#ME TOO TOUCHES A DEEPER NERVE

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By now you must have read many true stories, and perhaps an all-too-real fictional one that went viral, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person, about the #Me Too movement. Maybe this avalanche of long-withheld accounts of trauma mixed with too-easy punditry on the sexual abuse and harassment of women has pricked your suspicion that deeper levels of this crisis are being overlooked. Metaphysical ones.

Some observers did not miss the fact that only abusers in certain lines of work have been identified for their transgressions—with firings and loss of reputation. While many of their victims are finally being taken seriously, we can be sure that there are countless others in different fields who do not dare talk.

An obvious category would be victims of incest who remain dependent on the emotional and/or financial support of their family, who cannot bring themselves to cast shame on their family name. Another would be survivors whose rapists threatened to kill them if they said anything, or convinced them that no one would believe them if they told the truth. These categories would likely overlap.

A less obvious group of victims would be those unwilling to speak out because they’ve suppressed various gender-based traumas in order to get on with their lives, deciding that focusing on those terrible memories would cause them more trouble than it’s worth. Without public credibility and moral support—that only recently the #Me Too movement has brought about—they chose survival over seeking justice.

Problem is, unspoken and suppressed pain tends to surface in other ways, such as physical and psychological afflictions. Healing from trauma requires full attention to the experience itself, so that the victim can reassert her sense of self, wholeness and agency.

There are deep reasons, I think, why people who’ve experienced sexual and gender-based abuse have mixed feelings about exposing their experiences to others. Some, I suggest, are metaphysical—involving how we give attention to ourselves, and how we perceive our personhood in relation to others.

Plenty of us have been persuaded to do things that only later we realized we did not have to go along with. We were too young, immature, frightened, or lacking in awareness of ourselves as beings worthy of respect—especially self-respect—to refuse to participate. Nowadays too many young people are drawn into the “hook-up” culture of super-casual, even anonymous sex, because they fear the alternative may be not having a social life. Too many are obsessed with social media, fabricating self-images of hoped-for likeability for the world’s consumption, while unsure who they really are. Social media “friends” don’t materialize when one is faced with a real-life attacker.

There are so many individual stories and social forces at work that no one can generalize.

Except for this. We all have the human capacity to put ourselves into our own field of attention, to become the object of our mind’s eye—a fly on the wall observing ourselves as actors and agents of influence on life’s stage. Let’s call it self-attention, by which is meant something more focused than routine self-awareness and the calculation of one’s image to others.

In contemporary culture, as various commenters point out, many adults have grown up under the influence of virtual role models in movies and television. While assuming that all we’re getting from screen characters is harmless entertainment, we’ve learned to categorize men as heroes or bad guys, cowards or lotharios, wise or weird old geezers. We’ve accepted that women can be portrayed as either desirable or plain, matronly or spinsterish, servile or conniving, charming or bratty as girls, with little room left over for other kinds of female characters other than those trying to act like men. Until recently these stereotypes have seeped into our consciousness without much critical editing. One writer has claimed that watching movies taught her that a woman of her size was ugly. A gay critic noticed that men in classic movies who insisted they knew better than women what women wanted in love and romance have been perceived as savvy he-men rather than bullies.

The main character in the viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person” is a 20-year-old college girl living in a dorm. She meets a man in his mid-30s at her part-time job selling tickets at a nearby movie theatre. The man keeps his cool, does not directly flirt, but returns to the theatre several times then asks for her phone number. She surprises herself by giving it to him, and a text dialogue ensues.  The story’s narrator lets readers in on most of her thoughts, so we watch this girl hesitate, persuading herself that her classmates will think she’s cool to go out with an older man. When he asks if she’d like to see a movie, she cautiously suggests they not go to the theatre where she works. As he drives her to a movie in another town he is so quiet that she begins to fear him. He breaks the silence by saying drily that he’s not going to murder her.

