Sunday, February 17, 2013

Just as Heavy, Just as Light

For reasons I'm uncertain of, everything I've been dealing with, thinking about, and writing about has hinged on a complicated human practice - belief. This is a general life principle, so of course it's going to end up being relevant to my life. But still - all of this at once is a bit strange. Let me run down the list:
1) The Mormon missionaries that circulate our campus when the weather gets warm stopped me the other day. And because I have this impossibility to be rude to them and a dire curiosity to talk to people about religion, I agreed to meet with them (plus they tempted me with a free copy of The Book of Mormon. I'm sorry; I just can't turn down free books and I wanted to add it to my collection of religious texts. Right this moment it's chilling out with a copy of the Quran, the New American Bible, and the little tiny Torah my friend Sarah brought back for me from France). Of course, they're trying to convert me despite the fact that I told them I was Catholic (okay, so I technically think of myself as a reverent agnostic, but that's another story) and had no interest in converting. Somehow, with their supreme niceness, I cannot fight any rhetorical battles with them and, even though I know what I believe, I still find myself wondering about it all and doubting about my perception of belief. This is not the first time I've gotten myself into an awkward situation with missionaries on campus; in my junior year, someone who belonged to a church known as the World Mission Society Church of God (interesting sect, really - they believe that God is represented in both male and female forms, which is awesome in my opinion, but their beliefs got kind of uncomfortable for me after that). Point is, this is nothing new. And yet I'm still finding it hard to understand how my beliefs can exist so easily in this grey area while the Mormons told me verbatim that they believe in distinctions of black and white, truth and not truth. So there's that.

2) My blog post on the Cumberbatch-hate blog has really got me questioning how I think about people, what I believe about them, what I believe about anything. This has a very direct correlation to...
3) Shakespeare. We've just finished reading Henry V in my Shakespeare class (awesome, awesome, AWESOME play, by the way) and the entire time I was debating about what to think of Henry. He's one hell of a public speaker, that's for sure. He's kind of manipulative, but also incredibly charming and noble and clever. I was totally convinced that I would become English and kill the French for good old Harry his speeches were so convincing... and then in Act 3, after a terrible battle, he threatens the governor of Harfleur that he will allow his soldiers to rape and kill should the governor refuse to cooperate. Henry is putting on a show to intimidate; he has no intention of doing any of this. But the fact that he threatens it really took me aback. I wasn't expecting the harsh, violent rhetoric (including the award winning line my professor loves to say, "your naked infants spitted upon pikes") coming from a man just two acts before had been doubting whether he had both the legal and moral cause to invade France. While I really, really liked Harry, I also deeply hated him for making threats like this. Again, I was doubting my belief about not only the character of someone but trust in a leader. Given the political climate these days, this is an issue never far from mind and one I consistently thought about again and again while reading Henry V. Can you trust someone when all you have to go on is their words and you know they can easily bend them to their will? Do our expectations for language make it harder or easier to get effective leaders? What is an effective leader? This series of thoughts could go on for a long time...

4) Teach for America: If you read this post, then you'll know I went through a whole spat of doubt working for this organization. The doubt was not unwarranted. I did some research after I got invited back for another interview (and I found myself not being excited about it) and discovered that they aren't exactly... well, entirely reputable. They've been criticized for badly training their corps members, throwing them into situations with no support, caring more about test scores than students, and, worst of all for me, firing teachers to place in corps members for the simple reason that, if there are no teacher shortages in the school district, TFA has an agreement with certain school systems via government support to place place corps members, even if that means firing teachers (probably good teachers) in a crappy economy. I could describe further the criticism I found, but if you're interest in learning more, read this blog post from Gary Rubinstein. He's a former corps member who had the exact same expectations I had and is now speaking out against the organization. After I read this, I knew I couldn't (as King Henry V would say) "with right and conscience" take this job. So, I withdrew from the application process and will be looking for different options for next year. I still want to do all the things I described in the post I wrote about TFA... just not with TFA. I'm looking into teaching abroad, working for a non-profit organization, opening a museum (no, seriously, there's no F. Scott Fitzgerald museum in St. Paul even though it's his birthplace. There's one in Montgomery, Alabama but that's it. I badly want to remedy this). Regardless, once again, my faith in the good of things has been shaken. I mean, I didn't expect TFA to be perfect. But I didn't expect to find out they had problems of this nature.

