For a Nonexistent ‘Last Lecture’ Series at Alma Mater
Without getting too personal, I am inspired by my frustrated love. One of my former students, whom I’ve come to know slightly better, outside of the classroom, is a young woman from Africa. My present belief is that I am meant, as it were, to be a friend, not a mate to her. This not-unusual perception has meant yearning and heartache in the past, but something is new this time around. I’m not sure what is new, how much is new, but … In any case, my present realization is that it doesn’t just matter what I want, but also what the Logos, God, Buddha-nature, “the Way Things Are”—what THAT wants. [It isn’t what we think. Thatness, or Suchness, transcends our definitions, our ‘what-nesses’]. I don’t altogether understand. In other words, the ‘openness,’ for which I’ve gotten both a good rap and a bad one in the past, may be finally actually starting to dawn in a real way. (One can always hope.)
Just a minute ago, actually, that was paragraph three. For some reason not clear to me, I decided to lead with it instead.
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In a few days my retirement from Carl Sandburg College will be official. I’ve lost seventy pounds since January 1, by various unchosen (‘karmic’?) means and causes such as pneumonia, diverticulitis, prostate cancer (mild, early—non-morbid, perhaps), gall stones and surgery. Not to grouse too much, after all: this is both bad and good, like many things in life.
All of which leads me to this editorial. I guess I need help with the title:
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Is DIVERSITY a value?
Peter Singer has said, on one of the ethics tapes I used to use in class, that he doesn’t think so. I have not done justice to his reasoning, by delving further, so I must apologize for this premature take on his thesis. My too-early critique is actually just an inquiry, and not even a developed one, at that.
But his example, on that video tape, of pollution in streams is provocative. Both interesting and dubious. Singer says that, clearly, water pollution would not be the kind of diversity we would want to embrace; and so, he believes, it isn’t diversity per se that we value, but something else.
Is it that obvious?
Obviously water pollution is not exactly a good thing—a good sort of Diversity—it’s true. But what do we risk by trying to perfect, or at least improve upon, Nature? Surely it depends in part on whether the Nature we are trying to fix, or help, has already been sullied by human byproducts or not.
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Mankind (or manunkind, as e. e. cummings puts it, in “pity this busy monster manunkind”) needs radically to reflect on its role in the biosphere. Are we here to dominate and be served? Or to cooperate, more humbly, as just one of Her children, and not necessarily the most important one, at that? At least at our present stage of development.
Oh, we are important all right. It is quite important that we do the next right thing, one step at a time. Which includes sometimes ‘not doing’ rather than ‘doing something’. Wei wu wei is what Taoists call it: the wisdom of not-doing. Which means letting it be, or waiting, or listening, remaining open and attuned—not necessarily rushing in “where angels fear to tread.”
To be sure, it’s not an Either/Or sort of question. The choice is not always to be active (pro-active, etc) or always to be passive. The choice is to be cautious and humble and reflective enough to stop and reflect: Is what I, or what we, want, really the right thing to bring about at this point, all things considered?
Vis a vis my love. How do I know what is best for her? Or me? Or the two of us in relation to one another? I do not have to create a relationship, as my friend and spiritual adviser out West frequently reminds me. It is already there, a given. Whether one is stylistically theistic or not in one’s religious philosophy, I think he’s onto something here.
Que sera, sera. What will be, will be.
That can be scoffed at as a mere tautology, of course. But is it only that?
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Conservative, liberal, or whatever—I do worry about hubris. Are we wise to tinker with, say, the gene pool? Utilitarianism, it is commonly said (and Singer is a utilitarian ethicist) actually works, only when we can later look back and see whether our guesses have panned out. How often do we find our attempts at improvement [both self-and-other improvement] backfire?
Well, but If we try to fix things to suit Reason—to suit our more enlightened, wiser, kinder, gentler Selves—one might say, Who can objectI I wish to suggest a more conservative approach, actually. Even classic liberals like myself at times find themselves seeing progress, reform, kindness, benevolence in a more cautious and conservative light.
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Nature, planet Earth, Gaia, one’s love life, one’s retirement or semi-retirement, one’s active and contemplative life, keeping one’s center whilst maintaining a general commitment to be of service to others—all of this requires a kind of holistic and balanced act. We are strange creatures, we human beings—a congeries of intuition and reason, emotion and ratiocination, mysticism and ethics. Look at the strangeness of our folk wisdom. On the one hand, “he who hesitates is lost.” On the other hand, we are told, “Look before you leap.”
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Who am I?
Whom do I love?
I don’t care, for the present, whether the ‘You’ here is the lady from Africa. Or the stranger reading this piece. Or the whole human, ‘dysfunctional’ family. Or all sentient creatures here on Planet Earth.
It is that nexus into which we All are born.
It is that complementary Other, in the unity of self-and-Other: the Sacred And Mysterious Combo of pour soi and en soi, the “for-itself” and the “in-itself” of which Sartre (mis-)spoke.
Call me crazy! For the last few days, a corny tune from some time past, maybe the Fifties, ‘repeats and repeats in my ear’: nome dimenti carr (forgive the misspellings).
I distort it Deliberately in my recalling. The original, I think, goes “No matter where you are, I love you.”
I like to render it a different way: “Nome dimenti carr means no matter who you are, I love you.”
Copyright © 2009 Jim McCurry
Jim McCurry was born October 3, 1943 in Hawethorne, California. He retired May, 2008 after 28 years of teaching English, poetry, ethics and philosophy at Carl Sandburg College, Galesburg, Illinois. Beginning with the 1977 Academy of American Poets prize, judged by Allen Mandelbaum and awarded in local competition at the University of Denver, his honors include the Illinois Arts Council prize and the Gerard Manley Hopkins award.
He graduated from Galesburg High School in 1961 and Knox College, Summa Cum Laude, in 1965. He received a master’s degree from Colorado State University in 1974 and a doctorate from the University of Denver in 1985. He served in the United States Air Force from 1967 to 1970.
He was a member of the International Dyslexia Association (formerly the Orton Dyslexia Association) and the National Developmentally Disadvantaged Organization.
Jim loved Jazz and collected Jazz albums, he was a voracious reader, and he was a talented painter.
His first major collection of poetry, INDIUM is available at Ravenna Press.