So that philosophy is not a massage to a wooden leg

While teaching philosophy as a course in general education (so not to students who are majoring or minoring in philosophy), I have often experienced a situation in which the responsibility for the students who were in front of me conflicted with the responsibility I felt toward my own field of study. If I really bring down to earth the philosophy of Plato, Descartes, or Kierkegaard, somehow it feels that I betray these philosophers, that I diminish them to something that they are not. Even more, it feels as if I betray my field. If, on the contrary, I speak of the same philosophers as I think one ought to speak of them if one were to remain faithful to them, students are completely lost and experience nothing of the beauty of a thinker. So I often say things about philosophers that I would never utter in the company of my peers, because these claims would demonstrate a lack of scholarly accuracy.

So what am I to do, divided so between these two responsibilities?

The answer may be connected with how we understand truth, whether it is always expressed in a statement or whether it is born in the relationship between two human beings.  At times, to be truthful to another human being one needs to avoid “true statements.” Suppose my son were three years old and he would ask me how he got into his mom’s belly. If I told him the truth, I would completely misunderstand the relationship I have with him. And I would destroy his soul. Being loyal to the truth of our relationship, I must tell him a different story. I would do so because I would be focused on him, on the person that is presented to me at a certain moment, and not on an “object,” the “truth about the engendering of children.” I would be focused on his becoming, on his wellness, and on the possibility of giving birth to Truth (Beauty) in our midst.

I think education works the same way. If I am “true” to philosophy, then I lose both philosophy and my students. Being “true” to philosophy, I would actually be true to myself. To an extent, I would worship me while believing I worship philosophy–I would be overwhelmed, completely structured by my idolatrous understanding of ideas. But philosophy in education is always focused on good life–and on the good life of another. It is the good life of the one who is presented before me as someone on the road of his or her perfection.

Plato would agree that “philosophy” can become at times, with a Romanian expression, a massage to a wooden leg. It may be professional, it may look good, but it would do nothing. But genuine philosophy is always directed toward good life–and not my life, but the life of the one who is presented to me as promise.

In fact, being faithful to the needs of others (but the needs of others who are on the way toward their perfection), one is faithful to philo-sophia as well, even if it may not look like it on first sight.

 

P.S. Philosophy: the plane tree in the desert that gives shade so that we can rest and continue our road toward us (see Plato’s Phaedrus).

Does the Liturgy make me holy?

 

Photo Alin Mesaros: http://alinmesaros.com/

Whenever we meet after I return from Liturgy, a good friend of mine asks me, “So, did it make you holy?” Regardless of how many times I heard this question, I never had a good answer for it, so I usually just smile. But really, one may wonder: what’s the point of going to the Holy Liturgy on Sunday morning or on feast days (or any other time there is Liturgy)? What do I get out of it? Believe me, it beats me. I have no clue. Sometimes I am tempted to stay home; some other times I think that I would benefit from grading papers. However, I know that I cannot be me without it. I know that whenever I don’t get to be there on a Sunday morning, I feel I am not home.

May I never go to the Liturgy because I want it to make me holy. Or “because” of any reason whatsoever.

A blessed Sunday to all!

Teachers, students, and their interdependence

Let me tell you a true story. A long time ago, when I was in high school, I really loved French. For some reason that I do not fully understand today, one of my favorite authors was Honoré de Balzac. One day during my sophomore year, our regular French teacher, a young lady with whom all of us boys were in love, had to miss class. She was replaced by another teacher from our school, professor Cornea. He was probably in his late 50s, and he had the reputation of a tough one. He came to class, threw the large register with our grades on his desk, and told all of us with what I then considered to be a despising attitude to get our notebooks and do some exercises from the textbook. He acted as if we were not worthy of his attention, as if we were all some rascals who, being in mathematics and physics (there are majors in high school in Romania), don’t understand the high value of French literature and language. He did not talk to us once during class, and he left in the same manner. A dead teacher, as I thought at that moment.

