“The Greatest of These…”: Maturity v. Offense

Living one’s life in offense means never quite growing up.

No, it doesn’t mean one is more sensitive to the plight of others; it means one’s skin is so thin that others must always blunt the truth. They must be less honest or less than complete in their speech lest one take umbrage and skew the conversation by one’s own assumptions, judgments, or screeds.

Maturity—and true tolerance—listens to the opinions or arguments of others, and is not threatened by them. It does not need to shout down or shut down those with whom it disagrees. It does not need to be malicious toward them, nor does it need to smear them with altered facts, half-truths, or nasty names.

Maturity speaks and acts from a place of strength. It is confident. Its sense of right and wrong does not depend on the opinions of others, nor on their good will or ill will, nor on any narrative written out in the media, in popular culture, in activist groups, in church dogma, or in group-think, but assesses matters for itself and comes to its own conclusions.

It recognizes truth, even if that truth alters one’s previously-held beliefs.

Offense pushes onward against the tide of truth, and demands conformity with itself. It is akin to a child throwing a temper tantrum, refusing to acknowledge the truth it knows but is too proud and willful to admit, especially if that truth contradicts the narrative.

In this case, narrative is the accepted story—it is not necessarily reality. It is not concerned with facts or actual events, with provable data or the weight of evidence. It is the story in one’s own head, the story one wishes, expects, or assumes.

If maturity’s narrative is confronted with dissonant facts, with an alternate narrative, or with a conflicting truth, maturity weighs those differences, examines them, and then accepts or rejects them.

However, offense filters everything through emotion, and reacts with anger and arrogance, which can often disguise themselves as something noble. Yet continued anger, scolding, snubs, smears, demands, dishonesty, and haughtiness push for conformity—from others, not from oneself.

They also reveal the stunted growth, the blindness, the egocentricity, the blunted thinking of the one choosing to live in offense.

There are also groups which stir up and depend on the feelings of offense carried by their adherents. These groups are varied in nature—political, religious, cultural, sexual—and they operate much the same way as offended individuals do, but often with greater consequences. Anyone who dissents or offers an alternative is in danger of a damaged reputation, of difficulties at work or in the marketplace. That’s the least threat. The greatest threat is to self or loved ones because one does not conform.

Offense, therefore, encourages dishonesty. It thrives on anger, foments strife, and places itself as supreme judge. It brooks no argument—no matter how reasoned, truthful, or sound it may be—and is shrill in its agenda.

Maturity, however, will present its case but not push it. It will set boundaries and honor them. It will not be ashamed of its heritage, its faith, its culture, it political views, but will respect the differences of others, even if it cannot agree with them.

Maturity does what is right even if those actions are misunderstood, misrepresented, or misjudged. Even if people are offended. Because maturity is not ruled by immaturity.

It takes the long view, and considers the future consequences of its current actions. It knows it will be validated in the long run, perhaps after the current kerfuffle is long forgotten. And yet it does what it believes is right, even if it will not be the recipient of any good that might come of its actions.

Maturity is not so short-sighted that it lives only in the untempered, ill-informed emotions of the moment.

Maturity is not controlled by the fomented emotions of those who exalt the activist but denigrate the statesman. Due to speeches, marches, and “awareness” campaigns, the former is often credited with creating change, while the latter actually creates change by leadership despite opposition, threat, or lack of fanfare. One drums up support; the other earns respect. One is strident; the other may not even need to raise his voice.

There are advocates who are sometimes labeled activists, but they are most often for something rather than against something else: for aiding battered women, for increasing literacy, for feeding the homeless. The terms they use tend toward the positive, and they are less likely to be militant in their approach, although the lack of militance does not mean any lack of strength in their belief or actions. The difference lies in their lack of reliance on offense in order to garner support for or awareness of their cause.

Borrowing from one of my eldest niece’s favorite shows, “Green Lantern“, episode 2: “We know what you’re fighting against, kid, but what are you fighting for?”

