Monday, April 23, 2012

under the heading "too much time in the car"

My paper on Moby Dick is about one of the minor characters, a vaguely middle-eastern man named Fedallah. He's so rarely a part of the action that he is almost a place holder, but he plays an important role. As is common in nineteenth century lit, his stereotyped eastern-ness (dark, passionate, mysterious) is used as a foil for the Westerners' rational forthrightness. And since he is aligned with Ahab, he serves to reinforce the sense that Ahab is insane.

This way of using an imaginary, made-up version of Middle Eastern people to emphasize (by contrast) the desirable characteristics of the West is called Orientalism.  It's based on the idea of psychological 'othering.'   You take the characteristics you don't want to acknowledge in yourself and project them onto someone who is 'other' and then you don't have to see those traits in yourself.  So slave owners projected onto their slaves that they were bestial, with uncontrollable sexual urges and limited intelligence.  Or colonizers would see indigenous peoples as barbaric, uncivilized, and in need of help.  And it isn't necessarily negative-- men saw women as sweet, nurturing, domestic creatures who were too weak and irrational to function in the business world.  This provides two advantages to the person who is doing the 'othering':  you can ignore those traits in yourself (because you aren't one of them, and they are the ones with those traits), and you can rationalize treating them like crap because they deserve it.

There is lots more you could say about this, and books have been written about it.  Lots of them.  Shelves of them.  And I've only read a few dozen pages about it, so I'm hardly an expert, and why am I telling you this?  Only because I was thinking about it in the car yesterday.

anyway.  The funny thing about 'othering' is that you tend to cling doggedly to these 'othering' beliefs even when your experience tells you otherwise.  Even when a nineteenth century man had experienced in the schoolroom that his sister was smarter than he was, he would still assume that she was in a completely different category than any man, and was incapable of understanding politics, philosophy, or finance.  Even when a white slave owner was regularly having sex with several different slave women, he would still assume that he was not as bestial as the slaves, because he is a white man and white men are in a different category than slaves, who have uncontrollable urges.

When you're outside the system, it's infuriating, because it's so obviously not true.  But when you're in the system, it's just the way things are.  And of course we still do this today.  You can identify some of them (conservatives assuming that liberals have no morals, ignoring some pretty dang scandalous actions of their own; liberals assuming that conservatives are cold, calculating, and profit-driven, but see numerous liberals who have made extremely lucrative, profitable careers out of feeding that belief; romance novels that depict gypsy/Native American/Italian heroes as being hyper-sexualized; someone who is homophobic being utterly certain that a gay teacher will try to convert their children, etc), but for the most part, we're probably unaware of the ways we do this.  We can't see it, because we're inside the system, and it just seems like The Way It Is.

But what I was thinking about yesterday is the way we do this on a personal level.  The way I do this on a personal level.  I can't exercise because I'm not "athletic," you have to be An Athlete to be athletic.  Athleticism belongs to a group of people of which I am not a member.  Ignoring the fact that at several different times in my life, I've done athletic things and enjoyed them.  Or:  I can't be expected to give a talk in front of a group because I'm not a public speaker.  I get nervous and sweaty and my mind goes blank and I have nothing to say.  All of which is true.  And yet I remembered the other day that I once got up in front of my entire 100+ member high school band and gave a devotional before we went on a trip, and hardly felt nervous at all.  (doesn't that just say how old I am?  back in the days when you still did things like that at a public school in the Bible belt.)

So part of this is just about the ways we limit ourselves by coming to some conclusion based on one set of experiences and ignoring others.  I'll never be athletic the way some of my friends are or the way Dean is, but I'm more capable of it than I give myself credit for.  I'll never be a public speaker, and I don't want to be, but I can do it.

Friday, April 13, 2012


a favorite author recently wrote a blog post about blogs.  She speculated on the reasons why people blog, but since she's an author, her view was slanted toward marketing, name recognition, and fan interaction.  She neglected to mention "compulsion to publicly post your thoughts," which seems to be my reason.  But for some reason that compulsion has disappeared, for several weeks now.  That last post is only there because I made myself write it.  And since the end of the semester craziness is fast approaching, I'm just popping in to say what you could probably already tell-- I'm not going to be posting much for a bit.  In the past, as soon as I've said something like that, I've come up with something to say the next day, so that may happen.  You never know. 

Happy Spring!  It's gorgeous here today, the grass is even turning green!

Friday, April 06, 2012

Lent: Maundy Thursday

The church I grew up in didn't observe the church calendar (Advent, Lent, Holy Week, etc).  The closest thing we had was the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering wreath, which was an enormous wreath with four white C7 Christmas lights attached to it.  As the amount received for the Christmas Offering reached another thousand dollars (or whatever that year's increment was), another light would be turned on.  It wasn't until years later that I attended a church that used a similar wreath to celebrate the four weeks of Advent and I realized where they'd come up with the idea.   