A couple of years after this episode, when I was about to become a senior, my mom thought I should take private lessons with a tutor in French. My love for the French language and culture had remained the same, and my dream was to go study in Paris (and perhaps meet Emil Cioran). My mom told me that she would speak with Professor Cornea, the one who was a sub a couple of years before. I implored my mom to not send me to him, telling her that he was a bad teacher, but my mom knew that he was the best teacher in town. “You’ll go to him because I know what a good teacher means.” And, where I am from (both temporally and geographically), if your mom tells you to do something, regardless of whether you want it or not, you do it. So I went. To my surprise, professor Cornea was completely different. He worked with us (there were two other students in my group) relentlessly and beyond the hour per week for which he was paid. Seeing my love for literature, he talked to me about books. He gave me Gabriel Liiceanu’s The Paltinis Diary, which strengthened my resolve to study philosophy. And he became not only my mentor, but also my friend. One day, I gave him something I wrote, some sort of “philosophical diary,” and he called me the next morning at 7:00 am to just tell me that he enjoyed it and that we need to talk. A phone call like that can make the year, not only the day, of a student in high school.

From time to time I wondered why there was this difference between the professor I met at school and the one at home, during private tutoring sessions. I did not have an answer before I started teaching myself. I then realized that if the professor who came in my classroom when I was a sophomore was dead, if there was no life in him as a professor, it was because I had murdered him. I and others like me, who may have perceived him as their enemy and may have had a complete lack of interest in their education. After years and years of encountering students who did not seem to care, professor Cornea may have become cynical. Slowly, the energy and life with which he probably began his teaching career faded away. At home, in the private sessions, he knew that I was there because I wanted to be there, because I cared, and my presupposed love for what I was to become nourished him and gave him the power to offer his best.We often forget that education is an encounter between two individuals who love a third: the student as he or she will be after the educational encounter. And in the absence of this care, which paradoxically nourishes both student and teacher, each one of them fades away and becomes in time the “murderer” of the other. If my experience with professor Cornea had remained the one I had that day at school, I may have completely missed encountering a person. And if it had repeated itself, he may have destroyed in me the love I had for French, in the same way in which we, students, may have destroyed in him the hope that his education was meaningful. When the love for the outcome of any educational encounter is absent, when the love for the new person about to be born in spirit is absent, students and teachers become people who extinguish the being of the other. Professor Cornea, who is no longer among us but who is always alive in my heart, taught me about the vulnerability we all have in the absence of care; he also taught me that the well being of each of us depends on the other, and that if I have a “bad student” or a “bad teacher” I need to first ask myself about the responsibility I have for it.

Professor Cornea often invited me for walks in the Fagaras country side, where we spent time discussing French literature and Romanian philosophy.

 

Fasting and a story from communist prisons

A few days ago, the Eastern Orthodox Christians began the Nativity fast, the 40 day-period of renewal prior to the Nativity of Christ (or Christmas). I often have friends who asked me what fasting means. Before I can even attempt an answer, some tell me that it shows a faulty theology because it implies a God who would require you to punish yourself. Others agree that it must be quite a healthy endeavor (from a strictly culinary perspective, one becomes practically a vegan during the fast), but why would anyone pay for one’s sins with fasting?

Of course, fasting does not have much to do with any of these views. To attempt to explain it, I will tell you a true story. Aspazia Otel Petrescu, who spent 14 years in communist prisons, narrates in her With Christ in Prison how one of the torturers beat her with a wide and long belt. “He’d lift it up in the air and would hit me with all his might.” She could not scream and she could not cry. “That’s how I am,” she continues the story. “This made the beaters even angrier though, because they thought I was defiant. I felt the pain, all right, but the pain silenced me. One time, this horrible beater bent down to see how I was doing and he saw my face grimacing with pain, and his face lit up. Just seeing the satisfaction on his face made me hate him. That was the only time in my life when I felt hatred. I actually got scared of that feeling, I realized that hatred is destructive, so I fasted for 40 days and ate only in the evenings to forgive him.”

