Bad Advice III
Bill Long 11/16/07
Climbing Out of the Pit
I continued for 20-25 years with the equivalent of a low-grade intellectual headache. But just as a person suffering constantly from a slight earache or undifferentiated pain might begin to think that such pain is just normal in life, and that you shouldn't expect anything to be different, so I accepted my rather rootless situation, even as things seemed to be flourishing externally. I think the thing that most characterized my professional life from about 1982-2003 was that I tried to "fit in" with the specialized needs of what my job required. But, in a word, I failed rather miserably at it because I left out of the equation the principal thing that would make me happy--learning to open, cherish and cultivate my heart. I felt that I wanted to be respectful of what others had to say about how to live life well, and so I tried, sometimes desperately, to follow their advice. Get good teaching evaluations. Write referreed articles in scholarly journals (though I didn't do much of this). Participate in "the community."
Yet, my restlessness grew and knew no bounds.* Since I had,
[*I have thought a great deal about the kind of father I have been, but those ruminations are for other essays]
as it were, been cut off from my own heart, by willingly accepting the analysis or advice of others, I threw myself into activities galore, vainly looking for a new rootage system. I lived the frenzied life that those who give up memorization in general must live. I was like an uprooted tree or exotic flower, whose roots had been severed, and I was trying with all of my energy to replant myself. But the more I tried, the more desperate I became. I was bored by professional meetings and obscure papers that meant nothing. So, I immersed myself in community service, going to countless meetings of professional people, shaking more hands than a political candidate (which I was, in 1985 and 1986), all the time trying to find something in which to root myself.
And my misery grew. I tried to memorize again, digging into the Psalms for the first time in 15 years. But each day I spent trying to memorize them seemed to put me a day "behind" where I wanted to be in my frenzied life. I tried to broaden my knowledge, but each day I did that showed me how little I really knew about things outside my field. Then, with the public duties (I was an elected trustee for the largest community college in the Northwest) and outside teaching (I taught at 30 or more churches or religious communities from 1983-86), I was run so ragged that I couldn't find any rest or peace. A move to Kansas (1990-96) slowed my life down but enhanced the agony because life wasn't "opening up" the way that my doctoral professors said it would. A young man on the make just doens't move to rural Kansas. Then, I decided to leave it all for law school in 1996. But, if I thought that was going to bring rest and relaxation then I really hadn't thought things through very deeply. I realized that I was beginning a new life of even more frenzy, since most of my fellow-students were in their mid-20s.
Finally, the Breakthrough
My "breakthrough" didn't happen all at once. Maybe, then, it would be better to call it my "slide-through." Though there is much to say, I will only say in this essay that it has consisted of rediscovering the first inclinations of the heart. That is, my "health," to the extent that I still have it, has come because I finally have decided that the bad advice which shaped my consciousness for years was, in fact, bad advice for me, and that I needed to (re)discover what good advice might mean.
It didn't happen overnight, but my "slide-through" consisted of returning to my budding inclinations of 35 years ago, inclinations that were suppressed and then discarded because I wanted to listen to the advice of people. But the inclinations from 35 years ago have 'morphed' slightly, even though they are deeply tied to my early inclinations. In short the memorization inclination, though still very strong, has 'morphed' gently into the detailed search for precision in understanding and describing a problem. The broad-field inclination has morphed into a desire to understand the basic principles and operating methods of most fields of inquiry today. Let me close this essay by speaking about each.
From Memorization to Precise Learning
Don't get me wrong. I would love to return to memorization full-time right now. I have a 'Billphorism' relating to memorization which I think is true: "If you tell people you memorize, they think you are a fool; if you demonstrate the fruit of memorization, they think you are a genius." Indeed, I would like to memorize many things in the future: long sections from the plays of Shakespeare; long sections from Paradise Lost; the Iliad (in Greek); Lucretius' On the Nature of the Universe (Latin); Job (Hebrew); Nietzsche's poetry (German), as well as other things. But the thing that attracts me every day in research and writing is to tell a precise story of historical or verbal or current events. Books in general confuse you because the authors make major leaps as they go along in their narratives. Editors are nearly useless except to catch stylistic infelicities. We need to discover the smaller building blocks of knowledge and burnish those blocks until they shine with a rare luster. Thus, my goal for now is to to attain precise knowledge and then succinctly express it--through these mini-essays. It can be done in any field...
Speaking of many fields, I now know that I recovered my heart when I let myself research and write on subjects from a variety of fields. That is what I wanted to do from my earliest days. I was told I couldn't do it because that isn't the way the world worked. I tried to accept the grim and serious advice of so many people that told me this (the same kind of people who also would trash 'rote' memorization, by the way), but now I finally say that I don't believe them. What is wrong with trying to be a polymath, if that is what you are inclined to be? Why doesn't it aid all knowledge to come up with insights from one field that you might be able to bring to another field, insights which experts in that second field don't know about? How does knowledge "move along" after all? Is it only through greater and greater specialization? What if knowledge in fact advances on two tracks--the specialized and the relatedness tracks? So, my writing these days ranges from field to field, though I only try to write on a subject if I think I have sure and certain knowledge. This doesn't mean, of course, that I am errorless or that I might be ignoring some crucial developments in a field. But I am open to learning and, since I believe you learn more from your mistakes than your successes, I actually crave people who can show me how I am mistaken.
I have learned a lot from following bad advice in life, but the major thing I have learned is that you should try to discover and embrace the most precious thing in your world: your own heart. When you do it, you discover a thing of incomparable beauty. Life becomes so much fun that you wish it never to end but, paradoxically, you realize that if it ends you are grateful to end it with the joy of a heart (re)discovered. As for now, I just write about it. And write. And write.