shigekuni Honda, is now an old man and the author reflects on aging and the complications that go along with it. The series of four novels is a careful and critical examination of the deterioration of Japanese civilization due to the powerful influence of Western values (especially capitalism) and — obviously — the devastation of the Second World War. In the fourth novel, after Honda’s wife died, the author paired the old man with an equally old woman who has become his close friend. They spend a great deal of time together and enjoy telling one another anecdotes about their early years — neither one listening to the other, of course. But they have discovered in their friendship something very precious. In one brief aside, the narrator has this stunning reflection on the relationship between Honda and his friend Keiko:

“If old age was the reality most unpleasant to have to accept and most continuously to be lived with, then Honda and Keiko had each made the other a refuge from the reality. Their intimacy was not juxtaposition but a brushing past in the rush for a refuge. They exchanged empty houses and hurried to lock the doors behind them. Alone inside the other, each of them could breathe easily.”

There is so much in these few sentences to learn from, regardless of our age, that one hardly knows where to start. It is certainly the case that we could all benefit from the narrator’s wise advice to find solace and true happiness not within the self that closes itself off from others, but “inside the other.” This is especially the case in a culture like ours where the self has become the focal point of one’s entire existence. Honda’s and Keiko’s “intimacy” is not sexual, given their ages and the fact that Keiko is homosexual; it is spiritual and allows each of them to find in the other a “refuge from reality.”

But as an old fart myself who “lives continuously” with old age, waking each day with new aches and pains and no longer able to do the things he took for granted only a few years ago, like playing the game of tennis he enjoyed for more than 50 years, or simply running or kneeling down (and struggling to get up again!), and one who resents deeply the sentiments evoked by public pronouncements about aging that have brought about the cultural urge to turn back the clock, color the hair, eliminate wrinkles, look and act like a foolish teen-ager, I find Mishima’s words profound and profoundly true. Our culture does not teach us to age gracefully — or to do much of anything gracefully, for that matter. It resents old age, unlike those cultures that not only respect, but revere old age, as the Japanese culture did once upon a time — though not recently, as we are told by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki who noted in his Praise of Shadows that in increasingly Westernized Japan “the conveniences of modern culture cater exclusively to youth. . .the times grow increasingly inconsiderate of old people.”

We turn away from the elderly, put them away in homes, and dismiss their words based on years of experience as the muttering of old fools. It is a part of our cultural malaise that we cannot act our age, that we prolong adolescence as long as possible and regard maturity as something to be avoided at all costs. We have certainly done a good job of that as middle-aged men still act like frat brothers, telling crude jokes and slapping one another on the butt; and middle-aged women get their faces lifted or their tummies tucked, always checking the mirror. But, in the process we have become lost within ourselves, not sure who we are, and unable to find our way — which, as Mishima reminds us, can only be discovered by forgetting ourselves and becoming intimate with another. It begins with a look at the world outside ourselves and the realization that our own happiness is predicated on “finding refuge” in others.

Teaching The Kids

One of my fellow bloggers who calls himself “Mindful Stew” has been involved in a most interesting discussion of academic discipline — teaching the kids the right way. Most of the comments on his blog have come from teachers, or former teachers, and they have some very interesting things to say about how best to teach the young. The hard nut to crack that lies at the center of the discussion is the question of discipline. As I read these comments I admire the teachers who have a very tough row to hoe with little pay and no thanks. But it also occurs to me that there are two sorts of discipline and we don’t always keep them separate.

To begin with there is what we might call “behavioral discipline” which focuses on keeping order in the classroom so that teaching can take place. As parents increasingly shunt their spoiled kids off to the schools, this is becoming an increasingly difficult problem. It is no longer acceptable to use corporal punishment and, in fact, if a teacher so much as lays a hand on the child there will be serious repercussions — as perhaps (allowing for over-reaction on the part of parents and authorities) there should be. One of Stew’s contributors, Chris Corrie, had a lengthy comment on the subject and he is clearly attempting to find a middle ground between harsh, sit up straight and shut your mouth discipline, and fawning, raise their self-esteem entitlement where the child is told that nothing he does could possibly be wrong. Indeed, “wrong” is a word that we simply don’t use any more. In any event, a portion of Chris’ comment is worth pondering:

Key to all this is to understand that, for some kids at a particular point in time, it may be more important to talk to them about their personal problems than to try to force trigonometry into their brain. It is also important to realize that they are subject to news and social interaction 24 X 7. Think back to what you dealt with growing up and how you would deal with the issues these kids face today.

I cannot quarrel with Chris except to point out that we all had problems growing up and it is not clear that today’s youth have any more than we did — especially given the fact that they have so many ways to divert their attention from the serious problems that their parents and elders all face daily. It is not clear, from what I have read and seen first hand, that these kids are deeply troubled about the state of the economy or the future of the planet, for example. We may simply assume that since there are so many problems the kids must be aware of them. This is a highly debatable assumption. But in any event, there is another sort of discipline that gets overlooked in this discussion and I attribute that to the shift in the thirties of the last century from subject-oriented teaching to child-oriented teaching, the birth of “progressive education.” That sort of discipline is mental discipline and I found a very nice statement of just what that is in a Japanese novel (of all places) entitled Naomi by Junicherio Tanizaki. In that novel the hero a 26-year-old man who is attempting to teach a young girl English is having troubles and finally decides it is not worth his time. In reflecting on the problem, he has the following suggestion:

“Why do boys study geometry and algebra in middle school? The objective is not so much to provide them with a practical tool, as it is to cultivate their ability to use their minds with precision.”

Indeed, this is the heart of the situation: in our preoccupation with behavioral discipline we have lost sight of mental discipline which, I would argue, is what education is all about. Education is about putting young people in possession of their own minds, enabling them to use their minds to think and speak coherently, to “use their minds with precision.” But, as Chris and others remind us, we must never forget that these kids are children and bring emotional baggage to school with them and in order to help train their young minds we must first get their attention. There’s the challenge!