Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dean Speeches and Metaphors of Meaning

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

I'll confess to two of my secret vices:  playing Bubble Breaker on my iPhone on the T, and listening to lectures from The Teaching Company in my car.  I'm up to lecture 30 (of 36) in "Philosophy, Religion and the Meaning of Life" by Professor Francis Ambrosio at Georgetown, which means that I've spent something like fifteen hours in this course alone proving what a geek I really am.  As I have provided a link to the page where you can order the series, I'm sure Professor Ambrosio won't mind my quoting the web site promo on the competing metaphors of Hero and Saint that are the continuing theme of the lectures.  Each of these metaphors reflects how the prototype of the metaphor finds meaning in life:

The Hero: Reflecting the worldview of secular, Humanist philosophy, the Hero's universe is shaped by impersonal forces of necessity and fate, indifferent to human desires. The Hero realizes the goal of self-fulfillment and self-mastery through achievement and the overcoming of obstacles to fulfill his or her fate wholly and perfectly. The Hero's identity emerges in contexts ranging from the lives of Socrates and Marcus Aurelius to Nietzsche's Zarathustra and the Existentialist vision of Jean-Paul Sartre.

The Saint: The Saint affirms a contrasting sense of life, identifying selfhood primarily in relation to others, human or divine; a covenant bond of care, concern, and responsibility whose purpose is love itself. You find the Saint's identity in figures such as Abraham and Jesus, and later in the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard and the novels of Dostoevsky.

Cnelson That is a geeky prelude to an observation I want to make about a moving moment in a lovely talk our new dean, Camille Nelson (left), gave to our alumni, trustees, and faculty in the atrium of our building last evening at her "Welcome Reception."  Dean Nelson described her own history; she is the child of Jamaicans who emigrated to Toronto in order that their children might have the benefit of educational opportunities there; she emigrated to the U.S. with her family for similar reasons.  Now, if you haven't seen our building, it's pretty impressive.  And Dean Nelson described what it was like for her 70 year old father and her daughter to walk together, holding hands, in her office.  I am getting goosebumps again writing this.  For those of us who grew up in moderate or lesser means, whose parents and grandparents were immigrants and laborers, who were the first in their families' histories to go to college (and who, on top of it, weren't black women), to have achieved the corner office, to be honored like this, to be entrusted with leadership, the moment is infused with meaning.

Yet were we to consider whether Hero or Saint is a more apt metaphor for the meaning of our own lives (recognizing that few of us are Mother Teresa or Superman/Wonder Woman; i.e., it's a metaphor), which would we choose?  Dean Nelson focused in her talk on Suffolk's mission (and history) of access and opportunity to people like us (to quote Steve Goodman: "the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers), and the congruence of the mission to her own story.  I thought that evoked the metaphor of the Saint, as Professor Ambrosio discusses in the context of Alyosha and Father Zosima from The Brothers Karamazov, "all are responsible to all for everything."  I confess that the Hero is the more dominant metaphor when I consider my own life.  This is not Hero as courage, or even Hero as laudatory, but Hero as Professor Ambrosio describes:  one who "realizes the goal of self-fulfillment and self-mastery through achievement and the overcoming of obstacles to fulfill his or her fate wholly and perfectly."  Even when I do "saintly" things, I confess that I have a sense of attempting self-mastery, of overcoming obstacles even to do saintly things wholly and perfectly.  (I acknowledge that may also be symptomatic of a need for an SSRI - that's Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, not Social Science Research Network.)

I'm pretty sure I got goosebumps because my imposition of the metaphor of Hero over Dean Nelson's story infused it with meaning for me (whether she would agree with it or not).  I suspect others in the crowd may have gotten goosebumps by their imposition of the metaphor of Saint over the same story.  What I like about Professor Ambrosio's approach is his ultimate take on attempts to see the metaphor as anything more than metaphor.  In other words, we are all Heroes and we are all Saints, or we are secular saints.  (See, e.g., the rescue of the Chilean miners this morning, and tell me if you don't find meaning via both metaphors.)  Why and how is a mystery, and the commitment to a meaningful life is a commitment to living the questions that mystery presents.

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