Breaking Radio Silence

This blog has been far too quiet in recent weeks, so here is a post for the sake of a post. The end of a semester in graduate school, coupled with some hockey duties clogging up the normal times for free writing, will do that.

In one of my final class meetings today, an instructor gave us all printed copies of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote, which I wrote about on this blog in March 2014. At the time of that post, I was still coming out of the self-reflective shell I’d encased myself in during my return to Duluth. It’s certainly more tentative than my approach to life these days, and now sets up a more admirable ideal. The quote (which I’ve seen associated with East hockey in the past) will now go up on a wall in my room.

The friend from Phoenix mentioned in that post came to visit me in Minneapolis this past weekend, and my roommate and I (all of us Georgetown alums) had a grand time showing off our state, which our friend termed ‘the last bastion of the American Dream, if it ever truly existed.’ We mused long into the night on matters great and small, and I confided my own goal, which is to perpetuate that dream, such as I can. Of course I remain a critic on a certain level, and will feel comfortable retreating into a little Minnesotan fortress if it all goes wrong. But there is a goal here, and one around which to build a public life. The weekend renewed that push outward, one I explored last fall when I made the trip south for a visit to Phoenix.

My aversion to  the arena wasn’t out of timidity, per se, nor  was it the product of Minnesota stoicism. I had questions I needed to answer, and that required  lengthy retreat from the public realm. It did its job, but left me a bit rusty, and some things take practice anyway. I could make a lovely intellectual case for TR’s hunger, but living it out was a different story. The step forward has to seize upon convictions, and embrace power when it presents itself. So whether we aim to blend great dreams with reality or merely push through the last few weeks of a long, grinding semester: once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

On the Intellectual World

I embarked on my second semester of graduate school this past week. My degree program, urban planning, is a fairly practical one, and the general tenor of most (though not all) classes is entirely different from the high intellectualism I explored as an undergraduate at Georgetown.

I have a complicated relationship with that intellectual world. I was probably as excited as anyone in my Intro to Planning course over opportunities to debate phenomenology and critical theory and Marxism and whatnot, and as a person who comes at all of this from a fairly different philosophical background from most of my classmates, I rather enjoy the occasional opportunity to push the envelope. (They mostly come at things from somewhere on the political left; I come from here, wherever that is.) I’m the sort of person who will, upon seeing someone like Hannah Arendt on my syllabus, stay up two hours later than I intended so as to read her.

Despite my obvious nerdiness, I’ve never self-identified as a nerdy person, and am rather proud of this. This is in part due to my interests outside of intellectual pursuits—as a kid, I much preferred sports to video games, and never got into the faddish card games that came along—but I think there was something deeper at work. It was one of the great benefits of being formed by a high school where it was perfectly normal for kids to pursue academic greatness and still be well-liked, and by a family where reading fat, heavy books was a routine activity. I might have taken it to an extreme, but I was allowed to do that without anyone criticizing that, and am eternally thankful. It’s just one of the things I do sometimes as I play around with this world around me.

Make no mistake: I do think it is crucially important. It’s an essential foundational block without which culture, society, and civilization itself have no true basis. These questions are essential because they are the ones that lead humans to reach toward great heights, dream great dreams, perhaps even quest for utopia. It’s impossible to do so without some idea of where one is going, or at least a vague idea of how to get there. Debating these things with other well-versed people is one of the fires of life, and anyone with any hope of molding the surrounding world must understand what is at stake. This is why I venture in: there is no alternative. I need answers, or, perhaps better said, I need the right questions.

Too many people interested in that intellectual world, however, can get far too wrapped up in it. When I’ve done that, I rarely look back on those periods of time with fondness unless the philosophical inquiry was done in partnership with other people. Along with the very first philosophers came their very first critics, with the likes of Aristophanes and Diogenes pointing out the all-too-real shortcomings of their way of life.

To find out why, we might as well circle back to Hannah Arendt, who made a distinction between active and contemplative life. Both are clearly essential, and Arendt must no doubt have spent many long hours in the contemplative realm to emerge with the insights she found. She likewise accords due respect to private life—another sphere I value greatly—and the need to take care of business at home. Any complete conception of life must include a defense of the mundane, daily things we do, including some simple and even some of the world’s less refined delights. They are part of the human condition as well. But beyond this lies an active, public life, and this is the only realm where humans can find greatness. All of that contemplative thought is useless if it’s never shared with anyone; the private life alone becomes tautological, life for life’s sake and nothing more.

The active life is not always an easy one for those whose first instincts trend inward. I choose my words carefully so as to avoid coming off as a miserably self-absorbed intellectual, and I don’t always pull it off. My abortive novel-writing attempts have, on a certain level, been attempts to take all the philosophy and political theory and filter them down into readily understandable terms, spoken through characters who are nothing like an ancient Greek philosopher, but manage to convey a few of their thoughts in a coherent way. Sooner or later, it had to come out. That call into the arena can’t be written off, despite the many philosophical and religious traditions that try to bracket it, and put it aside.

