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Transcendence, or Selfishness?

by on March 9, 2015

                                            Transcendence, or Selfishness?

                                                       by Marco M. Pardi


Note: All comments are appreciated, read, and responded to accordingly.  The comments sections for all previous articles have been opened for use.  I will certainly look forward to your comments. 

“The mystic would have so much to tell us, just because he has so much to keep silent about.” Eugen Herrigel (1885-1955) “Higher Stages of Meditation,” The Method of Zen, 1960.

When I read Voltaire’s Candide I did not reflexively sneer at Dr. Pangloss’ maxim in the face of every tragedy – “We live in the best of all possible worlds.” Nor did I recoil from Huxley’s Brave New World.

Instead I considered that maxim as possibly verbalizing a sense of transcendence I may or may not have agreed with.  And that New World, seen from within, made logical, if not agreeable sense.

Early in my teaching years I was disturbed when looking at students sitting glassy eyed, mandibles moving up and down, side to side, chewing gum like so many ruminants with cuds even during what my universe defined as downright meaty stuff in my lectures.  But then, each was in his or her own universe. Was mine better, more correct?

I decided that question was inappropriate.  They had signed up for a (one of several) course in Anthropology.  I had signed up to do my best to teach it.  In honoring my side of the deal I laid out the parameters of the arena and entered it fully.  I did not sign up to teach English grammar, so essay tests and papers were graded on content, not on style.  If they flunked their English Composition classes, so be it. 

Of course, there were some who: Did not test well; or, did not organize thought well for papers; and/or, had problems transitioning to English from their own native language.  How far was I supposed to go to help?  Should I, like so many other instructors, fall back on “I had to do it, so you have to too”?  Could I be certain that any extraordinary efforts to reach or assist a student were free from influence by something particular about that student; would I provide equal access to the help I might offer?

Over the years I have come to see these questions as fundamental to a broad spectrum of human interactions from parenting to concerns of a global nature.  An easy answer I have often heard is: Not my problem, or NMP. But while it is easy to dismiss this answer as facile and self serving, the concept lingers disturbingly when I find myself “rising above” or transcending the struggles and squabbles I witness directly or through the vast cornucopia we call the media.

If it is accepted that some things are my problem and some things aren’t, by what criteria do I distinguish them?  If I operate from a purely personal level, concerning myself with those issues that only and demonstrably affect me, is that selfishness or survival?

Selfishness, or minding one’s own business? Selfishness, or not belittling the ability someone else to solve their own problem?  I remember an incident in my first year in college wherein a disabled student whom I did not know slipped and fell going down a wet grassy hill.  As his books went everywhere, I rushed to help pick them up.  All he said was, “I CAN DO IT!”.  Angrily.

The old wisdom, “Pick your battles wisely” comes to mind.  But even that presumes I have adequately and appropriately defined “me”.  And, battles sometimes have a way of coming unbidden.  In the early years students came to me for help in a variety of areas.  One Saturday evening I received a call from a roommate of one of my students.  My student was drunk, had a rifle, was threatening to shoot himself and wanted me to come and talk to him. Not seeing a need for the police at that time, I went over.  He greeted me by pointing the rifle at me and wondering if he should shoot me first.  I distracted him, disarmed and subdued him, and we took him to the hospital.  Sitting with him in the open area of the emergency room I heard the sounds of a fight in a nearby examining room.  I looked in and saw a man beating up a nurse and an intern, smashing equipment in the process.  He appeared competent in Karate, which greatly simplified things.  I called him to me, provided him with less than a minute of Aikido, and quickly had him on the examining table to get the stitches he needed from his recent bar fight.  Since I never hit him there was no issue of him pressing ridiculous charges (Aikido reverses the forces – and then some, used by the opponent), but as he insisted I hold his hand for the stitches – all the while affirming to us he had found a brother for life, those concerns faded.  That the nurse was also a student of mine (which I did not at first realize) was irrelevant; she later thanked me for the “tutorial in Applied Anthropology”.  In either case I could have said, “Not my problem.”  Why didn’t I?  I think it’s because I seem to reflexively come to the aid (even when they don’t know they want or need it) of the powerless, the less articulate, and those with no venue to air their voices.  The nurse and the frail intern were no match for a barroom brawler.  Women seeking power over their own reproductive decisions or equal pay for equal work,  people desiring freedom from religion based laws and policies, children being forced into religious gulags across the country, those who recognize the policies and practices which are irremediably damaging the planet, non-human animals being decimated by human practices and greed seem to be without much if any power in America.  As I’ve said elsewhere, I speak for them and others in any way I can, including through the voice of the wallet.  But why?

