Friday, November 27, 2009

The Term of intrinsic value

I am in the middle of a several weeks' long debate with one of my classmates. He says that some people are worth more than others, and that instrumental value is the measure of that worth; I'm arguing the opposite: people are valuable just because they're people, not because they happen to be quantum physicists instead of gas station attendants.

Our argument was brought up during a lunchtime conversation, and someone said, "Well, of course Allison would believe in intrinsic value. She's too nice to believe anything else." And I cringed, not because I don't appreciate the compliment (I'll take compliments any time!) but because the comment implied a sort of preciousness on the part of anyone who takes intrinsic value seriously. It implied that having this kind of faith in humanity is naive and ill-advised, that if I would only crawl out from under my rock, I would change my mind.

I won't change my mind. Intrinsic value isn't fluffy--at least not the way I see it. Respect people for who they are (and not just what), and I start running out of excuses for all kinds of selfish behavior. Actions I thought didn't matter suddenly (rightly!) appear spiteful or petty or unkind. My interactions with others are molded by the realization that I'm dealing with individual persons, after all, and there's more here than what I'm seeing, even if, at the moment, all I can see is the recalcitrant face on the other side of the counter or the window or the table or the classroom.

As with so many other things, Madeleine L'Engle says this better than I do. I found A Circle of Quiet sitting unattended on a counter top yesterday and picked it up, hoping to while away a few hours. Somehow, I found in her words ideas for two philosophy papers I'm working on and an affirmation of everything I have been expressing so poorly in my arguments over the last few weeks.

In one of the early chapters of the book, L'Engle writes about her serendipitous experience as a choir director at a village church. She didn't believe in God (that much she had made quite clear to the young pastor of the church), but she loved good music and

I wanted the choir to be good. I wanted us to sing good music, and to be a success. . . . If the choir was to be a success, the obvious first thing to do was to ease out some of the problem voices.

I couldn't do it. I don't know why, but something told me that every single person in that choir was more important than the music. 'But the music is going to be terrible,' I wailed to this invisible voice. 'That doesn't matter. That's not the reason for this choir.' I didn't ask what was, but struggled along. The extraordinary, lovely thing was that the music got to be pretty good, far better, I am now convinced, than it would have been if I'd put the music first and the people second. (pp. 35-36)

People (as people!) first; music--projects, abilities, and, yes, people as things second. This will not condemn us to economic, intellectual, or instrumental(!) failure. I promise. And I guarantee, too, that we'll all be just a little bit wiser and a lot happier because of it.

Wisdom and happiness. We're not naive to want those things, are we?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving thanks

Where will I be a year from today? For ten terms now, I have been caught in the theme and variation of university life, and as this tenth term winds to an end, it's hard to believe that there's something else waiting just around the corner. There are days when I'm overwhelmed by the unknown; today, however, I'm just grateful to be here.

I'm grateful for a gentle rain drifting down from soft gray clouds, for woodsmoke and the scarred bark of pines.

I'm grateful for the university only a hop, skip, and a jump away from my home on the hill, for good friends, kind supervisors, and professors who strive for excellence in teaching and learning. I am more convinced than ever that the things we do and say impact the people around us.

I'm grateful for words; like actions, they can shape our lives. This term I have been blessed by a steady rain of syllabic kindness, by text messages, emails, handwritten notes, and conversations that have encouraged me to stay the course even as I struggle with the growing pains of uncertainty.

I'm grateful for music: for the perfect blend of melody, harmony, and rhythm on bleary-eyed mornings when even coffee can't stave off my weariness.

I'm grateful for light and laughter. Oregon does not always boast fair weather during the winter months, but when the sky does choose to show itself, the bright blue and the shards of November light are a reminder that there is peace in the midst of madness. And the sudden moments of humor--wry and witty--that spark through grim days can make even the darkest clouds bearable.

I'm grateful for love. I'm grateful that I have brothers and sisters who encourage and tolerate my (admittedly peculiar) enthusiasms, cousins and friends who empathize with my worries about the future, and parents who respect the path I have chosen to walk.

I'm grateful because when I asked my dad where I would be a year from today, he said, "Here, of course. You'll be home."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Fox and the Child, directed by Luc Jaquet ("The March of the Penguins"), was a refreshing end to a hectic week. Kate Winslet narrates this thoughtful tale of a child's friendship with a red fox who lives in the wilderness surrounding her home somewhere in the heart of rural France. We liked the film for its cinematography (dazzling shots of wildlife and nature); but the narration was good, too, and so was the music. The only person who had anything critical to say about the film was our resident nature-lover: "That girl should have KNOWN the fox didn't belong to her," she told us, indignantly. "It was a WILD fox." So, yes, there was that; but it ended well, I thought, and there was redemption, even for the child who should have known better.

For a sensible but kind review of the film, you might try the one that came out in the Times Online last year. It begins: "If this were a breakfast cereal, it would be a bowl of muesli with fresh fruit, topped with glistening honey." I can't help but agree.

Really alright

"It's raining," I said as we looked out the window together after class.

"Where?" he demanded. "I don't see rain."

I tried to point it out to him: fine mist and sullen drizzle drifting down over tired leaves, the slick puddles stretched across the tennis courts, the heavy weight of the clouds pressing down on us. But, "Not so much," he said. "It is what you make of it, you just have to do a little reinterpreting."

I wasn't having any of it. Reinterpreting on a worn-out Thursday afternoon? Too much work, probably not worth the effort. "I'm going home," I said, "I'm just going home."

So I walked back to my car, and there was wind and a little rain, and I was cold and wet and miserable. I felt bad, too, because he had only been trying to cheer me up, after all, and I hadn't been very considerate of those attempts: gray day gone grayer, I thought.

But grayer days happen sometimes (trust me, I've had a lot of them lately), and I know that, eventually, they disappear into sleep and sweet nights and the gentle breaking of a new day.

"I'm sorry," I texted my friend. "And you know what?

"The rain is really alright."

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Tuesday morning

After a week of gray skies, the clouds have suddenly lifted to reveal streaks of light: the dusty rose and salmon of an early morning, the bold glow of a full moon on a November evening, the sharp crackle of blue stretched above bright leaves in the afternoon. October is my favorite month of the year, and at the beginning of the week, I was mourning its passing. Couldn't it be all October, all the time? I wanted to know.

It can't, of course. But the sudden luminosity of the air is a comfort today. November has its own charms.

Did you see that moon?