There are risks, of course: hubris, pride, and a failure to slide back into the reflective cycle. But if the foundation truly is in place, then—and only then—is the well-ordered mind ready to venture out, channel it all in the right direction, and take the lead; with humility, certainly, but also enough confidence to know that, somewhere, things do hold together and make sense, and it’s all being channeled in the proper direction.

The Man in the Arena

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

—Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena,” from a speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, 23 April 1910.

Fighting words there, Teddy. There’s an obvious tension between these lines and the tone of many posts on this blog. I am often a critic, and rarely go overboard for particular causes. It sounds inspiring, of course, but when you think about it, the chivalrous attitude one sees in TR and his European contemporaries rubs thin. After all, it’s exactly what kicked off the First World War just a few years later. It drips of hubris. It carried with it the seeds of its own destruction, breeding resentment and fueling the collapse of the old world order. And while I think there are obvious things to admire in Teddy’s politics, whether he knew it or not, his machismo and controlling demeanor contributed quite a bit to America’s imperial ambitions and gradual centralization. It’s the blustering bravado of a man who can’t accept the fact that there’s a dark side to everything, even in the seemingly most enlightened projects. It turns life into a roller coaster of victories and defeats, a bipolarity ill-befitting of anyone just trying to get by.

And yet, despite that withering dismissal, I’m still on board with TR. My favorite people are those who are in the arena: the star athlete, the charismatic leader, the far-reaching visionary. It’s not that I can’t enjoy the company of other critics, but after a while that life wears thin, and it’s not uncommon to find people using cynical detachment as a cheap excuse for not doing anything. Just as wholesale commitment to life in the arena fails to provide any perspective, so too does a life that never enters it come up short. Call it ambition, eros, transcendence, whatever you like: cynical detachment alone denies an unavoidable part of human nature that we cannot suppress or wish away.

All this talk of arenas reminded me of a David Brooks column that is now several years old, but has stuck with me ever since I first read it. Here it is—and to my pleasant surprise, upon rereading it, I found it was based around All Things Shining, a book that I read last spring, and blogged about here and here. Anyway, Brooks’ point is that, in the modern world—and especially for those of us who struggle with religious truth—it can be hard to find transcendent, unified meaning in the universe. Instead, we have to look for it in the fleeting moments of daily life, and in communion with other people in those institutions that bind us together. That is, in arenas.

This is pretty much how I’ve lived for the past few years. I’ve outsourced much of my emotion to, in Brooks’ words, “activities often dismissed as mere diversions [that] are actually central.” I am, obviously, a big sports fan, and use that as a main channel. I also get the “wooshing” sensation in plenty of other places—in nature, in the company of family and good friends, and so on. Most of my pleasures and ambitions are not all that grandiose, and I intend to keep it that way.

Politics, however, occupies a somewhat more complicated place. Most of those other things I get swept up in have no vast consequences, but as Brooks writes, the excitement of politics offers no “satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies.” Lives and livelihoods are at stake here, and anyone who thinks deeply about these things probably fears becoming too partisan, since they know that virtually all political platforms oversimplify. From there, it’s not too big of a leap to head into political ambivalence. It’s all too complicated, too distant; why bother?

Since the moment some three and a half years ago when I realized my happiness is not tied to politics, I’ve reveled in the resultant freedom. Yet somehow, I can’t tear my eyes away. I play the detached observer, parsing the rhetoric and shaking my head at all these yelling and screaming politicians, sometimes letting an emotional outburst or two slip through. I couldn’t retreat, even though part of me wanted to do so completely. I’ve re-focused my energy on the areas I can have an influence, and I’m still motivated by a sense of duty; perhaps the word “stewardship” would be an apt one for the compulsion I feel toward political action. I plan to have kids some day, after all, and I want them to inherit a world—or, at least, one corner of it—that is worth inhabiting. So long as I’m a part of this world, I can’t get rid of that pull, no matter how much I claim disinterest.

I say all of this because I am re-entering the arena right now, after a fashion: an old college friend has asked me to reprise my role as his PR man, this time on a campaign he’s managing for a school board candidate in Phoenix. It’s hardly a daring leap into the gladiatorial ring, and my decision was driven more by loyalty than by an ideological commitment to a cause; I haven’t met the candidate yet, and will be doing my work from 1800 miles away. I’m intrigued by the situation in Phoenix, but I’m at some remove from it all, too.

Clearly, this isn’t a rush into the center of the arena. I could probably get there if I put everything I had into it, but instead, I’ve slowly come to accept that I am better suited for being the guy behind the scenes. I may point out where the strong man stumbles, but I don’t do it out of spite; I do it because I don’t want to see him make that same mistake again. I want to make sure he doesn’t become blinded by all the dust and blood and forget what it is he’s fighting for, or how to conduct himself while doing so. And if he needs to lose a battle to win a war, I want to be there to talk him through it. Why would anyone enter the arena if he doesn’t have someone behind him?

There needs to be a bridge between the arena and the world beyond it. What I aim for is balance, or a smooth cycle between two poles, both essential, but incomplete on their own. When one finds that perspective, it’s not too hard to see that all things really are shining.