I am a (rather recycled) rock
For now I want to talk about the larger issue, in which independent thought is presumed superior to received tradition passively and uncritically absorbed. Oops, sorry; slipped into academicspeak there for a sec. But seriously: it’s all about rebellion vs. conformity; what the truly “alternative” lifestyle is, and why (or if) that’s supposedly better. According to a professor I TAed for in grad school, Confucius talked about this: sometimes the majority’s right and you’re wrong; sometimes you’re right and the masses are wrong. Education is how you know the difference. I always liked that.
Ah — but that’s not very independent of me, is it? In fact, I even betrayed how much I’m riffing someone else by providing detailed attribution. Not that you’re much helped by that, perhaps, but in journalistic and scholarly circles we do have this habit of noting our debts to those who’ve informed our thought. Sometimes advisors or others even respond to a supposedly “independent” thought by saying you’ve just relayed some central thesis of Freud or Marx so widely dispersed in the cultural conversation its originator mostly goes unacknowledged. One man’s independent thought is sometimes just his ignorance of the larger conversation he’s summarizing. Or his blindness to a widely accepted cultural paradigm. If you wear glasses, you know what I mean — after a while you get so used to the frames, you’re barely aware of the fuzzy boundary of what’s in focus.
That visual amnesia is analogous to our forgetfulness of history, underscored in a great scene from To Sir, With Love. Sidney Poitier informs his blasé class their rebellious late-60s threads and ’dos are straight out of a previous century — and takes them to the museum to prove his point. We can never escape received tradition’s impact on our habits and thoughts. So the question is not, “Do I have an independent or derivative perspective?” but “Whom do I trust, and how much?” Put another way, it’s a question of certainty — how much weight we’re willing to put on the opinions and assertions of others versus our own.
Let’s say you choose to doubt the views of others. Doesn’t it all come down to the fallibility of the human perspective? And it’s not just a question of suspecting ideas. We often distrust people, period. One woman burned you good, now we’re all suspicious and “as a kind” to be held at arm’s length. Or: “That guy treated me badly so now I’ll just hold myself aloof from all of them; not let anyone in.” Absolute statements are mighty tempting, no doubt. And many of them come down to dissing the other precisely because he or she is human.
So what makes you so trustworthy? All of us have had major changes of mind. You go through a phase where you’re convinced So-and-such is It and will be It for time immemorial. Until some other detail (which to your friends was glaring all along) comes into focus so sharp all “It-ness” is lost forever. The problem wasn’t really Mr. or Ms. So-and-such, it was you and the limitation of your perspective; your inability or unwillingness to see the fuller reality. Which, I’m sure some philosophy prof would tell us is the beginning of the path to nihilism. Or something like that.
Sure, you miss a lot of things in life with an unbending either/or stance, and probably lose a lot of your humanity, but at least you don’t have to think and hurt as much, and the course is fairly set for you. But to accept that some men and women have more integrity than others, that some people are fairly deserving of your trust (though they’ll invariably let you down sometimes), is hard. It’s also the stance in life I’ve chosen at a couple critical junctures.
Intellectually it happened in the fall of ’99. At that point, a relationship with God was about the most inconvenient and painful commitment possible. My spiritual life was so different from what the religious culture said I could expect from knowing God that I reached a turning point. Either this gap existed because I was putting my trust in something that did not exist and therefore had no power to meet those expectations (hence I would become an atheist), or I had been given bad, bad, bad information about this Being (hence much questioning and partial uncertainty). I chose the latter because I sensed that for me atheism would have been more an escape from pain and inconvenience than a total cessation of belief.
But this forced me onto the problem of who I could trust to tell me about God. Which was when I realized I’d have to engage everything I was being told — including what I thought was or wanted to be true. And it meant accepting that this was probably not a one-time deal. Key parts of my operational paradigm will always stay the same (such as the permanence of certain relationships), but my knowledge of certain things and beings in those relationships will probably undergo major change at various points.
Relationally I chose the harder but healthier path during my painful friendship with the Married Man. Accepting that the closest man I’d ever met to what I thought was my soulmate (which I believed in then) could not ever be mine in the way I wanted was devastating. I could either shut off my heart and numb even greater parts of myself to avoid the pain (further jeopardizing the chance of love in the future), or allow the wound to stay open until it healed in a more healthy way. I chose the latter. I didn’t pursue a romantic relationship with him, but neither did I cut off contact. It hurt like hell in the process, but I emerged from it stronger and much wiser about the importance of self-giving love and seeking another’s well-being over your own, even if that means pulling away so as to protect his marriage.
Bottom line, I try very hard to consider and engage all the messages around me — secular and steeped-in-religion alike. Sure, I accept other people’s ideas sometimes (or the particular way they’ve phrased another’s thoughts), but I’m not ashamed of that. It’s not a question of whether or not I can avoid a fairly derived-from-others life, but whether I take ownership of what I’m building my life on and out of.