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The Scarlet & Black

Understanding the harmony behind denial

Recently, dear reader, I had a conversation with a remarkable individual.

I was sitting alone, eating breakfast, thinking some morning thoughts, when a man walked into the room. His presence immediately hit me: it was something in the way he moved and walked which coaxed me into looking up from my food. And when he spoke to another individual in the room, my eyes followed his, as if he were a brother, a friend. I had never spoken to him before, and yet I was immediately drawn towards him. It was as if he were a magnet. Do you know what I mean? —Do you know what I mean when I say that I immediately wanted to speak to him?

Forgive me if this is presumptuous, but I think you do.

It has always seemed to me that we interpenetrate one another. Here, when we stand on the Harris dance floor and feel the music as a crowd, our brains do much more than detect the ricochet of light off of another individual. When we walk down the loggia towards an oncoming semi-stranger, or when we gently open a classroom door to which we have arrived late, with flushed cheeks, feeling the gazes of those seated, punctual students—during these encounters, our minds are constantly interacting with other minds. We feel their weight. And so we suddenly feel the eye embrace of a dancing stranger, and something lights up within us; so we pretend to be interested in a poster instead of acknowledging the presence of another walking body; so we lift up our heads to examine an approaching presence in the dining hall. We finish each other’s sentences, and we detect a hint of embarrassment, or frustration, or anger, in the lines and lines of our friends’ faces. And yes, we constantly deny one other.

Recently, David Brooks released a book in which he calls for a “new humanism.” This new humanism is not based upon the enlightenment self, the cogito “I” (which a Grinnell education beats down with the force of a thwarted attempt to bring two ice creams cones out of the dining hall) but instead upon the ‘not-so-conscious’ features and workings of the human brain, which allow us to move, speak, grow fingernails, and, as Brooks puts it, to “interpenetrate” one another. In short: we are fundamentally intertwined with one another. We are therefore fundamentally tied up in the complications and the beauty with which this communal situation places us.

I think all it takes to recognize the reality of a new humanism is a quick look at the wonder and complication of our language, at all that is behind our words. A simple conversation, a simple glance: the depth and limitations of our ability to communicate with one another might itself inspire wonder. I also think our everyday Grinnell realities confirm this human-animal: when we question what to do with our “thank yous” as we enter Noyce, and when we are amazingly awkward about pausing a conversation at the deli counter in order to enumerate our sandwich preferences, what are these encounters but the workings of a brain which balances many human weights far beyond its front most lobe?

What does this have to do with the goal of this column? I can rant forever, as can most of our professors. (When you spend a lot of time reading by yourself, it feels quite good to have a group that is forced to listen to you. Just ask or watch a professor.) Well, I think Grinnell is filled with “unquiet wanderers,” with “pale moons wandering companionless,” with “stars with a different birth.” It makes this place unique, and difficult, and solitary. We’re forced daily into encounters with one another. We constantly deny one another. Each smile returned with a distracted wave, each unsure hello which echoes back unreturned, each eye contact met unacknowledged, is an act of denial, and an act of denial which suggests a deep sense of harmony with one another.

We do not have infinite responsibility to one another, but we do have some. This place, if anything, has taught me a piece of something like that.

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