Beyond the gruesomeness of the communist prisons, this story tells us, I think, one significance of the fast. Mrs. Aspazia Otel Petrescu did not fast to be forgiven, but rather to forgive. She did not fast to obtain something in exchange, but rather to be able to repair the brokenness that she was experiencing in herself (and so in the world) because of lack of forgiveness. She was fasting in order to make herself able to recover beauty and to accept the one whom she cut from her presence, the torturer, back into her world. In some sense, fasting helps us depart from ourselves (kenosis) and, becoming lighter, we would find again the strength to live for the other, any other.

Fasting has sacramental tonalities, I think: it renders this earthly world back to the Kingdom so that Christ can be born in it.

Identity stories

FullSizeRender (33).jpg

 

Story number 1: a few years ago, in an American town in Indiana, I used to play soccer in a semi-competitive adult league. One of my teammates was Mexican, and we got along quite well. One day, he told me that I should join him and his friends for their scrimmages; apparently, they were getting together once a week for two hours of friendly soccer. Of course I said yes. They were all Mexicans, so they used Spanish during the game. They accepted me without questions at the beginning and addressed me in English if necessary, although I could understand what was needed. After one hour or so, we took a break, and some of the players asked my friend in Spanish, “who is the Gringo?” My friend answered, “Oh, he’s no gringo. He’s Romanian.” “Ah, bueno, bueno!” End of discussion; we went back to soccer, and I think I received many more passes the second half.

I did not know what gringo meant exactly, so I asked some friends afterwards. The decision of the majority was that “gringo” was a term used to designate white Americans. I looked white, which would include me in the “gringo” category, but I was Romanian, and this excluded me, my friends told me. And the truth is that the moment they found out that “I was not a gringo,” they truly accepted me as one of theirs: I was a foreigner, just as they were, a foreigner coming from Europe (and, by consequence, having “football” in his blood), so I couldn’t possibly be a “gringo” even if I looked like one.

Story number 2: another Midwest American town, in an ethnic grocery store. A Middle-Eastern woman comes in the store and speaks with the owner in Arabic. I go in line to pay, and I smile when our eyes meet. She is quite full of life and greets me. I greet her back, and she immediately asks me a question, clearly expecting another answer than the one I had, “Where are you from?” “Originally from Romania,” I answer. A little disappointed, the lady says, “Oh, I thought you were one of ours.” On that day, my exterior appearance did not say “gringo” about me. I had not shaved for a few days, and my beard always seems to be in the habit of growing fast.

I answered with the first words that came to my mouth, “What do you mean? I am one of yours!” The lady started to laugh–she saw, I believe, that, to an extent, I was one of theirs: I was a human, just like her. We continued talking until we paid for our purchases.

*

I heard that nowadays people use the internet whenever they are not certain regarding the meaning of a term. So I looked up “gringo” as well. The online dictionary (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gringo?s=t) gives a very interesting account: from Mexican Spanish gringo, contemptuous word for “foreigner,” from Spanish gringo “foreign, unintelligible talk, gibberish,” perhaps ultimately from griego “Greek.” The “Diccionario Castellano” (1787) says gringo was used in Malaga for “anyone who spoke Spanish badly,” and in Madrid for “the Irish.”

There is something quite spectacular about “Greek” being the origin of gringo: the Greeks themselves had a word for those who could not speak their language: “barbaros.” Poor witnesses for people are the eyes and ears of those who have barbarous souls, Heraclitus says, arguably meaning that these souls cannot speak Greek. But let Heraclitus be.

Sometimes there is a very thin line between being a “gringo” or not, between being a barbaros or not: possessing the language of soccer, a different citizenship, or a beard which was not shaved for a few days.

