Wednesday, April 29, 2009

it's OK ... not

I just tried to look up the title and author on Amazon and came up empty. Obviously my recollection of a small book review I heard on public radio last night is not all it could be. The title I recalled was something like "What Good is an Intellectual" by a fellow who writes widely and whose name sounded vaguely middle eastern ... and I can't remember that either...though I think it began with a 'C.' Nevertheless, the topic grabbed my attention.

The reviewer said that often the word "intellectual" carries with it the disdain of the word "ineffectual." She seemed unwilling to concede that the point was well-taken ... what else is an intellect that uses its capacities to elevate itself and its owner if not labored and "ineffectual," not to mention arrogant?

The writer, said the reviewer, parsed and extolled a variety of other writers -- Lionel Trilling and Matthew Arnold among others -- for their capacity to use the intellect as a means of moral suasion ... a way of acknowledging the kindnesses so vital to a humane life -- a life a little less barbaric than it might be.

It all reminded me of the Dalai Lama when he appeared here before an audience at Smith College. I watched some of it on TV and what he said was much the same: Use your brains not just for gain but for the easing of the suffering the world is so full of. Over and over he reiterated the point ... until finally I turned the TV off.

And that recollection made me think again of what I think is true: How many are willing to use the capacities they have (no need to strain for some other capacities) and follow those capacities to the source? Intellectual? OK. Deeply in love with money? OK. Entranced by high mountains and wide oceans? OK. A devotion to dog grooming? OK. Enfolded by art or family life? OK. Begin anywhere and it's OK.

But where stopping and nesting in what is merely OK may be the ordinary way, it really isn't so OK: Stopping and nesting in such things lacks peace of mind and peace in the heart and is always shadowed by the edginess of uncertainty. Peace of mind and peace in the heart require going the distance ... really looking into the delights and barbarities of which the OK is capable.

Having grown up with the depredations and distancings of which the intellect is capable, smarts and the people who indulge in them have always made me edgy. Too often there seemed to be an essential lack of kindness ... or that's how I saw it: Intricate self-indulgence under the guise of OK-ness. But it's not OK ... and not just because I say so. Kindness is not an imperative because a church or philosophy or some earthy-crunchy poobah says so. It is an imperative to an easy heart ... it is the natural conclusion to a determined investigation. It is like discovering that water is wet or that a hammer is the most effective tool for pounding a nail. No need to fake it.

When called to account or called into question, intellectuals can imagine that all they have to do is explain their ways in the humblest possible tones. They've got the savvy to look good, to explain, to parse and analyze. But there is no requirement to look stupid in order to get smart. The only requirement is to go the distance, just like anyone else ... if you love it, go the distance; don't stop; see things through for once: Where does all this come from and where does it go? Don't wuss out by answering my questions. Just gather up your patience and courage and answer your own.

Why? Because you will feel better and you will be a hell of a lot nicer to me. :)

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