The story produces a queasy tension as young woman waxes bold—What is she telling herself?—after not enjoying the movie he’d chosen, by suggesting they go to his place when she really wants to be safely back in her dorm.  But she’s also curious to see his place, having never gone out with an older man. Once there she is unimpressed but afraid of hurting his feelings, so she is the first to take off her clothes—aroused not by him but by thoughts of how he’ll respond to the sight of her young perfect body and breasts. Though turned off by his fat belly and body hair, she fears how he’d react—rage? violence? humiliation?—if she suddenly draws back from the process she has herself initiated. During and after sex she feels terrible, but shows no sign of this until safely back in her dorm, where fortunately her roommate is there to listen supportively. Too ashamed and fearful to answer the man’s persistent texts as to whether she’s okay and can he see her again, she lets her roommate take her cell and text a message on her behalf: that she does not want to see or hear from him again. By this point readers have picked up hints in the story that the guy has not gone to college (he says he chose a foreign film with subtitles because he thought it would appeal to a college girl), and there is an awkward class difference. The man responds to the brush-off with a string of texts asking why. Getting no answers, he ends their dialogue, and the story—having previously refrained from using any off-color language with her—with a one-word text: “Whore.”

Many commented how cringe-worthy the story is. That its main character took too great a risk with this man and put her safety in jeopardy, forced herself to go through with sex while revulsed by her date’s body, terrified of the consequences for changing her mind. More than a few men were offended by the girl’s revulsion at her date’s belly fat and hairy body. Given what seems like the character’s close to nonexistent sense of personal dignity and unwillingness to admit that she’d put herself into a situation she did not want to follow through with, I suspect many readers would be understanding but disappointed in her. They may actually feel more sympathy for him, possibly to the extent of not objecting to the harsh term he finally applies to her.

Compare this with the adolescent boldness of the movie “Lady Bird,” whose female lead is a high school senior who fantasizes about, and eventually gives up her virginity to, a young man who turns out not to have been equally virginal and fails to reciprocate her romanticized expectations. Yet she appears not to condemn herself (the audience most likely sharing her feelings of good riddance), moves on with her secret application to a top college far away from her home—against her mother’s hopes and expectations—and holds out for this choice when she is merely waitlisted. We root for her when she is finally accepted at Columbia—though her mother refuses to see her off at the airport—and begins her new life as a freshman in New York City.

Both the short story and the screenplay are composites of their authors’ personal experiences and those of people they knew or read about. Both works dramatize the hit-and-miss quality of self-image construction, deconstruction, and (potentially) perpetual reconstruction. Both are dramas of self-presentation. But underneath all those processes is a human that enables us to construct, and deconstruct and reconstruct the self: attention.

What makes “Lady Bird” an essentially uplifting story is the main character’s visible confidence in herself as a good person who can make her share of mistakes and argue frequently with the mother she knows loves her, but reserves the right to pursue her own dreams. She doesn’t like the name her mother gave her and insists she be called Lady Bird. But when her mother tells her that she was named after a much-loved deceased forebear, she stores this information away and uses her given name when she arrives in New York.

What makes “Cat Person” so cringe-worthy is the subject’s lack of attention to herself as a moral being, someone who would give her body to a man she found repellent, even when it was she who suggested they go to his place out of curiosity.  She is someone who gives  an older man her number because she hopes her classmates will think she is cool to be dating an older guy.  She has to learn the hard way that putting herself at risk with a stranger is not worth the price of appearing cool.  Yet her mixture of pride and self-assertion, taking off her clothes to show this older guy her young perfect body, aroused by the thought of his being aroused by her, is something most of us can relate to.  We are almost all deeply affected by vanity—more than ever in this age of selfie photos and the sharing of digitally edited snapshots of ourselves.

It is so easy to see oneself as the star of our own movie, as it were, strutting and fretting our hour upon life’s stage.  Plus, women especially have an age-old instinct to try not to hurt a man’s vanity, and a fear of his anger and potential violence if he feels rejected. Here is this girl, far from her college dorm, curious to see a working man’s home, dependent on him for a ride home, afraid to tell him that she does not want to go through with sex with him though she has put both of them on that path. She could have spent that time at a café or diner, talking about the movie, getting him to tell her more about his life, his background. Then she could have said she was tired and needed to get back to her dorm. There were other options, and he seemed ready to accommodate her.

