To My Students in a Time of Trouble

Most every month, I have parting words for my students. This month, I felt the need to say a few things early… it is never too early to encourage and guide if one can. The events of the past few days — atop the sheer insanity on all sides since 2001 — disturbs and saddens me in a way I cannot yet contain in the vessel of words. Perhaps I’ll never get it across. Nevertheless, I have hope for my students — my source of hope lies within the promise of my students’ very lives. My day is nearly done, literally and in the most final of ways. That isn’t sad — as I pass, perhaps that will signal that this age, too, is on its way off the stage to be replaced by those hopeful younger people who have the chance to do better and actually uphold beliefs worth living. Perhaps is better than “no.” In any case, for what it’s worth:

20 November 2015

As I am in a writing mood, I will say what I usually withhold until the end of the semester; perhaps you need to hear it now as this is the most difficult period in any class.

At this point, you are tired. Perhaps you are more than ready to “get on with it” and get past this experience – each month may seem like this by third week. But I encourage you to slow down a bit and take in what you are being shown – your life is time and how you choose to spend it. That makes you, you. Your life, and therefore the “you” that you are building, can be sloppy or well-established, or haphazard – a little of both.

For many of us, it is a little of both – we pay attention to what we are doing sometimes and not so much at other moments. And that, generally, is fine since we are humans and do nothing perfectly or well the first time; part of living will be, for you, going back to correct or fill in what you missed in the past. Just be certain that you constantly work to improve yourself and examine what you may be lacking.

Becoming conscious of your context – the wider world of the present and the past that makes the world you live within, that limits and provides the choices you may make – is one of the greatest gifts a college education can provide. Or, I should say, it gives you the opportunity to begin to learn this. What I am saying here may sound a bit mysterious because it is abstract. Let me be more concrete.

Most of us are fortunate if we know our family of origin back to our great-grandparents and something of their lives; a few may have some vague notion of a couple of generations previous to them. Very few of us know any detail of their circumstances, their world, and why they made the choices they did. But be aware – the choices they made, first, got us here, and secondly, played a part in how our lives up to this point turned out. Not all of it, of course, because there are no very young people in this class and where you are now is also due to your own efforts, values, and beliefs.

But some of those beliefs, perhaps most of them, arise from the story you were told about yourself by your surroundings as you grew up. As a philosopher and someone keenly aware of history and the history of ideas, I will reveal to you now that most of what you were told, the story you were given, is a mythology.

Mythologies can be good things – at their best, they are stories that symbolically contain truth. At their absolute worst, they are misinterpretations and, sometimes, lies. These lies may be intentionally invented by our ancestors to cover over some injustice… or they may be “lies” in the sense they were made up to substitute for truths no one cared to exert themselves to look for. They can also contain false theories – that the sun moves around the Earth, for example, or that “races” actually exist – as a misinterpretation of the fact our ancestors developed different skin pigmentation and eye shape by mutations and to deal with abundance or lack of sun.

Or, that one group has an absolute grasp of reality in a way no one on Earth possibly can as we are humans and are limited: some know the existence and mind of Deity so well they are willing to fly jets into skyscrapers and gun down crowds of people assembled to hear rock music; or they want to define entire groups of people as “dangerous” because of whom they love and make that illegal, even punishable by death; or make others, because of their religion carry identification cards so they can be singled out and treated unjustly even if they have never done anything wrong. Some even call for the return of the concentration camps in the name of some mythological thing called “safety” that no human being has ever seen or experienced.

Human life is perilous. Live is an adventure and a risk. It is never safe. It never has been and never will be.

What a human life can become is free from ignorance and the sort of mythology we call “superstitious fanaticism.” We can free ourselves from poor choices by discovering genuine virtues, or standards of excellence; we can become just and treat others as they deserve; we can be merciful and grant exceptions when that would be more beneficial to another and ourselves; we can show courage and stand up for decent things and push ourselves to do what others won’t in the face of adversity or resistance; we can exert self-control when tempted to have none at all and simply do what our emotions prompt us to do.

And far more.

Your college textbooks and classes will be the ground floor, not simply to a career but to the task of living as educated, cultured people who set the example in the community you chose to live within. But they are only the ground floor. The building of culture has higher floors, as many as you wish to climb and explore, in fact, from which to bring back treasures that will enrich your life and give you the materials from which to construct an interesting and high quality self.

The route to the higher floors is exploration on your own.

You must read. You must learn to commune with those people who lived in the past, set good examples in their day, and created the ideas and works of beauty, high quality, and insight that affect you now. And you will have to root out those who created the horrible ideas and misinterpretations so you can do intellectual combat with them as well.

