Monday, November 25, 2013

Memory Is Weird

 My mind has a mind of its own.
—"The Future, Wouldn't That Be Nice?" The Books  

I've never known anyone else who does this—no one who's admitted to it, anyway: occasionally, I'll be walking down the street, just people-watching on my way to wherever, and I'll catch sight of a particularly interesting face, and think to myself, "Wow, no matter how hard I try, sometime very soon, I am not going to be able to remember that person's face. It's weird that I have so little control over that."

Sometimes, I try anyway.

On these occasions, I spend the rest of my walk doing everything I can to commit the face to memory: re-running over and over in my head the shape of the jaw, the line of the nose, the color of the hair or the lack of hair, the placement of the eyes, the presence and physicality and nuance of the face as a whole. It never works. I can recall having done this dozens of times without being able to remember a single face, the way a father might remember having attended numerous middle school band performances without any idea what his kids played on a given night (though with a dead certainty that he's heard "Hot Cross Buns" enough for several lifetimes).

I find memory upsetting because of how little control I have over it. I don't get to choose what I remember and what I don't. There are other examples. If I try and reach back into my memories of childhood, I find that, rather than the important events of my life—the things I'd choose to remember if I could—the most accessible memories are of silly, piddly things without consequence: the time my sister told me she'd dreamt about Barney the Dinosaur spitting on plants to make them grow, me telling my mom that boogers tasted great, and so forth. Memory seems to choose at random what to keep and what to lose, like an underpaid secretary tossing out files willy-nilly to make room for new documents. I end up losing mental images of old friends and retaining addresses for houses I've long since moved out of.

My fiancée likens memory to an iceberg covered in penguins. Whenever you learn something new, you get a new penguin. Eventually the iceberg is full of penguins. For every new penguin after that, one of the penguins already on the iceberg has to jump off. And you don't get to choose which penguin that is.

But neither of these metaphors actually captures very well what memory really is, and what makes it truly unsettling. A memory, it turns out, is not a stable thing. It's not a file that you reach into the filing cabinet to pull out. It's not a penguin that you can tap on the shoulder that will squawk back at you what you once knew.

No, a memory is more like an old story, a folk tale, or a joke: each time you go back and think of it again, you recreate, or re-imagine, the memory. When you remember something, you are in essence retelling the story of that memory, and just like a folk story or a joke, memories change in the retelling.

In the first segment of this podcast episode on memory and forgetting, there's an example of this that bears repeating:
The act of remembering is an act of creation...Every time you remember something, you're changing the memory a little bit...You think you remember something that took place 30 years ago. Actually what you're remembering is that memory reinterpreted in the light of today, in the light of now. The more you remember something, the less accurate it becomes...
Imagine a couple in love and it's their first kiss. He kisses her, and she kisses him. She remembers the kiss, of course, and he remembers the kiss. As they go through the rest of the romance and the next 36 years together, the kiss will essentially become replaced by two independently re-embroidered and increasingly dishonest kisses. Assuming they think about the kiss enough, that's what [this] implies...
Let's do it a different way. Let's suppose "Bob" and "Joan" kiss, and then they part...and they never think about it again...30 years later, Bob is in a railroad station, Joan comes out of the train, their eyes meet. Bob sees Joan, sees her eyes, and remembers, suddenly, that kiss. That memory is more honest than if he'd been thinking about the kiss every day of his life since. ("Memory and Forgetting," 17:30-20:00, emphasis added)
~  ~  ~
I really enjoyed college; it was full of fun experiences and activities and friends and outings. But when I was done, I was disturbed by how little I really remembered about it all. Knowing how hard it was to remember the details of my life, both the sublime and the mundane, with any certainty, I began journaling. My journals weren't about recording profound thoughts or cataloguing adventures for future retelling. They weren't even for cathartic or therapeutic purposes. My journals were nothing less than an attempt to stem the flow of memories constantly streaming out of my brain, to stuff them back in, or at least have a place to find them if I really wanted them. They were, if you will, extra icebergs for my memory penguins to stand on.

I wrote in Moleskines because I thought it was classy.

But writing in a journal doesn't make memory any more like penguins than anything else could. Even if I went back and read through my journals (I never do), I would still have to go through the process of re-creating, re-imagining the events in order to remember them, and in the process create a memory that is in some sense a fiction.

