Beyond Understanding

“I don’t try to change the world. I just try to understand it,” a sage Georgetown professor once told me. It was the credo of a true intellectual, and an important grounding mechanism for a man whose life story was intimately tied up in his area of scholarship. He knew that no good could come of his meddling in certain affairs, and settled for digging into all the details from a safe distance, learning all he could, perhaps influencing a few thoughts here or there, ever a critic of all involved.

My professor wasn’t overtly seeking converts, but his words certainly stuck. It’s a simple summation for anyone jaded by good intentions gone awry and the seeming relativity of all truths. What good is change when our idea of what is good is too thin to offer a real reason to pursue it? His scholarly detachment allowed him to speak lucidly on anyone and anything in a way no one else could.  The thirst for knowledge burned within, and he dedicated his life to seeking it.

Truly believing this requires an awesome distance, a detachment that lets one view all through a cool eye from on high, even as it might affect one’s life. It doesn’t necessarily mean a faith in reason, either; the more mature seekers of understanding are aware that they may never get there, no matter how hard they try. It puts the pursuit of knowledge above the self, which tames the ego some and provides a sort of guiding light, dim as it may sometimes be.

It seems a sensible ethos for a postmodern age, one that frees one of any commitment to anything other than the truth. It frees the seeker to attain some authority on subjects that are often fraught with harsh battle lines. It leads a certain Zen, as one makes peace with things as they are and soldiers along down a lonely but noble road. It can also free one to have some fun: sigh with disappointment when things go wrong, but head home at the end of the day and forget it all. Drop the earnestness and the world becomes a plaything, ripe for exploration and delight.

A road worth taking? Perhaps. It would be an honorable life, and some great good may come of it. After a while it comes easily, and it provides peace in its retreat from the arena of battle. A safe place to carve out a little haven for oneself and may a few others as the other ideals out there go on buffeting one another.

Or perhaps there’s another step that follows. One that draws on the lessons of that detachment, and uses them to some further end. Sometimes that distance may not really be cold aloofness or naïveté, but instead extreme caution and skepticism, a determination to get it right. Not a righteousness of hubris, perhaps, but a supreme confidence nonetheless, and belief in something higher. Maybe that ideal will never come, but maybe it’s a chance worth taking, rather than making do. The fire to find it lies within, perhaps long suppressed, never given a chance to show its true self, troubled as it is. Ambition and anxiety remain intertwined, inseparable, and so long as they are present, mere contentment with retreat will never quite be enough. And roots, no matter how gnarled, never go away: complete detachment is an impossibility.

And so one may go along; at best a blasé, judging scholar, and at worst a meek nobody who observes but never offers a word. It is a mask. What lies beneath is not really the ‘true self’—all sides of a person are manifestations of their true, very complicated selves—but there is more there. Beneath is not a person who seeks to change the world, nor one who seeks to understand it. No, that person seeks to embrace it as it is, to do all the above and so much more; to leave a mark, in some little way. The means will come out in the details. The path, however, could not be clearer. The cycle goes on.


Boston and Emotional Response

I’ve always been fascinated by my response to national crises. I try to be as detached and rational about bombings and death as is possible, and indeed, the big picture is never quite lost on me: on the same day as the Boston Marathon bombings, thirty people were killed by bombs in Iraq, and no one batted an eyelash; on Friday, the U.S. government shut down an entire city of several million people in an attempt to hunt down one person—one person!—and most everyone accepted it as necessary. When viewed from an extreme critical distance, our responses to such events can seem nearly as absurd as the initial act of terror.

And then I go and watch something like this:

And then, in spite of my alleged detachment and cynicism, in spite of my inner stoic, hockey-bro-wannabe persona, I am reduced to tears.

I have a similar reaction to 9/11, even though the effects of 9/11 on my own life are limited to a few airport security annoyances and a visit to Ground Zero back when I was sixteen. 9/11 is often described as the moment when my generation lost its innocence, yet not even that really applies to me; my illusions about the world were shattered by a jarring personal tragedy some three years earlier. So, what gives? Why do I abandon reason when confronted with a national tragedy, even though I’ve been trained all my life to never do such thing?

My clearest thoughts on this conundrum came out in the immediate aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death two years ago. I was a junior at Georgetown at the time, and the memories of that night are still crystal-clear: a text message breaking up a night of halfhearted study, barreling down the stairs of my house seconds after one of my housemates to turn on the TV, vaguely wondering if I should join the herd of Hoyas racing off to the White House. Still, I couldn’t quite settle on a sensible response, and wound up just debating the night’s events on Facebook, of all places. “Justice reigns,” I wrote, and someone quite rightfully called me out on this point. If I may be allowed the pretension of quoting my response:

Many of my friends in this city are storming the White House as I write this, and that part of me that lives in the moment–which I do value greatly–is sorely tempted to join them. But I’m not. Instead I’m sitting here, writing on this note, blathering more literary thoughts in a document, and facebook chatting, trying to give this some sense of order. In questions of justice, there is always a question of whose justice we really are serving, what is truly worth fighting for, and what means are worth using to attain some distant goal. As I sit here, I try to balance my efforts to judge from on high as an intellectual, my dreams for what can become, and figure out my own place in this world as a child of a country born of a messianic mission but trapped within the moral morass of reality. I don’t have an answer yet. In the past, I’ve even paused to ponder whether “justice” as an idea really even has any value. But tonight my mind didn’t turn to questions of moral relativism or geopolitics. It turned to the kids in New York and DC who grew up without a parent, with some awful hole wrenched in their young minds. Tonight, they found some form of justice. If that conclusion is a sign of my moral failing, a sign of my blind nationalist or liberal (in the broader sense of the word) pride, then so be it. His death is not cause for blind celebration, but it does affirm a certain set of values to which, for better or worse, I have some measure of loyalty. For all America’s faults in this “War on Terror”–a concept whose complexity many fail to grasp–the guiding vision has never fallen back on blind hate. That is an achievement, and tonight we can note a victory over blind hate. Onward, to however history may challenge us next.

It has become fashionable in some circles to disown one’s roots in the interest of detached reason, and while I understand the impulse, I cannot adopt it. It strikes me as a luxury available only to those who have never understood what it means to lose someone, to endure a cycle of grief, to confront those bitter thoughts in the dead of night that call us to revenge, or invite us to imagine What Could Have Been. There are many things I do not particularly like about modern America, just as there are things that annoy me about Minnesota or Duluth or the details of my own upbringing and (most importantly of all!) my own choices in life. But for better or for worse, they are me, and no amount of self-delusion can make it otherwise.

Acknowledging these blind passions is not an excuse for acts of hate or incredible stupidity. We must always hold ourselves to the highest standard that we can. But only by recognizing them can we begin to understand why this world of ours is so imperfect, and why people feel so deeply for certain things—be it a country, a faith, an ideal, or a loved one—that they are willing to defy all other logic to defend them. As dangerous as those passions can be, a world without them would be a far poorer place.

In the coming weeks, we may learn whether one of those things motivated the Tsarnaev brothers. If it was indeed a deep love or sense of duty, then they are little different from any of us in their motives. They simply went to such an extreme that they lost all perspective, and that made all the difference.

But there is another possibility: they acted not out of passion, but bitter indifference toward life. Their alienation left them so detached that the emotional response to the bombings felt by so many of us lost all meaning to them. If so, more than anything, they have my pity. Either way, they were dangerous: either because they loved too much, or they loved too little. The middle ground may not be the most alluring, but it is, in the end, the only safe refuge.