For World Philosophy Day- An Ode to Wee Thinkers

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Today is World Philosophy Day (cue the “every day is philosophy day” jokes). I usually do some sort of love letter to philosophy for this occasion, a show of appreciation for this way of thinking, to the many ways it’s made my life better, and to the many more ways that it can potentially fix a whole lot of problems worldwide.

This year, my gratitude is directed somewhere else. I want to thank and show appreciation to children, in my community and beyond. The most wonderful and inspiring thinkers I’ve worked with this past year have been completely without degrees or titles. They’ve had no publishing history or accolades. In most cases, they’ve had no idea what philosophy was, let alone that they were doing it.

Over the course of the pandemic, children have had to eschew each other’s company and bounce back and forth between in-person and online learning. They’ve missed out on holidays, celebrations, rites of passage, and important milestones. They’ve been the last to have access to vaccines, but the first to be sent into risky environments. Mercifully, they haven’t been as vulnerable to this miserable virus as some, but a non-trivial number of kids have still had to struggle with it, some long-term. Let’s face it, kids haven’t really been able to fully be kids for a while now.

If that weren’t enough, they’ve had to put up with us big people and our bumbling around with important decisions. We’ve made common sense solutions into political head-butting matches. We’ve put off important changes because they were annoying or inconvenient. We’ve opted out of vital discussions. We’ve flipped out and lost our cool over dumb stuff. Adults have not been shining paragons of philosophical reason.

And yet, without fail, kids have kept learning, being curious, and asking questions. They’ve been sensible and open-minded, concerned about the state of the world around them and compassionate towards those who are suffering. Time and again, I’ve finished an online session or had a chat with a youngster and thought “God, I wish you were conducting things right now.”

They’re running circles around us in the thinking department.

So, to all of the little thinkers out there, I humbly bow. When the dust settles, you’ll have boo boos to take care of, just like all of us adults will. This past year and a half has been really, really hard, and it might not get easier anytime soon. But I want to tell you that I’m in awe of your resilience, your perceptiveness, your willingness to throw “Why” and “Why not” on the table, and to be serious about discussing them. You care about diversity and inclusion, about protecting the environment, about fairness and kindness and beauty. You don’t run from the big, difficult ideas, and you call people on their sloppy logic. You have philosophical grit the likes of which I’ve never seen in an adult.

You need to know that your thoughts are important. The fact that you don’t drive or vote doesn’t change that. There are questions, huge questions, that need to be asked, that are the key to fixing many of the things that are wrong with the world. In many ways, you’re better at asking them than anyone else.

It is my honour and my pleasure to create for, teach, and work with child thinkers. If I had one wish for you, it would be that you never grow out of being the kind of philosophers that you are, and that the world learns to celebrate your gifts.

Happy Philosophy Day!

Big Fish and Little Fish

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I must have been about 7 or 8 when I saw it. A bunch of us soggy, sunburned kids had been paddling in the shallows for what seemed like hours, and I spotted a moving shadow nearby. I saw shadows like it all the time, but this one didn’t refocus or dissipate when I reassured myself that it was nothing. Nope, this one was real, and it was getting a lot closer than I wanted it to. Being the skittish kid that I was, and seeing how “Jaws” was popular at the time (yeah, I’m that old), I assumed the worst, screamed “SHARK!”, and pretty much ran on top of the water back to the dock.

It wasn’t nothing, but it wasn’t a bloodthirsty, vindictive Great White either. Just a lonely, wayward carp who decided to swim closer to shore than it normally would. We watched it slink along the rocks, then turn around and head back to the deep end.

Fast forward a few decades, to a couple of weeks ago, and I’m paddling in the shallows again, this time with my own little water rat. She refuses to stand still for more than a few seconds, lest her toes be peeled clean by a school of minnows. I stick up my pinky finger as a unit of measure and reassure her that nothing this close to shore is any bigger than that. I smile as I remember my encounter as a kid, and explain that the big fish live in the middle of the lake, where they can hide from noisy human pests like us.

