Years ago, my acupuncturist used to know a guru named Ramamurti. He still has a following, although he has since passed to his reward. I am told that there are ashrams in Pennsylvania now dedicated to this guru. How he got to be Ramamurti is an interesting story.
When he was quite a young man, he died untimely, of some natural cause. As was customary in his religion, his body was laid on the funeral pyre. Just as the match was about to be struck, he sat up, alive and well.
Not content with astonishing his crowd of mourners by resurrecting himself, the young man went on to become a neurosurgeon.
He had been doing quite well in his chosen profession when he decided to chuck all that and become a guru.
“Why in the world,” my acupuncturist asked him, “would you give up a great career as a neurosurgeon?”
“I got tired of bending over.”
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s hilarious. Whether or not it’s a true answer (I rather doubt it), it’s got style.
The other night, I watched a program on C-Span featuring Feminist Founding Mother Gloria Steinem and California Congresswoman Maxine Waters. They were having a mutually supportive public dialogue and personal reunion at a well-appointed D.C. synagogue. Gloria still looks gorgeous, in her long-legged black slacks, natural grace and well-cut, straight blond hair — though she’s eighty if she’s a day.
At the Q and A, a young woman who’d founded a group to advocate for Women in Mathematics asked Gloria,
“What name should we give to the rival group that advocates for men in mathematics?”
“Mathematics!” Gloria said instantly, to general laughter.
Again, not having any personal acquaintance with that discipline, I have no way of measuring the fairness of her riposte. But the style! That I did admire, shaking my head and thinking, why can’t I do that?
So many of the hurdles, which form impassible barriers to some, can be cleared at a bound with the right style. I say this because, in important cases, I have absolutely lacked this “open sesame” — the magic words that make the locks fall off the doors.
For example: at an earlier period in my personal and professional life, I was married to a philosopher attached to a well-regarded Philosophy Department in Australia. His colleagues were exceedingly nice to me and – interacting with them, also reading papers there – I gained a widened capacity to address interlocutors from parts of the field I had not known before. Collegial friendships, outlasting my first marriage, were formed in that context.
There was, however, one feature of my life Down Under that I never could figure out: the “jokes” about Jews. As a Jew, I felt a duty – to myself, my beleaguered people, the high heavens – to answer back. But as a wife, I felt an obligation not to create embarrassment for my husband with his colleagues.
Maybe readers more liberated than I would have thought,
“To hell with wife! Self-respect and personal dignity come first!”
Sorry, I am not made of stuff that stern. The personal and social constraints seemed to me to weigh as much as my Jewish assignment in history. I simply did not know how to solve it through.
At the time, I was perfectly aware that this classroom example of a Conflict of Duties might have been safely negotiated, past its rocks and shoals, if only I had the right style.
The problem was a social one. The right demeanor, the right quip, the right comeback, and these contradictions would melt like cotton candy in the mouth.
What I lacked was not self-respect, not self-regard, not a proper sense of what was due and honorable. What I lacked was style! The right ear for how to behave. I couldn’t hear the note and I couldn’t find the beat.
How to solve that?
Well, I now believe that the perfect pitch I lacked was the result of insufficient empathy for my hecklers and baiters! What I ought to have done was let myself feel – as if from within – what it was like for them not to know how to behave with a Jew. They were not malevolent. They did not go to bed chuckling that they had made me unhappy. They meant well. It was, after all, a species of social unease that pushed them inwardly to make aggressive remarks designed to put me on the defensive.
It was odd, but actually I was very sorry for them. I don’t say this out of pique or from a desire to overcompensate for my felt vulnerability. It was quite sincere with me. I really thought, how pathetic! They lacked a social gift that, as I knew from experience, it was perfectly possible to acquire or be acculturated to have.
My problem was that, as their social victim in this case, I occupied – like it or not — the moral high ground. And I did not like to pull rank in that way. It appeared to require a kind of chutzpah that was unbecoming. It seemed unfair, or brazen, or at least poor style.
But it wasn’t unfair, to feel sorry for my hecklers as I did. It was entirely fair. And to point out — with unfeigned affection and concern — that they were standing on social and moral quicksand, would have been
right on the note
and right on the beat.
Great thoughts! Was wondering, was your husband Jewish, and did he ever reply to them on your behalf?
No surprise, Gail dear, that you ask such a shrewd question. Answer: no and no.
Interesting, Abigail. I do think style has much to do with how we respond to others–whether it is a return of an unintended, anti-semitic comment; a flagrant personal or professional attack; or plain ignorance. In each of those cases, the good use of style can send the right message back to the person delivering the message. It reminds me of something a professor taught our class that should be in our mindset with any dealing we have: “Never expect anyone to serve your values unless you give them adequate reason to do so.” I was taught that quote around 1995 and it resonates in my mind to this day. It’s all about understanding where the person is coming from and responding in a way that works for them. I am certainly no master of that, but try to make a concerted effort to understand that reality when faced with an issue. Your blog, to me, reinforces that notion and I thank you tremendously for that.
Thanks so much, Jerel, for your thoughtful and instructive comment. I think one reason empathy is hard to summon in these situations is that one feels quite naturally threatened and defensive, possibly also inclined to blame oneself for feeling that way, and on and on. And sometimes the abrasive remark IS ill-intended or malicious or bigoted. In the situation, one has little time to sort it all out. It is not so easy, in real time, to understand what sort of thing is unfolding, and then to muster empathy when it’s the right remedy. Aristotle says that the virtues are like any skill, like say an athletic skill. It takes practice, practice, practice. And good luck to us all!