Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Death of Soul

Here’s the problem with prolonged lines of individual philosophizing: if you do it well enough, you’ll end up chuckling to yourself. And people always want in on the joke, assuming there’s probably only a few stock characters – Jesus, the Buddha and Mark Twain – and it’ll take only a second.

I can’t tell you the depths of my anger at this woman. And part of me feels bad. One ought to reserve anger for grave trespasses, not spiritual fumbles. She didn’t mean to drop the ball.

The woman – a Ph. D. in art history – I can’t remember her name, though it’s not important. She went and did the universe a great favor of convenience by zipping herself into a stereotype. In her case, it was the flighty feel-good featherweight art teacher. Everything is beautiful, everyone is smart and all are deserving of respect, except for the misogynists who founded Western society on linear rational reasoning.

Part of it is my own fault. I missed warnings. First, Gloria specifically recommended this seminar to everyone on the Wisconsin Americorps Leadership Council, a hint that slipped by me. Gloria is a very nice person, and very necessary. She’s in charge of a lot at the state level, one of those knowing cogs without whom the bureaucracy grinds to a halt. She, however, comes from a much different place from me. She’s especially earnest, a quality I grow daily at odds with. She wasn’t the only one at camp to espouse the position, but she mentioned at our dinner table her discomfort with simply occupying the grounds of a U.S. military base.

I’ve been putting people on notice lately, so here are a couple abstract annoyances:

1. Being told by teetotalers to watch how much I drink.
2. American liberalism’s lack of muscle.

Second sign: the title. “A Holistic Approach to Reflection.”

Americorps is a one-party system populated by those who sacrificed time and a living wage to give back to others, and like to talk about that righteousness because, well, we can’t afford to go out. When I started at Operation I was in the same place, frustrated at so much plugging ahead and so little communal feeling. Having grown into it, however, I wouldn’t go back. OFS’ leaders are too seasoned to bleed their own hearts. Some of our participants will wash out and fail. Many, in fact. But you reach a point where you know that what you do, though varyingly enraging, frustrating and confusing, does some good. So you get up every day, and figure you’ll probably walk into something good if you simply keep your boots moving.

This is the spiritual place I found myself upon arriving at “holistic reflection.” In other words, not in the mood to tell strangers how I use my intuition, concentration and responsibility at work, and how this made me feel.

She asked us to draw a visual metaphor or our work. If there’s anything I dislike more than metaphors, it’s tired, easy metaphors. Although there is a certain satisfaction at people unwittingly yet literally depicting themselves as a tool.

I should have laughed off the absurdity, but I felt deeply insulted by the shallowness of these ideas. In that ocean of earnestness I felt like I’d be ostracized as too stubborn or emotionally unavailable if I threw up my hands and refused to participate. I’m not saying I won’t open up to a group of people; anybody who’s ever gone serious drinking with me knows this isn’t so. But my spirituality is tied to place, and there’s no place less spiritual than a workshop at a conference.

Mercifully, my anger gave way into amusement. In November I’ve been reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” a read tailored to my current situation. During her talk I kept thinking how perfectly our speaker matched his description of a “romantic” thinker, what with her constant bitter mutterings about how linear thinking has kept us from really understanding how we feel. If anything, she’s the teacher from the Simpsons episode where they separate the classes by gender and the girls’ teacher asks them “How does the number 7 make you feel?” and “what does 2 + 4 smell like?”

And then, she went one slide too far and spent minutes trying to make Powerpoint go backward. Oh my God. I buried my head in my arms; first, it’s rude to laugh at a speaker, no matter how inane, and second, I didn’t want to spend half an hour later in the day trying to explain why this was the most perfectly hilarious thing I’d seen in a long time.

I need a code word to tell people that I’m laughing at a long-line joke and I’m not going to explain it to them.

I’ll try “cantaloupe.”

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