Is this what it is like to be making a mess of your life? Where does it all lead? Can one turn that mess around? Those of us who teach in community colleges and at the lower end of American university hierarchies face students asking these questions daily. That’s not surprising: We often encounter people who have descended into the pit and are now attempting the long climb out, attempting college being one of the rungs they grasp for.
Some of us teachers have also experienced “the pit” and, because of that, identify with the situations of our students. Some of us became teachers because of that. I turned to teaching when I was in my fifties because of the students at the CUNY campus where I’d started teaching part-time a few years earlier. I recognized something in them that was in me, as well.
Writing in The New York Times yesterday, David Brooks claimed:
We all go into professions for many reasons: money, status, security. But some people have experiences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up to the standard of excellence inherent in their craft.
I suppose I went into teaching for all of the reasons Brooks gives—partly. But I also turned to teaching from anger, anger at the invisibility faced by so many. I had long before learned the truth Bessie Smith sang, “Nobody knows you, when you’re down and out.” Now, I was seeing people still living it. As a result, I suppose, I have developed a “calling.”
My calling does not, however, “quiet the self,” nor did my earlier experiences. Nor am I satisfied simply “living up to the standard of excellence inherent” in my craft. That’s way too narcissistic and, for a teacher, way too likely to skew us toward focusing only on the best students, not on those with the greatest need.
Perhaps Brooks doesn’t understand what “excellence” really means to a person with social passions and a sense of responsibility. He may be looking at “excellence” only in terms of craft. But craft, for any sort of crusader, is completely unimportant—except as it relates to purpose. Brooks, I think, does not understand this.
Certainly, I would rather not be a teacher—yet it is through teaching that I can soothe my ethical anxieties. So, I would agree with this much of the treacle Brooks writes:
people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?
Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering. But they turn those moments into occasions of radical self-understanding — by keeping a journal or making art.
The only thing wrong with these platitudes is the last phrase, which drags all of the rest into the pap the lines skirt anyhow.
Dorothy Day wasn’t looking for self-understanding, certainly not through art. Writing, to her, was a means to a greater social end. Frances Perkins (Brooks makes examples of the two social activists) also saw her own talents in terms of societal improvement. Strangely, Brooks adds Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) to his grouping.
Eliot has been part of my subway reading over the last few years. I’ve returned to Middlemarch, Adam Bede, and The Mill on the Floss and will add Daniel Deronda soon. I like Eliot’s fiction, and respect the social pioneering of her personal life. But she is nothing like Day or Perkins.
One of the things that drove both Day and Perkins to their social activism was an understanding that life doesn’t “ask,” as Brooks simplistically believes. For most people, life doesn’t even demand, it just does. There is no negotiation, no quid pro quo. Only the very few and very lucky have any control at all over their lives. Dorothy Field’s lyric, “I pick myself up, Dust myself off, Start all over again,” only work for those who have a floor to fall upon. For most people, they’re lucky not to land at the very bottom of the pit, but somewhere where the rungs for pulling oneself out can be reached–though the task ahead will likely be futile.
Brooks denigrates “pain and suffering,” mentioning them only in passing and as clay for art. They are much more than that; for most people, they are life itself. The real calling for people like Day and Perkins arises from recognition of the centrality of pain and suffering. They are not “pieces of a larger narrative” but are, almost universally, the narrative itself.
At the end of his article, Brooks lauds “the stumbler,” the person who recognizes faults and failures but continues on anyway, getting better through it all. “The stumber doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be.” I doubt Day or Perkins (or Evans, for that matter) ever thought so narcissistically. Their goals were not so narrowly personal but were societal. They didn’t care, as Brooks imagines they must have, that they might be treated much better than they deserved. What they cared for was that others be treated as well as they deserve.
Brooks wants us to be grateful that we get so much. It’s ironic that his examples are of people concerned, instead, with the others who don’t get enough–and people who actually act upon that concern.
Brooks reminds me of the narrator of Phil Ochs’ “Small Circle of Friends:”
Oh, look outside the window
There’s a woman being grabbed
They’ve dragged her to the bushes
And now she’s being stabbed
Maybe we should call the cops
And try to stop the pain
But Monopoly is so much fun
I’d hate to blow the game.
In terms of the greater world of pain and suffering, the “craft” Brooks lauds so much is nothing more, really, than a Monopoly game.