Tag Archives: dorothy allison

To the Graduating Seniors

For those who read this blog regularly, it will come as no surprise that I believe I have the greatest job in the world. So great, in fact, that I don’t consider it to be a job at all. It is a vocation, a calling, what I was made to do—pick your favorite description. But every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began ten years or so ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Me: Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. One hundred and eighteen years ago,  at an obscure university about fifty miles north of here, books[2]Professor William James gave a talk to the Young Men’s Christian Association at Harvard University. The topic the group asked him to speak on that evening was “Is Life Worth Living?” For the next few minutes I would like to explore that topic—“Is life worth living?”—with you.

I know, I know—you’re thinking “Come on Professor Morgan, that’s really a downer. This is graduation weekend. We are expecting to hear how hard we have worked, that the world is waiting for us with open arms, that we can be anything we want to be if we simply set our minds to it.” I am well aware that this is what you want to hear this weekend, and I guarantee that plenty of people on this dais and the dais at the 013[1]Dunkin’ Donuts Center tomorrow morning will tell you exactly that. But for the moment—let’s get serious. No one in this room, especially those in the center front who are graduating tomorrow, wants to consider tough questions this weekend. But I guarantee that many of you already know, and everyone in the Peterson Center today who is over thirty knows, that someday, sooner or later, you will wake up and find that “Is life worth living?” is a very meaningful and pressing question. So note to self—when that day happens, remember these few minutes we have together today. It may save your life.

To remind you that there is a long tradition in which such questions are taken seriously, let me drop a few names on you from the distant past—your DWC days. Hey, what did you expect, I run the program! For instance, in his History of the Persian Wars, HerodotusWorldMap[1]Herodotus tells the following story about how a certain Thracian tribe welcomed the birth of a new baby. “When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.”

Ready for another story? In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche (never thought you’d hear from him at graduation, did you?) tells a story from Greek mythology. “According to an ancient legend, 67a37eee-699c-40f5-8fae-01aabd563d38[1]King Midas had long hunted the forest for the wise satyr Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into his hands, the king asked him what is the very best and most preferable of all things for man. The stiff and motionless satyr refused to speak; until, forced by the king, he finally burst into shrill laughter and uttered the following words: ‘Miserable ephemeral race, children of chance and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is—to meet an early death.’”

Had enough yet?  How about one more from Shakespeare’s King Lear, the last seminar with my Honors freshmen this semester? Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,”king_lear2_edgar_gloucester[1] living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward: As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.

Over and over again throughout literature, philosophy, theology and more, an important question arises that is as pertinent now, for everyone in this room, as it was several thousand years ago. How am I to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world that frequently lacks either one? The world does not come to us wearing meaning and values on its sleeve. The universe does not care that you are graduating with honors and is oblivious to whether your hopes and dreams are realized.220px-Dorothy_Allison_at_the_Brooklyn_Book_Festival[1] In a reality such as this, where are meaning, values and purpose to come from?

Novelist Dorothy Allison provides a clue when she writes that “there is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.” In other words, you are responsible for being bearers of meaning into the world. Is life worth living? It is if you make it so. Truth, goodness, value, hope, all of those things that are central to a life worth living are not the objects of a treasure hunt. They are the products of a continuing creative task that each of you has been assigned as an educated and nurtured human being—to create the world that you want to believe in and live in.

For me, this task is best understood in a framework that includes what is greater than us, that is infused with the divine. Perhaps this framework will work for you as well. Benedictine sister sisterjoan[1]Joan Chittister expresses it this way: “Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.”

In ctintern-abbey[1]losing, let me drop one more DWC name. In his signature poem “Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth describes our world as one that is “half-created, and half-perceived.” There’s not a lot that we human beings can do about the “perceived” part. As my wife would say, the world “is what it is.It-is-what-it-is2[1]” But great moral traditions from the ancient world to the present tell us that it is the “half-created” part that makes all the difference. The question is not “what is going to happen?” but rather “what am I going to do with what happens?”  The power and the privilege of shaping and creating a better world is yours. There will be days when life may not seem worth living—on such days, what will your response be? William James’ closing words to those young men at Harvard over a century ago are my final words to you. James said “These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” Believe it.

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Consider the Salmon

unicorn-iris-murdoch-paperback-cover-art[1]In The Unicorn, one of Iris Murdoch’s characters drops the following into a mundane conversation: “Have you ever seen salmon leaping? Such fantastic bravery, to enter another element like that. Like souls approaching God.” The implications of this simile are striking. Salmon are hard-wired to do what they do, a hard-wiring that drives them to a place in which they are not equipped to survive and, ultimately, to death. This is hardly an attractive picture of the human search for God, but there’s a certain familiarity to it. In the Old Testament God is frequently hiding, in a thick cloudevil-face-captured-in-thick-cloud-of-smoke-500x292[1], in a burning bush, beyond a rock, because if a human actually experienced God directly that would be the end of the human. God’s element is not ours, yet just as the salmon there is something unavoidable in us that draws us toward that divine element and, perhaps, to our destruction. Great news.

