Saturday, August 16, 2014

Just behind the pain

Where Connecticut Avenue and 18th Street converge in Washington, DC, there sits a statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow decked in his collegiate robe and duly contemplating. I came across him as I hunted for a place to take a lunch break from a conference on what the Humanities have to say on trauma. It amazed me how many experts in fields such as medicine, mental health, and the military had crowded the halls that morning, seeking out sessions on narrative, film, and ancient classical drama. Why then were these highly skilled, obviously well-off specialists flocking in to learn about the Humanities? What could it possibly have to offer a victim of violence, a person ravaged by illness, or a suicidal veteran?

I sat down under Henry, munched on a spinach empanada, and mulled over a quote of his I had often thought of in my own efforts to come to terms with and write about the experience of trauma, particularly that caused by violence:
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
Pragmatically-speaking, and by all outward appearances, an eye for an eye makes perfect sense. But just beneath the surface, where compassion resides, such “justice” can be seen for what it is—simply a perpetuation of forces that create suffering in the first place, and so it loses all its sense.

I don’t know of any way to arrive at this conclusion other than in the Humanities, which tends to illogically turn rules in on themselves.

As I was walking the two blocks back to the hotel, I came across another writer, this time leaning against the
hotel wall and smoking a cigarette. It was Tim O’Brien. I asked him, was it healing to write all that he had written on the Vietnam War? Tim said he does not know what healing is. But writing was a chance to dive into the wreck and salvage something.

Then I heard him talk. In his speech, he managed to show the insanity in our sanity and the sanity in our insanity, and therein lies much of the grace in the Humanities. It is Lear’s fool. Through its weird wit it gives us unpalatable truths and calls us to be better than we are. “This is you,” it says, “and you can only have seeing eyes by every now and then walking the walk of another.” Sometimes rather than urging us to pick up more knowledge, it begs us to lay down what we know and walk through experience naked of insight. Doing so allows for the field to lie fallow so that eventually a richer understanding can rise inside us. But that takes time and bafflement and a sort of yielding that makes us squirm.

If we are living at all, we live in paradox. We are all victims and perpetrators of contradiction to a greater or lesser degree. Cognitive dissonance is that uncomfortable feeling of holding two contradicting ideas simultaneously. The discomfort comes in the form of surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. To reduce it we choose one of two actions:  we change or we lie.

Successful art catalyzes that process, and you can feel the shift in an auditorium just after a play or an earth-shaking speech like Tim O’Brien’s. Often the directions are mixed. Some are profoundly moved, some frame the experience within a construct they have not escaped and so fall into justifying, blaming, denying, or happily tucking away the cell phone they reprogrammed throughout the event. You cannot make people take what you want them to out of a work of art. Art is and always will be only an invitation. Keats’ famous maxim “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” suggests that to allow, even invite cognitive dissonance and purposefully experience surprise, dread, guilt, anger, and/or embarrassment in search of truth can lead one to gain a larger, deeper perspective, where the angels of the human psyche—compassion, empathy, connection, dignity, and integrity—reside just behind the pain.

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