This ties into an debate I often have about charitable organizations. There's often complaints about certain organizations and how they conduct what they do (some rather serious complaints, like certain things I've heard about Peace Corps, and some more just complicated parts, like charities that pay their CEOs and so on heaps of money). Then there's places like Salvation Army, which I totally want to give money to during the Christmas season, but as also been boycotted by the Human Rights Campaign because they do not support equality for same-sex couples. I'd really, really, really love it if there was an organization out there I felt like I could really trust... but I just don't know. Thanks to Tom Hiddleston, I feel a little bit better about UNICEF, even though I think it's one of those organizations I've heard complaints about because they pay heaps of money to their management and it seems like allegations have circulated about this sort of aid being a form of continued imperialism because we're making these cultures reliant on foreign aid (though I think there could be a really good debate about whether this is is making them reliant or allowing for self-reliance by giving them aid they otherwise would never get) (I hope for the latter). Then there is the whole issue with throwing money at problems and hoping to fix them when things are far more complicated than that...

Hold on, this is getting really gloomy. I need some happiness before we continue on with this dirge.
(Yes. Better.)

5) The US Postal Service: I have had my past issues with the USPS. Like their inability to forward mail when you move one unit down the hall in your building with out having to pay $10 to make it happen. But then the postal worker that delivers to our building left a very rude message to our building manager saying that she didn't keep the building properly maintained (because there is a lot of ice on the back steps) and then a bunch of unintelligible words (he was very angry and talking very fast), including a threat of not delivering our mail (yeah, you know that saying, "Not sleet nor snow nor pouring rain will stop the USPS" or however it goes? Not actually their official slogan AND it's a load of BS. Seriously, they refused to deliver mail to one of my former residences because of ice on the walkway) and ending with a nice old, "fuck you." I'm dead serious. We should probably file a complaint with the USPS, but for all we know, this guy slipped at twelve other apartment buildings or just lost his job (I mean, they are cutting Saturday delivery in August) and it's not worth all that. Yeah, the steps are bad and we probably haven't cleaned them as well as they could be. But we're students and busy, and it's February - ice is a given in Minnesota this time of year. Plus we've had a really weird season melting and refreezing and subarctic temperatures and then more snow and a repeat of all this again and again. I was just seriously bummed by this because I couldn't believe that someone would be so rude and childish to leave a voicemail like this. I believe that people are good and kind, but when people do things like this... well, I start to doubt.

6) And to round this all off, my Avengers fanfic (which is still the bane of my existence) is turning into a whole thing about belief - belief in leaders, belief in people, belief in love.

Like I said, all of this felt a bit much happening essentially in the span of a week or two. I'd call it a crisis of faith but it's not about faith (which reads a distinctly kind of religious association, I'd say). I'm not having a crisis. I'm just realizing that believing is really, really hard.

This isn't really knew either. I went through this realization last year when I read Nietzsche and Baudrillard. I'm a certain sort of Nihilist - an optimistic Nihilist, a concept I've lovingly stolen from my friend Paulina. I care about things, but they don't matter to the extent that if I fail, I'll have failed at life. Actually, this is terribly relevant as I decided today while doing dishes that it's impossible to fail at life. Seriously. How can you fail at something you're doing every day? And when you die, that's still not failing because death is a part of life. Okay, so maybe I should stop having existential conversations with myself while doing the dishes, but I like the idea of failure just being a rudimentary construct that can be pushed aside and decided that it doesn't matter. Likewise, I like to think that lots of things matter - because nothing matters.

Of course, that sounds nice and simple in words, but in practice, maybe it's not always so easy. Like now. I think it all goes back to that conflict of having "a sentimental heart and a skeptical mind." In some ways, I envy those Mormon missionaries that believe so wholeheartedly with ne'er a doubt in their religion or atheists who are absolutely certain there is no higher being. I admire those who believe (or don't believe) with such conviction. I lack conviction. Wait...
Well, that's a bit not good. (Also, I'm having a lot of Coulson feels right now. Excuse my Avengers fangirling.)

The TL;DR is: I doubt. A lot. I like to think it makes my belief stronger in the end. Who knows. Does it matter? Not really. Those who seem to believe so easily may doubt elsewhere. And while I'd hate to use phrases like "believing blindly"... well, that's a possibility. But neither am I a fan of cynical skepticism. It's sort of an awkward balance between the two. That's where I am. My way of believing doesn't make me better or stronger or more confident for it. But it's how I think. And I like it, even when it's rough.

Now if only I could figure out how to tell the missionaries all of this...

PS: A fun fact - I like to try and come up with clever titles for my posts. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. This one I like but is less clear so I thought I'd share the source. It comes from this quote from artist David Hockney: "Belief is like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light." Just in case you're curious.

PPS: Also, if you haven't had the opportunity to take my survey about this blog and would like to fill it out, please do! I'll leave it open until next Thursday or so and then will close it and go through the results. So the next post will be about that and what to expect next on this blog. Other than hedgehogs. :D

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