Maturity is a process. It begins with recognizing not only one’s goals but also one’s limits, one’s need to learn and grow. Maturity exhibits as much frailty as any other human state, but it also extends patience to itself and to others. It may experience frustration, anger, even offense, but none of those are its constant state or its usual response. It is not ruled by negative emotions, nor by naïve, la-la-la optimism, even if it experiences them from time to time. In general, maturity is measured, pragmatic, and wise.

In the end, offense, being self-centered, cannot truly love. It cannot see beyond itself, its own cause, its own emotions, its own narrative. It loves only those with whom it agrees.

However, maturity realizes love—that thing so touted by a certain generation several decades past—is more action than emotion. It is a messy reality, not a hazy ideal, and true love reaches out even to its enemies.

If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

I Corinthians 13 (NIV)

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Nobel, Patrick Modiano, and Me

Never heard of Patrick Modiano?

It might help if you lived in France.

I didn’t know there was any past kerfuffle over the Nobel committee’s tendency to be Euro-centric in its selections for the literary prize, but I don’t mind getting to know about excellent writers outside my own country.

(K)eep in mind that while foreign translations from most literary writers can be hard to come by, there really isn’t reason to complain about Nobel winners being inaccessible. After all, the vast majority of winners since the prize’s debut in 1901 had written in English.

What’s more, awarding the honor to little-known writers — at least, from an English-reader’s perspective — can help introduce authors to a wider audience. Shortly after Jelinek won the prize in 2004, the American distributor of her book The Piano Teacher ran out of copies because demand was so unusually high. That was famously one of the goals of the Swedish Academy’s previous Permanent Secretary, Horace Engdahl, who once responded to criticism saying, “The purpose of the prize is to make them famous, not to tap them when they are famous.”

That prospect has already excited fans of Modiano’s in France. Anne Ghisoli, the director of the Parisian bookstore Librairie Gallimard, told the Times she had long been a Modiano fan, “but this prize will help raise the global profile of one of our consummate writers.”

[Gibson, Megan. “Why You Haven’t Heard of Patrick Modiano, Winner of the Nobel in LiteratureTime, 9 October 2014.]

A portion of his speech is highlighted in today’s issue of Shelf Awareness:

Time has speeded up since then and moves forward in fits and starts–explaining the difference between the towering literary edifices of the past, with their cathedral-like architectures, and the disjointed and fragmented works of today. From this point of view, my own generation is a transitional one, and I would be curious to know how the next generations, born with the Internet, mobile phones, e-mails and tweets, will express through literature this world in which everyone is permanently ‘connected’ and where ‘social networks’ are eating into that part of intimacy and secrecy that was still our own domain until quite recently–the secrecy that gave depth to individuals and could become a major theme in a novel. But I will remain optimistic about the future of literature and I am convinced that the writers of the future will safeguard the succession just as every generation has done since Homer.

I can identify with that need to put up a shield against the noise and the constant connection that eats at the soul.

Although I won a few prizes for speech-giving while in school, I dislike standing before crowds because my hands and voice shake and my thoughts scatter. Modiano, too, expresses his discomfort:

Calling to mind the way school lessons distinguish between the written and the oral, a novelist has more talent for written than oral assignments. He is accustomed to keeping quiet, and if he wants to imbibe an atmosphere, he must blend in with the crowd. He listens to conversations without appearing to, and if he steps in it is always in order to ask some discreet questions so as to improve his understanding of the women and men around him. His speech is hesitant because he is used to crossing out his words. It is true that after several redrafts, his style may be crystal clear. But when he takes the floor, he no longer has any means at his disposal to correct his stumbling speech.

Ah, yes. The need to constantly edit and revise. That explains my current profession.

Gustave Flaubert, a 19th-century French writer whose work ethic and precision with words one might well admire and imitate, even if his personal activities were best left behind the curtain, once wrote, “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”

And, I might add, it is in the act of writing that you realize not only do you have something to say, it is worth saying.

