Category Archives: Emerson

Duped By Progress

p208People argue for progress by citing the inconvenience of life before indoor plumbing or the health risks of unpreserved food or the ignorance and danger of primitive religion or the likelihood of death by unknown causes or the terrible poverty at the low end of the social scale or the stench of irregular bathing. In short, we should be glad to live now. Things are better, undoubtedly.

Yet, while we know what was missing then, no one can know the compensations of life in the past. Their less frenetic lives, as circumscribed as they may have been, probably included fewer desperate aspirations to progress. Certainly, no one then thought, “My goodness, I wish the toilet were inside,” or “When is someone finally going to invent deodorant?” Were they as trained to want as we are? Did they want all the time? If they enjoyed what they had more, perhaps we should envy them.

Emerson described society as a wave, the energy moves and the material does not. What we call progress is often little more than something different, positive because it’s novel, advantageous in ways that, moments before, never occurred to us. We’re prompted to appreciate—usually through purchase—every semi-step forward. Yet, as Havelock Ellis said, “What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another.”

We want to distance ourselves from yesterday, and the thought we might stand still keeps us dancing as if we stood barefoot on a griddle. The greater the expectation of progress, the more relentless and restless life becomes. Time accelerates. Promise crowds each moment and spills into disappointment when we can’t achieve impossible hopes. We are meant to advance, after all, because that’s what humans do.

Did the great historically unbathed—before the Enlightenment, say—expect so much? Perhaps acceptance, acquiescence, and resignation were bigger in their world, and they didn’t know to be unhappy. If the worship of progress is itself something new, should we call that worship progress, the perpetual feeling the present isn’t quite good enough?

It bears remembering that some of the hunger we feed only increases our appetite and that weapons and human depravity progress too. If humans were exclusively rational, we might expect reliably improved lives, but humans’ rationality is hardly dependable, and what we call progress today often proves naïve, ignorant of unanticipated consequences and side effects that sometimes surpass any pessimist’s prediction.

Belief in progress is finally faith, self-assurance today improves yesterday and tomorrow will be better still. The proof waits for a later stretching ever ahead. We will never know or prove things are better, but we may add to our present discontent by thinking things have to be.

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard wrote, “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”

The bridges we meet go only one way and, burning them behind us, we have nothing to show for it but tears. Yet with no clear memory of what caused those tears, we can’t imagine ourselves authors of our own displeasure. We go blindly, ever forward, assuming the future will save us from this strange smoke.

The past is bad, what’s ahead is better, and the present is only good for longing.


Filed under Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Emerson, Essays, Grief, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts

Thanks for Thanksgiving

rockwell.jpg Despite its dubious origins, Thanksgiving is a holiday worth celebrating.

It isn’t the days off, though for teachers like me, the break comes just as the last of my early-year energy gives out. When I can’t look at one more paper or re-read another thirty-pages, my students leave the room saying, “Have a good holiday,” and I feel a surge of gratitude for their talents, their cooperation and their effort.

It isn’t that the holiday is so much time. Two days hardly measures up against the longer spans at Christmas or at spring break. This occasion just skips the strangely stressful feeling of gift-buying and manic, frenzied celebration or the escapism of spring, when doing nothing and going nowhere seems aberrant. Thanksgiving, even if you travel, centers on arriving somewhere and being relaxed and comfortable once you get there.

It isn’t the meal. As a vegetarian, I see turkeys as alien creatures I have no desire to meet, much less eat. For me, the feast is just an excuse to sit around one table and talk, a time when eating together is its own end, not sustenance before meetings or activities to attend or homework to complete. With my son at college now, we have too few family meals and even fewer are for themselves, destinations instead of way-stations. Food is only the excuse for fellowship at Thanksgiving.

It isn’t even being thankful. I like to think gratitude is a regular part of my life. I aspire to start every day with Emerson’s discovery, “I woke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new.” Perhaps needing ritual to remind you of good fortune isn’t healthy. I know the good life I lead isn’t as common as I wish it were.

It’s just wonderful to look into the eyes of my family and friends and tell them—whether I use words or not—how grateful I am for them, how they make my life what it is.

