As a reader and writer, talker and walker I “do” mostly with my mind with a little work for those reliably real metas, carpal and tarsal.
Those actions largely comprise the me that comes to this space and pecks at keys; the me that makes pancakes for kids in the a.m.; the me that squats to scoop dog poop; the me that sings out snatches of songs for no apparent reason (though I think they are my way of “dreaming” while awake, a kind of release valve).
This me has discovered there’s a lot that isn’t really going so well in the world. At that you won’t be surprised. (The Frost poem that stands as an invitation to his Collected Works, “The Pasture,” popped into my head just now; it ends its two stanzas with the repeated request–though almost a command–“you come too.” And this further leads me back to the words of my oldest child when he was but a wee tot; words uttered with sincere interest and concern, through a pacifier, that I should want to do what he wanted to do: “you mon come, guydee?”)
But what has surprised me further is that, as I near forty-four (a highway that runs through South St. Louis and that some locals pronounce “farty-far”), I am am so ignorant of so many things. Really staggeringly ignorant. And yet, I am very well (and expensively) educated; I am comparatively very well read; I am fairly well-traveled as regards this nation (if the journey across the created utter sameness of this place counts as travel), and I am fairly well “up to date” on much of what is happening globally.
All of this education has left me little wiser than had I not moved through any of this experience.
Most of my wisdom, if it can be called that, comes out of two things. One is ongoing and one was an experience that came to an end.
The first is being a parent, but that should be qualified–being a parent who is nearly always at home and nearly always involved in some measure with growing beings to whom I am bound.
The second is the death of their mother. That was an experience of disease, and dying, and death. It was harrowing in so many ways. And yet it was made almost normal for a time as well. Living is what we do until we no longer can.
These two things are too interrelated in so many ways to be teased apart as to their combined effects on my soul and self. I would go so far as to say much of what I was prior to 1999 was, not forgotten, but rather slowly and then rapidly, elided. What remains is perhaps the roots and trunk of the person upon whom this life was grafted.
It’s funny that I had no intention to say anything like the above. My intention, as you might guess from the title, was to call into question our “uses” of short-cut thinking which has no relation to the reality around us or that which has passed away. Even as we have records and texts and bones that would enable us to really deliberate about our lives and how we live them we insist instead on the thoughtless reception of the instructional information of soulless interests.
I guess I went sideways into my past because there is a very real truth that we “think” out of who we have already become. The mind allows for the accretion of experience but it tends to place that experience in familiar “buckets” so that experiences which might unsettle us are easily lumped with the other “life” already lived and put into amenable “buckets” of being. As the body tends toward homeostasis, so too the mind, and so too the me, myself, and I.
But, sometimes life does unsettle us just enough to create a new path. I have been unsettled into more active mind.
In some respects the education that had no meaning to me prepared the way for this unsettling. I should say that as a child and youth I was a reader and an athlete and as I moved through all phases of school these parts of me were always the primary “filters” of my life. These two ways of being have enabled me to be comfortably “at home” in most situations. I can be easy in this world because of them.
But that easiness is also an effect of those “buckets” mentioned above. They are restrictive as much as they are comfortable.
When unsettled I can find solace there. Or I can find them wanting to manage the state of being unsettled. I have found them wanting.
The mind encumbered with The Princess Bride must always, for real wisdom, look to Inigo who, though conveying Vizzini’s directions, was the man to put philosophy to action: “When the job went wrong he went back to the beginning. So I have.” In the film, the beginning is not the place you simply start again and repeat. It’s where you return with knowledge and revise.
So we look to revision. But we must have a grounding not only in experience but in wisdom. Wisdom, as Socrates taught, is simply knowing you are not wise. And without certain knowledge of a thing or a possible action, it is unwise to judge that thing or to proceed into action.
We cannot simply use our own lives as the basis for our social undertakings. Just as we often use the words or examples of our parents and other trusted elders as a way to interrogate the present and our actions within it, we can also turn to the words of our acknowledged greatest minds.
And it is here that we come to the title of this composition. We can only ask “What Would Jesus Do?” if we have full and complete knowledge and command of the life of Jesus. We do not have this in the least and so we must already make concessions. But, here we can turn to our best evidence of the actions of the man called Yeshua and think about what was done and said in that time and place that is offered to us in the Christian Bible. We must not ask, what would the church want us to do, unless we have an entirely different end in mind.
For Jesus was volatile and Jesus was contentious and Jesus was as “satanic” as the tempter–Jesus asked questions of social, political and religious conventions.
This is the Socratic call to philosophy.
When we ask WWJD it seems that so many of us are simply saying, in what way can the words found in the Bible be used to justify the things I want to do?
We must not engage the past in that way as it is only self-serving and is against any true spirit of deliberative mind.
I have discovered over the last decade that even though I had read Plato, I had not deliberated on Plato. I had done more thinking about Jesus but in the wrong spirit. I learned the Bible as a defense against believers who I found knew nothing of these necessary documents. I had to return with a different spirit in order to seek wisdom there.
I have discovered most arguments are made in the service of the “do-ers” of the world. I am not of that mind or spirit. When wealth, power, prejudice acts it acts against me and nearly assuredly against you.
I would beg you to read more and talk about the reading. But I would beg you to read foundational thinkers. You could do no better than to start with Plato’s “Apology” which is Socrates’ defense of himself against charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. It is short and it is simple but from it springs a world of thinking.
I would ask you to return to Jesus and read those words in the same spirit that you read the words of Plato’s Socrates and NOT as words which will defend a belief system that only accrued and became a “politics” over time and with the control of an organized power.
If you are arguing about education systems, politics, war, terror, taxes without having read the words of the greatest minds to confront living as a person, a single person, “in the middest,” then you are arguing from a vast and deep deficit. If you are listening and repeating the words of someone who claims to have already done that work for you then you are giving up your right to be that single, independent person. Our minds are where we become most human. We must defend ourselves against the weakness of easy progress and the force of the improvers who will do this work for us.
Your only individuality is available only in your thinking. Much else of our physical lives is inconsequential and trivial as a measure of our single difference.
It has been different, if not necessarily easier or better. No text was necessary for us to gain wisdom from the earth and sky and what the very world spoke to us. But we are so far down a different path that we must first take small steps in retreat. Reading well, reading to think, is uncommon. Literacy itself as an aspect of thinking has really never been achieved. We need conceive it as a dialogue and discussion; we must argue with these texts in order to understand them better, on their terms and on ours. But it must be done with care and with intense dedication.
We must eschew the systemic answers for our singular questions, always questions; but uppermost, why.