I also belong to a generation in which children were seen and not heard except on certain rare occasions and only after asking permission. But no one ever listened and people would often talk across them. That explains the difficulty that some of us have when speaking – sometimes hesitant, sometimes too fast as if we expect to be interrupted at any moment. This is perhaps why the desire to write came over me, like so many others, at the end of childhood. You hope that the adults will read what you write. That way, they will have to listen to you without interrupting and they will jolly well know what it is you have on your chest.

Listening — truly listening — is a great gift.

We may not understand all we hear, we may not agree with all we hear, but if we listen, we will learn, we will build bridges, we will encourage.

I was a child whose early, stumbling, terrible writings were listened to with patience and encouraged by adults. It was my peers who made me mute. They mocked, they misunderstood, they shrugged. Without the listening ears of a few grownups I respected and loved, I might not be a writer today.

Akin to truly listening is truly reading. There are few things more encouraging to a writer than knowing his words are being read. And not just read. Loved.

The announcement of this award seemed unreal to me and I was eager to know why you chose me. On that day I do not think I had ever been more acutely aware of how blind a novelist is when it comes to his own books, and how much more the readers know about what he has written than he does. A novelist can never be his own reader, except when he is ridding his manuscript of syntax errors, repetitions or the occasional superfluous paragraph. He only has a partial and confused impression of his books, like a painter creating a fresco on the ceiling, lying flat on a scaffold and working on the details, too close up, with no vision of the work as a whole…

So yes, the reader knows more about a book than the author himself. Something happens between a novel and its reader which is similar to the process of developing photographs, the way they did it before the digital age. The photograph, as it was printed in the darkroom, became visible bit by bit. As you read your way through a novel, the same chemical process takes place. But for such harmony to exist between the author and his reader, it is important never to overextend the reader – in the sense that we talk about singers overextending their voice – but to coax him imperceptibly, leaving enough space for the book to permeate him little by little, by means of an art resembling acupuncture, in which the needle merely has to be inserted in exactly the right spot to release the flow in the nervous system.

A certain short story comes to mind, one in which I purposely included certain themes but in which readers found other connections, better connections, than I intended. That was, I think, the first time I realized that a writer and a reader encounter different stories, though the words are the same.

The rest of Modiano’s excellent speech is dense with historical and literary references, and is literature itself. I highly recommend it to every writer, and to every reader who wonders where writers find their stories.

It and other speeches can be read at the Nobel website. Photos of the author can be viewed at The Telegraph, and an introduction to/review of some of his works may be read at The Guardian.

Home

Last month, due in part to the American holiday of Thanksgiving, I visited my old hometown, stayed with one parent but met often with the other, and attended a few services at Mom’s (once “our”) church, and was struck by the truth behind the old saying, “You can’t go home again.”

Although I was glad to be there and see people I knew, I didn’t call nearby friends or arrange to see them, nor did I drive by my old house or former workplace. The old life didn’t cross my mind, at least not long enough to dwell on or even matter. Nothing tugged at me.

Except, very soon after my arrival, a desire to return home.

Not to my old house, but to where I live now.

There was nothing wrong. There was no family argument or problem, no falling-out with friends; I just didn’t feel at home. Not anymore.

It is a strange state of being and state of mind that one is home yet not home, as if one has dropped into a surreal story and must find the way out of an Alice in Wonderland maze and back to reality.

I am a far different person than I was when I lived in that town, went to that church, spoke with my parents every week. The beliefs I once held as truth have shifted, perhaps even fallen away, so that only core truths remain. Life has a way of shaking the pan, dividing gravel from gold, helping one to clearly see the difference.

Those still surrounded by gravel may think the gold-seekers are off the mark, mislead, gone astray, so they try to warn them and hem them in again in safe places, in the grey cocoon of what’s humanly possible, of what’s comfortable and can be controlled, but they miss what the gold-seekers see — that glint of something more.

For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as all our fathers were: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is no abiding. (1 Chronicles 29:15, ASV)

“And there is no abiding” — not until we’re Home.