 

 

Fixing other people’s problems

I think I have had my share of trying to fix others and also to avoid the fixing of others. It’s very easy to see why the latter kind of fixing is bad: I hate it. I don’t know about you, but I feel some kind of repulsion whenever someone, with obvious good intentions, wants to show me what I should do, what would really take care of all of my problems. But the other kind of fixing is much more interesting, so let me say a few words about my good intentions. I always seem to know exactly what needs to be done in certain situations. Mind you, I sometimes want to fix the world, and you must believe me that I really have the perfect solutions; it’s just that somehow nobody asks me about them. When elections take place in my home country, the amount of energy that I seem capable of emitting increases quite a bit, and, although I have not tried it yet, I truly believe that the temperature of my boiling blood may be sufficient for warming a cup of tea–an ingredient that may be most helpful in such moments. If time travel were possible, I think I might just go back to the beginning of communism in Romania to fix this problem too. In case you have not realized it already, I should mention that I have no doubt that my presence would be sufficient to stop the spread of Stalinism. And if a ring of power were to be given to me, I would probably just take it and forget the wonderful scene from The Lord of the Rings where Gandalf says, “I would use this ring from a desire to do good, but through me it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.”



Of course, it is all madness, and there is no ring that saves me from it, from believing that my life is so important to anyone that I encounter that, if they do not follow my advice, the world would just turn upside down. What saves me–what continues to save me every day–comes from the army of people who try to fix me. From presidents to journalists, from teachers to students, from relatives to strangers, from advertisers to sellers, everyone seems to be in the business to save me, to fix my problems (and, I’m sure, your problems too). And some of them truly try to help, just as I try to help others. The funny thing is that they do help, but not in the way they think they do: they help by reminding me how impossible I can be for others. It is perhaps a taking care of each other even against our direct intention, somehow provided for us.

Thank you, then, for trying to fix me, whoever you are!



A story about soccer, forgiveness, and responsibility




Some years ago, I coached a varsity soccer team. We actually got to the final, and on that last day everyone showed up to the field. All of the guys were quite pumped up and ready to play. I was excited too. And I wanted to win. I had 22 players on that team. Only 16 played that day.

A couple of years after this event, I went, as usual, to one of my son’s soccer games. He was 8 years old or so. On that particular day, the coach did not play him at all, and when we got into the car my son started to cry.

It was at that moment that I immediately remembered the morning in Virginia when, instead of paying attention to the souls of those young players who had perhaps one chance in their high school soccer career to play a final (the team was not particularly talented), I wanted to win; I needed that win and I thought I was doing something good.

I turned to my son who was still crying in the car, and I said to him, “Forgive me, your coach did not play you today because of me.” And I told him the story.

Divine justice? No. Did I deserve to suffer through my son? No. Did my son deserve to suffer? No.

Then why did I need to ask for forgiveness?

Perhaps because I contributed to a world in which ugliness was possible. Perhaps because there were times when, instead of acting like a shepherd, I occasioned, voluntarily or involuntarily, suffering and ugliness in it. I participated in and contributed to the world’s ugliness.

On that day, I realized I needed to ask for forgiveness because I perceived the similarity of the situations. But even if I had not harmed those kids by not playing them, I should have still told my son, “forgive me, the coach did not play you because of me.” As I should  say to anyone who suffers, regardless of whether his or her suffering is in direct connection with me: forgive me, I am somehow contributing to it.

After I told him the story, my son asked me among tears: “Why did you have to not play those kids?”

I can offer no answers…

Do we deserve love? Some thoughts from Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers

Photo by Alin Mesaros Photography http://alinmesaros.com/

At the beginning of Book 6 of Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers, where Father Zosima’s younger brother is on the verge of dying, he all of a sudden has a change of heart and begins to love everyone around him. “My dear kind friends […], what have I done to deserve your love, why should you love someone like me, and how is it I didn’t recognize, didn’t appreciate that love before?” (page 360 in the Oxford World’ s Classics edition).

