Sunday, February 23, 2020

Are our inner selves being destroyed?

In reading about time last week, I encountered the work of Alan Lightman, astrophysicist and author of EINSTEIN'S DREAMS, for whom time remains a mystery, even after he explored most concepts of time.    This was a refreshing view to encounter, but Lightman is well known for bridging the gap between the scientific world he inhabits and the world of the soul and imagination, which he explores in some of his books.

In a recent article, Lightman laments the loss of slowness and silence, of reflection and solitude in a culture that has suddenly become electronic and invasive. He compares the situation today, in which many young people prefer smart phones to actual conversations, to global warming as a dire predicament with no easy solution.

If we lose the ability to be alone with a book or in nature without external stimulation, we will lose our "ability to know who we are and what is important to us."  He is concerned about being "relentlessly driven by the speed, noise and artificial urgency of the wired world."

Lightman, who teaches both science and humanities at MIT, is one of those truly enlightened people who see the larger picture and are able to ask the major questions about the meaning of life.   This very ability is being challenged on college campuses, and has been,  as more and more faculty vote to downgrade the humanities in favor of the technoscientific fields.

A professor of medical ethics at my alma mater, St. Louis University, Dr. Jeffrey Bishop, writes to protest his university's decision to follow the path of Notre Dame and countless other leading schools in revising the core curriculum so that it allows students to avoid courses in literature, philosophy, and foreign language.  "Every university is being pushed in this direction," he writes, "because this is where the money is."

Noting that our university in St. Louis is a Jesuit school, Bishop says a Catholic university should be ideally poised to maintain and cultivate the humanities and take the lead in keeping a solid, balanced core curriculum. It is hard to imagine a graduate of a Jesuit college who has not studied history, literature, and philosophy, who has not been exposed to the perennial questions about enduring values and ideas.  Instead of thinking about great ideas and the mysteries of reality, as Lightman does, too many universities  pander to the trendy technoscientific curriculum that is turning out more specialized graduates who seem destined to fill their slot in the global machine that robs us of interiority.

I am grateful to Drs. Bishop and Lightman for combining a respect for the values of science with seeing the urgent need to explore the more mysterious realm of the inner life.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Is anybody listening?

A few years ago, I read of a poll of dog owners, 25 percent of whom said their pets were better listeners than their spouses.  Cat owners came in at 14 percent. How can a married couple not listen to one another?

Why is listening so hard for people to do?  Why do Republicans in Congress right now not listen to their constituents, and to reason and common sense, and vote for a real trial of Donald Trump?  Why do they listen to his endless lies and cover-ups?  And what about listening to the inner voice of conscience that says laws have been broken?

Politics aside, paying attention to one another in a busy, noisy world of self-promotion is an important issue.  A great deal of the problem has to do with the ego and the habit of caring mainly about ourselves, not caring enough about the person we are with to put aside our own agenda and just pay close attention before responding.  This is a habit that must be learned.

If I were to give a class on listening, I would use Erich Fromm's book, "The Art of Listening," in which he lists some basic guidelines, which I summarize:

1.   The first step is the complete concentration of the listener. He or she has to banish all thoughts and be free and receptive.
2.  The listener has to be imaginative, able to put himself in the shoes of the person who has something to say.
3.  This means the one who listens well has some empathy: "to understand another means to love him," says Fromm.
4.  If understanding and loving are separate and not linked, he concludes, the door to real sharing, communication, and listening is forever closed.

The door has often been closed in many of the lunches and dinners I have endured in the past few years. People anxiously talk about their experiences and have little interest in asking questions about my experience or ideas. When I speak, they hear me but just continue talking....So to Fromm's list of essentials I would add patience, humility, and inner peace.  And I would add silence: the good listener silences his mind as well as his cell phone, and on this foundation is ready to give full attention to another. Such attention is a form of love.