The only way to do this is read. Begin with the classics of the ancient world and work your way forward. Read histories and biographies and autobiographies. Study art and literature. You have no time to waste now as your future – and the world you will leave behind by your contributions or lack thereof – is coming, like it or not. You may learn how to become a good example in the world and do that through your actions… or you may choose not to care.

I have hope for you. I see in this class a group of people, roughly the same generation, all capable of far more than they, themselves, dream at the moment. My generation, the one they called “X,” and especially the much larger one before mine, the “Boom,” are leaving you one hell of a challenge, one mixed up, disarranged world that has almost abandoned everything except violence, prejudice, intolerance, and greed. What you do with this situation, what you transform it into, is your generation’s challenge.

My generation largely dropped out or went silent, lost faith in itself. But some of us took on a mission to learn and transmit the tools for a better tomorrow to the generation behind us (you, that is) by teaching and setting our own small examples.

“Individually, we do not succeed,” said the philosopher, Aristotle, “but together, we do not fail.” Every instructor at this college I am familiar with is here for one major purpose: So that, together, we do not fail, so that you learn to believe in yourselves and do things beyond what you think you can presently, and so that you will have the opportunity, long after I and the others are gone, to become the people you ought and have the quality of world you deserve.

Not a perfect world, but one good enough to live decently within and build a future on. A world that is always a work in progress, yet, hopefully, at least progresses.

Welcome to college, the place where you may gain the skills for a career, and also for living honorably as educated people and citizens of this country… and the world. I truly have faith in you or else I’d not be here. Now, have faith in yourselves and accomplish your destinies. You’re in the right place to begin.

Mr. Ingram

Richard Van Ingram

20 November 2015

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Terrorism: It Only Grows At Night

Civilization — a high level of it — and a refined culture are delicate things: the outcome of scores of decades of labor, argument, creativity, mistakes and reforms, consideration and reconsideration. This delicate constitution makes such things easy to attack by those with barbaric prejudices, from within and from without. The very values that make life a glorious thing in a great civilization are the same values that will allow those hell-bent on violence and dishonor to run amok from time to time, to misuse freedom and pervert it into license in the name of some authoritarian ideology that reduces humans to potential victims in their eyes. Victims whose death will inspire fear and cause the civilization to collapse from within to be picked over like scavenger birds pulling the soft meat from a corpse.

The worst thing a high civilization can do is betray its values at the very moment that, paradoxically and superficially, they seem to make it weak and open to danger. Liberté, égalité, fraternité — ideals and attainments of what we call Enlightenment, of essential importance for France and America and countless other peoples — are activities, verbs, not stable possessions. We only have them to the degree we embody them: and that is their defence; nothing less.

No petty authoritarian functionary you have ever dealt with and no true-believing fool with a gun or bomb can ever destroy these ideals; but we, of that civilization can and tend to every time we decide to lay them down and hide behind “safety.” Safety seems to demand restrictions on liberty, refusal to recognize all humans as human, and most certainly brotherhood must be curtailed to the point that even one’s neighbor is viewed as a potential enemy, a threat.

People: there has never been any safety in this world. You are not getting out of it alive. It is a genuine and dangerous mirage that, itself, leads to authoritarianism and paranoia. That is: destruction of civilization. What killed Rome was not the superficial signs of its decline such as tyrannies and debaucheries. No — it lost faith in itself over time; it lost faith in its own values.

The goal for a human is to live at the height of her times and exert a great effort to live up to difficult virtues and values, personal and civic no matter the challenge, no matter the danger. The delicate is always the perilous. Certainly, we can succumb to the madness of “safety” and wage war for that, support liars and thugs, grab the guns and become barbarians ourselves. That’s easy. But the easy is too often in history the wrong. The evil. It is the sign we have lost faith in the strength of our own ideals.

Feel free to do that. I assume most people will and possibly most who read this are considering the temptation. It will be a strong one seeing the disaster and horrors in the middle of Paris. And more will follow. More will follow long after all of us are gone — history teaches us the barbarians have always been with us, in love with violence and blinded by idiotic beliefs, unwilling to create, devoted to destruction.

But if you succumb to the temptation to “safety” by restricting our true values and spreading hatred and bullets and bombs in all directions — remember, we’ve been doing that nearly 15 years at this point: it’s worked so very well, hasn’t it? — if you choose that path, you become your own enemy. There is certainly no escape from that odd fate once a human being has chosen the easy path. Values and ideals become words, wrapping paper, bumper sticker slogans at that point… but you will never know them through your actions again.

Civilization, once betrayed, tends to move on looking for a better, truer lover.

Remember that today as you choose.