Having realized this, I've lost most of my drive for journaling. And that's okay, I think. I'm starting to come to terms with how different memory is from what I once assumed it was. I think it's okay that memory is a creative process. The fact that we are essentially making our memories up as best we can reflects the weird, unsettling, but ultimately beautiful fact that we're really making up our whole lives as we go, endlessly inventing and reinventing our stories, our understandings, even our very selves, on the fly.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

1 & 2 Samuel: The Hebrew Bible's Best Novel

David's Grief over Absalom, Illustration from a Bible Card

And I should have known that my son so bold,
He'd bear my sword, he'd take my sword,
He'd take my sword to his grave.

—"Absalom," Families

Yesterday, my fiancée and I were asked to present our favorite scriptures to a Sunday school class we were participating in. After a little thought, she had come up with several lovely bits from the book of Matthew, things like "can any of you by worrying add a single hour to his life?" and "ask and it shall be given to you." I, meanwhile, was having much more trouble thinking of something to present. Not because I don't have favorite scriptures, but because I tend to think of them in terms of whole books, rather than individual verses from those books.

For the purposes of the Sunday school lesson, this was about as helpful as being asked my favorite movie quote and responding by acting out the entirety of Children of Men. I at least knew what my favorite book of the Bible was, though, so I had a decent starting place to start thinking on the question.

1 and 2 Samuel is my favorite book in the Bible. (In Bibles today, it's divided up into two books, 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel, but that's because when it was translated from Hebrew to Greek in ancient times, the Greek text was too long to fit on a single scroll, so it was split up into two scrolls. It's all one book, though!*) Broadly speaking, it's the story of how the ancient people of Israel went from being a hodgepodge of tribes with local rulers, often oppressed and attacked by neighboring tribes and peoples, to a unified nation under a single ruler, strong enough to defend itself adequately and play a role on the world stage of its era. But really, 1 and 2 Samuel is the story of one man: King David.

Samuel is interesting for a lot of reasons, but to me, it's the story of the ruthless rise to power and gradual aging and decline of King David that's the most fascinating. (There are other people's stories in it, including the story of the prophet Samuel, who the book is named for. These stories serve as a sort of lead-in to the main narrative about David.) Not just the story, though: while the plot of 1 and 2 Samuel is quite intriguing, it's the way the author** uses the literary tools at his disposal to portray that story that's truly compelling. Not only does the author present the history of David's life in a compelling way, he also uses the story to grapple with and explore big questions and problems in the human condition, on topics as diverse as aging, death, necessary evils, fame, political machinations, lust, avarice, treachery, murder, and, uh, hemorrhoids.

David and Goliath (Caravaggio) maybe the most famous image of David where he's not naked

Take this for an example: one of the basic tools the authors of the Hebrew Bible used to quickly define their characters was to make the first words a character says a key to understanding him or her. In 1 Samuel, David's first line of dialog takes place during the story of Goliath, a giant Philistine who has challenged the Israelite army to send a champion to fight him, and insulted them and their God when they do not immediately send someone. When David hears Goliath's challenge, he speaks for the first time:
"What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?" (1 Samuel 17:26, NRSV)
The first thing David ever says in 1 and 2 Samuel (1) looks very pointedly for (political) gain—the answer to "What shall be done for the man...?" turns out to be "You get to marry the king's daughter!"—and (2) either balances out or, more likely, covers up this grab for personal profit with some pious, patriotic rhetoric. This ends up being key to the author's portrayal of David, a character who uses whatever means necessary to gain and consolidate political power, and then either makes up for it or covers it up (depending on how charitable you want to be as a reader) with expressions of piety and political necessity.

Combat between Soldiers of Ish-Bosheth and David (Gustave Doré)

