Thursday, July 1, 2010

What you DO with what happens to you

The title of this post comes from a quote by Aldous Huxley taken from his volume, Texts and Pretexts, written in 1932, the same year that he wrote Brave New World. Huxley wrote, “Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.” Leaving aside for the moment the gendered nature of Huxley’s observation, there is a profound piece of “un-learning” that must be internalized in order to understand what he is talking about—and that seems as good a place as any to start talking about the purpose of this blog. James De La Vega, the East Harlem political activist and philosopher has tried to bring this message of “un-learning” (and many others) to the people of New York City in provocative street graffiti art.

Like the fundamental tension that partially defines New York City, “creative destruction” is a key component to understand in order to understand the nature of experience. Joseph Schumpeter popularized this idea in the 1940’s as an economic concept that related transformation to extreme innovation. But what are the particular innovations you would need in order to effect transformations in your own learning? Creation involves destruction; learning demands un-learning. Shiva, the Hindu god of ambiguity and paradox, is another representation that captures the dynamism of this kind of transformation. Perhaps the very first piece of learning you have to do in order to make what you learn transformative is actually, ironically, an act of un-learning.

My office at school is next to the “learning specialist.” There is a kind of frantic quality to the people who come to her office—they are almost always in some kind of panic. The panic comes, in part, from the fact that they are working from a position of scarcity, they are always short of something, and a feeling of inadequacy permeates their interactions. It is an overwhelming feeling that something is lacking, and something needs to be done about it right away. Urgency and scarcity—those are the feelings that one hears when they walk up to her door. And that is the first thing she has to work really hard to un-do in order to move forward with their learning.

Being an “un-learning specialist” has a different tone to it, not initially, but after you become a steady practitioner. When one is in the throes of unlearning there is a feeling of abundance and plenty. This is, however, not the initial feeling one gets when one is engaged in un-learning. That initial feeling is one of uncertainty and insecurity, as though the world has become a bit unmoored or unhinged. Both of those words evoke a solid feeling—like an anchor or a deep connection. But un-learning produces the opposite effect—adrift and alone. I am reminded of a former headmaster of mine who once told me that his favorite book was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and his favorite line from that book was, “We live as we dream—alone.” He had been a former ice hockey goalie in college, and it always appeared to me that feeling of having hockey pucks shot at him at high speed was a metaphor for the way he dealt with his job. Objects came at him fast and furious, and he used any part of his being to deflect them away. He had a remarkable calm which I think came from being alone so much of the time. Goalies in most sports, and certainly in hockey, have a quality of being isolated. In hockey, in particular, there is a masked quality that does not allow you to see anything but the eyes of the goalie. My headmaster had a kind of mask-like quality, inscrutable might be a way to describe it, that was a kind of protection from what was coming at him. And at that school, at that time, he was well advised to put on that mask. Someone once complained that he seemed to be a bit paranoid. Someone else responded buy quoting then National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “If everybody hated you, you’d be paranoid too.” And while it is a massive “guerilla irony” (more on that in a later post) that this line came from the National Security Advisor, it also makes sense in that a sense of isolation can provoke paranoia.

The profound un-learning that must occur is the rejection of the idea that experience is something that happens to us, that we are passive vessels into which life pours experience. But Huxley’s genius is to create a Copernican Revolution, and to change our view of experience from something we receive to something we create. I first came across this idea when I was reading Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions . I was reading this book because I had failed to take any science courses in either high school or college (a long story that I will not recount here), but had realized that I needed to have grounding in scientific thought in order to makes sense of all the history and literature I was teaching and learning. But the operative concept in that book for me was the “paradigm shift.” Copernicus’ replacing of the Ptolemaic geocentric universe with a heliocentric one was the example that Kuhn used to really unhinge my world at the time, and send me into a life-long exploration for assumptions that I held that I was unaware of but accepted primarily because they were un-examined. I remember thinking (or perhaps Kuhn actually wrote this and I have stolen it) that each morning I awoke thinking that the sun had risen, just as I had thought the sun had set the evening before. But all that descriptive language of “sunrise and sunset” was just a holdover from the Ptolemaic universe of epicycles in a planetary model where everything revolved around the earth. How tricky these old models are in the way they inhabit our language and shape the world we live in, I thought. And ever since then I have had an amateur’s fascination with the way our world is constructed by our language.