14 November 2015
Richard Van Ingram

‪#‎France‬ ‪#‎Liberté‬ ‪#‎Egalité‬ ‪#‎Fraternité‬ ‪#‎Paris‬

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To Write or Not to Write?

My therapist is a wonderful, wise, and masterful person; she “sees” and understands things from a variety of perspectives — she’s a trained Jungian, but also applies other theories and techniques… very pragmatic, adapting her approach to the needs of the client. In other words, she’s what I need in a therapist: broad background, open-minded, easy to talk to, non-judgmental. She has a long career behind her and can choose among whom she accepts as clients — I was fortunate enough to need the help badly enough and to be an interesting “case,” I suppose.

I’ve been able to discuss, and comfortably so, issues in depth with her that I’ve never explored with anyone else. My “weirdness” she sees as potential riches waiting to be transformed and my complexes as habitual circuits of energy that require re-direction towards projects that do not harm me.

The bipolar disorder — well, I’m saddled with that as a condition of being myself with my history and genetics, but I’m slowly coming to see it as a two-edged sword that grants me a certain level and type of insight others cannot have — being a permanent “outsider” and stranger in a strange land gives one the eyes of an observer and interpreter akin to a visitor on a foreign planet.

Things and activities and practices most people are blind to, because they seem “normal” and are habitually depended upon, stand out to me like neon signs in the desert darkness. Nearly everything, from my perspective, appears very odd, in need of repair or improvement or dismissal as a leftover from some age when the practice made historical sense but now is an unfortunate obstacle to the potential creativity and freedom of the individual and her society.

So this is one of the roots of my own creativity and artistic drive — even my philosophical bent. One of the gifts of the terrible sword.

The curse of it is the mood swings, being unable to ever completely trust my feelings and initial thoughts and beliefs unless I’ve tested them first, quietly. That requires a great deal of energy and time and often makes my responses slower than most — I have to thoroughly sort and refine my interior vision of reality before acting on it or making pronouncements. There is a lack of spontaneity in that — self-imposed — to avoid the impulse to rush in with some nonsense concocted on the spur. The medication assists me to perform this work of self-discipline but alone, gives me no guidance whatsoever.

The depressive swing of that sword-like pendulum has, for most of my life, been severe, horrid, miserable. It is only a degree or two before I am not only a stranger in a strange land but a complete stranger to myself: a stranger that hates me and would rather dissociate itself from this terrible thing called “Richard Van Ingram” with his unbearable autobiography and circumstances.

Already a near-complete introvert, I live out my life as an observer, deep within the silence of my soul with very little to say or add to a social situation unless I am playing a role or am forced to deal with a crowd. Which is beyond exhausting as I will have to think for hours afterwards about what I have witnessed and done to make sense of it so I am not anxious and weighed down. Add to that depression and the struggle to maintain even that much contact with others is enormous so sometimes I almost completely disappear.

Those dives down into the darkest deeps of the ocean of the Impersonal Self, as lacking in oxygen and light as they are, bring up to the surface more material for sober contemplation and creativity in the aftermath. Bizarre how this process works in my life — or how I have made it work. The complexity of it is really beyond the scope of what I should even attempt to say here.

“Real horrorshow,” as our droog once said it.

Sometimes.

Other times, at least in retrospect, the whole thing is hilarious. I can tell the story either way or both mixed together. I suppose anyone can talk about themselves that way. And should.

Back to my therapist — after months of talking weekly, she suddenly stopped and suggested to me I ought to write a novel… the prospect of which, itself, scares me. Even if I heavily fictionalized it, anyone who knows me who read it would be mortified. I began trying to do such a thing several times — got out a first chapter in rough draft after years of trying and realized, even through the thick amber of fiction, the product is still poisonous to behold. At least for anyone who had contact with me. I can’t make up another life entirely — I’m just not that good at writing straight fiction, really. And I do not have enough of the “I don’t give a damn” attitude presently to say anything truthful, even veiled, without worrying about the aftermath — at least nothing that personal.

The doctor recommended I just write and keep it to myself for awhile… which I may do. But I’m unsure for a whole host of reasons.

Why I’m telling any of you this, I’m unsure. Permission? Maybe. Support? Possibly. Confession? Partially. I really don’t know.

I’ll share the chapter I wrote long ago, if you wish to read it — if not, no loss. It rests comfortably forgotten in storage on the internet and I’ve never had a response related to it at all. Anyone angered or upset by it was already angry and upset by the bad memories of me, anyway, and doesn’t read much I write as is.

So, here it is:

“Beneath the Wounded Galaxies”

Richard Van Ingram

1 November 2015

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