Argument over J.D. Salinger | Tom Murphy

There are times when all of us wish for a life that is free of challenges, free of unanswered questions, free of doubt. There is a tremendous gravity connected to stability pulling at all of us, desperate to drag us into a cocoon of perceived safety where, like on a cold and rainy and windy day, we can shut ourselves up inside ourselves and hold the world at arm’s length — while we try to remember to breathe, and breathe deeply.

I also think, however, that a life without challenge, a life where every question has a simple answer, a life where doubt does not exist, is a life that denies our very nature as human beings.

When I was in high school, I clearly remember finding much comfort in advanced mathematics classes (after having not been very comfortable for a number of years) once I understood that all I had to do was remember which formula to apply to a given problem. If I applied the correct formula, the correct answer would always follow. A plus B always equaled C. I found comfort in that knowledge.

I also remember having a somewhat strident argument with an English teacher during my eleventh year. This is the fellow who began the semester by telling us that we were going to read a book a week. Prior to that time, I believe I may have read the entirety of “Black Beauty,” but nothing else.

Scoffing at his pronouncement did no good — the expectation stood. And so, I read…and read…and read. He didn’t care what we read, as long as we could talk with him about it after we finished. I think the argument began when we were discussing J.D. Salinger’s “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour.” These were two novellas in one book. I wanted to know exactly what Seymour was about. The teacher told me that it was about what I thought it was about; that I could make it mine by deciding myself what Salinger meant, and backing that thought up with evidence from the story.

I, of course, was frustrated because I wanted the “right” answer, and I was pretty sure something I created would have a minimal chance of being “right.” He told me to stick with it. As time went on, I came to understand that the better writers were mostly telling a story that existed on many different levels, and that I was free to choose whatever level and understanding fit me. Frustration turned to satisfaction as I began to know the complexities of our human condition through great literature; the stories written with no one right answer.

I am at a point now in my reading where it is enough for me to identify the important questions I should be asking about any story I read, and never give a thought to the answers.

What might have been different had I come to this much earlier?

What we know, what we learn

At a Federal Way School Board meeting in January, a patron spoke to the board. In his remarks he stated, “What we know is what we memorized.”

I wrote his words on my notebook. “What we know is what we memorized.” I wondered…

I think there is a difference between “knowing” and “learning.” I might know something, but that “knowing” might have a shelf-life of undetermined length. I clearly remember memorizing stuff in high school for the sole purpose of recalling the asked-for stuff for a test. Most of what I memorized disappeared as quickly as the grade was issued and recorded and forgotten. However, I knew it for the test…at least sometimes I did.

I did memorize my basic number facts, and I believe I “learned” how to use them through daily use. The “learning” embodied the requirement and/or necessity to use what I “knew” to create understanding of what I was “learning.” Perhaps that is the great distinction. We know what we know, and that’s all there is to that. What we learn has no limits. What we know is sterile and vapid unless we use what we know to create new knowledge, new learnings and new understandings for ourselves.

I haven’t memorized what I think about any of Shakespeare’s works. I might still be able to recite an introductory line or two from a sonnet, and perhaps a line or two from a play. But if I ever knew more, it is gone now. My understandings change each and every time I read one of his plays or sonnets, however. I believe this is the way it is supposed to work, as my new learnings or understanding arising from each reading are formed by what I have learned about myself since the last time I read the work. My life experiences continue to influence who I am, what I believe and what I learn. I haven’t memorized who I am.

Nor have I memorized what I believe about beauty, truth or love. During the course of my life, I have come to know each of those elements with varying degrees of discovery, frequency and intimacy. Each is held in my mind and my heart, ever changing, ever fluid, ever impressionable. Each is redefined and rediscovered with every interaction with another human being.

“What we know is what we memorized” would be a terrible condition if that is all we were. Thank God we are so much more.


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