A Wonderful Life--Late 2008
Bill Long 10/7/08
Making Learning Central--For Now
A year ago I wrote an essay contending that once you have raised at least one child who will be as good or better than you in contributing to the world, nature is "finished" with you, and you can then focus on the fun of living. In that connection, I argued for a four-fold life task "after kids": friends, learning, intimacy, service (FILS). Today, I focus on the "learning" part of that task and how learning relates to my life today.
Each day upon awakening I am almost giddy with excitement because of the possibility of learning new things. After taking care of necessary responsibilities, I get down to work. Words are often the means of opening up the world to me in fresh ways, though literature and languages help also. I study autism to learn so many things about the brain and body, from biochemistry to anatomy. In these days, however, words are anchoring my discoveries. They are, as I have said, "poor man's travel," because if you just sit still and really listen to them, they can take you to places you haven't been and help you appreciate things you haven't previously touched or tasted.
At times words lead to much deeper discovery, which I found when my friend Henry asked me recently if I knew much about the little island "St. Pierre." I knew of "St. Pierre & Miquelon" but I had never really studied the little overseas French dependency off the coast of Newfoundland, home to about 6,000 people. So, I spent a few hours researching the islands and their history. I was led to the 2001 film "The Widow of St. Pierre," which depicted conditions on these forbidding islands during the mid-19th century as a result of a murder that took place on one of the islands [review is here]. All of a sudden, "St. Pierre" has entered into my store of mental images, along with the ideas of that movie. I have become enriched without leaving my room.
We aren't always brought to new places by the study of words or concepts. Sometimes a word just halts you in your tracks and demands your attention. My essays on ordinary, for example, show the extra-ordinary nature of this word. The word explode is another instance of this. The Oxford Latin Dictionary says that explodo and explaudo are the same term. The word plaudit in English (plaudere in Latin) is the word for applause. Someone who receives "plaudits" for her efforts is "applauded" for them. But explaudo is a negative term: it means to be "driven off ("ex") [the stage] by hand-clapping." Cicero used the term over and over again with three slightly different meanings: (1) to drive off the stage; (2) to eject, cast out; or (3) to condemn an opinion or reject a claim of a person. In any case, explaudere in Latin carried with it the notion of rejection of somebody.
The word came into English in 1538 in the sense of "reject with scorn (an opinion). Francis Bacon used it in this way in 1609: "But the court una voce exploded this reason and said..." It was not until 1621 (in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy), that it was used in sense (1): "Vertue and Wisdom...were hissed out, and exploded by the common people." Only in the late 17th century did it first mean "to drive out with violence or sudden noise" (by Boyle--"the inspired Air...when 'tis exploded, carrys them away with it self." And, it wasn't until 1790 that it assumed its present meaning of "go off" with a loud noise or to fly to pieces or burst. Thus, for the first two centuries of its use in English, it had to do with hissing or driving a person off stage, or rejecting an opinion or person. Learning these facts is helpful for us--it encourages us to "stretch" words which have "collapsed" in meaning in our day, and it teaches us to look at words as jewels or precious stones--most of them have a value to them which they will only yield up if we diligently quiz them.
But we don't have to confine ourselves to etymology to drink deeply of learning. Sometimes the words, on their very surface, take us into depths of enjoyment that we simply have to stop, listen, and absorb. Two examples of that from the past two days of learning are the words gopak and plena. I vaguely was aware of each before I took the time to look at them. YouTube helped me in both. The first is a Russian dance and the second is a Puerto Rican dance and highly syncopated music. By looking at performers or hearing the music and trying to "sing along," I am reminded again of the vast diversity of human expression as well as blessed to be able to call things by the names that those who love the thing have called it for hundreds of years. I may not be able to dance the gopak, but I now know a leading dancer of it--and I would long for the day to engage a Russian dancer in a conversation of how he does the steps. And, of course, you get the benefit/blessing of additional words through this process.
I think I could write endlessly on the way that words make my life wonderful today. They take me on "mini-field trips" all over the world, and up and down the whole range of human history. They let me become a observing partner on all aspects of human creativity and discovery. They encourage me to take them in and appropriate them for my own purposes. They encourage me, further, to develop the kind of precision that not only identifies things dear to other people, but learns how to take the concept/idea into deeper fields of awareness.
Conclusion--On Words and Writing
I was nurtured in an academic environment encouraging publishing, but it was a sort of ironic exhortation. Almost all my doctoral professors, born in the 1920s and early 1930s, hadn't published much on their own. Why? They were educated in the time where the only people who said a word on a phenomenon were those who had attained world expertise on it. You only wrote if you had the last word to say on the phenomenon. So, even though they laid out a "publishing paradigm" for me, they did so either with a guilty conscience or with inner contradictions, because they were encouraging me to write a lot, but only when I was the world expert on the subject. It would drive you crazy if you listened to both parts of the exhortation. So, I rejected both parts of the advice, and decided to write about things that I have learned--as a means of making my learning "stick" with me. Writing becomes a great collection device, bring the most fascinating and (sometimes) arcane items into view and allowing me to say something that is true, meaningful and useful (for me and, I hope, for others). Writing becomes the gateway to additional understanding and knowledge, since it "freezes" insights and allows me to return to them and take them further, if I desire.
Scintillating insights emerge. It results in what I call "angled learning"--learning about the world and life that you don't get in school. It gives me so much joy today. If I died today, I would die a happy man. But I hope there is much more to life, for I still need to "massage" the friends, the intimacy, the service.