And then an hour or two later, I watch as a hawk expertly swoops down at the shoreline and nabs a snack, a specimen considerably older and heftier than the wee things we were chasing away earlier. The fish in the shallows are much bigger than I thought.

It’s been a year and a half of these kinds of experiences.

There are things that we may have once considered “minnows” (potentially annoying, but tiny and nothing of great consequence) that have turned out to be big. This past year, we’ve had a forceful reminder that germs and viruses are not insignificant. They can’t be brushed off or stomped through like schools of small frey. As we’ve seen with our efforts to deal with these invaders, our everyday choices and our actions are not tiny, unimportant details either. We are all swimming in schools, and the way we behave around one another, the way we relate to one another, can have profound and lasting effects.

This applies to people as well. Lots of  individuals we may not have otherwise noticed, have stepped up and shown us new ways of doing things. The small businesses and organizations that have stayed afloat have shown incredible determination and ingenuity. Scores of people in service industries have kept us fed and supplied. A whole lot of medical professionals, emergency workers and educators have marched us through the worst of the worst. For the most part, we didn’t know their names, or anything about them. They haven’t received the recognition a “big fish” would have commanded, but they have been taking on the responsibilities of one.

On the flip side, an awful lot of “big fish” have turned out to be tricks of the eye. Huge, seemingly impossible things have happened much quicker and much more easily than any of us could have imagined. We’ve been able to bring entire countries to a screeching halt. We’ve learned and we’ve worked from home, often with a million distractions around us. We created, tested and distributed a vaccine, in the span of a year. Okay, all of these things are still “big fish”, but they have not been the impassable leviathans we once assumed they were.

It seems like we’re also changing our perspective on people and institutions that are “big fish” too. Somehow being wealthy, famous, and powerful means little if it involves causing the suffering of others. Being “big” is no longer enough to keep you from getting cancelled, being slapped with criminal charges, having your statue toppled. It is by no means easy to pull a big fish out of the water, but I see us being less intimidated by them. We’re starting to realize that the shadows they cast can be deceiving.

For so long, we’ve been looking at things as if they were beneath the ripples of a lake. We’ve become accustomed to distortion, to being afraid to get a little cold or soggy in order to take a closer look. Little fish can sneak up on us in great numbers, and they inevitably grow bigger with time. Big fish are not nearly as likely to swallow us whole, to pull us into the undertow as we’ve feared. The trick is neither to dive in blindly, nor make a run for the dock. Moving forward involves putting on goggles, putting our faces in the water, and taking a good long look at what’s actually there- swarms of new little fish who are capable of big things, and who will find big problems waiting for them when they swim in open waters.

 

 

A Plague of Otherness

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Our brains are set up to notice “otherness” in a simple, basic sense. It’s how we distinguish between things we cuddle and things that will eat us, things that will nourish us, and things that will poison us. Our ability to distinguish this from that is part of what’s kept us alive this long. It allows us to appreciate new and interesting things, to learn from and adapt to the novelty that comes our way. It’s kept existentialists like me busy for about a hundred years.

Just as humans have evolved, “otherness” has changed over the years. This new version has gotten us into heaps of trouble.

Recently, humans have been so “other” to each other that they find reasons to stop each other from breathing, to take children from their parents, to run people down with their trucks, to volley bombs across borders, to deny many the right to love each other, or to have control over their own bodies.

Of course, this amped up, extreme version of “other” isn’t new. It’s been making us sick for thousands of years. “Other” is behind all manner of atrocities. It comes in so many varieties, dressed in “isms”, sometimes raging and sometimes nearly silent. Open a history book, close your eyes, and randomly flip to any page. There’s a story of “other” there somewhere, of someone (or rather, a lot of someones) who didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t get past “other”. It’s a long, long way from the version of “other” that once allowed us to survive.