But the Cat Person’s attention was at first on what her friends might think of her, then on what an older man would think of her, not on what she would think of herself. The latter, however, is what we all have to live with—the sting of conscience, the pain of selling ourselves short, disrespecting our own dignity. I suspect “Cat Person” went viral to so many people who don’t normally read The New Yorker because it touches a nerve deep within the #Me Too movement, and beyond.

As an attending metaphysician, I call it the nerve that registers pain for not giving ourselves genuine, caring, respectful, and eventually forgiving self-attention.  “Lady Bird,” whose story is based on the screenwriter’s life, did just that, and earned the Academy Award for best movie that, alas, it did not receive.

THE PHYSICS OF TIME AND HEAT – AND OUR SURVIVAL AS A SPECIES

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The Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli tells us in his international bestseller, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, that “there is a detectable difference between the past and the future only when there is the flow of heat.” The flow of time, he writes, is a matter of thermodynamics, subject to the vagaries of probability. Building on Einstein’s amply verified theory of relativity, Rovelli says that just as there is no definitive “here” in relation to other points of reference, neither is there an objective “present” in terms of time. Our sense of passing time, he explains, arises from “microscopic interactions within the world” that are part of “systems” such as human consciousness and memory. That about wraps it up, I guess, if you’re a physicist.

Time remains a mystery, Rovelli admits, but he does a formidable job reducing it to a blur of subatomic particles perceived within the limitations of human consciousness, including the finest of scientific calculations. Given the limitations of my non-physicist consciousness, I think he’s on to something beyond physics when he identifies heat as the sole detectable factor separating our past from our future.

Put in more human terms, is heat rather akin to attention? If we put our attention on someone, are we not transmitting an immeasurable but sometimes detectable impulse of energy towards them—such as when we sense someone looking at us? Keeping things strictly materialistic, our brains consume energy, so can we not consider mental impulses that require the brain’s energy as some version of heat? Looking at it another way, isn’t attention what enables us to distinguish what has happened from what is happening?

What, though, about things that have taken place in the past but linger in our minds so that they remain alive in the present, events and people we still care about, puzzle over, continue to study, imitate? Lingering objects of attention give force to Faulkner’s famous line, perhaps alluding to the South’s role in the Civil War, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The parts of the past that do not die are those that draw enough of our attention for them to stick in our memory. The elasticity of human reactions allows for widely differing perspectives on past events. The pioneers’ brave expansion and settlement of the American West looks very different from the standpoint of Native Americans, whose tribal lands were overtaken, treaties broken, burial grounds desecrated, and so on.

We give certain experiences more attention than others because they elicit some form of psychological heat – curiosity, fear, admiration, humor, regret, love, resentment, hope, etc. From what I’ve read about how the human brain works, items that stay in our memory are glued to or associated with emotions of some kind. Otherwise they are not retained, at least in that person’s memory.

Think of what an enormous effusion of, shall we say, attention quanta, human beings (not to mention other beings) emit daily. From the homeliest impulse to get up in the morning, to numberless types of effort put forth by multitudes throughout their day’s labor—to serve others, to deal with all manner and size of interpersonal conflicts, to keep informed about what’s happening around us. Within this huge output of attention impulses are, say, quarks of different types of attention—from the keenest concentration required for original work of any kind, to the tedious forms of labor done solely for a paycheck, to routine tasks of personal hygiene, transportation, shopping, housekeeping and so on.

Good luck trying to fathom the myriad attention units devoted to sexual desire, romantic love, and the equally vital efforts of friendship.

Attention quanta may also differ in terms of age and stages of consciousness. The very young survive by focusing on those who take care for them, because their lives depend on whether they receive nurturing attention. Children soon face the demands of schooling, and meet various degrees of success fitting into so-called peer groups, developing their personal identities by trial and error.  Hopes and dreams for making a difference in the world extend far beyond youth, of course.  Many of us do not fulfill our desires and others’ expectations, and must learn to be thankful for whatever we have.  As they age, many find it necessary to calculate the energy we will need to give our full attention to the tasks before (another strange quark of attention) and what to put aside when running on fumes.

