My mother has vascular dementia, which renders her more and more aphasic, though in her case–so far–her “emotional tone” (as philosopher Arne Naess calls it) has remained intact. I visited my mother on a recent occasion when I wasn’t feeling my best and had had a week of less-than-good health. It was not a matter of duty. The time I spend with my mother is beautiful. But it had been a tough week. Let’s leave it at that.
We sat in her apartment in the assisted-living wing and arranged the flowers I’d brought. Then we spent 20 minutes in a kind of conversation, to which I’ve become accustomed, during which she tries to convey information about something she needs to have done. In this case, after much of the usual (really, rather humorous at times) confusion, I deciphered that she wanted some sweaters taken to the dry cleaner.
Such minutia. And yet, so difficult to get across, across that divide of language and cognition. The incredible concentration and effort it takes her just to dial a phone number to call her ailing sister. To tell the nurse aide that she needs more yogurt. Anything.
Then she surprised me. She pointed to my forehead and then to her own. “This,” she said. “Is wrong. For you. What?”
Was she reading a crease in my brow? I told her I had not been feeling great. She wanted to know, so I told her details, the way one tells one’s mother. Even though I am never sure quite how much gets through.
“Lie down. Take off the peaks.” By which she meant shoes. Why not comply? We both took off our shoes and spent the visit relaxing. We even indulged in a glass of wine because she loves to offer wine to her guests. Never mind it was 11 am. My mother has lost that rigid cognitive sense of time that the rest of us spend our lives obsessing over. There’s something valuable in that loss, though it is a loss.
She’s still teaching me things. Other ways to live with loss (my dad, her “normal” brain, mobility, words…).
The next evening, she called me. She wanted to know how I was feeling. I’m 63 years old and my mother is 88, and she’s still worried about me.
It’s true that I appreciate a somewhat calmer political/media cycle, in part because I sense slightly lower levels of anxiety from my friends. I love my friends and feel sad when they express fear and exhaustion. The social and environmental messes we humans have made continue, however, as the pandemic stretches on (my region is still in “extremely high risk” covid territory, though most of the people I know personally have been vaccinated). Many of us continue to endure losses of all sorts. Even if the losses are small ones, cumulatively they aggregate, intensified by the spectre of climate change and virus spread and whatever local bogeymen trawl through people’s lives.
In response to the current difficulties, we keep hearing calls for “unity.” One way politicians and community advocates of all stripes and ideologies endeavor to “make nice” is through the concept of unifying people. It sounds like a good thing, to invoke our similarities and our common human bond in order to achieve…[insert goal here].
I’m wary of calls for unity. It’s not that I’m cynical (maybe a little), and I’ve certainly been idealistic in my time; but long experience and lots of stories and histories and my father’s background in how people behave in groups have led to feeling circumspect about unity. It works with people, yes, but it also leads to the worst aspects of tribalism. To the fostering of rigid ideologies. To acts against outliers, to the construct of evil Others. I’ve recently re-read Reinhold Niebuhr’s prescient and insightful Moral Man and Immoral Society, and his analysis of how humans behave individually versus in groups strikes me as relevant today as it was in 1932. My dad studied with Niebuhr during the latter’s last years at Union Theological Seminary and, reading this book, I find I’m reflecting on the ways this philosopher/theologian influenced my then-young father’s views on humanity.
My dad was an optimist, a Pollyanna, a great believer that God loved each human equally and that there exists in each person the promise of Good (because his God is Good). As my dad matured and experienced more of life and a lot of death, injury, backbiting, illness, pain, misery, in-fighting, and scapegoating–even in the Church–he examined more closely the dynamics of people in groups. Here’s where Niebuhr gets it right, as far as I can tell: people in groups suck.
No, he never says that, and perhaps I overstate. People in groups tend toward tribalism, shunning those who differ in opinion, perspective, or other ways. People in groups lean inexorably toward immoral behavior, even when the group is made up of individually moral people. Again and again, under differing social perspectives, Niebuhr demonstrates that unity thwarts diversity even when group intentions are moral. And, all too often, with immoral results.
My dad never really gave up on the idea that people could successfully deal with different perspectives and goals even in the same group, that there were approaches to group dynamics that would produce win-win outcomes or compromises without sore feelings. In this respect, he was an Enlightenment thinker like Locke. Optimistic, as I’ve said, though I suppose there were times he despaired; indeed, I know there were. Perhaps he recited the Serenity Prayer* to himself when he felt powerless to make a difference. Perhaps the way people in groups behave is one of those things we cannot change and must somehow accept.
For myself, I choose diversity. The earth manages its diversity wonderfully, even when human beings thwart it. Milkweed seeds and thistle find their ways into monoculture cornfields. Plants and insects gradually populate the rubble we make.
When circumstances keep me in a tribe-like bubble, I read books and poems that show me other perspectives, other climes, other social cultures, cities, classes, geographies–other histories than my own. I find ways to explore, in person or virtually, artwork and film work, drama, music, and dances from places I may never visit but without which I would be less attuned to the World. To its wonders, which are many. Insert here, instead of a unified goal all people “should” achieve, Whitman’s “Kosmos” or Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” with its line “All things counter, original, spare, strange;” or, more contemporary, Vievee Francis’ glorious “Another Antipastoral” that states:
Don’t you see? I am shedding my skins. I am a paper hive, a wolf spider, the creeping ivy, the ache of a birch, a heifer, a doc.
The World, that great unity. That global balancing act. That paradox: Outliers and Others being necessary, and Beloved.
Longfellow wrote that “Into each life some rain must fall” (“The Rainy Day“). The poem is an extended metaphor; here in my valley, the rain has been actual, physical, moist, sopping, wringing, drizzly, humid, soaking, and all the rest.
The metaphorical hasn’t been absent, either.
So this week, my post consists of other writers’ posts. Explore, please. All of these links offer much to enlighten the reader.