Thursday, July 24, 2008

Falling Back on Old Advice

When I was in grad school, in Coventry England, I one day became upset at the debate taking place in a class. My undergraduate degree emphasized creative writing and I’d written a fair amount of poetry along the way. These feeble attempts to emulate the great writers gave me an immense respect for their accomplishments, the way even a weekend golfer respects Tiger Woods more than a spectator who’s never lined up a putt and seen it break the other way.

The professor and the students tore up the writer’s work and concluded that it was essentially worthless and this struck me as similar to spectators laughing at the last place golfer. Sure, he didn’t make the cut, but at least he was swinging one type of club instead of sitting in the other. These critics seemed to only talk about art without ever attempting it, ridiculing rather than risking, sitting at a safe distance intellectually critiquing those who tried to write artistically.

So I wrote my poetry teacher back in Nebraska, lamenting the way these critics in this beautiful university subjected “lit to crit” and seemingly dissected the artist currently on the table the way a science class cut into a formaldehyde dipped frog, tearing up the beautiful but imperfect miracle and simply tossing it aside when their own purpose was served.

So I was mad, and homesick, and probably feeling inferior to these better-educated British students. I told my favorite professor how frustrating it was to see these supposed superior scholars who’d likely never written a line of good poetry mock those who at least attempted this, sometimes sacrificing much along the way.

I’m sure my anger was apparent in my letter home, and to a long-term poet like this man, probably the hurt behind the anger as well. I’ll never forget the simple lines the poet wrote back to me:

“Subjecting lit to crit in unreasonable but human.”

Then he told me about what was new with the people we knew and with the Platte River we both love.

That’s “all” he said but it was enough for me to remember all these years in between and to still remain in my mind twenty years later.

Here’s how I took what he said:

You’re in England studying at a great University. Why are you wasting time with anger over what a few flawed human beings are saying about artists?
Why are you missing the beauty around you and the wonderful opportunity you have and being ruled by anger?
Haven’t I taught you that you can “float your sweet silver voice” over those people’s heads if you focus on the perfections of this world rather than on people’s natural temporary imperfections, which you have as well?
He of course didn’t literally say anything like this but simply pushed all my judgment off to the side and refocused me away from those who made me angry toward that which could make me laugh, learn and appreciate the opportunity that a wonderful university and an artist’s eye could give me.

I’m reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and today read about the author studying in England and one day watching a likely schizophrenic riding the subway who was having an angry conversation with herself. He followed her off the subway as she continued to talk to herself, angrily, and then lost her as she stumbled into his University building, ironically the location of the Mind Police in the film version of Orwell’s 1984.

Once inside, he stopped at the men’s room and, while washing his hands, “thought” to himself “what a strange woman. I’m glad I’m not like her.” Noticing that the man beside him looked in his direction, he realized he’d not only thought this but said it out loud to himself.

This made him realize that not only was he a lot more like her than he realized, with a wandering, anger-based mind, but that his ego was trying to diminish this similarity by focusing his mind on the subtle differences rather than on the striking similarities. He of course, wasn’t labelled “mad,” as the woman likely was, but the only difference was that, at least until that point, his thoughts had been contained in his head while hers were blurted out randomly.

His thoughts were likely just as angry and random as hers but he hadn’t realized it until someone looked suspiciously and judgmentally at him the way he’d looked at her.

As he describes this:

“Oh my god,I’m already like her,” I thought. Wasn’t my mind as incessantly active as hers. There were only minor differences between us. The predominant underlying emotion behind her thinking seemed to be anger. In my case, it was mostly anxiety. She thought out loud. I thought- mostly- in my head. If she was mad, then everyone was mad, including myself. There were differences in degree only.

For a moment, I was able to stand back from my own mind and see it from a deeper perspective.”

That’s what I was able to do when my teacher in effect told me to get over my anger and my overly-critical professors and try to start seeing the world as even a feeble artist does once again, to move from thinking about the world to feeling it again, to let go of anger and experience joy, to laugh in the moment instead of judge from a distance.

I learned a lot in grad school and was very lucky to have that experience. But I’ll never forget the way Don Welch taught me to focus on the beauty and potential before me rather than on the tempting distractions which will always be present. While they can make you angry, they’re also forgiveable, entirely human, and themselves a source of inspiration, if only you learn to look in the right way.

It’s easy to be angry, especially when you’re a lawyer and constantly fighting with someone for someone else. But I’ve found that while the day to day work of being a lawyer can make me angry, when I let it get the best of me I’m at my worst as a lawyer and my most miserable as a person.

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