For any age, let’s not leave out the unfathomable attention quanta humankind expends on—to paraphrase Zora Neale Thurston—licking the pots in sorrow’s kitchen. Enduring physical pain, illness, disability, abuse, loneliness, trauma, shame and grief are as demanding in terms of attention as they are unavoidable to those afflicted. Oddly, those who suffer through such things are not precluded from moments of happiness as fine as any experienced outside sorrow’s kitchen.

The philosopher and mystic Simone Weil considered attention to be the purest form of prayer. She believed that “attention is the only faculty that gives us access to God.” Whether or not one believes in God, the power of attention is something undeniable in human experience and seems essential to any manifestation of love. There would be no works or art, scientific discoveries, technology, perseverance through hardships, heroism, civilization or survival of our species without it.

Science has not gone beyond the Big Bang theory of how our universe began 13.7 billion years ago, when there was a great burst of heat, light, energy and eventually matter. Only recently we’ve learned that visible matter, including us, is about 3.5 percent of the universe, whereas invisible or “dark” matter and energy constitutes all the rest. What are these unseen constituents?  We have no clue. All we know is that dark energy propels the universe to expand, while dark matter provides the gravity that keeps the stars, gas and dust in all the galaxies from flying apart.

Rovelli the physicist directs our attention to an amazing thought, that the flow of heat makes possible our experience of the passage of time. An attending metaphysician might extend this idea further: that the heat of which he speaks includes immeasurable quanta of attention. The energy source of this attention possibly connects us to that which brought our universe into existence and keeps it from dispersing into chaos.

How we experience time—and how we try to affect what is happening in present time—may determine whether our species will experience a future.

Rovelli’s book closes with a scientifically valid, hard-nosed assertion that our human species will probably not survive the damage we have already done to our environment. He hardly needs to exemplify this prediction with reference to global warming, widespread pollution, loss of habitat and mass extinction of other species due to our overuse of natural resources, and the extinction of earlier human species and civilizations.

It begs the question, in the most total way a species can beg:

Why can’t we apply more of our heat to the flow of time? Can we put enough attention into saving the biosphere so as not to destroy human civilization? Are we not capable of exerting more, stimulating more, innovating more, doing more of whatever it takes to save our future on this beautiful blue sphere on the outskirts of one galaxy among billions? What better goal would humankind have, exactly now?

 

 

 

RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE

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RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE—RELEARNING PATIENCE AS A VIRTUE

For years I walked by the closed lid of my piano, stifling pangs of regret and longing to be back in the weeds making music. I had solid excuses: courses to prepare and teach, stacks of homework and papers to mark up. It was heartfelt work that kept me up long into the night and delivered a shot of adrenaline each time I entered the classroom, followed by the joy of learning from my students. Years flew by. I would dust the piano and tell myself, Someday….

Then, in an impersonal flip of academic politics, I found myself “retired.” Hiding momentarily behind the bewilderment, however, was the gift of time for me to write more…and return to the piano!

Lifting the lid on that untouched keyboard was like trying to make amends with a long forsaken lover. I now had creaky, arthritic fingers and a thumb that stabbed with pain when asked to play notes forte or louder. Not only did I need larger reading glasses so I could look up at the music and down at the keyboard, but my vision was erratic. My eyes skipped ahead or landed too far up or down on the staff, and had to be reined in like puppies on a leash.

It proved necessary to acquire a half-deaf forgiveness for the sounds I produced. Especially the ruination of promising-sounding passages that came to rude, aborted ends, given my unpredictable but ever lurking tendency to botch things I hadn’t previously messed up.

You see, I may have been treating my piano like a piece of furniture, but I hadn’t stopped going to concerts and hearing great artists at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. The contrast between their mastery and my bungling was all too real. How to avoid the sinkhole of exasperation and disgust?

Ages ago, a concert artist and revered teacher, Alice Shapiro, told me to first learn a piece by playing it very slowly. Her advice resonated with that of my inspiring present teacher, Michael Blum, who says, “Play something so slowly and softly that it’s like doing tai chi. Don’t try for any kind of expression at first. Just let the notes quietly tell you about themselves.” By this he means listening for their harmonic structure, their phrasing, and how those elements support the mood and feelings the piece might express. It struck me as a form of meditation, or perhaps a reflection on great literature, where one dives into real or imaginary worlds from the safe distance of an observer.

