The Trouble with Comparisons

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But patient! All will yet be well; for I assure you, my dear friend, you were right: since I have been obliged to associate continually with other people, and observe what they do, and how they employ themselves, I have become far better satisfied with myself. For we are so constituted by nature, that we are ever prone to compare ourselves with others; and our happiness or misery depends very much on the objects and persons around us. On this account, nothing is more dangerous than solitude: there our imagination, always disposed to rise, taking a new flight on the wings of fancy, pictures to us a chain of beings of whom we seem the most inferior. All things appear greater than they really are, and all seem superior to us. This operation of the mind is quite natural: we so continually feel our own imperfections, and fancy we perceive in others the qualities we do not possess, attributing to them also all (those talents) that we enjoy ourselves, that by this process we form the idea of a perfect, happy man, — a man, however, who only exists in our own imagination.

If you can get past the somewhat formalized language, you might recognize the sentiments of the 24-year-old writer’s fictional character Werther. The quotation comes from The Sorrows of Young Werther by the German writer, poet, philosopher, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; first published in 1774.

Almost 240 years later, we still make the very human mistake the sensitive and high-strung Werther described: overestimating others’ abilities and happiness, while underestimating our own. We compare our insides to their outsides — the way they look and sound — and feel the worse for it. And now that those others can photoshop their lives, our self-image really doesn’t stand much of a chance. But, Werther (and Goethe) have a solution: not isolation, which tends to make things feel worse, but getting back into the game of life and achieving satisfaction by expending our best efforts in some productive direction; thus demonstrating to ourselves that we are usually wrong in thinking everyone else is actually better than we are.

For all the technological differences between 1774 and 2013, what is important in life is pretty much the same: love, work, and friendship. Good luck, good health, and a few dollars don’t hurt either. Surrounded as we are by things Werther couldn’t have imagined — cars and iPhones, air conditioning and indoor plumbing — we risk thinking that all of that makes our lives fundamentally different from the predecessors we compare ourselves to; that somehow, Werther and Goethe wouldn’t understand our superior way of living.

But, just maybe, the truth is otherwise. The quotation suggests that human nature really hasn’t changed and that we easily get caught up in the flash and dash of contemporary life, while the pursuit of happiness is just the same as ever. The Ancient Greeks and Romans knew just as much about heartbreak and success as we do. All the new fashions and new gadgets are like trees in front of us, blocking us from seeing that the forest has not changed a bit.

As the French like to say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

The top image is Fernand Leger’s 1921 Le Petit Dejeuner. The italics in the above quote are mine.

Honoring Teachers: Speech to the Mather High School Class of 2010 on Behalf of the Zeolite Scholarship Fund

If you’ve ever traveled to the Near North Side of Chicago, you might have seen a peculiar street sign. The street name is spelled G-O-E-T-H-E. And most people in call it “Go-thee.”

But if you’ve taken a little bit of German here at Mather, you know something that most Chicagoans don’t know. The correct pronunciation is “Gu(r)-tuh.” (The “r” is not pronounced).

But you still might not know who that is.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a writer, poet, philosopher, and scientist who was hugely famous by the time he died in 1832.

And here we are, and we can’t even say his name right.

I mention this, because we are here to honor some other people whose names you are even less likely to know, even if most of them might be a little bit easier to say. Just as Goethe was significant to cultured Germans of his time and after, these people were and are extraordinarily important to us.

They were our teachers here at Mather back in the 1960s. This year, we have decided to honor all of those teachers who made a difference in our lives — all those good men and women whose cleverness, dedication, and caring helped us along the way to becoming, we hope, educated people with the tools to make something of our lives.

It is fair to say that we would not be here today, able and willing to give scholarships to you, but for their influence.

And now my friend Barbara Orloff Litt will read you a short list of wonderful people who continue to live inside of us over 45 years since we last had regular contact with them. You will find no Chicago streets named after them, but they mean the world to us.

Thanks to all of them and thanks to you for listening to their names.

(The teachers so honored included Burl Covan, George Bayer, Abraham Fink, Jo Ann Rosow Greenblatt, Bob Kapolnek, Ralph Lewis, Patricia Daley Martino, Peter Miscinski, Kay Mulvey, William Paulick, Thomas Radzicki, Hy Speck, Nicholas Tasto, Rachel Topp, Eleanor Wollens, and Dawn McKee Wyman).


What It Means To Be a Man: Reflections on the Ides of March

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We hear the expression frequently—“Be a man!” Usually when we are small and usually directed to males. In the context of an admonishment, it typically means to “be tough,” show little emotion, be stoic, have courage, avoid whining.

But, when you are a little older and more thoughtful you might come up with a different definition. The German word “Mensch” (“man” or “human being”) provides us with a starting point.

You will recall that Friedrich Nietsche gave us the idea of an “Übermensch” or “superman.” Not someone who “leaps tall buildings in a single bound,” but a superior creature to whom a new set of life rules applies. Indeed, the Übermensch creates a set of values, discarding those that belong to a world that he rejects and a god that he thinks to be dead.

