It’s Hard to Become Who We Are

I started writing a response to a comment and found it getting too long. Besides, it is personal & a bit off-topic. But in essence, I think Kelly is right. My religious friends – and I am sure, Lex – will find this superficial. Nonetheless, I suspect if viewed as sociology – or perhaps, an anthropological study of the tribe of academics, it may interest.

I’ve been struck by the way religion seems to support some and help them hold views that the alpha males, their grad directors, and those of their social/intellectual community don’t. Naturally, in a Darwinian manner, we assimilate the values and the hierarchy of our workplace and social community. We tend to follow the alpha leader (in a hierarchy of thought & not muscle, it may easily be an alpha female). That isn’t bad – or, at least, it is so much a part of our human nature that we probably need to accept its existence.  Nonetheless, this pressure can challenge our integrity. We need to draw upon other strengths to withstand it; as Kelly observes, the greatest strength may come from religion. It has certainly helped many a man through a rougher test than a departmental meeting. Academics, like most people, fit into pecking orders. Among most humanities scholars, the hierarchy is contemptuous of religion, the military, the free market, nationalism. As I said before, faculties in humanities departments are more likely to vote for Nader than for Bush – and that is not an exaggeration. (Or at least a lot of people keep their heads very low.)

For instance, the local department chair (clearly a nice man) organized a group to see Michael Moore’s movie en masse; his wife commented in a newspaper interview that it really set her thinking. Another faculty member encourages his students to take part in anti-war rallies. These are decent human beings; they aren’t Ward Churchills. But imagine asking such a person to be your committee chair if you had founded Young Republicans on Campus. Later, a conservative will find bias is built into most literary journals. Even if someone does publish in a more conservative or more religious journal, the attitude at tenure review is likely to be affected. We all want grades, dissertation directors, recommendations, jobs, recommendations, promotions. At every step of that way, we want to feel a part of the community. We all feel pressure, no matter how gentle and no matter how little it is consciously exerted, to fall in with those around us when they have authority over us. Frankly, if we don’t feel this, then we probably have underdeveloped social and even survival skills. I seldom enjoy being around people who are truly unaware of others, who pridefully don’t want to fit in, who are surprised when they’ve offended everyone in sight and don’t get that next promotion. We may see integrity, but we also are likely to see a jerk.

Our human need for affirmation is strong. Frederick Douglass writes of the effect of Sheridan’s “mighty speeches in behalf of Catholic emancipation” as well as an argument in one of those great old oratory books in which a slave convinces a slave-owner of the evil of slavery. Each of us needs others just as we need space from them. I became increasingly conservative as I developed a circle of friends who wanted to talk about abstractions their strong (but quite differing) religious beliefs brought them to. Indeed, lunching with a charismatic Catholic, a Thomist, and a thoughtful, hard core Baptist brought me closer to my husband’s view and took me back to the church of my youth. I will acknowledge that this wasn’t a spiritual conversion; I recognize I’m attracted more by ideas than a real faith and I’m not as spiritual as a believer would (or should) be. Nonetheless, it has given me a wider horizon and more confidence by keeping me in touch with a longer and stronger tradition. That tradition was coupled with the beliefs of my youth – of national pride as well as Presbyterianism, of respect for the military as well as respect for learning. I’ve truly come back to where I started and known it for the first time. But I needed others, just as I needed space from the larger group to make that choice. Of course, this is all a bit ironic since a good many of the positions held by the church I attend are opposed to the very stands I went there to find. But, then, I’ve also found those values among the congregants and am grateful.

It is full of academics – academics left- leaning but still religious. But, then, the congregation is generally old.  Two of the few from my husband’s department were buried in the last month – one having retired the year we came here, in 1976; the other only a bit younger. The pressure to join an old-line church may, indeed, have been part of academic culture in their day. And now, campuses are considering these issues.  The Christian Faculty Network has begun, sponsors a week of speakers. If anti-religious statements seem common, religious faculty is pricked to return salvos in a more active way. (I need to add that neither my husband nor I are that religious, neither of us has joined let alone become active in such organizations.) What I’m talking about may characterize only a generation or two. We’ll see. Maybe in the future religion will return to the backburner in academia – where it was in my youth. Or it may heavily weigh on decisions made in academia as lack of it does today.  The whole pecking order may undergo a revolution.
Religion often encourages human kindness – I seldom see the harshness theocrats do. Yes, many view things as immoral that I don’t, but their religion prompts them to a certain generosity of spirit which can (although it doesn’t always) counter those impulses of estrangement. I’m not saying they are better than non-believers. And it would not be hard to find quite religious people who are real jerks to their students and their colleagues. Still, I suspect often that is despite not because of their religious beliefs. But the importance here (from our sociological perspective) is that religion centers a person, allows for a different hierarchy, subsumes our human jockeying for power, gives us a different but important secondary community. Our religion reapportions the world.