Perhaps it’s just because for the past year or so, we’ve been distanced in a very physical, tangible way that “otherness” feels closer to the surface lately. As we’re finally starting to get a handle on a virus that’s kept us apart, it’s becoming apparent just how detached we’ve been all along. There’s a lot of “I didn’t know it was so bad” and “I had no idea people were going through that.” Even in the most seemingly peaceful and prosperous parts of the world, people of colour do not feel safe going about daily activities, women are still paid less for equal work, worshipping in your chosen way might get you attacked, the elderly are neglected, the 2SLGBTQ+ community doesn’t have equal access to healthcare, indigenous groups struggle with basic needs, those with disabilities are often unaccommodated…there’s more. So much more. And this is in the digital age, when the sum total of human knowledge is there, in our faces, all the time.

Yeah, it’s that bad, and yeah, a lot of people are going through it.

As I type all of this, I am so overwhelmed with “other”, with the weight of the past year, with awareness of my privilege, with anger and loss, with a nauseating lack of surprise at all that’s happening in the world, I don’t know where to put it all. But, as Henry Rollins once said, “My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.” Dear readers, I am an optimist, and a fixer, and a hugger, and a humanist. I do what I do for a living because I’m a keen student of human experience, because, from the bottom of my heart, I want to know what it’s like to be all kinds of “us”. I promise to keep challenging myself and anyone else who’ll listen, to question assumptions and to think rationally about our relationships with fellow humans. I will keep learning more about the world outside my bubble. I will call “otherness” what it is, and not make excuses. I will refuse to be reduced to an “other”, and I will endeavour to catch and correct myself whenever I “other” someone else. I will screw up sometimes, and misunderstand, and speak out of turn on occasion, but I will try.

Here’s the thing about doing away with “other”: it doesn’t hurt. It’s work, for sure, probably work without an end, but it’s actually a relief. Being angry and fearful, living with the conviction that “others” exist only to make us miserable and to take things away from us…it’s exhausting. Once we face up to the idea that this extreme version of “other” isn’t a real thing, that it’s a jagged, hard shell we construct and maintain at tremendous cost to our well being, we can spend our time and energy doing something else. You know, like coexisting. I still get to be me, and you still get to be you, but we don’t dwell in a vacuum anymore, hidden from each other’s sight and each other’s understanding.

A number of years ago, I taught comparative religion classes to college students. It was only a 14 week class, with only 3 hours at a time to cover an entire faith, but we still got to take at least a small peek at the “why” behind beliefs and practices. Our classes were made up of a diverse range of learners, and more often than not, someone in the group belonged to the religion we were discussing, and added their own thoughts and experiences. Learners who elected to take those classes were genuinely curious, about all kinds of ways that faith is expressed, and about how their own fit into the mix. There were a lot of “aha” moments, and I like to think that in some small way, we chipped away at “otherness”. I’d do a whole lot to see more moments like these, outside of the classroom, to find space for these little sparks of understanding.

So, here’s a place to start. If you’re reading this, please turn to the person to your right and introduce yourself. Then the person to your left. Talk, listen, breathe, repeat. If you don’t understand something, ask politely for clarification. If you disagree, do it respectfully, with reason. If you don’t like each other, that’s okay too, just be in the same space as fellow human beings. With seven and a half billion versions of us out there, this should keep us busy for a while.

I Ain’t Afraid Of No Questions: Why Being A Philosopher Is Like Being A Ghostbuster

Maybe I’m a bit of a broken record about Mary Midgley’s “philosophy as plumbing” metaphor, but it’s always helped me get my mind around what I’m supposed to do (maybe what I’m supposed to feel) as a philosopher. Like plumbing, philosophy is something that most people don’t think about on a regular basis. It’s “just there”, behind the proverbial walls, nestled under the floorboards. When things are ticking along and functioning as they should, we’re happy to have it out of sight, out of mind, but when things get backed up, when there’s an overflow and a weird smell, we panic. We call in an “expert” to fix the leaks, replace defective parts, and then we go back to just not seeing it anymore. We should all be on the lookout for problems, we should all cultivate some level of skill and knowledge about handling them (and preventing them), but we don’t.