So you can imagine my confusion when my middle school friends started talking about giving something up for lint.  My mom was a third (fourth?) generation Dallasite, and my Dad immediately adopted Texas as his home state once he got there, but I was born and lived the first seven years of my life while they were in exile from the promised land-- i.e., above the Mason-Dixon line. (you can tell a Southerner because they know what the Mason Dixon line is, and consider it a reasonable topic for dinnertime conversation).  Don't worry, because they moved back South as soon as my dad could get a job there. The lingering effect of those first seven years is that I said "pehn" for "pen," the subject of endless amusement to my friends, who all said in correct southern-speak, "pin."  Can I borrow a pin?  Mine's out of ink. 

So my parents had to explain to me that giving something up for lint didn't have anything to do with laundry fuzz, it was Lent, the forty days before Easter, when people give something up in order to prepare for the celebration of Easter, as a way of identifying with Christ's suffering.  My friends would give up sugar or soft drinks or watching TV.

I'm a sucker for symbolism and ritual, so I was enchanted by the idea, but it was Not The Thing in our church.  We just went to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, all year round.  There was no differentiation of different seasons or holidays (except for Easter, but that mainly meant that we got a new dress with matching shoes).  We sang Christmas carols at Christmas, and "Up from the Grave He Arose" at Easter, but other than that, it was just the same damn thing every week.

No, of course I'm not resentful, why do you ask?

So I never heard of Maundy Thursday until I was in college and started attending a lovely Episcopal church.  Maundy Thursday is part of Holy Week, which is kicked off with Palm Sunday (which commemorates Jesus's entry into Jerusalem), followed by Maundy Thursday on.... wait for it.... Thursday, then Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter is on Sunday.  I'm being silly here because I had a moving experience at our church's Maundy Thursday service last night, and I'm (apparently) still too cynical to play it straight.

So.  Maundy Thursday is the church service that celebrates the Last Supper.  In Episcopal churches I've attended, there is a three-hour service on Good Friday that goes through the sequence of events of Jesus's trial, torture, and crucifixion, so Maundy Thursday is only about the Last Supper.  There is often a foot-washing ritual, as Jesus washed his disciples' feet at the Last Supper.  But our current church doesn't have a Good Friday service, so our Maundy Thursday service telescopes the entire sequence events of the last few days of Jesus's life into one service.

It was beautifully done last night.  The sanctuary progressively darkened as readers read the story, until at the end, three people carried out the cross, wrapped in black.  It was very  moving.  But the story is awful.  The last hours of Jesus's life were appalling--betrayed by one of his own, deserted by the others, whipped, beaten, tortured, and then crucified.

When I was five or six, a helpful Sunday School teacher painted the picture in even more graphic detail than what is in the Bible story.  Did you know that the whips that were used on him were probably cat-o-nine-tails, commonly used by Roman soldiers in whippings, which were a group of leather thongs wrapped together at one end, with glass shards embedded in the other end?  The forty lashes Jesus probably received had been enough to kill people on other occasions.  And then the Crown of Thorns pressed onto his brow.  And the nails into his feet and hands.  And then once he was up on the cross, he would have had to push down on the nails in his feet to lift himself up so he could breathe.  And then the sword piercing his side.

It was horrible.  Here we were, this semi-circle of little five and six year olds, listening to her tell the story in twenty minutes of vivid detail.  And of course, she ended with: Jesus wouldn't have had to do all this if it weren't for YOU.  Jesus died on the cross of his own free will because of your sinfulness, so that you could go to heaven when you die.  If you don't accept Jesus as your personal savior, he went through all that for NOTHING.  I was completely and utterly sick that Jesus went through all that for me.  I couldn't line up fast enough when she did her little invitation at the end, asking did anyone want to accept Jesus as their Personal Savior?

Until last night, I'd never quite recovered from this.  In the past, when I thought of Easter, it wasn't about the renewal and rebirth of the resurrection, it was about the sick ball of guilt and shame in my gut because Jesus was tortured and killed and it was all my fault.  That's why I never went to see the movie The Passion.  Just the thought of it made me sick to my stomach.  But last night for some reason at the end of the service, I was finally able to get some adult perspective on that childhood guilt, that childish belief that everything is your fault, and let it go.  phew.  Like a great whoosh of tension and shame leaving my body.  I don't know how else to describe it.  Renewal of the best kind.  And hey, I only had to be 50 to figure it out.  Some of us are just slow.

Happy Easter.  However you celebrate this weekend, as the return of Spring, the Passover, or the resurrection of Jesus, or just a chance to get great candy at half price, I hope you have a great day.

p.s.  this is the post that I've been putting off writing since I started this series of posts, but it ended up being much different than I thought because of last night.  It wasn't so bad after all. :-)