Genetically Modified SalmonTwo salmon are discussing their options:

Bob: Are you ready to start heading upstream? It’s about that time.

Sam: I’m not doing it. You remember all those guys who headed upstream to do this last year? You ever seen them since?

Bob: No, but so what? This is what salmon do. This is what we were made for.

Sam: Not me. You go right ahead—been nice knowing you. I’m staying here.

BBrown bear catching salmonob: What are you, a salmon or a flounder? Any salmon worthy of the name swims upstream and leaps the falls!

Sam: I feel the same urge you do! But not every itch needs to be scratched. I prefer to be a wimpy salmon and alive to being a salmonly salmon and dead.

Bob: You’re no salmon at all. You can’t be a salmon and not leap!

Sam: You know what, I think this whole leaping thing is just a bunch of crap our parents and grandparents put on us. I can still be a salmon and stay in this part of the river. You leaping salmon are a bunch of schooling fish who believe you have to do something just because you were told you do.

imagescaf8jdis[1]I’m reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who once wrote that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” More great news. But how well does this salmon simile work? There’s a lot of effort on the part of the salmon to do something that makes no sense, yet is definitive of what it means to be a salmon. Are human souls hard-wired to seek for God? And is that seeking always a matter of extreme effort that leads to at least a virtual death? What choice do we have in the matter? That’s where the salmon simile breaks down, since despite Sam’s resistance, real salmon don’t have a choice. They just do what they’re programmed to do. We have a choice—or do we?

st-augustine-of-hippo7[1]With an idea probably stolen from St. Augustine, I was told in my youth that all human beings have a “God-shaped hole” inside of them that cannot be filled with anything other than God. I understand this and have often described myself as a “God-obsessed” person. This has nothing to do with any particular idea of God but rather with a gnawing hunger deep inside that nothing readily available can satisfy. I have no specific idea as to what might satisfy this hunger, while the salmon (or at least Bob) are convinced that only leaping will do it. But then there’s Sam, who’s at least considering the possibility of a fulfilled salmon existence that doesn’t involve leaping to one’s death. I’ve encountered Sam-like human beings who appear to have no such hunger, or at least claim not to have one, but that strikes me as odd. I’m obsessed with it and I’ll bet they are too—they just don’t call it God.

At the center of every human being is a yearning and desire for something good and divine and pure, a yearning that is never satisfied by anything in this world. Human beings are free only to the extent that they are free to choose either to work with this longing, without knowing exactly what this longing corresponds to, or to redirect this longing and seek to satisfy it with things closer to hand. Although the former choice is attractive, there’s probably also a lot to be said for the latter choice that, if we’re talking about salmon, Sam is making. Since the leaping choice is obviously a risky one, why not try to reinvent himself and search for meaning as a perfectly fine non-leaping salmon?

Sam and Bob agree on one big thing—there’s more to being a salmon than simply swimming around in a river. imagesCA6IDEGOBob believes he knows what that “more” is and will leap into it with all of his fins, despite the likelihood that he won’t come out alive on the other end. Sam, concerned about the lack of information from the other side, prefers to find another way to investigate this “more.” Dorothy Allison writes that “there is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.” I like that, and I think Sam would too (so long as salmon have politics and literature). It increases our options.

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Hopeful Thinking

I have been reminded of the academic annual cycle over the past few weeks as I notice that exactly a year ago events in my professional life were following exactly the same track as they are this year. Last year we had a faculty search in progress in my department–this year we do as well. Last year the search got me to thinking . . . about hope.

For an academic department seeking to hire a new faculty colleague for the next academic year starting in September, January and February are busy months. These are the months during which finalists are chosen, interviews are conducted, and offers are made. I am currently a member of a four-person search committee for such a new hire in my department; GPSVisionMissionValuesV2we have narrowed the several dozen candidates down to six semifinalists, three of whom will be chosen as finalists for on-campus interviews at the next department meeting. As I reviewed the various dossiers today, something jumped out at me in a semifinalist’s written response to the college mission statement (required of all semifinalists) that I had either missed or ignored the first time through. The candidate writes that “A dear friend and colleague with whom I shared an office for many years once confided in me that he could hardly believe that I was really religious, for I seemed like such a reasonable man. ‘And religious belief, as we know, is a kind of pathological state. Religion is good for children, as a means to reinforce morals; but in adults, belief in God is a sign of psychological disorder.’”

true-detective1In keeping with the often haphazard workings of my brain, I was immediately reminded of the most recent episode of HBO’s new series “True Detective.” The series is set in southern Louisiana, near the Texas border. Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are detective partners, but could not be more different. Hart has a well-developed “good ole boy” persona which masks a number of personal quirks and demons that are slowly being revealed, while Cohle wears his intelligence, pessimism and misanthropy on his sleeve. Their pursuit of a serial and ritualistic killer brings them to a tent revival meeting, where from the back they observe and discuss a gathering of a hundred or so believers held in rapt attention by the preacher at the front.