Goethe, the great German poet, scientist, and philosopher of an earlier time, had something quite different to say about man in his poem The Divine:

Let man be noble,
merciful and good;
For that alone
Distinguishes him
From all the living
Beings we know…

In Yiddish, a language that has German roots, to be a “mensch” means to be decent, forthright, strong, honorable, and dependable. Someone to be leaned on and counted on. A person of principle, with both a good heart and a good head. A fellow to be reckoned with; a companionable individual of integrity, unafraid of self-assertion.

But there is a different version of “being a man” in the popular culture. In my mind, it is associated with the likes of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, as portrayed in the numerous “Western” movie roles they took on; on the political front, George W. Bush probably is a rough equivalent.

This “man’s man” is a tough, intimidating, austere, cocky, unrepentant, decisive, and unflinching he-man who never complains or cries out in pain. A guy like this doesn’t look back. He is the opposite of the “Alan Alda,” version of what it means to be a man, which emphasizes a kind, empathic, more sensitive side of human possibility.

The popular vision of a man is someone who is more into solving problems than dealing with feelings, someone who is “logical,” someone more in touch with his head than his heart. When a woman opens herself to him with an injury, he is prone to offering a solution or trying to “fix” things rather than patiently listening and holding her hand.

This rock-solid, heroic figure is the strong-silent type, uncomfortable with public (and sometimes event private) emotion, and a person of few words; certainly not one given to eloquent speech. He is much more inclined toward action than talk. The “John Wayne” version of a man is well described in the closing lines of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

In any discussion of manhood, one must also inevitably give a nod to “manhood” as it is understood in every day speech; that is, male sexuality. It takes a few forms.

One is simply the ability to be commanding and sexually appealing, to be an experienced and confident lover. Another is the capacity to perform sexually. The problem that follows from this, of course, has to do with the pressure to perform, the anticipated evaluation of that performance, and sometimes the failure to perform.

In old age, both the capacity and interest in such activity have been known to fall away, leaving it to the man and any companion or spouse to determine whether manhood should still be subject to judgment about anything to do with sex. Medicine is perhaps making such considerations irrelevant with the easy availability of Viagra, Cialis, and the like.

On the other hand, a failure of potency, that is, the ability to perform sexually coupled with an inability to foster children, remains a problem in the minds of most such men and one that still lacks a scientific work-around other than adoption or artificial insemination of the man’s wife by someone else, a solution that most males find decidedly abhorrent.

Finally, if you’d like a more Shakespearean commentary on the subject of being a man,  you must read Julius Caesar. Those of you who know the play are aware that Caesar is not the main character, even if he is the title character.

Rather, the story is about Brutus, Caesar’s friend and admirer, who is persuaded to believe that Caesar has become a tyrant and will visit evils upon the Roman people. Others among the conspirators have their own axes to grind against Caesar and seek personal gain by his overthrow. But Brutus agrees to the plot despite the fact that it is against his nature, only because he concludes that the assassination of Caesar is in the best interests of his fellow countrymen, in order to free the Republic from Caesar’s control.

As so often occurs in classical tragedy, the conflict between one’s public obligations and private loyalties is the undoing of the hero, in this case Brutus. And so, the famous murder happens in the Roman Senate on March 15th, 44 BC, 2054 years ago this week, after Caesar ignores the warning “Beware the Ides of March!” There is a fantastic movie rendition of the play starring James Mason as Brutus and a young Marlon Brandon as Marc Anthony, Caesar’s ally.

After Caesar’s death, Anthony is targeted for death by Brutus’s fellow conspirators, but Brutus stops them, allowing Anthony to speak to the people and eulogize the fallen Caesar, only to rally the Romans against the conspirators and ultimately, to defeat them in the ensuing civil war. It is Brutus’s essential humanity, decency, and sense of fairness (all qualities that contribute to “being a man”) that call him to let Anthony speak.

You will recall the words “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…,” so persuasively rendered by Brando in the aforementioned film, that stir the Roman crowd against the conspirators. Had Brutus been less honorable, he would have avoided the risk that Anthony’s words might incite the rabble against them and perhaps even agreed with his co-conspirators to kill Anthony. And, as portrayed by Shakespeare, it is the decision to allow Marc Anthony to live, not the murder of Caesar, that is the proximate cause of Brutus’s downfall.

The play ends with Brutus dead, and Anthony reflecting on who Brutus was and why he was worthy. And, it is Anthony’s words that provide us with a final comment on what Shakespeare has already told us in the play about what it means to be a man.

Please note that the word “gentle,” as used by Shakespeare, means something approximating “true, cultured, and affable:”

This was the noblest Roman of them all:

All the conspirators save only he

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;

He only, in a general honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

The bust of Julius Caesar above is to be found in the Musée Arles Antique. The image was created by Mcleclat and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.