Monday, August 19, 2013

Seven Ways of Thinking about Longing

This is orientation week at my school. At our first department meeting we were asking first to freewrite and secondly to discuss in small groups to this bon mot from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

It was a good discussion starter. But I knew as soon as we started talking that I wanted to re-collect some of my thoughts about it tonight. So here goes.


Nice sentiment, nicely expressed, but fundamentally flawed. You can't teach longing. Longing arises when an object of sufficient beauty or loveliness is experienced to be unattainable. (If it were within reach, there would be no need to long for it.) Longing arises organically from within, it can't be willed, or willed away, for that matter. Sometimes it fades away of its own accord, as a function of time and/or distance.


A Buddhist would argue that even if it were possible to teach longing, that would be the wrong thing to do: what we need is less attachment, not more. Buddhist practice centers largely on using practice, such as meditation, to arrive at a state of mind in which longing (desire) is extinguished, in order that we might live more fully in the present moment.


That much said, there is a point to be taken here, and that has to do with the mission of teaching and the nature of learning. If I were to paraphrase Saint-Exupéry in a way that makes more sense to me, I'd say that his point is that telling people what to do and how to do it is an ineffective way of engaging them; better to start by asking them what they care about, where they want to go, and how they propose to get there. They will work longer and harder and more willingly and to greater effect if they are working on something that moves them closer to what they desire. That is common sense, borne out by my own personal experience.


Is it then possible to instill longing in one who has not previously experienced it? I think so. If as a teacher or mentor or friend or lover you are able to direct the attention of the person in question to something they may not have previously seen as beautiful or lovely or desirable in such a way as to arouse that desire, then yes. I've heard teachers describe their work in terms of seduction: they want their students to be seduced by the subject matter. It's a fine distinction. I can't teach someone to long for literature, but I can perhaps put them in the way of experiencing literature that has the power to evoke longing.


Everyday life consists in large part of learning to cope with the gap between the world as it is and the world as we might wish it to be. The value of longing is that it fuels aspiration. If we long for a better grade or a better mousetrap or a better world, we are perhaps more likely to try behave in such a way as bring ourselves and those around us closer to that we long for. The danger of longing is that it blinds us to what is miraculous in front of our faces.


Case in point :

The Song of Wandering Aengus 

I WENT out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Aengus sees a girl, who calls his name and disappears. His longing and determination to recover her defines his entire subsequent life. Even though he is old, he is still on the quest. Futile though it may turn out to have been, it has given meaning and focus and value to his life. Is he a fool, or a wise man? Answers may vary.

What do I long for? An end to the stupidities of war and prejudice and short-sighted me-first moneygrubbing that defines so much of American business and politics and culture. Just deserts for those who for their own benefit create misery for others. A world in which we might have the least hope of sustainability of food enough and water and enough and clean air for everyone. Yes, I know. As if. Never going to happen. So perhaps I'll have to settle for longing for this: the ability to open up for my students whatever the analogue might be, for each of them, of "the endless immensity of the sea."

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Chante said...
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