Anything

I am exceedingly over-educated, well-read to an absurd extreme.

I am also too self-aware, introspective to the point of near paralysis.

And my fortune of privilege and leisure leaves me too much time to think about everything.

Broken, I lie here writing after having been handed an entirely new life not of my choosing, an accident in the first week of my holiday break probably redirecting a significant part of my life as a recreational cyclist.

That first week of recovery was consumed by pain and immobility, but I was not able to relax and read, although I thought that would be one positive to the situation.

This week, however, as most everyone has now returned to work, I find myself entirely alone. I resumed reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, a 2006 novel focusing on Nigeria during the 1960s.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun

Reading this essentially political novel in 2016-2017 has been chillingly prescient about the current U.S., and while I balk at the use of the term “universal” since it tends to be a veneer for normalizing privilege, Adichie’s narrative often exposes the enduring.

In Part Two: The Late Sixties, the section opens as the novel does with Ugwu, an Opi village boy who is a servant for a Nsukka University professor, Odenigbo.

Several years have passed in the story, and Ugwu is temporarily back in his village:

His visit home suddenly seemed much longer than a week, perhaps because of the endless grassy churning in his stomach from eating only fruits and nuts. His mother’s food was unpalatable. The vegetables were overcooked, the cornmeal was too lumpy, the soup was too watery, and the yam slices coarse from being boiled without a dollop of butter. He could not wait to get back to Nsukka and finally eat a real meal. (p. 151)

This is a powerful scene in the context of the first paragraphs of the novel as Ugwa walks to Odenigbo’s house to become his houseboy. Ugwa’s aunt tells the boy, “‘You will eat meat every day'”:

Ugwu did not believe that anybody, not even this master he was going to live with, ate meat every day. He did not disagree with his aunty, though, because he was too choked with expectation, too busy imagining his new life away from the village. (p. 3)

So as I was reading Adichie’s dramatization of politics, privilege, and what is and becomes normal for anyone, I was reminded of Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Meursault’s thoughts from prison:

Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner….At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties, and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything. (p. 77)

Much of my undergraduate time spent as a student-by-choice focused on existential philosophy and literature, leading eventually to my discovering and embracing the educational writing of Maxine Greene.

So as I recover in the weeks leading to my 56th birthday—a new year, a new age, and this new existence forced onto me—I am deeply moved by “you could get used to anything.”

Anything?

What an ugly thing to be human and having the capacity to get used to anything.

But there was a time in the U.S. when slavery was perfectly normal. There was a time in the world when the Holocaust was perfectly normal.

Because normal, like history, is the province of those with power, a way to render some Others “deliberately silenced,…preferably unheard.”

And today the U.S. is eagerly normalizing a person and ideologies that would have seemed illegitimate just months ago.

As happened to Ugwu, will we in a few short years have our tastes so dramatically transformed that this bitter dish being served to us now will become what sates our hunger?

Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist is a brief parable about the “art of fasting”—in which the artist becomes so transformed that he fasts himself to death, explaining:

“Because I have to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food that tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was still the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast.

A gift of Kafka comes in the final paragraph when he offers the briefest of parables within a parable:

“All right, tidy this up now,” said the supervisor. And they buried the hunger artist along with the straw. But in his cage they put a young panther. Even for a person with the dullest mind it was clearly refreshing to see this wild animal prowling around in this cage, which had been dreary for such a long time. It lacked nothing. Without having to think much about it, the guards brought the animal food whose taste it enjoyed. It never seemed once to miss its freedom. This noble body, equipped with everything necessary, almost to the point of bursting, even appeared to carry freedom around with it. That seemed to be located somewhere or other in its teeth, and its joy in living came with such strong passion from its throat that it was not easy for spectators to keep watching. But they controlled themselves, kept pressing around the cage, and had no desire at all to move on.

Like Ugwu,Meursault, the hunger artist—the panther “get[s] used to anything.”

Kurt Vonnegut’s Introduction to Mother Night, a work confronting a Nazi reality now again before humanity, begins:

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. (p. v)

I am exceedingly over-educated, well-read to an absurd extreme.

I am also too self-aware, introspective to the point of near paralysis.

And my fortune of privilege and leisure leaves me too much time to think about everything.

I am afraid of who I have become, who I pretend to be, and if I too can “get used to anything.”

And I am near to terrified of the same for the world around me.

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5 thoughts on “Anything

  1. “You can get used to anything”

    This isn’t a new concept.

    For instance, “it’s all relative” means that everything is quantifiable in terms of individual perception or opinion, and our individual perceptions are formed by the local environment we grow up in more than the global, whole, environment.

    That perception growing up forms our adult opinions.

    “It’s all relative” explains how a child grows up in a racist home environment, hating everything that isn’t like them family, and ends up as a racist too.

    It explains why male children who grow up with a father who physically abuses the mother and other females in the family, and often ends up being abusive of women as an adult too, and why many female children who grow up being abused by their father/brothers/uncles/cousins accepts this painful world as their norm.

    It also explains why I was born into a family living in poverty in the mid 20th century and grew up thinking living in poverty was my norm; it was okay. It didn’t bother me that I didn’t have the same privileged life of some of my middle class school friends. My life was my norm and I pretty much ignored their lifestyles. I just accepted them for who they were and didn’t yearn for what they had that I didn’t have. As a child, it didn’t even occur to me to think about the difference.

    Even today, firmly (well, at least for the moment because we have no idea what Trump and the obviously very corrupt in ever way Republican Party are going to do to our world in the next few years) entrenched in the middle class, I don’t look back on my childhood living in poverty as suffering. It was my norm. I don’t blame my parents for not being model parents. I don’t blame my older brother for all his faults either; he was an alcoholic, a chain smoker, into drugs, spent 15 years of his 64 in prison, etc. I don’t blame my dad for being an alcoholic, a gambler, and a husband who cheated on my mother repeatedly through 2/3rds of their 54-year marriage even with my mother’s best friend who was my Catholic godmother.

    Why, that was my normal, but it also ended up guiding who I became; I avoided becoming my father and brother. I also avoided becoming my mother who was obsessed with God, the Bible, and guilt. To her, everything that happened to her was her fault, because she was abused by her father when she was a teenager.

    But that doesn’t mean we can’t change who we are if we are aware of the flaws we have that we don’t like. We can change if we want to, really want to. Saying it means nothing. Making the changes happen is everything.

  2. Your writing means so much to me. This idea of getting used to everything is front and center for me now. Over the holidays I heard so many conversations about “school these days”, including many about the homework for and testing of kindergartens. The tone was always one of resignation, and even justification. Only a few years ago people were appalled. At my high school all grade books must be done on line, starting next year. The grade book is connected to Turnitin.com that will grade our papers for us. Are people up in arms? No. They are getting used to it, as they reach for their phones to tell them what time it is and what they are supposed to be caring about. Your blog has been a very important resource for me. You inspired me to teach James Baldwin to my AP classes, among other things. I wish you speedy healing and vibrant health. We desperately need your voice now.

  3. I am sorry to hear that your recreational bike ride ( a healthy, happy habit) has turned your life and health upside down, not only for you but for your fellow riders who you wrote about in your previous post about truth & and false news. I wish you a speedy and smooth recovery. Meanwhile, it is folks like yourself and your readers who will help each other through these coming years. Let us find strength together. Your blog is one means of doing so. Thank you for your awareness, introspection and references to the writing of those who came before us.

  4. Pingback: Paul Thomas: Can We Get Used to “Anything”? | Diane Ravitch's blog

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