Sunday, March 11, 2012

Diving Deeper 1

Minting Metaphors

Surf at Dún Chaoin, November 2005
As regards the task of coming to grips with one's own identity, one needs to mint some metaphors.  "Diving down" is a metaphor I will use for this series of posts where the image refers to the struggle for identity and self-actualization.                                                                                        

I came  across an interesting differentiation between Self and Identity recently. It goes somewhat along the following lines:  We can have multiple identities, e.g., for me, my identities would be: (i) a middle-aged greying male of the species homo sapiens, (ii) a graduate of a certain intellectual standing, (iii) a teacher of general subjects, (iv) a special education teacher, (v) was once a theologian, (vi) now a philosopher - possibly of very low standing, but no matter, (vii) a friend, (viii) a brother, (ix) a son, and (x) an explorer of the self, or a diver into my own depths.  Now, there are other multiple identities I can have and I'm sure I could list them if I took the time and made the effort.  Now, any one of these identities alone is not the real existential me.  The real Self is a deeper reality, a sort of potentiality at the very heart of my being.  It is a more ontological reality which is far deeper and far more fundamental than a mere identity.

Where does Meaning lie - Within or Without?

Roscrea, National School, September, 2007
From time immemorial, or at least from the time we human beings became self-conscious we have essentially been "meaning-making" creatures.  Everything we do is linked in with making our lives meaningful.  Let's call this our basic axiom here.  When I set out on life I wanted to be successful, to become something or do something with my life of which my family could be proud.  As a young boy I was enthralled by an old teacher who was so good at his job of educating poor working-class boys like myself that I desired to be a teacher like him so that I, too, could also very clearly teach this wonderful liberating knowledge to others.  It seems to me that I could understand all he taught me.  His name was Mr. Murray and he retired about four years later. And so began my enthralldom with learning and with knowledge, an enchantment that has never left me. The struggle with knowledge has been just that - a brilliant and wonderful struggle.  Brilliant and wonderful because like the athlete or the diver or the potholer (more metaphors) - diving down into murky waters and then to re-emerge exhilarated by deeper knowledge of things or of events or of humankind.  And so began my journey to become a teacher.  In short, that journey was a external journey in search of meaning, that is finding meaning through achieving this or that specific goal, this or that specific degree, this or that specific profession.

A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

The version 'a little learning' rather than 'a little knowledge'  is widely attributed to Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744). It is found in An Essay on Criticism, (1709) in verse form, and I can find no earlier example of the expression in print:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.
To explain what we mean here, take the following example: If a doctor has not got a proper degree through hard and dedicated work, he can prove a nuisance to society. He can kill more people than he can save. The bridges, buildings and dams built by an engineer with imperfect knowledge of his subject will collapse sooner rather than later. A teacher who is not a master of his subject will only misguide his students.  Indeed, from the off I was an intense student who liked to pour over his books and to achieve high grades.  In all of this, I do believe that I put myself  under considerable pressure.  Nevertheless, I did enjoy the world of study and the world of books.  From the outset, I was never happy with a little learning.  Like John Henry Newman, I could not desist from studying this or that topic without giving in to the desire "to bring out the whole of it."

From 1976 until 1980 I studied for a degree in Theology and English Literature.  Then I went teaching and at night I studied for a B.A. in Mathematics, Irish and History.  All the while I felt I was amassing, as it were, a store of knowledge.  During this time, I believe that all the knowledge I learnt was of an external rather than of an internal variety.  I was not long in learning that very few of the students in front of me were interested in knowledge for its own sake.  Indeed, I very soon learnt that I really was not a very good teacher at all, or at least that's what I thought then.  Some of my classes were unruly and I certainly had not yet mastered the skill of good classroom management.  Looking back from the perspective of some thirty years I was really "very green about the gills" as the saying goes.  I was, also, of course, doing too much studying at night to allow me any real time to do adequate preparation for class, or to follow up on unruly cases and so on.  However, I did go on to learn from my mistakes and to eventually become what I consider to be a tolerably good teacher with reasonable control of my charges. 

However, I did feel that I had a good presence in my classes and that I had managed to form good  relations with a number of my classes.  Anyway, it was somewhere around my third year teaching that the inward journey into knowledge began. Looking back on things I see now that knowledge as an organized body of information out there in an objective and dispassionate universe could neither satisfy me or the students whom I taught.  My job was becoming meaningless and dry for me.  Something more was needed.  I needed to find my passion for real knowledge again.  And so began another journey or a new diving down into Self, which I will attempt to describe in the next post.