I'd like to take an aside to defend the use of the word "novel" to describe1 and 2 Samuel. The author of 1 and 2 Samuel has a clear interest in depicting historical events; unlike, say, Job or Jonah, 1 and 2 Samuel does not appear to have been made up out of whole cloth for purposes other than communicating historical events. (Whether David and the other characters of the book are real historical figures has been debated, but 1 and 2 Samuel lacks characteristics one would expect of a portrait of a legendary figure, and it is certainly no fable or morality play.) Even though 1 and 2 Samuel is interested in history, it is not just a book of history; the author feels free to incorporate folk tales and legends into the work, as well as other fictional elements. Literary critic and Bible translator Robert Alter describes it this way:
This narrative...has many signs of what we would call fictional shaping—interior monologues, dialogues between the historical personages in circumstances where there could have been no witnesses to what was said, pointed allusions in the turns of dialogue as well as in the narrative details to Genesis, Joshua, and Judges. What we have in this great not merely a report of history but an imagining of history that is analogous to what Shakespeare did with historical figures and events in his history plays. That is, the known general contours of the historical events and of the principal players are not tampered with, but the writer brings to bear the resources of his literary art in order to imagine deeply, and critically, the concrete moral and emotional predicaments of living in history, in the political realm. To this end, the writer feels free to invent an inner language for the characters, to give their dialogues revelatory shape, to weave together episodes and characters with a fine mesh of recurrent motifs and phrases and analogies of incident, and to define the meaning of the events through metaphor, allusion, and symbol. The writer does all this not to fabricate history but in order to understand it. (The David Story, pgs. xvii-xviii, emphasis added)
Taking historical facts and weaving them together with imagined events, thoughts, and speech in order to wrestle with both the history itself and the themes it represents seems less like history to me than a historical novel. There are other other novels in the Hebrew Bible, stories that follow the arc of a few characters through a plot, not straying far into straight history or poetry or other genres; Jonah is one, and Esther and Ruth. For my money, though, 1 and 2 Samuel is the Hebrew Bible's finest novel, for no other Biblical book can match it for artistry, depth, and sheer enjoyability.

Study of King David (Julia Margaret Cameron)

When it came time on Sunday for me to share my favorite scriptures with the Sunday school class, I chose my favorite moment in 1 and 2 Samuel. It's a little dark, but bear with me:
The Lord struck the child that Uriah's wife bore to David, and it became very ill. David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead; for they said, "While the child was still alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us; how then can we tell him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm." But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, "Is the child dead?" They said, "He is dead."
Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate. Then his servants said to him, "What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you rose and ate food." He said, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, 'Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.' But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me." (2 Samuel 12:15b-24, NRSV)
This story, particularly David's line at the end, is a turning point for his character. Before this incident, David is almost constantly gaining and consolidating political power, and nearly everything he says can be construed as having a secondary, political motive behind it. The heartfelt, wrenching line "Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me" is the first time David feels completely real to the reader; his heart is laid bare.

After this point, David begins to turn into the old man he will be at the end of the book, shivering in bed and scarcely aware of what is going on in his kingdom. Along the way, he starts losing track of what is going on in his own household; his children end up violating and murdering each other, and one of them, Absalom, starts a rebellion against David, only to eventually be killed when David takes back the throne, much to David's sorrow.

1 and 2 Samuel is many things, but it is not least a moving portrait of an individual human life, conveyed with profound artistry and richness. I recommend it to any reader looking for such a portrait. For the general reader, it's hard to go wrong with Robert Alter's translation, The David Story, which I quoted earlier. It includes enough helpful commentary to both understand the ancient context and appreciate the artistry of the book without overwhelming the reader, and I highly recommend it.

*It's actually slightly more complicated than this: the end of the book, in which David is on his deathbed and giving his last instructions to Solomon, was later cut off and added to the book of 1 Kings, in order to serve as an introduction to 1 Kings' stories about Solomon. Thus, in modern Bibles, the story of 1 and 2 Samuel really goes all the way through 1 Kings chapter 2.
**The author is anonymous, like most of the authors of the Bible, especially outside the prophetic books, which tend to have been written by the people they're named for, with a number of exceptions. Given the time and place in which 1 and 2 Samuel was written, the author was almost certainly male.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

From Ironic to Irenic: Changing How I Disagree on the Internet

Well, I ain't a bad guy once you get to know me,
I just thought, there ain't no harm—

     Hey, just try minding your own business, bud!
     Who asked you to annoy me with your sad repartee?
     Besides, I never talk to strangers anyway.

—"I Never Talk To Strangers Anyway," Tom Waits and Bette Midler

Empathy, empathy!
Put yourself in the place of me!
—"Empathy Song," Adventure Time

I learned a new word a little while ago in a conversation with my dad: irenic. We were talking about how to interact with people we disagree with, especially interacting over the internet, and he mentioned that he tried to be as irenic as possible in such situations. "You mean 'ironic,' Dad?" was my reply. No, he explained: irenic is something quite different; in fact, it means "promoting peace."*

I've written before about the difficulty of persuading people with strongly held opinions to change their minds. Basically, it boils down to this: you can't really do it. Not reliably, not often, and certainly not by just having the better argument.