Similar to meditating, I found it ever so easy to lose patience with the process. As soon as I try playing something faster than I can do justice to the notes, I stumble upon why patience is a virtue. It’s hard to get comfortable with the reality of attention being a discipline, requiring humility and time. I’ve wasted precious time repeating botched passages at full speed before, duh, I think to play them slowly, accounting for each note, after which they seem to fix themselves.

Music is like a relationship. The more attention you pay, the deeper you go. And, whether gradually or in bursts of affection, playing the piano rewards attention—with relief from arthritis, and the feeling of earned participation in works of genius.

EVIL TONGUE OR PATH TO REFLECTION AND HEALING?

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Cynthia Ozick was given front page real estate in the New York Times Book Review, with a devilishly catchy title, “The Novel’s Evil Tongue” (12/20/2015). Her essay refers to the Book of Genesis, where Eve listens to the serpent and is persuaded to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as is Adam, her companion. God has threatened that they will die (by which He could have meant lose their immortality), if they eat this fruit. The crafty serpent seems correct when he says they won’t die for eating it (in the sense that they won’t drop dead on the spot).

So our two primordial ancesters are ejected from Eden, suddenly aware of their nakedness and need to be clothed. They are also unequally cursed, as feminist interpreters have noted. Eve and women after her will be afflicted with pain in childbirth, but will desire their husbands. Adam and men after him will have to sweat in hard labor for a living, with no mention of desiring their wives. It is one of two incompatible creation stories that the ancient compilers of far more ancient Hebrew oral traditions placed at the beginning of the Bible. Christians refer to it as The Fall, the beginning of evil among humankind, putting us in need of redemption in the form of a Savior. Others have read it as a parable of human choice to obey God or not, and the consequences.  Interpretations abound.

Ozicks’s unusual perspective sees the first humans’ eating the forbidden fruit as marking  not only humankind’s fall into sin and gossip, but also the beginning of all storytelling and, she implies, sexual desire.  If Eve hadn’t listened, “Eden would still be…a serene and tedious nullity, a place where nothing happens: two naked beings yawning in their idleness, innocent of what mutual nakedness might bring forth.” Ozick and many others assume that Adam and Eve did not make love before they realized they were naked.

One of the Ten Commandments forbids us to bear false witness, and elsewhere Scripture tells us not to be “going up and down as a talebearer among your people.” Without Eve’s original listening, Ozick opines, there’d have been no Cain and Abel, crime novels, Hitchcock thrillers, no great writers like Chaucer, Boccaccio, Austen, and Henry James. It’s a fascinating premise, but rather disturbing in regard to what the ancient Hebrews meant by bearing false witness and tale-bearing.

In early Hebrew culture and law, false witnessing referred specifically to lying in a legal matter—such as claiming that X stole ten of your sheep so that you could take ten of his, when in truth your sheep were killed by wolves and you’re falsely testifying in order to replace them with ten of X’s sheep. Likewise, tale-bearing in such an early context almost certainly meant slanderous rumor-mongering rather than entertaining others with fanciful but harmless stories. Some of the first tales, about heroes and their bravery, were clearly meant to inspire.

I believe this piece of nitpicking is important. Storytelling, minus the motives that boil down to malice, should be defended for its potential, in fiction and nonfiction, to open doors that no benevolent Creator would want closed. The chance to learn of, and be inspired by, the acts and feelings of other beings, real or imaginary.

Of course we are all swayed by the immediacy of a personal truth. Who can surpass Augustine’s confession that he begged God to free him from sexual sin, just not right away? But what if we are obsessed with unrequited passion for the spouse of a close friend? Would we not do better to assume the cover of fiction, removing our story to a different setting and changing everyone’s identity? The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch wrote of literature as an art form that permits people to explore all kinds of experience, including terror and evil, from a safe distance. It was her belief that fiction could explore life’s nuances and complexity better than philosophy, thus the duality of her career.  She was not alone in this view.

