catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 4 :: 2010.02.19 — 2010.03.04


Finding fact in fiction

Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.

Hamlet at IV.iv. 36-39

I am where I am today because of guilt.  Guilt didn’t actually get me here.  That would be silly.  I did.  But guilt helped.

My official training is in philosophy.  And, even though students can’t really specialize at the undergraduate level, I tried, with mixed success.  The American Pragmatists were my soup du jour-every jour I could swing it.  But it’s true, required reading had to fit in somewhere, which forced me to manage a tension. Though, I have few regrets. What I was reading and discovering ignited a rare passion.

To put it simply, I liked what I was doing.  The conversations that happened in college still inform what I do.  And that’s great.  College was real.  And even though philosophy suggested, to me, that there might not be such a thing as “ultimate reality,” my intuitions begged to differ.  And so did my emotional health.  And though that may sound odd, I don’t think it is.  There was a community in place to pull me back to the fire.  And I tried to do the same for others.  That give and take gave my life purpose.  

But that’s all water under the bridge now.  I graduated.  College is for college students.  Any rationalizing on my part to the contrary is illusory at best and, in a way, pretty unhealthy at its worst.  So Calvin College, my Alma Mater, exists in past space.  But it requires no intellectual acrobatics to say that I fell in love.  That much is simple.

Then the story gets complicated. 

Love costs money!  The growth and expansion I felt at Calvin was just really expensive.  There is no better way to put it.  And this is what unnerved me. It tore at my sense of justice and equality; or, looking ahead a bit, perhaps the sense I was told to adopt.        

As a way of trying to respond, I moved to Washington, D.C., where I currently reside, to find a job that could help me feel better about the dissonance.  Moving here stands in the place of graduate school, at least for the moment.  And for the next year or two, I plan to work a “normal” job that pays the bills and keeps a roof over my head.  It’s really pretty simple.  But I said that guilt oversaw all of this.  Here is my idea how. 

There is an awareness among a growing number of people my age (myself included) that reconciling one’s privilege with the world’s suffering is the task at hand; or ought to be, anyway.  I have many different ideas why this occurs.  It could be that there is a certain neurological receptivity to the presence of suffering in the world that informs; but I’m no neuroscientist.  I also think sometimes we take the Social Gospel too seriously (a curious sort of “literalist” hermeneutic!).  It is also possible that various highly convincing teachers have taught us this way of being-in-the-world.  The most plausible hypothesis, probably, is that the answer is somehow an amalgamation of these possibilities. 

The problem emerges when this call to action advertises itself as fiat.  It happens pretty often.  And what is frustrating and startling is that little room ends up being left for, perhaps, more genuine interests.  Why pursue a degree in graphic design or English literature when there is “urgent” work to be done in Haiti or Zambia?  Is there any sense in studying philosophy?  If one answers “no,” then it is here that for many on the outside of a narrow band of approved disciplines, guilt swoops in and absconds with the joy of a performance art piece or delight in John Milton’s poetic dignity.  For, after all, it could be said: what injustice is this, to love Oscar Wilde in the face of suffering? 

I caught on to this way of understanding the world.  And sometimes I like to blame that receptivity on the self-flagellation of the Protestant work ethic.  Normally, though, I remain agnostic about its origins.  As far as I am concerned, it’s there and is very hard to ignore. 

I postponed grad school because of what I have, briefly, been trying to tease out above.  I became overwhelmed with the ways in which such a decision to continue my education might affirm a social irresponsibility — ignorance toward my neighbor.  Ever the Communitarian, I sought diligently a more altruistic path, or so I thought.  Withdrawing more time and money to exercise a passion for a discipline I clearly love seemed, at the time, vulgar and luxurious.  So I find myself, now, in a city I don’t really know, working a job I don’t really like so I can feel better about a way-of-life I really loved.  There must be something wrong with that picture.  There probably is.    

But so much for a critique of some dominant modes of thought.  What about the title of this essay — “Finding fact in fiction?”  Well, it seems to me that greater societies have a way of dividing labor according to the skills and competencies of their members.  What I would like to stress is the need of the search for such skills and competencies among people my age.  To say this doesn’t happen at college is wrong.  But to notice how often too-easy vocational answers emerge from the confusion is to be honest about the difficulty of discovering calling, purpose and motivation.  If you will, I “found fact in fiction” when I realized that my love of philosophy isn’t going away and that that’s okay.  I am now tasked with something great and beautiful: to make philosophy matter in the chaos.  Other tasks look different.  But there are different people to take them up.  This is a simple point, I suppose.  But for me, it finally makes sense.   

Our social responsibilities are immense.  But I would mourn the death of a would-be poet, or engineer, or doctor at the hands of a set of answers purportedly deep but essentially easy.  Our responsiveness to vocational calling is partly a function of how brave we are.  So for the life of the world, it would pay to proceed in fear.

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