While it seems that more and more we are surrounding ourselves physically with likeminded people, I think most folks I know still regularly encounter people online that they strongly disagree with, whether through social media, reading articles and opinion pieces, or other means. Given that changing someone's strongly held opinion is next to impossible, should we even bother trying—particularly online, where we have, probably, even more abysmal chances of success? I don't think so, not most of the time anyway.

What are the alternatives, then? I think the easiest alternative is dismissal, refusing to engage with the other side on any level. It's easiest because I waste almost no emotional energy; all I need to do is calm whatever anger or annoyance I may feel at seeing something I regard as foolish or wrong. (Dismissal is my typical reaction to things like Facebook memes insisting that I need to repost them if I love Jesus. Though, uh, not in the case of that post that I wrote about it.) The next easiest is hostility, which can take the form of straightforward insults or, perhaps worse, displays of verbal irony, AKA sarcasm. This is easier than persuading someone, because I can vent my feelings without spending energy on persuasion, and I take no major risks, since no one can prove me wrong. The worst that can happen is someone insults me back, and if I'm already angry, that isn't a big deal. (I can't think of a time when I've ever insulted someone on the internet, but I can definitely remember delivering a witheringly ironic response to someone I debated on Reddit who suggested I check out a link that turned out to be the Wikipedia entry on "correlation does not imply causation." I was not amused.)

Not actually my angry face, but close enough.

These approaches are a lot easier than persuasion. But easier isn't necessarily better, and in fact, both of these have pretty obvious problems. The isolation and anonymity of interaction on the internet seems to lend itself to such conflict-generating responses, but I think it's worth looking for more "peace promoting" approaches. Instead of dismissal, hostility, or ironic detatchment, I really think the best approach to this issue is something I'm going to call creative empathy. I'll give an example.

When I drive with my fiancée, we often have cars pass us at ludicrously high speeds and tiny car-to-car distances. While I grumble about how utterly insane and dangerous this is, she typically has a more positive remark: "When I see people like that, I just imagine they've got a woman in labor in the back seat." This is creative empathy. And I think it's the most irenic way to approach this kind of thing.

Or, you know, maybe they're just on Ecstasy right now.

Empathy, "putting yourself in someone's shoes," is of course an incredibly important tool for getting along with people. Recently, my roommate caught up with an old friend who I also know; I'll call this friend "Marcus." I talked with my roommate afterward, and he said that hanging out with Marcus had been pretty good, except for the fact that Marcus had been spouted off noxious Men's Rights rhetoric here and there throughout the night. Given that my roommate and I are both feminists** we were naturally a bit mortified and even angry, but I immediately started wondering how Marcus could have arrived at such a different viewpoint from me. And I realized after a moment that there was a big incident in college in which he had suffered a quite a bit, and I knew Marcus felt he had reason to blame both a specific woman and, more generally, women's "privilege" for his suffering. I still disagreed completely with Marcus's point of view on gender issues, but I stopped being angry about it. When I myself caught up with Marcus a few weeks later, that really made all the difference in my interactions with him.
When we see people suffering or having a bad day, most of us can and sometimes do put ourselves in their shoes emotionally and feel what they feel for a moment, which can help us treat them with more kindness. It's easy enough to do this when we can see what is behind someone's actions, but on the internet, it's usually a whole different ballgame. Often all we have is a name and some words, and much of the time, the name's not even real!

To empathize effectively with such a person, then, creativity is required. These days, when I see something online coming from an opposing point of view, something that makes me angry because of how wrong it is, I try to stop and tell myself a story that this point of view fits into. I think of an experience that could have led to it, or (if I want to be extra anthropological) a culture and a set of values that could produce it (looking at maps like this one has triggered such thinking lately for me). This is especially helpful if I'm actually going to try to talk to the other person, because it changes the goal from "tell this person they're wrong" to "find out where this is really coming from." And that's an irenic goal if there ever was one.

(This post was inspired in part by this piece on how Christians can better relate to each other across the progressive/conservative divide.)

*He went on to explain that it comes from the Greek word for peace, ειρηνη (eirēnē in Latin characters), because he is my dad.
**Which is to say, we think women are people, and are weirded out that large portions of society don't seem to get that.

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