I differentiate ignorance from frank stupidity.  I’m ignorant of many, perhaps most things simply because I do not know about them.  Once having gained knowledge, however, my failure to act according to that knowledge would be frank stupidity.  With every election cycle, as people vote into office representatives and governors who demonstrably act in favor of the 1% to the great detriment of the 99% I wonder if so many people are just ignorant, or are they so unbelievably stupid.  I would have no quarrel with stupidity if the consequences were limited to the stupid.  Unfortunately, this is definitely not the case.  When I read about some idiot who was killed by driving his speeding pick-up truck into a tree I’m fine with that.  But when I read more closely and find his young children or his dog were also injured or killed I cross the line into a new dimension.  I’m an old guy.  But my daughter will likely suffer the consequences of the stupid people in our world, and my grandchildren certainly will.  Should I sit back and comfort myself with the knowledge that they are intelligent and will survive whatever comes?  Should I “rise above the fray”?

I remember my youthful protests against authority; “how am I supposed to learn if I do only what other people tell me to?”  Applying that as a parent was more difficult.  While we want our children to learn by doing things for themselves, we don’t want them to pay too high a price for the lesson.  So, which is worse, the price for the lesson or the squashing of creative learning in the name of risk avoidance?

We live in a world which is increasingly less able to survive and adapt to mistakes.  I do try hard to limit the consequences of my mistakes.  Therefore, seeing the Not My Problem mantra as a profound mistake, albeit a path to temporary personal bliss,  I act where, when, and how I see action as appropriate.  I’ve never seen myself as competitive; playing high school football I had not the slightest care who won.  So it’s not a matter of my ego versus their ego, despite my bottomless disdain for stupid people.  It’s a matter of refusing the pretense that I can separate myself from it all and that “freedom” to be stupid has no consequences for others.

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  1. The world definitely isn’t black and white. I was watching the movie “Maleficent” and was reminded there are almost always two sides/views to any story. And one’s view results in their action/reaction. Fortunately your reaction in these situations turned out well, but could very likely have not. I’m working very hard on not jumping to the conclusion someone is stupid, which brings out intolerance in me. My daughter’s best friend in college is a girl who is not stupid. Her parents, are what you think of when you think of the worst of the south. They are extremely religious, conservative and not educated. Their daughter is bright with a strong work ethic and desire to learn. She basically has supported herself since the age of 16 and through her own efforts is now starting a Master’s program. She holds many of the views of her parents. Usually when people express strong conservative views, not based on any facts, I walk away. No sense wasting my time. But this girl, I feel can be shown how wrong many of the things she believes, and I’m giving it a try. This weekend when she stated “Because of stupid Obamacare my parents are going to have to declare bankruptcy. ” I got on the Internet with her and showed her how all the things her parents had told her about Obamacare were not true.” She at least is open to listening which is half the battle. “Pick your battles wisely” is not a bad mantra to live by.

    Thank you for another article that gets the brain working.


    • Thank you, Mary. Your interaction with the girl is an excellent example of the possibilities around us. Hopefully, like you, we will act on those possibilities and not assume someone else will.