I’m tempted to agree when Ozick writes, “Not unlike the philosophers, the gossiper strives to fathom the difference between appearance and reality, and to expose the gap between the false and the genuine.” But not quite. Gossipers with malevolent intent do not strive to clarify true from false. They use craft to make the false convincing, as do all con artists, in order to steal from them their right to make an accurate choice.  Storytellers who seek to inspire or draw people’s attention to troubling aspects of existence are trying to bring about healing and growth.  Very big difference.

I know a man who lost a well-earned promotion because his rival had planted rumors about his physical frailty. The gossiper won the promotion. The one who deserved it, who’d been in good health until he learned of this betrayal, declined toward a premature death. The gossiper does harm by distorting the truth. Altogether different from the craft of a writer-thinker who ponders the meaning of life and tries to differentiate good from evil. In the case of the stolen promotion, both men had records of achievement, but one of them lied about his rival in order to tip the scales.  We acknowledge his cleverness, but sense the evil of it.

Going back to the person who wants to protect his/her identity as tormented by desire for a close friend’s mate. If you fictionalize the story, you redirect your attention into a different space, a lifeworld that frees you a precious bit from the hard reality of personal anguish. It puts your powers of imagination and attention into creating characters similar but not identical to yourself and those close to you. It even increases your compassion for those imaginary characters, and allows you as a storyteller to think beyond your circumstances. In this way fiction lets us express pain and anguish in ways of healing rather than harm.

The problem with Ozick’s compelling take on Eve’s listening as the symbolic origin of people’s capacity to be moved by storytelling is her—probably unintentional—compression of entirely valid biblical warnings against lying and gossip that do harm, with the liberating and healing uses of attention and imagination.

Perhaps the myth of Adam and Eve made it into the Book of Genesis as a creation story because it speaks of the immediate and longterm consequences of having to choose how we listen and act. Evil, for all its surface appeal, can be identified for the harm it does—sometimes not readily apparent. Goodness, however, always exudes an ineffable sense of joy in life, be it through increased understanding, compassion, friendship with real or imaginary characters, or a shared laugh at the ridiculous. Who was it who said the devil hates to be mocked? A wise storyteller.

“How do you like to go up in a swing?”

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 “Up in the air so blue…”  Robert Louis Stevenson put it so well, in a verse many of us older children grew up with.  As a child I absolutely loved going up in a swing, so much so that I wanted to go even higher.  In a moment of great exhilaration and trust that the forces of nature would fulfill my desire, I let go of the ropes, spread my arms and took off.  Miraculously I landed on my stomach, no bones broken, just the skin under my chin split open on impact.  Two small scars hidden from view are the only proof that I was once so filled with joy that I’d catapulted into the sky.

As I got older I noticed that most swings in playgrounds are too low to the ground to accommodate taller kids or adults.   Some parks even have signs telling grownups not to use the swings.  So heartless.  But to return to the subject: attention.

Swings being magical to me, I had a rude shock a few evenings ago walking past a set of swings in a park.  A young boy was being pushed by—given the family resemblance—his father.  Instead of looking up at the gorgeous sunsetting sky, awash with the joy of swinging, the boy’s face was turned up and back, joyless and tentative.  He was clearly waiting for the fun to happen, and if anything he seemed posed on the brink of sorrow.

As I passed in front of them, I noticed that the man was pushing his son on the swing with one hand, while reading his smartphone in the other!!  His real attention was directed at what he was reading, with a fraction vaguely reserved for giving his boy a shove.

What is more, this guy had a martyred set to his jaw.  A grim scenario popped onto the screen of my imagination.  He was a busy important professional who resented sacrificing time he would have otherwise reserved for himself—if only the child’s mother hadn’t nagged him to take his son out to the playground before the last scrap of daylight had faded.  There were no other children on the swings at that hour.  But, dammit, he’d salvage his personal plans at least partially—thanks to his trusty handheld source of news updates, transmitter of memos that can’t wait.

The scene put a whole new twist on attention for me.  Going up in a swing, that simple and great joy of childhood, now threatened by technology!  Or, shall we say, susceptible to technology’s means of dividing our attention from those who need to feel it fully–our children, who sometimes die, literally and figuratively, without it?  [See Introduction post.]