Maybe it’s because I’m shut in and bored, maybe it’s because there’s a new Ghostbusters flick on the horizon, or maybe there’s much wisdom to be found in quirky sci-fi classics, but this quote popped into my head the other day:

“I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never ever possibly destroy us. Mr. Stay Puft!”

It sparked something in my philosopher’s brain. It rang true, and summed up so much of the sentiment that’s out there at the moment. While I’ve been attached to the idea of being like a plumber for a long time, all of the sudden, I feel more like a ghostbuster. Here’s why:

With reference to the quote given above- I (like most philosophers, I’m sure), hear about a lot of ideas that seem harmless and innocent that, left unchecked and unexamined, turn into monsters. These ideas, like Mr. Stay Puft, blow up, and become destructive. Being a philosopher means treating ideas with caution, thinking carefully about them, because they’re very rarely “just ideas”. You let one slide under the radar, and the next thing you know, it’s crushing entire city blocks. How many gargantuan, bloated, deceptively jolly ideas are we fighting with lasers at the moment, trying frantically not to cross the streams or be sucked into an alternate dimension?

Philosophers, like Ghostbusters, deal with all kinds of remnants from bygone eras, sometimes in the form of thinkers, and sometimes as long-standing worldviews and assumptions. Not all “ghosts” are unfriendly. Some are downright interesting and perhaps even useful, but they still have a tendency to creep back in when least expected, often in giant spectral blobs. All of them need to be caught, contained, and studied before we let them roam freely.

Philosophers and Ghostbusters both tend to mull over concepts like:

  • identity and free will (“There is no Dana, only Zull!”)
  • life, death, and the nature of reality (“And dig this, there was a prophecy. Just before his head died, his last words were “Death is but a door. Time is but a window. I’ll be back.”)
  • responsibility (“Janine: You are so kind to take care of that man. You know, you’re a real humanitarian. Egon: I don’t think he’s human.”)
  • truth (“When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes!”)
  • gender roles (“Safety lights are for dudes.”)
  • the scientific method (Back off man, I’m a scientist!)
  • the nature of belief. (“If there’s a steady pay-check in it, I’ll believe in anything you say.”)

These are at the core of both of our job descriptions.

Philosophy, like ghostbusting, works better when it’s inclusive, and spans a variety of disciplines, skillsets and perspectives. Someone needs to know physics, someone else needs to have a background in history and theology, another needs to be great with tech. There’s value in having a class clown, a loyal friend, or a bit of a daredevil in the mix. And yes, I would assert that the franchise was made richer with an all-female team in the third movie (haters, go home).  There’s still lots of room for improvement in cultural and other forms of diversity, and I’m holding out hope for that too, both in the movies and in philosophical circles.  In short, the more perspectives, the better.

Philosophy, like ghostbusting, is intended to serve some useful purpose, and should be seen as a public service, if you will. Does everyone treat philosophers (or Ghostbusters) as useful or relevant all of the time? No. No one wants to hear that they’re being “haunted”, that the weird creaking noise in the attic needs taking care of.  What’s more, no one wants to be told that sometimes the only way through a problem is effective critical thinking and asking very difficult questions. Philosopher and Ghostbusters both get a lot of doors shut in our faces, a lot of eye rolls and disparaging looks, but we’re actually helpful. Really, really helpful. We might even save the day, from time to time.

Being a philosopher, like being a Ghostbuster, is unexpectedly cool. Even when everyone thinks you’re a modern day Chicken Little, when you’re dealing with demons, when you’re covered in slime (all metaphorical, of course), you can’t quite imagine yourself doing anything else. To be a philosopher is to see stuff. Weird stuff. Undeniable stuff. Amazing, interesting, life-jangling, mind-changing stuff. I highly recommend it.

Perhaps the best part of this philosophy-ghostbuster connection lies in admitting that, deep down, we all kind of want to be one. While those with aspirations to take on the paranormal might be disappointed to find themselves without a proton pack or a pumped-up hearse, pretty much anyone can give philosophy a whirl, with no jumpsuit or PKE meter required.