Many times we say that we love people because of something. We think that the movie scenes in which a man tells his lover why he loves her are so romantic, and we may even desire to hear similar things. Here is actually my favorite scene 🙂


Yet, the question in The Karamazov Brothers is completely different: why do I deserve to be loved? What makes me so that other people love me? Dostoevsky suggests that there are no reasons whatsoever for which someone would love us. And there are no reasons because we do not deserve this love.

You may say that this sounds really bad: if we say that we do not deserve love, we would imply that we are nothing, that we are nobodies. But perhaps this is the answer. I am a nobody, but a mighty nobody. I am a nobody, but I receive love, and this is quite impressive. Dostoevsky sees that love is a gift that we receive from other people, and gifts are not deserved, but rather freely given. I may get a paycheck because I did something and I deserve it; I may get a penalty in football (soccer, I mean) because I injured someone, and I deserve the penalty. But I do not deserve love; love is always a gift.

I would think that, if we moved love from the category of deserved things to the category of things freely given, life would become a little more beautiful. We would then realize that we are surrounded by gifts. In Fr. Zosima’s case, he always acknowledges that the love he receives comes from above. He has been embraced always (the force is strong with this one), regardless of what he has done in his youth and regardless of what he does every day. Mary of Egypt (can one think of Fr. Zosima without thinking of Mary of Egypt?) begins to cry when she is before the gates of the church, unable to go in and beholding the image of the Mother of God, because she  acknowledges the embrace that she already experiences even if she does not deserve it. She has done nothing for it; she has not yet spent her life in the desert, but she is already embraced.

But Dostoevsky does not show only vertical love, from the Divine. He also gives her the horizontal level: Alyosha Karamazov is someone who always embraces other people regardless of whether they deserve it or not. Embracing them, he gives them gifts without asking for anything in return. This may be the secret of life for Dostoevsky. In giving love as a gift, we are working toward the beauty of the creation; we remake the beauty of the world; we work in synergy with the divinity. In Alyosha’s world, everything is beautiful because he loves everyone without expecting anything in return. He loves by giving. He is already a gift to the others, so Fr. Zosima sends him in the world to take care of his brothers because they need love as a gift. Both Mitya and Ivan experience emptiness–they are in the danger of believing that they cannot receive any love because they do not deserve it. When you acknowledge that you do not deserve any love, you are in a great danger because you may believe that you will no longer get it. So you need someone, an Alyosha, to remind you that you belong already to the beauty of this life and that the beauty of this life cannot be accomplished without you. In this sense, we are nobodies, but we are mighty nobodies We are nobodies, but we are mighty nobodies because we receive love from everywhere around us.

The Church and the "Problem of the Third"




A friend of mine told me once that “the Orthodox Church does not have an answer to the problem of the third.” I think he was coming from a Levinasian perspective: how we can pass from the relationship with the other to the relationship with the third, so from the ethical to the political. However, the problem was more concrete: the Church asks you to love your enemy, your persecutor; the answer of communist prisons is found precisely here, in the responsibility that the persecuted experiences for the soul of the persecutor. However, the Church has nothing to say, my friend used to tell me, to the one who could not care less about it, to the one who does not persecute the faithful but does not feel part of them either.

Another friend of mine told me once that each human being is a church under reconstruction. There is beauty in each one of these churches, but when you visit them (so when you enter in communication with other people), you are so overwhelmed by the construction, by the work of restoration, that you no longer grasp the beauty hidden under this work. 

Perhaps the beauty hidden in each of these churches, waiting to be restored, is Christ, and Christ crucified, as Paul says. Anytime the institutional Church has nothing to say to the third, so to the one who finds no connection with it, anytime it does not weep for the absence of communication with this third, the Church may need to ask itself whether it has forgotten the real Third, Christ crucified in all and each of these small churches in restoration. For the Church is the Body of Christ crucified for all these other bodies.

Any time I have the problem of the third, not being able to love the one for whom my life is an enigma and to rejoice in his life, I am not in the Church.