Monday, February 15, 2010

you (i), my little lettuce.

[i'm trying to change my writing process from the very bottom up. i've got to learn to spit it out. in the name of this, i'm going to do these little writing exercises-- timed and unrevised, twice a week, i hope.

'when you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don't blame the lettuce. you look into the reasons it is not doing well. it may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. you never blame the lettuce. yet if we have problems with our friends or our family, we blame the other person. but if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like lettuce. blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and arguments. that is my experience. no blame, no reasoning, nor arguments, just understanding. if you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.'

thich nhat hanh
peace is every step

i read this book about a thousand years ago, and then the other day a friend of mine gave me the most wonderful gift-- she handed me this book, my own book, from my own shelf. it can look and read like something a little embarrassing-- an easy self-help manual, or treacly pop buddhism. i can't answer this except to say, somewhat vaguely, that this is that rarest thing-- a simple book that rewards multiple readings. while a first reading may provide a facile sense of revelation, i suppose that the only real transformative power comes with simple repetition (which is only to be expected, given the central role of simple repetition in buddhist pratice, as i understand it).

but i want to talk about the lettuce a little. i am here to write about the lettuce. i often use metaphors like these to try to bring home to people my practical and theoretical objections to our blaming practices. practically speaking, i think it's more useful and loving (and hard!) to think of each other in these sorts of terms (this is a highly contention claim-- the final word on the subject so far was spoken by the wonderful pf strawson who says that a mature and mutual and satisfying love depends on our not treating each other as we would the lettuce (see more on this subject here and here)). and i'm skeptical of there being any coherent justification for blame, as we generally conceive of it, whether or not it's of any practical use. blah blah yeah yeah you've heard it all before.

but look here! thich nhat hanh has used his lovely little lettuce metaphor not only to suggest the uselessness of blame, but to suggest the uselessness of arguments and reasoning. i'm brought up short. all at once i'm being schooled! challenged at the very core. because i think that people are like lettuce, and i think the value of my life is all and only my skill as a lettuce tender, but i also think that people are a very special kind of lettuce, responsive not only to sunshine and rain, but also to reason. i think that, officially. but the real challenge isn't to what i think, officially, but to who i am and what i do, independant of what i think. i'm an arguer and a reasoner, with a relentless habit of describing and redescribing things as a way of understanding them (and maybe something else). especially hard things. and most especially lettuce. it's the best and the worst of me. i think of this process of arguing and redescribing as the very process by which i come to understand. but thich nhat hanh tells me that you (i), my little lettuce, will respond no better to arguments and reason than you (i) will respond to blame. he suggests that understanding, on the one hand, and reason and arguments on the other, are of a distinctly different character. it feels hard as a paradox, trying to understand this very claim except as an argument or for reasons. alternately and also, i can understand it with the perfect ease that lettuce understands the sunshine.

this is what i've been thinking about.

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