Purpose. A few years ago, I actually started a workshop session by playing a song from the musical Avenue Q called “Purpose.” The purpose of this blog then is not so much to be the ”flame under your ass” or to be “the car with a full tank of gas, “ but to provide a place where we can explore why certain times become experiences while other times remain as simply events. The former transforms us, and makes life more dynamic and beautiful. However, that exploration is always more exciting when done with other people, regardless of how we dream.

So, here are some initial questions to get us started—what are the most powerful pieces of un-learning that you have had lately, or even not so lately? And, on a larger scale, what are some of things, cognitively and behaviorally, that we DO to make something an experience? How do the events of our lives become transformed into experiences?

1 comment:

  1. David,

    The clarity of your definition of experience as it relates to events really stuck with me.

    "[Experience] transforms us, and makes life more dynamic and beautiful."

    I've been looking into my relationship with Austin to answer these questions. It is, after all, the most immediate, most powerful experience for me right now.

    I'm an incredibly sensitive person, at least in comparison to those I've met so far in my life. Because of this, others don't need to say things directly to me in order for me to understand, or to react, in a way that lines up with what they mean to say. For instance, Austin doesn't need to say: "I am going to give myself more power in our relationship and show you that I am hurt and confused by hurting and confusing you. If you don't do the dishes, I will treat you as if you're only my roommate, not my lover." All he has to say is: "I am completely frustrated that you haven't done the fucking dishes! I don't want to deal with this! Why haven't you done them? Am I your father?" All he has to do is scream and stomp and then become silent when I'm around, and I will gather the meaning underneath it immediately.

    But after I come to a realization about the meaning behind the words, I wonder if I actually created the meaning out of thin air. Continuing with the example, I wonder if I made that statement and the silent treatment sting me the way an experience would, when it was just human frustration, stress, nothing really to do with our relationship, nothing meant to hurt or transform.

    How do I know? What do I DO as a sensitive, emotional female relating with a male whose primary reaction to stressful situations is to be direct, robotic, and cold? How do I, being me, interpret him? When I am vulnerable and scared, do I search for deeper meaning in his words, even if they float in the shallow end?

    His response is strange to me. The distance he created is palpable for me. I began to blame him. I found his anger with me and his reaction as justified distance clues to an inner selfishness, an inner agenda -one within I cannot fit. I found his love to be lopsided and emotionally stressful. I questioned almost everything and thought "Aha! I know whats wrong with what he contributes to our relationship! He expects and rarely wonders. He excessively values knowing." (Admittedly, the "Aha!" was less of an "Aha!" and more of a "Waaa!") The fact that it all melted away as soon as the dishes got done maddens me, in both senses of the word.

    And no matter what, after all this meaning, I can't help thinking I may be full of shit.

    It's that fine line between experience and event that I'm testing. Did he get mad because I didn't do the dishes, or did he get mad because he expects me to fulfill all of his needs (or just this particular need?) and the expectation failed in his hands? Since this isn't the only event that has brought his purposed selfishness into question, why didn't I expect it? Why didn't I know before two weeks went by that he would react the way he did? If the meaning felt this enormous, why did I wait for the event to happen again? I think one can experience something without it happening (existentialism aside) because we can imagine it, whereas I don't think one can know something is going to happen before it does. And I think that this point is crucial in figuring out whether this whole thing was an event and I falsely made it an experience, or if there's a greater meaning that can transform me.

    Not sure if I'm being clear. It's been awhile since I've participated in a dialogue. I feel the need to stop and open up the floor again. I think if I keep going I'll inadvertently close it up due to epic bewilderment. Maybe I've done that already...