So tell me, who ya gonna call?

The Me Behind the Mask

This isn’t a debate about masks. Let me just say that I think they’re really important, and if you can wear one, you should. I can, so I do. There. ‘Nuff said about that.

What’s occurred to me over the past few months, as I’ve been sporting my little spittle traps around town, is that I’m kind of in the process of reinventing myself a little. You see, in the words of my favourite holiday elf character, “I like smiling. Smiling’s my favourite.” I’m no Pollyanna, but I am a reasonably happy person, and I’m inclined to at least smirk or grin on a regular basis. That’s just who I am. Stop making gag noises. 🙂

Wearing a mask hasn’t stopped me from smiling (although the pandemic has definitely put a slight dent in it). It has, however, made me very aware that my usual calling card is, for the time being, hidden. Out of commission. Pretty much useless in public places. Covering up has led me to re-evaluate how I communicate with others, how I greet people, make connections, and show gratitude. I’m finding that I crack more jokes than usual, giggle a little more readily, and speak louder and slower. I use my eyes and brows as props, and if it’s possible, I gesticulate even more than I used to.excite

None of these are bad things. They’ve made up for my lack of smile, but they’ve also stepped in and helped me deal with not being able to hug people, or shake hands. I’m re-evaluating how I say hello and goodbye, how I congratulate someone, and how I show excitement and respect.

Wearing a mask has also made me realize how much seeing or not seeing full faces can impact some. For those with difficulties reading social cues, does it simplify things to have smiles taken out of the equation, or does it bring the challenge of having to learn other signals? If you can’t hear someone speak, and you can’t see their lips moving, how can they help? If you’re someone who’s always covered their face in public, how does the world look now? If you’re someone for whom wearing a mask is likely to arouse suspicion in others, how do you deal with being told that you must wear one? Mask wearing has made me much more aware of the politics surrounding our faces, and although I may not have answers, it feels much more important to ask these questions, to open up discussion.

We’re in the process of learning to relate to each other with one facial feature tied behind our backs, and it’s tricky, to say the least. If a small scrap of fabric with elastic loops can spark a response like it has, then maybe it’s an indication that there were issues just begging to be brought out into the open, challenges that we’ve been “masking” for far too long. I have no intention of dampening my smile while I wait for the air around us to clear, but I still welcome the opportunity to flex some other muscles while I reach out any way I can.

 

 

 

So Simple, Even My Kid Could Question It

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I live by this idea, both in my personal and my professional life. Maybe I’m hopelessly unrefined, and I need things to be broken down for me, or maybe I just think that ideas belong to everyone, and should be treated as such. Either way, I really like it when something complicated can be conveyed simply, in a way that both clicks and sticks.

We grown-ups tend to make things bigger than they should be. We like things to seem fancy, and complicated, even when they aren’t. Nine times out of ten, the mountains on which we pride ourselves would be just as effective if they were mole hills. We really, really, really need some sort of check point every so often that requires us to give the simpler version, to make sure we haven’t got too caught up in the big-shiny-fanciness of an idea. We need to make sure we still understand the small nugget at the centre of it.

So I’d like to challenge all of the grown-ups out there to sit down with a kid and explain something important. In light of current circumstances, I think it should be racism. Go ahead, lay out, in very simple, clear language, why it’s justified to differentiate between human beings on the basis of skin tone. Take a few minutes to get your thoughts together.

Your explanation has to be logical. It has to make sense. That little thinker in front of you will see right through any artifice or fancy-talk you throw at them. They’ll suddenly have to pee, or get hungry, or become unmanageable and fidgety. If they see a hole in your explanation, they’ll use it as a hula hoop, and then proceed to trip you with it. They’re pretty astute like that.