So I can’t say exactly why Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days, which might be the true reason. I like a day without pretension or grandeur, a day when the domestic becomes holy, a homespun holiday for homebodies like me.

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Filed under Emerson, Gratitude, Home Life, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Thoughts

The Three Reasons

The three best reasons to be a teacher are June, July, and August—an old joke, but for teachers, the joke expresses gratitude and the one unassailable advantage of being underpaid.

From people in other professions, questions accompany the joke: “So what are you doing?” or “What do you do with yourself all day?” or “Anything good on daytime TV?”

I get defensive. I want to answer, “You’re right, no real job requires so much time off,” or “You know what? I do like my job best when I’m not doing it.”

No one needs me on a farm. The old-fashioned, practical reason for summer has lapsed. If I argue teaching is a boundary-less job the rest of the year, occupying every evening and every weekend, people groan. What job doesn’t have sprawling hours in 2011?

Sometimes, I justify summer by saying I need time to restore my brake pads. By graduation, I say, I’ve run out of patience, I’m “metal to metal.” Year-round workers say, “Yeah, I’ve really got to figure out how to replace mine while the car is moving.” If I counter, “At least you don’t have to work with children,” they say, “Oh really?”

It’s also a bad idea to explain what I do with my day.  I stop getting up early to grade papers and spend more time on family and household projects.  I try to get more exercise, eat better, write, and paint. And I read five or six books I’ve been meaning to get to.

The sound you hear is a shovel digging a deeper and deeper hole. Truth is, my sense of guilt can produce an odd pressure to be productive, creative, and diligent. After the exhilaration of early June, summer can become a Sargasso Sea. With no lessons to prepare or papers to grade, no wind compels me. Every morning begins by putting oars to water. Trips—vacations from my vacation—can feel strange, false. I need to work to deserve fun.

And I still need some justification—some satisfying justification—for being off. My own reason.

In his oration “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson describes a fable in which the gods, “Divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.” The point, Emerson says, is that there is really only, “One Man—present to all particular men only partially.” He bemoans that we are farmers, professors, or bankers first and people second. We should be people farming, people teaching, or people banking. We have to transcend individual labors to embrace humanity; otherwise, “The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters.” We are, “A good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow,” he says, “but never a man.”

These days, we celebrate our differences. Our understanding is often a “fill-in-the-blank thing” no one else can truly feel or understand. In contrast, Emerson says, “A man, rightly viewed, comprehendeth the particular natures of all men.”

In Understanding Emerson:“The American Scholar” and his Struggle for Self-Reliance, Kenneth Sacks treats the oration as Emerson’s coming-out party, the first time he bit a hand that fed him in the form of Harvard, the college that nurtured his entire family. From Emerson’s perspective, Harvard was increasingly obsessed with class rank and enhancing students’ cultural literacy and social standing. He felt the school had lost sight of the seeds of thought and creativity he revered. In failing to see themselves and their students as people first, the school overvalued material and undervalued humanity and the iconoclasm of the new nation. Emerson’s criticism came as a surprise—he had, after all, been invited to speak by the college—but the warmest response came from students who clustered at the windows to listen. One of them was Henry David Thoreau.

Perhaps you hear a justification—or rationalization—forming. If I do summer correctly, I become a person teaching. I can stop defining myself by what I do and examine who I am. I’ll remember the impulses that led me into teaching, fall back in love with learning, and forget academic politics and any rocky relationships with colleagues.

In the morning, I can scan the pages looking for a headline that piques my curiosity or addresses a subject on which I’d like to be feel educated. I seek, in an almost dreaming way, to add to what I know. The best aspect of reading and studying, in Emerson’s mind, is that it “says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well nigh thought and said.”

“The one thing in the world, of value,” Emerson said, “is the active soul.”

So here’s to June, July, and August, the months of my active soul. Here’s to the responsibility to be human again.


Filed under Arguments, Doubt, Education, Emerson, Envy, Essays, Gratitude, High School Teaching, Home Life, Hope, Identity, life, Modern Life, Reading, Resolutions, Teaching, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work