Among the grad students in my husband’s department, a small group founded the local ISI chapter. One graduated from the University of Chicago and loved its great books tradition; he is also quite Catholic. The second one’s husband became a Russian Orthodox priest after the two of them underwent a conversion a decade or more ago. And the third is a Mormon, with a flock of children. Someone willing to be these things in a modern English department is likely to be willing to plow a different row in politics. I’m not sure, of course, that it has always been easy for any of these people, but it is easier than it would  for each separately. If those obsessed with the evils of a theocracy were right and that religion breeds intolerance, why would these people, much deeper believers than most, appreciate one another? I’m sure each thinks he is right – as does the Thomist with whom I lunch, the Baptist with whom I go to coffee, the charismatic Catholic whom I talk with endlessly. But each of them, much like those grad students, is willing to forego obsessively trying to convert me and rather extends companionship and loving kindness. And we draw strength from one another.

Those grad students also chose mentoring from people who hold quite different religious beliefs than their own – but whose beliefs are also profound. I remember his friend joking when he & another colleague came to pick up my husband for some reception they were all dreading – at least we can have each other’s company. He pointed out the nature of their red letters: one an observant Jew, one a fervent Catholic and one a Protestant fundamentalist, all within the boundaries of academia politically conservative. My husband is far from a fundamentalist, but he laughed in understanding.

My friend, the Thomist, would argue that there is a truth that going to mass each Sunday revives within him, a truth profound and central to his – and all – life. I respect and don’t denigrate his beliefs – I’m willing to accept their power for him and the possibility of their broader truth. Those services do, however, also offer a sense of community. All of the people I’ve mentioned have a community outside the academic one, communities with their own pecking orders, their own values. I don’t want to denigrate the importance of the theology when I compare it with another factor in my husband’s life: the community from open mike nights and who play in our living room. Years ago, when the band with which he played on a frequent basis was a little less conventional in their academic interests, their support and curiosity about folk music and the kindness of their interest in one another gave him the strength to carve out an eccentric niche as a sub-specialty, one in which his work has certainly enriched more lives than his principal scholarly one. Its pursuit was not always easy – his wife wasn’t all that sympathetic and the older scholars in the department took him aside, saying this would waste his time, diminish his chances of promotion. And it did. But that community within the band sustained and encouraged him initially. And his days are as much defined by the close-knit family in which he grew up as his colleagues in the halls of the English department.

Family is important. Fellowship is important. Faith is important. Perhaps faith is the greatest as it helps us filter out all the white noise out there, all the distractions to reach true wisdom. But the others, too, offer support and love – and a kind of quiet. My Thomist friend would say it lets us hear the truth. That may well be true. I have a sense that such approaches have great validity. But of course I also read Emerson and I come from a different tradition than my friend’s. I find Emerson’s philosophy often flawed, but he understood human nature. He argues convincingly we need time away from books and society, time alone in nature, where the subtle, gentle pressure of the larger group is muted and we can hear the voice within, our own truth. And I would argue that the camaraderie of a few can strengthen us to follow that voice we hear in private when we do return to the world. In one of those great paradoxes, camaraderie helps us withstand the pressures of society & the Darwinian hierarchy that shapes our perceptions; camaraderie helps us be ourselves.

Frankly, I recognize the pressure – though I’d like to think it is the camaraderie – of this blog has made me more of a free marketer, more hawkish than I would have been otherwise. But I also sense that it has helped me become not only who I am, but in some ways, the who I was before I was lost.

1 thought on “It’s Hard to Become Who We Are”

  1. Ginny,
    Thanks for the response. I was originally thinking more about the transformation of the conversion process and not of the supportive context surrounding it, but both are necessary, aren’t they? This is clear in AA and its various offspring: you have to make the decision and work the steps yourself, but you also have to have the support of the community (and generally the guidance of an experienced elder) to stay with it.

    So I wonder to what extent boomers’ failure-to-mature (a particular interest of mine) is connected to the disabling of institutional support for growing up as a part of growing old. Maybe simply having don’t trust anyone over 30 morph into don’t become someone over 30 wasn’t sufficient without also undercutting the structures that provided the strength to work the process.

    And how can these structures be repaired for the sake of the generations we’re leaving such a bad example to? (And, of course, should we be trusted to do so?)

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