Okay, once you’ve broken down racism into basic terms, keep going with some other isms- sexism, speciesism, sizeism, ageism, ableism, classism. Then you can go throw in a couple of phobias- xenophobia, homophobia. Again, the kid in front of you will crawl all over you until you break it down for them.

At some point in the conversation, even if you’ve explained the evils of all these things, your wee inquisitors will likely ask you why these were ever things to begin with. They’ll want to know why people have held onto them as long as they have, why they continue to hold onto them. If they’re as hurtful and senseless as they seem, then why are they still there? Again, you’ll have to provide a simple, logical answer. Even with all your attempts at clarity, they’ll likely still meet you with “That’s silly.” or “I still don’t get it.”

And they’ll be right. They’ll be appropriately baffled by the monolithic structures we’ve built on top of such utter nonsense. They’ll be justifiably disgusted by the damage we’ve done. They’ll stare at you with the worst brand of stank-eye, arms tightly folded in front of them, feet kicking the legs of their chair. They won’t get it, because you don’t get it, and neither of you should get it. Because it doesn’t really make sense.

I propose we extend Einstein’s quote a little, at least for things like ‘isms and phobias:

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t get to keep it. 

 

Philosophy Ain’t What It Used to Be. Thank Goodness.

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I would give an awful lot for us to not be in the situation we’re currently in. I have no wish to see children out of school, people out of work, and our physical well-being threatened. Like many people, I’m doing what I can to help, and I wake up every morning wishing I had the smarts or the ability to make it all just go away. I’m profoundly sorry this is all happening, and I’m even more sorry that there are so many suffering because of it.

But I’m not sorry that so much will change because of it. I’m not at all upset at the idea of a “new normal”, although I’ve never been a fan of the word “normal” per se. Quite a lot of stuff hasn’t really worked for a long time, and we’ve become pretty comfortable with it not working. Long before we were told to stay put in our houses and wash our hands thoroughly and frequently, there were a lot of things that were long overdue for an overhaul.

And philosophy was one of them.

Perhaps the fact that philosophy is thousands (or tens of thousands) of years old somewhat excuses the fact that it got kind of…stuck. History is lousy with stories of people doing things out of habit, because they were comfortable with status quo. But philosophy is supposed to be better than that. Doing things a certain way, for a prolonged period of time, “just because” is considered a major philosophical no-no. Philosophers are supposed to bristle at the notions of comfort and habit. We’re supposed to relish change, or at least be open to it.

So, here are handful of things about philosophy that I hope to see re-envisioned, as everything else is likely to be in the not-so-distant future:

  • It needs to be accessible to everyone, because now more than ever, everyone needs it. I know philosophers say that it’s for everyone, but a lot of the time, that’s just lip service. We don’t always communicate and share things in a way that everyone can understand. We don’t go out of our way to include everyone. We don’t always embrace philosophical thinking in children, and we don’t bolster it in adults. Philosophy empowers, consoles, enlightens, connects, and everyone needs that, especially now.
  • It needs to be practical and applied. I’m all for ideas-for-the-sake-of-ideas…sometimes. That kind of approach has its place and its value, but it’s just not enough anymore. I’d go so far as to challenge any philosopher, studying in any branch of philosophy, to find an everyday use for whatever they happen to study. Go out on your front porch, watch strangers pass by on the street, and ask yourself “How would this make their lives better, right now?” If philosophy can’t help solve problems, then what are we doing?
  • We need to start looking for it everywhere. It’s not like it wasn’t already in movies, books, cartoons, music, food, theatre, sports, and all over the place. Philosophy needs to become just another part of our culture, something we just do all the time, in every part of our lives. We need to point out what’s there, and stir it into all kinds of new things too.
  • Philosophy needs to make friends with tech and new media. There are some thinkers who’ve made the leap, and who are constantly experimenting with ways to make dialogue and inquiry work online. There has also been a whole lot of resistance. Getting philosophy to go digital isn’t an easy ask, by any means, but our choice at this point is do it through tech, or do it alone. Beyond this, there’s a lot that philosophy can contribute to the tech world, and to digital literacy.
  • We need to take pleasure in asking questions, instead of being afraid of them. A non-trivial part of the mess we’re in right now stems from the fact that humans don’t turn over enough proverbial rocks, because we’re afraid of what might scurry out from under them. As philosophers, we have to model the joy of thinking, and nurture it in others.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how COVID19 has effectively sent the lot of us to our rooms, so that we can think about what we’ve done. Anyone who has the privilege of being able to shelter in place probably has a lot more time to do just that- think. What an incredible wasted opportunity this would be if we didn’t take advantage of that, to sharpen our skills and re-evaluate the way we’ve been unjustifiably resting on our laurels, to come up with solutions needed by those who aren’t so lucky, so privileged.

