Saturday, June 9, 2007

Cary Tennis Gets it Right

We were in a theatre class my junior year of undergrad. We had just finished reading August Wilson's Fences (lovely play). The professor steered the topic towards why the character of Troy "doesn't change," despite the events he lives through.

And then she asked "what do you think makes people change?"

Students threw out a few obvious answers; growing up, being involved in a political shift or upheaval; taking on a new career, etc.

My answer, however, was this: "I think that people only change -- only really change -- when they work to try to understand another person. And the most common way people do this is by loving someone else, so perhaps people only truly change through love."

My answer was summarily dismissed.

Well. Four years later, Salon columnist Cary Tennis writes a brilliant essay with a similar theme. This essay is in response to a poor Stanford undergrad who wants to know how he can bring "the spark" back into the relationship with his girlfriend... of fifteen months.

I'm taking the liberty of reprinting the entire response.

Dear Stanford Undergrad,

Thank you for adding the word "dormcest" to my vocabulary.

So how do I want to help you? I want to help you by reminding you that while Stanford is expanding your sense of unlimited horizons in personal achievement, personal relationships are a different matter. She is one course you are never going to ace no matter how much you study.

If you initially felt a profound, ecstatic love and desire that left you speechless and seemed to connect you with the very gossamer sinews of the universal cradle of consciousness, good man. You're probably doing it right. But it comes and goes, the majesty of entwinement.

Call me a mystic or a cynic, but this is what I recommend: Proceed in this relationship admitting that you know virtually nothing. Go forth wanting nothing but the naked truth of you and her, not to be a hero of right conduct and high ideals, not to be the perfect Stanford couple, none of that high-minded stuff. I say focus on the nitty-gritty, intractable mystery of individual lives and how they imperfectly intersect at best. Accept the ups and downs. Query yourself deeply: Are you being authentic or are you trying to show off?

Your relationship is not the stage where you display your triumph. It is instead the forest where you lose yourself in order to find yourself.

So let me tell you what I hope for you, apart from my hope that you get the relationship as right as you can get it, and don't sweat the small ups and downs, which come with the territory. Let me tell you what I hope. I hope that the awakening of your ideals and cultural power bestowed upon you by Stanford will be accompanied by an awakening of deep humility before the problems and challenges of American democracy. That is what I hope. And that is why I say that she is a course you are never going to ace. Because she is, by proxy, the real world you face, untamable and largely unknowable.

I speak to you now in your capacity as a future member of America's elite, for America's elite needs now to turn away from dreams of empire, to turn away from dreams of personal excellence, which have become synonymous with dreams of empire, to turn away from dreams of self-perfection, which have become synonymous with the will to power and a master civilization, to turn away from our own perfect reflection and see instead how much damage our self-absorption is doing in the world, and not just physical damage but moral and intellectual damage too, as lies infect our promise.

If you study economics or politics or science you will see how difficult it is to change institutions and nations, and I hope you will realize that one reason it is so hard to change institutions and nations is that individual humans are unimaginably complex, subtle and, at root, unknowable.

It is the mistaken belief that people can be knowable and thus malleable that lies at the heart of America's most wrongheaded and tragic behavior in the world.

What I mean is, you cannot even know what's going on in your own girlfriend's head. Consider what that means about the world you are soon to join.

I sense that you have high ideals, but I honestly think at this point in our history we need something like sobriety and realistic expectations, something like humility, to counter our tragic hubris.

So think of your girlfriend as the world. Consider yourself a guest there. Meditate on how unknowable it is.

Yes. Exactly.


tinkertoon said...

ok.. so i read this post top-to-bottom expecting some real medicine for the age-old problem, but naah... all it turned out to is a (rather silly) monologue in envisioning one's girlfriend as unknown territory... apart from the gung-ho talk on elitism blah blah.

Now ok you're a Stanford grad. Point taken, but what's your point btw? Anybody with money enough can go and study there, isn't it? And it's best hope is to turn out some politician every 20 years, who gives a skotch to upholding ideals...

a cloudy Sunday always makes me cynic... :)

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