My heart went out to that little boy.  Unless his dad wised up and put his whole self into pushing that swing, the kid might want to jump out of it for a reason far different than mine.

 

The Grandmaster – Master Class in Attention

Right away, most people who see “The Grandmaster” will be bowled over by its visual virtuosity.  The movie’s fight scenes zing by with balletic grace and the rhythmic flourish of great music.  The plot begins to bubble when a secretly trained female kung fu expert from the North appears to challenge the main character, who’s been chosen as best of the Southern Chinese masters.

The pair’s eye-popping altercation entices us into a haunting near-Platonic love story.  That element, alas, is invented.  In a way the film pays tribute not only to a legendary teacher of Bruce Lee.  It also draws attention to the unknown women who managed to master forms of the martial arts despite the entrenched tradition of denying this knowledge to females.

The movie presents two kung fu artists at the pinnacle of their powers: Ip Man, the real-life southern Chinese master played by megastar Tony Leung; and the daughter of a fictional great northern Chinese master, Gong Er, played by the beautiful Ziyi Zhang.  [The movie’s original title was “The Grandmasters.”]

The Sino-Japanese War, the invasion and occupation of China that led up to the Asian theatre of WW2, rears its ugly historical head.  Viewers are informed that during his time Ip lost two daughters to starvation.  (The real Ip was survived by two sons…were his sons fed better during the hard times—a long and ignominious tradition in more than one society—or were they born later?)  I’ve read that the Chinese language version of the film is 30 minutes longer because gruesome facts of the Japanese invasion are shown in more detail.

Despite the historical gravitas, visual thrills, and emotional pull of all these factors, to this attending metaphysician, they remain surface attention-grabbers.

Below these layers, I was intrigued by the amazingly non-hostile look in Leung’s eyes as he takes on a raft of arrogant martial artists in challenge matches throughout the film.  Especially in his duel with Gong Er, his expression is humble and alert rather than macho and patronizing.

In all Ip/Leung’s battles, of course, he is fighting for his life, or at least his honor, should he be spared by an opponent.  But what an outlook!   You have to see the set of his face, the quiet, non-hostile readiness for each attacker, to appreciate how wonderfully this actor portrays his character’s confidence—visible in the quality of his attention.  Why does he look so consistently, um, friendly?  It’s disconcertingly unwarriorlike.  But convincingly, uh…masterful.

Perhaps part of it stems from the fact that Tony Leung trained for three years before the cameras rolled on his portrayal of Ip Man.  Some very well known kung fu masters participate in this film, several of them having helped train Leung.  Is that why he looks at his opponents with something akin to respectful fondness?  Or does he somehow exude a feeling like that of Wilfred Owen, the WW1 British poet-soldier who wrote of his adversary as “My enemy, my friend”?

Ziyi Zhang has a background in dance, but she also trained rigorously in kung fu before being filmed.  She looks demure rather than friendly, and intent on defending her father’s reputation. Their convincing performances, even with occasional use of body doubles, is steeped in painstaking prior attention to training and fitness.

Perhaps the highest moment of artistry—and depth—comes in a snow-flecked nighttime showdown on a train platform in Hong Kong.  Gong Er has caught up with her nemesis.  This man, an orphan her father trained to succeed him, betrayed her family’s honor by collaborating with the Japanese, and expelled her from her family home.  By the time they meet we know that their form of kung fu is lethal, this guy has no conscience, and it’ll be a fight to the finish.  A terrible moment comes when she is pinned, her head inches away from the wheels of a passing train.  One more shove and she’d be decapitated.  Somehow she escapes his clutches and renders him unable to rise from the platform.  When he tries to appear noble in surrendering his position, she replies, “Let’s be clear,” and states firmly to his followers that he has done so only because she’s defeated him.

Uh-oh.  Didn’t the Chinese originate the concept of saving face?  And isn’t that expression crucial to the quality of attention one might expect to receive from others?  What Gong has done is vindicate herself, whom this traitor threw out of her home with a sneering put-down that she was ‘only a woman.’  But she has also humiliated a man desperate to retain the admiration of his followers…a man who’d used all his skill to try to kill her.

