On Imperfection. On Greatness Anyway.

“Untitled,” Zdislav Beksinski

Other than being half-crazy or whatever, I happen to be a talented scholar and kick-ass teacher. Not that the broken half begets the competent one. No: what is good draws an ache for goodness from what is broken.

I want nothing to do with the notion that the genius must also be a shattered human being, or that I need an experience of evil to know what is good. Fuck you: you go have nightmares of your own blood and tell yourself you’re learning what is good. When you return all shivering with no new knowledge except how to shake all over, I’ll hug you and call you a goddamn idiot, and we shall move on with other things.

When I walk in front of a classroom or when I open a book, I feel the restless ache for what is good. The broken and the whole in me together resound with a searching orchestral strike into the dark. I begin there, even when I am not sure anything will ever echo back to me. I cannot help it. The call is elicited from my being before I’ve thought or willed anything at all.

Among present students or among absent-presences of scholars, I wait to discover what I will hear. What they will say, and what they will say underneath their words. I listen – carefully, attentively, intensely. For the echo back.

In a classroom, I think my fierce attention is what makes me good. I am not methodologically talented – preferring to teach with maddening inductions and conscientious absurdism – and I am not an especially vicious grader – preferring to scare the crap out of them with lies of my savagery and then marking their papers with delight over the smallest achievements. I get easily distracted by tiny observations, laughing and mocking the details of human experience. But I pay attention, always, to every student – to what they say, how they speak; to their small tics of body language, their twitches of expressions.

Granted, that’s partly hypervigilance acting itself out. But whatever. I do like listening.

I listen without a shape for what I wish to hear, save an echo. No one, no one at all, arrives to me contorted in a series of demanding preconceptions. My students call it my “lack of judgment.” I call it listening. No one can listen while mentally repeating what they expect to hear.

Did I want to know that my student went out clubbing? Not particularly. I hardly know what that means. But I smiled, and learned, and remembered later. Will I ever go to that transvestite bar in San Francisco I should “totally” go to? Probably not, but we laughed about how I wouldn’t. And I believed the men were gorgeous women. And for the student who sat anxious and stuttering in my office: I waited for the jumbled, nervous words to fade, let us sit in silence for a beat, and leaned forward to say, “I want to help you write the best paper you can, because I know you want to, and I am so excited to see what that looks like.”

Suffering has not taught me this peculiar form of listening. It shades and shapes my attention, renders me incredibly adept at detecting pain in others, but it has not taught me the originating disposition. Waiting to hear what might be possible, leaning on the ears of others to teach me what might be possible, watching for what might be possible beneath what is said – this has taught me to listen. It is not quite hope, since Christian hope is confident in its fulfillment, but it is something like faith’s prelude to hope. An anticipation of the sound. Our ears are shaped to welcome sounds, and so in their very shapes they anticipate hearing even if we hear nothing.

There is yet what I cannot understand at all, which my students frequently present to me with effortless, awkward grace. There is what few can understand about me, which I offer to no one except helplessly. I prefer what my students give, the striking mystery of it. The goofy, indissoluble mystery of being themselves. There is something solid and assuring in it, and sometimes I think they detect my deep affection for their own mysteriousness.

The student I am closest to – we are close enough in age that we are all at once master/apprentice, family, comrades-in-arms – is himself a profound mystery to me, solid and assuring, even as we are attuned to one another in experiences we share. It takes no translation for each of us to understand what it means to be unheard and alone, the fierce passio of incommunicability, which perhaps only the Spirit can render communicable – and not to us. To the Father, who listens in perfect silence.

Neither myself nor my brother-in-arms is perfect. We are broken-and-whole. But we have each other’s backs, as he would put it, and I am sure I would find a more boring way to say the same thing.

So I will leave you now with his words, which echo with far more than I could ever say:

Ultimately, as corny and “1980’s breakfast club moment” as it sounds, we love those who cannot appropriately love themselves. I think that is exactly what God did for the world. He loved us, in a way that we could not and would not love ourselves. This is why I do not think God suffers. He came down to restore order in the form of love, to wash away the suffering and the pain. He allowed all of humanity to suffer in a single instance on the cross, and the light shone down on the pathway out of the hurt.


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