Screen-Shot-2014-01-26-at-7.30.40-PMRust: What do you think the average IQ of this group is?

Marty: Can you see Texas up there on your high horse? What do you know about these people?

Rust: Just observation and deduction. I see a propensity for obesity, poverty, a yen for fairy tales. Folks putting what bucks they do have into a wicker basket being passed around. Safe to say nobody here’s going to be splitting the atom, Marty.

Marty: See that? Your fuckin’ attitude. Not everybody wants to sit around in an empty room and get off on murder manuals. Some folks enjoy community, the common good.

Rust: If the common good’s got to make up fairy tales, it’s not good for anybody.

Marty: Can you imagine if people didn’t believe, the things they would get up to?

Rust: The same things they do now, just out in the open.

Marty: Bullshit. It would be a fucking freak show of murder and debauchery, and you know it.

screen-shot-2013-11-14-at-2-52-24-pm.png w=585Rust: If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.

Marty: I guess your judgment is infallible, piece of shit wise. Do you think your notebook is a stone tablet?

Rust: What’s it say about a life that you got to get together, tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day. What’s that say about your reality, Marty? Certain linguistic anthropologists think that religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain and dulls critical thinking.

Marty: I don’t use ten-dollar words as much as you, but for someone who sees no point in existence, you sure fret about it an awful lot. And you still sound panicked.

Ihobbesn one short sequence, Hart and Cohle get to the core of religious belief. Is it an “opiate of the masses,” a haven for shallow thinking individuals who seek comfort, community, and an escape from their lousy lives, or perhaps the most dependable firewall against a state of nature that would, as Thomas Hobbes put it, be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”? Or is it something else altogether? There is a lot of food for thought in this brief exchange—no wonder I love our current golden age of television. It sure beats the hell out of the GilligansIslandCast_310x310 “Gilligan’s Island” and “Bonanza” of my youth.

I have been asked occasionally by religious folk how I can be both a person of faith and a philosopher; because I have not generally worn my faith on my sleeve I have yet to be asked the same question by a non-believer. But no matter who is asking the question, the assumptions remain the same—reason and faith don’t naturally go together. The job applicant’s office mate and Rust Cohle both assume that common sense and clear thinking rule out what is presumed to be at the heart of all religious belief—the sort of magical and wishful thinking I considered and rejected in one of my recent posts on this blog.

Magical Thinking

Magical thinking does an end run on the hard work of grappling with how things actually are, replacing such work with wishful thinking and unsubstantiated hopes.

But as Jeanne commented in response to my post on magical thinking, calling everything that cannot be reduced to empirical facts “magical thinking” is a bit “harsh.” Is there no place for hope in the life of a thinking, rational person? Is it never legitimate to hope for and believe in something that cannot be fully substantiated with a combination of past experience and present available facts and data? This is perhaps the central theme of most everything facebook_cubic_logoI’ve written over the past few years, and while its importance to me has not diminished, neither have I come to any settled or formulaic answers. I recently, against my better judgment, participated briefly in a Facebook conversation in which one person challenged anyone to provide “one single, solid piece of evidence that he or she has ever had an encounter with God.” It was very clear from the context of this challenge and the previous discussion that this person was defining “evidence” very narrowly—something tangible and objective that everyone could agree upon.

TFM3x300005orihe evidence that grounds my faith is not of that sort. I continually rely on the definition of faith from the Book of Hebrews, which says that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” What do I hope for? That there is a meaning to it all, that underneath the apparent chaos and meaninglessness of reality there is a vein of purpose that can be mined. Dorothy Allison puts it well:

There is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.

My faith gives substance to this hope by encouraging me to accept as “evidence” in support of the meaning and purpose I hope for all sorts of things—experiences, intuitions, feelings—that do not fit neatly within the very narrow definition of “evidence” that the Rust Cohle’s of the world insist upon. Shakespeare-More-Things1601No better expression of an expanded openness to the abundant evidence related to hope has ever been written than in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When Horatio has difficulty believing that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is real, Hamlet replies that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” And to misquote another famous line, faith “is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.” In the end, the best evidence that hopeful thinking is not magical thinking is a changed life. An encounter with the divine often can only be communicated on a “come and see” basis. In john-9John 9, a formerly blind man whose vision has been restored by Jesus finds himself being grilled by the Pharisee authorities. Who did this? How did he do it? Don’t you know that we have already concluded that this Jesus person is a sinner? The man simply responds “Whether He is a sinner or not I do not know. One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see.” Experience trumps fact every time.