Monday, October 17, 2011

Bad Boy of the Book Discussion

We’ve been discussing Ellen Langor’s Mindfulness over at The High Calling, and my responses to the various chapters have careened from understanding and agreement to puzzlement and disagreement. Last week, I was encouraged and even inspired by what she had to say on aging and mindfulness. This week, I would have thrown the book across the room except I’m reading it on my Kindle.

This chapter is “Creative Uncertainty. “Out of an intuitive experience of the world comes a continuous flow of novel distinctions,” she says. “Purely rational understanding, on the other hand, serves to confirm old mindsets, rigid categories. Artists, who live in the same world as the rest of us, steer clear of these mindsets to make us see things anew.”

Well, I thought, there’s at least three conditional statements stated as facts and packed in one paragraph, with not a shred of evidence offered. I’m generally a right-brain thinker working in a largely left-brain environment, but even I have trouble with those statements as facts. But I continue on.

“By keeping free of mindsets,” Langer says, “even for a moment, we may be open to see clearly and deeply.” I doubt seriously that anyone, left-brain thinker or right-brain thinker, artist or engineer, is capable of being free of mindsets. Even artists. Perhaps especially artists (and I include myself as a writer in the definition of “artist”). “Being free of mindsets” is itself a mindset.

Langer argues for encouraging creativity by teaching “facts” in an unconditional manner. “Facts shouldn’t be taught as unconditional truths,” she says, “when they might be better seen as probability statements that are true in some contexts but not in others.” I read that, and my antennae start twitching. Here we go, I think; it’s all relative, and my truth is my truth and your truth is your truth. And I’m moving beyond uneasiness, because I know where a line of argument like this can lead, especially from the perspective of faith in God. It leads to belief in nothing, including creativity.

She gives an example of how something should be taught as a conditional or probability statement. “Imagine the impact of a divorce on a child initially taught ‘a family is a mother, father and a child’ versus ‘a family could be…’” She says that objections to that approach will spring from faulty comparisons. Perhaps she should consider other studies, in addition to her own, that say something very different.

But I continue reading. As Langer might say, my mindset is working overtime, because now I’m doing close reading, and I begin to find examples of her own statements that she sees as faulty in others.

“After we reach college,” she says, “we encounter teaching done in a conditional manner. We are taught about theories, models, hypotheses, and not just ‘facts.’” I should point out that this statement is presented as an unconditional truth – the very thing she argues against.

Here’s another one: “The dampening of creativity in students by unconditional teaching is compounded by most textbooks. Scientific investigations yield only probability statements and not absolute facts. And yet, these probabilistic data and information that are true only under certain circumstances are presented in textbooks as though there were certain and context-free.” I might add, exactly like they’re being presented in this chapter of Langer’s book.

She cites a few of her own studies as supporting evidence, but even I could pick them apart for the information that wasn’t being considered. She also cites a poem by William Wordsworth, an anecdote about Winston Churchill’s intuition, a photographer’s lecture and a personal anecdote about tuna fish sandwiches.

I’m trying to take this book seriously; I really am. I’ve second-guessed my own particular mindsets to see if I’m completely misinterpreting what I’m reading. I even sent an email to the book discussion leader, suggesting I not link my post because it might derail the discussion. (She told me to plunge ahead.)

Yes, I think I’ve become the bad boy of the book discussion group.

Laura Boggess is leading the discussion of Mindfulness at The High Calling. To see others’ responses to this chapter, please visit the site


Laura said...

Well...I just love a rebel.

These are all very good points, Glynn. What disturbs me most about these inconsistencies you point out is that a person less attuned to valid research studies may take these teachings as unconditional. Me? I'm trying them on, finding some to work for me and letting others drift away.

I appreciate your insights and value your "bad-boy" perspective :).

Megan Willome said...

The world needs bad boys and girls to challenge us to think critically. Thank you for being one of those people.

Louise Gallagher said...

Gotta luv' a bad boy in a book discussion group. And girl -- they keep minds open to seeing fresh perspectives -- nothing conditional about you Glynn. You're committed to speaking truth -- even when it's difficult.


Karen Kyle Ericson said...

I read the post. I agree with you Glynn. She's missing the "point of reference." We all have a point of reference- for us it's Jesus. For some it's pretending to be open minded. Although condemning those who are not- isn't very open-minded is it? I always love it when artists get critiqued and "defined" by others. The one that hit my radar was about photographers- amateurs look for the perfect shot. Well, no they actually look for a shot to take home as a memory. Something that says, "I was there. And so was my family." Pro's look for the perfect shot, something unique and creative, it's inside us to search out things that "look neat." I don't see the connection between being an artist and viewing the end of families, as good, rational, or creative. I don't think I could read this book without throwing darts at it : ) Moms and Dads (feminine and masculine) play an important role in a child's life. I'm such a bad girl... Just don't want to be so open minded my brain falls out : )

Karen Kyle Ericson said...

I should add though, if she chooses to be open minded, that is her choice. And I would still respect her as a person and love her as I would anyone else. My point of reference also includes divorced parents, photography, art and writing : ) Philosophy is hard to agree on isn't it?

Lisa notes... said...

It's okay to be the bad boy of the discussion group. If we're not honest about what we're thinking, it's worthless to post at all. So I'm very glad you post as devil's advocate. It's very creative. :-)

And it makes me think. Which is possibly one of the main points of the book anyway.

I tend to do like Laura: pull out what it useful for me and let the rest slide.

And I definitely consider writer as artist as well. Nice post!

Karen Kyle Ericson said...

It just dawned on me, that the author of this book is giving us a very clear view into this thought process. As a writer, this would be an excellent tool to use in developing a character.

Ann Kroeker said...

Doggone it...ever since I read this, I've been trying to get that "Bad Boy" song by Miami Sound Machine out of my head.

Wouldn't it be mindless of you to go along with everything the author says unquestioningly?

Thank you for pointing out the weaknesses. It's hard to look for anything redeeming when you're questioning the author in so many other ways.

I just thought about that milk crate episode and decided to tell that story, because I do appreciate people who are willing to risk plucking something from its expected/intended category in order to use it to meet a need in another.

diana said...

Gimme a bad boy any day, as long as he thinks as critically as you do. I also happened to love Ann's post on this chapter (still to read Laura's) - I think they are both well-written, helpful, insightful. Ann went a different direction with the gist of this chapter, a very creative one and one that I appreciate. You chose to critique her critique - a valid and important tack to take, as well. This is what makes a book club interesting - different opinions, good arguments, offered humbly. Thanks for this.

Daniel Donovich said...

Funny, we were kind of discussing this in class today, about how every discipline carves out their little niche and begins to think they have the world figured out. Artists too, sometimes, think they know what's going on because their minds are more open than anyone else's. Usually it's not quite so clear as the examples you gave that their mind is, no, definitely still shut. A good trap to try not to fall into, though; no matter how much truth we have, as Christians, there are vast oceans of facts like water molecules that we do not know.

Cindee Snider Re said...

Glynn, I'm glad you linked. I enjoy your perspective and come away full, challenged.

The Langer quote that resonated for me this week was from dancer Isadora Duncan, "If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it." I can't always explain or defend the words I choose or why I string them together in the way I do, but somehow those tiny fragments punctuated with lens and light speak my soul, and it is enough. least...for today.