We watch her leave the scene in apparent serenity, only to observe how, in the privacy of her home, she coughs up blood.  Afterward, she stops practicing medicine and becomes addicted to opium.  One has to assume that this is no idle indulgence, but a last resort to endure mortal pain.

Alas, the price of revenge is steep.  Gong accepts it, diverting her attention away from disappointment and towards readying herself to die.  Was her father right all along?  Now she is too injured to carry on her father’s teaching, and too weak to heal others.

Meanwhile, Ip locates her after the war in Hong Kong, and she accepts his invitation to tea.  He does not know the price she has paid to avenge herself and her father, and hopes she will look upon him as more than a rival she narrowly defeated years ago.

Alas again.  She admits she has cared about him, even uses the word love, but says this will be their last meeting.  Only the viewers know why she is so discouraging to him, and are allowed to taste the bitterness and honor of her confession.

Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but no sex scene in any movie I’ve ever seen can match this quiet conversation over tea between two incredibly attractive characters who do not so much as touch hands.

Ip, so innocent in his optimism, urges Gong to continue her father’s teaching.  As if most of her has already died, she answers that it is part of life that great forms of knowledge have been lost or forgotten.  She says she has already forgot the “64 hands” for which her father was legendary.  As though passing a mystical baton, she expresses hope that Ip will continue to teach and expand his own knowledge.  From what we know, he surely did.

The most memorable adage from The Grandmaster comes from Gong Er’s father, via his daughter.  She tells Ip that there are three essential things in life: being, knowing, and doing.  In a flashback we also see that he told his unfaithful but ambitious disciple never to think himself the best: “There is always someone better.”  True mastery implies humility.

Leaving open the possibility that someone can always do it better, even if one has mastered something, is a wonderful insight into the finest quality of attention—ever willing to respect and admire others.

What a movie.  What a master class.

Attention Lurking in the News, #2: On Grieving and Consoling

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Doubtless I am one of many readers surprised and moved by a guest commentator who appeared in Maureen Dowd’s Op-Ed column the day after Christmas in the New York Times.  Dowd introduced Father Kevin O’Neil as a family friend and priest with a rare gift: the ability to “lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them.”  Given the devastating recent killings of innocent children, benevolent teachers and first-responders, it was an inspired decision by Dowd to pass the editorial baton to someone who could offer a “meditation” on what she refers to as our “tear-soaked Christmas.”

Father Kevin’s meditation is no lofty homily on why evil exists or why bad things happen to good people.  He claims to have nothing useful to say to the bereaved and the dying, nothing that would convince them of God’s all-encompassing power and wisdom when they are faced with senseless violence and death.

But he does have something useful to say.  Just not on those matters.

Though he cannot answer “Why?” let alone “Why, God?” he admits to staying with the dying and the bereaved, praying with them for hours to let them know they are not alone in their suffering and grief.  Sometimes he talks with them, sometimes he just shares their miserable silence.

Undignified as it seems, I dare to whisper: You can also bet he does not steal a few minutes to check his tweets, e-mails, or text messages.  What does that boil down to?

The highest quality attention, that’s all.  Just sitting with someone in pain.  No distractions.  Nothing much to say.  No brilliant insights.  No philosophical, theological, sociological, or psychological explanations.  Why is that so great?

Imagine you are a quantum of so-called “dark energy,” that invisible force that comprises most of the universe, far more than the physical matter (a mere 4%) in it.  Just being there for someone who’s grieving or otherwise suffering has the power to get them through a most difficult time.

Think back to those unclaimed babies in the far corner of the maternity ward, missing the one thing they needed to live.  (See Introduction/Welcome.)   We don’t have to be a gifted priest, let alone a religious person, to do the simple thing that sustains another.  All this priest did was to be fully present, without answers but with willingness to show up…suppressing any compulsion to multitask.

With or without belief in God, we might agree on a more basic truth, that attention is necessary for survival.  On the most essential level it is simply being there, giving someone our attention, no answers required.

And if quantum physics has any validity, we can be there for someone at a distance.