For as long as I can remember, philosophers have been asking why we don’t get the attention and respect we deserve. We’ve bemoaned the fact that we aren’t always seen as useful or relevant. Well my friends, this “‘new normal” that will supposedly be waiting for us when the dust settles isn’t going to magically appear on its own. It’s going to require deep thinking, the asking of difficult and uncomfortable questions, the very things that philosophers claim to specialize in. This isn’t the opportunity we were planning (or hoping) for, but it is an opportunity, nonetheless, to help ourselves grow as thinkers and as a community, but also to help others find their sea legs in the midst of a terrible storm.

Anyone up for a change?

My First Online Story Time Reading

In trying times like this, we need to take stock of the skills and knowledge we have and see how we might use them to help. I’m a writer and an educator, and what I have to offer is a story or two. So I set up a makeshift studio in my office, and I recorded one of my stories.

I hope it makes a few people smile, think, and talk to each other, but more than that, I hope it keeps wee kiddos busy while they hunker down in their houses and wait for schools (and the rest of the world) to reopen.

Please enjoy.

Sartre and Seclusion

In one of his plays, our existentialist friend Jean-Paul Sartre wrote “Hell is other people.” Just for clarification, he didn’t mean that human beings suck and we should be ashamed of being one of them. He, and others of this school of thought just took notice of the fact that we’re kind of stuck with one another, responsible for one another, and at the same time, we’re constantly watching each other, judging and taking note of one other. Long story short: this self-other business is complicated.

Less than a week into COVID19 seclusion, this particular self is missing all those others. I’m an extrovert, a chatterbox, a hugger, a student of human nature, and most definitely not a home body. I love visiting crowded, stinky, noisy cities and diving into a mob. I thrive on sharing a good meal, chatting about big ideas, blaring music and singing off key together. Yeah, I’m connected online, and I’m most grateful for that, but it’s just not the same. There’s only so much that I can suppress with compulsive baking and folding laundry, you know?

I have faith that we’ll eventually crawl out of our hobbit holes and back into the sun, and life will go on. Maybe it won’t quite be life as we knew it, but still…

Being removed from others, at least in an immediate, physical sense, has got me thinking about “otherness” in general. Human beings seem to have this habit of sorting people into “me”, “us”, “them” and “those guys waaaaaay over there”. We’ve gotten a little too comfortable with distance (both actual and theoretical), and that’s part of what’s gotten us into this mess in the first place. Stuff like this is supposed to happen to others, not to us. Until it happens to us.

To this virus, this microbe with a raging case of wanderlust, we aren’t others. It doesn’t see this person, or that person. There is no “us vs. them” to a bug like this. We’re all just a free ride and a meal ticket. Pandemics don’t give a tinker’s fart about existentialist philosophy.

Ironically, being separated from most humans, unable to shake hands, or embrace, or even pass around a plate of cookies, I am feeling much less like an “other” than before. The phone ringing is no longer a pain in the neck, it’s an “OOOOh, I wonder who that could be?” I’ve been welling up while watching videos of the quarantined singing to each other from balconies, of toddlers doing traditional healing dances. I’m noticing every hopeful soul out for a walk with their dog, every kid cautiously orbiting their house on roller blades. I’m wilting at the thought of the elderly being alone and woefully under-engaged. Absence is making my heart grow fonder.

