Humility January 19, 2017

["Death Comes to the Banquet Table (Memento Mori)" by Giovanni Martinelli, c. 1635. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License].
[“Death Comes to the Banquet Table (Memento Mori)” by Giovanni Martinelli, c. 1635. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License].
I am sandwiched between two worlds. It’s very uncomfortable.

On the one hand, I’ve long found a certain pride in where I come from. I like that most members of my family speak English not just with accents but in ways most “educated” people would say are simply incorrect: “I says,” “Yous guys,” “alls I mean.” There’s an earthiness to it, a simplicity I admire and have known all my life. There’s much to respect in a man and a woman who work for their bread, struggle with their kids, and relax in front of the TV with Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing. It is not the life I have chosen, but it is a life I can never escape, really just a life I honor in its fundamental humanity. Such people—atomized and alienated as they might be—remind me that life has rhythms, unchanging ones. We might have electricity, Viagra, and drones, but thank God man still sweats and dog still pants in the hot, noon sun.

On the other, I am a graduate student, and not just a scientist in a lab who can disconnect his personal life and his research. No, my research is a direct reflection not just of my interests, but of my fervent desire to make sense of human folly. I am, for lack of a better word, melancholic, and melancholy demands reflection, expression, even, at some level, condescension. I read philosophers and theorists because I want to get behind appearances, make sense of what seems chaos, or, at minimum, to discern something of value in the chaos (often this is the better option). Taking this stuff up as a career means talking about art, music, film, literature, and social impulses every day. And it’s wonderful.

But it also makes one impatient—there’s an unavoidable elitism that comes with the territory. This plays out, big and small, in every moment of my life. Recently, for example, someone sent me an article: “Why You Can’t Be Pro-Life & a Feminist.” Reading it about made my blood boil. But it wasn’t even my disagreement with it that had me upset; it was the poor reasoning, the circularity, the inability to imagine alternative conceptions of terms. In other words, I don’t mind disagreement; I mind bad argumentation and a lack of self-awareness.

Inevitably, this manifests as condescension. I don’t intend it to. When I “lecture” someone it’s usually because I think they’re smart and want to help them break out of whatever box my “well-trained” mind has identified. There are just some things and people my world doesn’t take seriously: pop science-philosophers (e.g. Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Richard Dawkins), simple Left-Right political divides, and the idea that cats could even feasibly be better than dogs. In my head, and this almost always comes across terribly, if I can just help people break out of their most offensive boxes, they’ll be all right.

Oddly enough, though, the converse is also true. I often find myself justifying the ways of my ancestors to my elite peers. This takes the form of social and cultural minutiae: New York City “dirty water dogs” are amazing, dish soap can be used as bubble bath, and, yes, it is worth the time to actually understand the reasons people voted for Trump (hint: prejudice does play a role, but just that—a role, and often merely as a post-facto justification for existing discontent).

And so, I feel very much stuck. How can I help others see my way of understanding things without lecturing them? How can I “lecture” someone without them thinking I think they’re an idiot (when in reality, it’s my own pride and impatience on display, precisely because I think they’re intelligent enough to understand my point)?

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