Asking for It
This semester, two of my classes are lit classes: a senior-level class for English and creative writing majors on contemporary nonfiction prose, and general education class on women's literature.
The majors are reading nine books, and the gen ed students are reading seven. So that I don't DIE under the reading load, I've assigned two of the same books in each class.
One is Through the Narrow Gate by Karen Armstrong. I taught it last year and the students very nearly threw their books at me when I told them we were going to read something about a teenage British nun in the 1960s: "Can't we please read something else? Can't you please substitute another book?" But I stood firm.
"We're going to read this book, and that's that. Besides, I really kind of think you'll like it. The first 50 pages are a bit slow, but it gets better. You'll like it. I really think you might like it."
And lo and behold, when they came to class after the weekend, they said things like, "I couldn't put it down. I started reading it in the bathtub and I just stayed in while the water got colder and colder because I couldn't stop reading." Some of them loved it so much they ran out and bought Armstrong's other books, which have titles like A History of God and Buddha.
But this year, many of my students ain't so happy. They can't see why they should be expected to care about the life of a naive, unhappy religious woman who slowly figures out that becoming a nun was kind of a big mistake. In discussion last week, my class of English and writing majors said things like:
"Well, OK, the nuns training her are really mean to her, but she volunteered to become a nun. They told her she'd be signing a blank check and would have to do everything asked of her, no matter how hard it was, so what did she really expect?"
"Well, OK, it would really suck to be told that you can't read literature because it interferes with your spirituality, but she signed up to become a nun, so obviously she loves God more than she loves literature, so you can't really feel that sorry for her."
"Well, OK, it would be really awful to have someone tell you that you've got to eat cheese even though you're allergic to it and it makes you vomit, all because nuns aren't supposed to pay attention to their bodies, but if she doesn't ask to see a doctor, you can't feel like she's really that worried about it. Maybe she's just gotten used to throwing up."
And then, one kid said, "I haven't read very far, but I don't like this book and I don't like HER. I feel like she's asking us to pity her. I'm sick of it."
And another guy said, "Yeah, she does seem to be asking for pity. I guess what I can't decide is how much we should."
"Well," I said, "think about it in a Christian context, since that's the context of the book. Is there a religious ideal that corresponds to pity?"
The guy shook his head.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "Anyone know of something like this?"
"What's the first and great commandment?" I asked.
"Thou shalt have no other gods before me," someone said.
"That's the first of the ten commandments," I said. "I'm talking about something in the new testament, a commandment Jesus gave and called ‘the first and great commandment.'"
No answers. So I wrote "Matthew 22" on the board and recited verses 37 and 38:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
"The second commandment is like unto it," I said. "What is it?" I waited. No response. "Thou shalt..." and I waited again– "love...."
"Thy neighbour as thyself," someone finished up.
"Exactly," I said. "So what would Jesus have us do with this woman?"
"Love her as ourself?" the person offered.
"Yeah. And what would Jesus want us to do when we encounter someone who's suffering?" I asked.
"Suffer with them," a guy who'd spoken earlier said.
"And is there a word with any kind of ethical or spiritual connotations, that means to suffer with someone?" I asked.
"Compassion," he said.
"This book is all about compassion, and what it does to people to live without it. It's not just that the older nuns show the narrator no compassion; it's that it's THEIR JOB not to show her compassion, because they're supposed to break her will. That costs both the people who get no compassion, and the ones who don't show it.
The narrator is indeed asking for our compassion. And I am asking you, as a literary, intellectual and spiritual exercise, to extend it to her."
And I felt I managed to make my point adequately, but it really rather astonished me that I'd have to explain to a group of college students why compassion matters, and that I'd have to ask them to try to find it.
We've entered the second week of discussion in the majors class, and they've accepted my challenge: they're doing their best to care about a pathetic, confused, desperately ill young nun, but it's clear most of them don't find it easy. As for the gen ed class, we started discussion last night. There were a few lapsed Catholics who found the book really compelling, but there was also a trio of students who said, "I can hardly stand this. It's so boring. I just don't care."
So I talked about Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" and how we have to be willing to play the game art asks of us; we have to be willing to enter into an imagined or recreated world and pretend it's all real, right now, and that the situations and scenarios we're reading about MATTER.
I'm lucky that in this class is one of those students who has a face you just LOVE, not because it's aesthetically perfect but because it registers a broad range of emotions and mental states: interest, agreement, concentration, comprehension, consternation, confusion, even amusement from time to time. I always pay close attention to such students, because I know that if they ever stop looking at me and start staring at the ceiling or inspecting their shoes, whatever I'm saying is utterly boring or thoroughly incomprehensible and I better change my tactics FAST.
Anyway, this student sat quietly for a moment, cocked her head and frowned, then raised her hand. "Why do we have to pretend that something like this matters?" she asked. "It just does matter. It just does. It's the story of someone's life and that life is full of suffering. I mean, don't we want other people to care about our lives and our pain?"
I wanted to give her a hug and say THANK YOU, but instead I said, "You've cut to the heart of the matter: how do we learn to care about the suffering of someone who isn't us?" And then I did the whole "love thy neighbour as thyself" and "what does it mean to suffer with someone" thing but it was to an audience containing at least a few people who'd figured out on their own that the concept was important.
Which gave me a little hope for humanity as a whole.