I’m also more sensitive to those who think that precautions don’t apply to them, who insist on doing whatever they want, who are stubbornly clinging to their “otherness”. This separation thing is a hard habit to break. We like to feel special, like individuals, even when we need each other. And sometimes when our specialness is questioned, and we’re called to rejoin the herd…well, we do things like hoard toilet paper.

What I’ve been reminded of these past couple of weeks is just what Sartre floated out there: we aren’t on our own. For better or for worse, we’re tethered to one another. What we do, even the little stuff, wiggles its way through so many other lives. This makes me feel like a very small jellybean in a very large jar, but it also reinforces that even one jellybean matters. Right now there are seven and a half billion jelly beans squished together, and most of us are trying not to tip the jar.

It’s not that I don’t want to matter. I’m still me, and I still like being unique. I just want all of us to matter. If there is a silver lining to this situation, it’s that we have an opportunity to reevaluate and reset when the dust settles (and it will). Can we see our communities in a different light? Can we have more support for our education system? Can we have an economy that values our togetherness more than our separation? Can we elect leaders who can put “otherness” on the back burner? Can we knock down dividing walls between genders and races? Can we start valuing arts, social sciences, the humanities, and other pursuits that seek to explore our connections? Can we extend our newfound appreciation of non-otherness to non-human selves as well?

Besides their highlighting of this self-other tension, existentialists were also very keen to talk about responsibility. Sartre and his contemporaries insisted that every free choice we make serves as an example of what a human being should be. We should all be behaving as if all the other “others” out there are watching, because they kind of are, and not always in a bad way. In the weeks to come, I hope we take this to heart, and continue to rise to the occasion.

Stay safe, happy and healthy, everyone.

 

 

It’s International Women’s Day 20: Are We Finally Listening?

Malala, Greta, Emma, Autumn, Alexandria

I’m looking for a collective noun that accurately describes the group of young women who have demanding the world’s attention lately. Even the word “demanding” seems wrong. It’s more like deserving. What do I call them, as a group? Army? Posse? Barrage? Cavalry? Onslaught?

Ew.

Anything militaristic seems just wrong. There’s anger in their voices, but it’s righteous anger. They haven’t come to take over or destroy. Quite the contrary, they’re all trying to fix something, and have simply grown impatient with the powers that be (or were).

Legion doesn’t work either. It’s not like any of them are looking to be superheroes. As many on the list above have stated, they’d give anything to be elsewhere, to not be needed anymore. They’d rather be at school, with friends and family, away on vacation, building a career and a life. Instead, they’ve been taking/dodging bullets (for real), watching the environment suffer, and bearing witness to all sorts of human rights violations.

It’s not like women have never stood up before. Suffragettes put their necks on the line for the right to vote at the turn of the last century. The 60’s saw women speak out for the right to govern their own bodies. We’ve seen at least three waves of feminism wash over outdated beliefs. But I don’t remember ever seeing the next generation get so loud before. They mean business, and the fact that they can’t vote, can’t rent a car, can’t become president (yet) doesn’t seem to phase them at all. They’ve been observant, resourceful, empathetic, brutally honest, and most important, tenacious. There’s an immediacy to their battle cries, a “This can’t wait until I’m older!”

I’m in awe, and as a feminist who is not a kid anymore, I’m so happy to make room. More than that, I’m happy to turn to them for a more objective take on world events and issues. They have far less reason to be swayed by flattery or bribes. They have a variety of social media platforms at their disposal. They’re all keenly aware that the things they let slip through the cracks will be the same things they have to clean up later. And they have a bunch of us to listen and to back them up, a large number of slightly more aged women who’ve been feeling and thinking and even acting, but have never found as wide an audience.

Maybe the appropriate collective noun is a “mobilization”? What about an “education”? I think the proper term is a “realization”. A realization of young female thinkers. A realization of activists. A realization of future-looking minds with the will to make themselves heard.

I look forward to it getting bigger, and louder.