  2. Dana permalink

    “Early in my teaching years I was disturbed when looking at students sitting glassy eyed, mandibles moving up and down, side to side, chewing gum like so many ruminants with cuds… ”

    What a hilarious and vivid description. I was probably one of those students in later years, chomping away at my gum. Regardless, I always thought you and I were in the lecture in a universe together. I definitely wasn’t glassy-eyed (more like googly-eyed).

    As it applies to picking battles, I have often found myself in various quandaries. Sometimes I have been asked to “step in,” other times I have intervened without being requested to do so. And quite often it backfires. I have a neighbor whose arthritis is visibly becoming worse; observing her walking the dog it is evident this ability is declining. On a few occasions, I have pulled her empty trash can over the curb and back up the hill to its regular place. She wouldn’t know who did it; I waited until after she left for work. Still, last week I wondered if she might feel offended rather than helped.

    “I differentiate ignorance from frank stupidity. I’m ignorant of many, perhaps most things simply because I do not know about them. Once having gained knowledge, however, my failure to act according to that knowledge would be frank stupidity. ”

    This made me think of my mother’s question some time ago: “If New Bethany was so bad, why didn’t you just run away?” Decades ago, even though she dumped me there, she was on one hand, woefully ignorant of numerous impediments, at least most of those “inside the fence.” I wondered over the years if she was completely stupid or just sadly naive. In my mind, it was always obvious that a fourteen year old Canadian girl might not survive as a runaway in rural Louisiana. However, after gaining knowledge from me, her failure to admit running away would have been largely impossible was frank stupidity. Sometimes I still cannot help but wonder if I was adopted, something I wondered at various times throughout my life.

    I am so glad you are a voice for those with little, if any power in the U.S. You are someone I admire, and a person I cannot imagine living his life selfishly. As you worry about your daughter and grandchildren, I worry about the future for my own children. But, I am also glad I have you to help me see where, when, and if, and how I should take action. So many are not as fortunate as I am to have that type of support and an example of a great human being.


    • Thank you, Dana. You have lived through so much, and so successfully. I am ever more in awe of you as you continue to open the door into your struggles.

      You know my outlook for our children is not optimistic. But we try, and I am looking forward to more of your voice as I know others are.


  3. This post is in my wheelhouse on so many levels, I just don’t know where to begin. Our terminology is different, but we are on he same page when it comes to dealing with stupid people. I call it choosing to be ignorant, and yet I am guilty of this in certain instances; specifically those subjects of a global nature about which I can do nothing. I don’t refuse the knowledge, but I find it incredibly frustrating to feel so helpless.

    If there is something I can do, however insignificant, then I feel compelled to do so. On a personal level, that means I sometimes do more than I should. I was speaking with someone a few days ago that said enabling was actually disabling; I’ve never heard it put better.

    My father was labeled a disabled veteran; he lost a leg and half an arm in the Korean Conflict. He was handicapped, to be sure, but never disabled. Growing up with him, I learned to ask if he wanted (not needed) help. Asked in this manner, he would sometimes accept the offered aid, but he took great pride in being able to do for himself. Over the years, and with many people in many situations, I’ve found that the simple questions “Can I help?” or “You want some help with that?” before taking action goes a long way; Just don’t feel bad if the answer is “no”.


    • Thank you, Rose. The experience I had with the young man who fell helped me to learn to curb and more appropriately frame my willingness to help. That’s a marvelous quote: enabling is disabiling. I heard the “tough love” message with some reserve, but learned it is very appropriate at some point.

      I’m reading Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything now. It is a very hard read for those of us who want to confront and change stupidity. The temptation to conclude, This is too big to confront; just learn to survive, is great. That would be okay for me, but my daughter and grandchildren will be victims. And, I have this nagging sense of wanting to help others I will never meet. I feel very deeply about the non-humans with whom we share this planet. But I recognize part of that need is really the need to confront stupid people head-on, thus entailing a certain amount of personal ego. What a quandry.


    • Rose. I just came across a quote attributed to Einstein: “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” Seems appropriate here.


      • A more appropriate comment could not have been found. In addition to his superlative mind, Einstein was also supremely wise.


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