Developing a Self to Contend with the World

Part Six of the essay Professor Without Portfolio.

During the frequent station stops along the way from Ohio State through Hawaii to Kenyon, I learned that finding a job is a lot easier—and far less satisfying—than finding one’s place in the world. In fact, I now think that one’s place in the world does not even exist until one’s Self has developed enough perspicacity to recognize it. Known as “discernment” in the parlance of Vocation, such perspicacity seems to sharpen in deep reflection upon the events of one’s life—as though reflection was the stone, discernment the knife, and life the foot upon the pedal or the hand upon the wheel. And the life force rises and falls respectively during episodes of good or ill “fit”, good or regrettable work. (After the farm, my best fit (and worst work?) was practicing Journalism at Ohio State—and it entailed a distinctly maturing dose of suffering. Until the Augsburg presidency, my best “good work” (and least comfortable fit?) was professing Political Philosophy at Kenyon—and it revealed the dependency of good teaching on episodic learning (which disorients you just as you were becoming comfortable with the last course correction).  Although good work and good fit came closer together for me at Augsburg than at any other time in my life so far, my best “good work” has never—and will never–escape the strictures of duty.)


Although the kind of dialectic under discussion here may seem a tautology—or at least a paradox—it is neither. Self takes shape through interaction with the world, and its role in subsequent such interactions is made larger thereby. Eventually, the Self becomes strong enough—independent enough—to actually contend with the world, even-Steven (but never better than that while we are in the world).


My particular Self certainly lacked the capacity to contend with the world—especially the world of the conspiracy cabals of the late ‘50’s at Ohio State and, in the ‘60’s and ever since, of the exclusive partisan clubs among faculty at every college and university in the land—until I was well into my professoriate at Kenyon. The thing that effected its eventual invigoration was the recognition that the dialectic of world and self couldn’t advance vocationally without a third element—a teleological element made accessible by education and close acquaintanceship with admirable persons who could draw the Self upward (rather than relying on lower forces to propel it in that direction from below). The Ancients called that element “the good” and thought it rooted in Nature; many of the “moderns” who acknowledge it  think it a product of wishful thinking and believe it rooted, if anywhere, in History. Some very few call it “destiny” and think it a gift of the Divine. Whatever it is and whence ever it comes, it leavens the dialectic and enables it to rise—morally and consciously.


Only a couple of years earlier, with the confusion and self-consciousness of adolescence hard upon me, I encountered a sudden, stultifying fear for which this dialectic offered a balm. Triggered perhaps by the failure of my first venture in romance (she was Catholic, and both of us “knew” that any such inter-sectarian relationship had no future whatsoever), the fear was of the prospect of being profoundly and permanently alone. I reacted ambiguously—by casting about for ways to ingratiate myself with any nearby and popular group, on the one hand, and by seeking a radical independence of all groups, on the other (i.e., solitude in the place of alone-ness). In the long run, the stronger of these was the latter—because it entailed freedom, both “from” the prevailing biases of the groups, and “to” a life chosen by my lights and “belonging” to me (as one’s place in the world should seem). Of the two, I preferred independence. My experience suggested it as “realistic”; even when he was around, my father’s disappointment in me constituted an abandonment. His death was the ultimate abandonment—and it sent me rather more in search of an independent (rather than servile) inclusion, and a proud (rather than lonely) solitude.


The first “independent inclusion” I sought was of my peers. By that time, I had become acceptable to my mother and the portion of polite life in that part of the country that was governed by females, and secondarily by my father and his farmer friends. I was heir apparent to the 160-acre Appalachian farm he had acquired at the very end of the war. As the inheritor of his bass voice—and blessed by my mother’s subjection of me to piano and choral lessons—I was regularly asked to read Biblical texts in church or sing solo there or at the Grange, Farm Bureau, and other farmer meetings in the region.


But among my contemporaries, my standing was shaky.  I was too skinny—even with sharp elbows I couldn’t block out rival rebounders; too Eastern—older of two offspring of a college-educated Philadelphia mother who became a demanding teacher in the Southeastern Ohio school district she helped found; too musical and literary—no locker-room tales of romantic dalliances, too few of risky adventures with comrades, and nowhere near enough badinage skills to qualify as the kind of raconteur that was admired in those parts in those times.


Obtaining full acceptance by the trend setters among my contemporaries without becoming the group wise-guy or comedian was best done by handsome fellows with first-team varsity ability in sport.  I was a good pitcher of softball, but that was after-school church stuff—not enough physical combat to rival the standing of football. (I came close to measuring up when I inadvertently fractured a batter’s ankle with a fastball.)


So—I chose “thinking” as my strategy. I had learned something of the art from my mother. She made good use of it in constructing the speeches that her education, accommodating disposition, civility and clever turns-of-phrase qualified her to make to school, church and farm audiences all over the region. Her father had been a Methodist minister known best for his graceful homilies. My father’s curse-laced speech and sharp wit was widely admired among his compatriots. So, thinking and fluent rhetoric had a good reputation in the family. Hence, I have always equated them, and have become a devotee of forensic rhetoric—of clear, fascinating and instructive expression in the classroom, from the podium, and on paper. (And a preference, in private, for “rich” speech, though free of obscenities.)


At the time, thinking seemed a distinctive strategy. It was non-confrontational. It didn’t require an assertion of “rights” or “due to’s”. It needed but a certain persistence, a constantly furrowed brow, and a self-effacing interest in the remarks of interlocutors who thought themselves particularly smart or learned. It played out in rhetorical gambits with which I could acceptably interrupt and enter the conversation of the moment: “But what about….?” Or “Don’t you think….?” Or “Didn’t I just read ….”?


Although I didn’t realize it until greater maturity came to me, thinking had the added advantage of going straight to ideas. It didn’t pause over feelings. Whether the idea of the moment was “good” or “bad” didn’t matter half as much as whether it was “sound”. Thinking allowed for conversation with charlatans as well as angels, with people I secretly wanted to punch—or embrace. It allowed for a relational life outwardly devoid of love or alienation.


Although the strategy didn’t work so well for my immediate purposes—it didn’t lift me directly into the local “in” crowd—it did foster a peculiar form of reflectiveness useful for breaking free of the tyranny of popular opinion. (The other day I found notes of a week’s worth of “all nighters” in my 19th year to elect “qualified” judges—one or two only of good and knowing friends who approved of  me and my character—and to deny to casual critics such as store clerks to whom I had given too little or too much cash for my purchase or drivers irritated by the abruptness or hesitation of my left turns the power to flay my tender soul with a sharp word or obscene gesture.)


Beyond that election of those possessing the exclusive right to judge me, perhaps the earliest and most elementary realization of my search for independence and a place of my own was that writing is less a vocation than a modus-operandi. That turns out to be true, also, of academic fields-of-study. Political Philosophy, for example, is a profession—defined by a code of conduct among practitioners rather than by their dedication to justice, civility or neighborliness. Only when one consciously choses the aim of one’s political philosophy as well as a realistic strategy for effecting it, does one have a love-thy-neighbor vocation—either political, non-political or anti-political.