My life as a husband and father, an athlete, a professor, and a writer, is the working out of the relationship between thought and action. Indeed, one of the Big Questions that each person must pose for him- or herself, and provide a workable answer to, is that of the relation between these two enterprises, thought and action. The extremes of the possible proportions are well known to us from literature, or experience: Hamlet (at least arguably) thought too much and could not act; the opposite extreme of all action and no thought is a caricature of street thugs, some athletes, and soldiers who go on senseless rampages.
The quiet contemplation of figuring things out, knowing how the world is put together, and considering “what if?” scenarios that run counter to what actually is, is necessary to guarding us against being prisoners of the way things happen to be, because we don’t have the ability to question what is. Yet being too cerebral can make us prisoners of our own internal world, and rob us of the ability to act with our fellow creatures in the world. It’s Descartes’ problem: what’s the relation between body and mind? Though philosophers have offered “mind” solutions to this question—explaining, for example, that the mind is intrinsically embodied and so cannot even be thought apart from body—the only way to arrive at a relationship between reflecting and thinking on one hand and acting on the other that actually touches both, is by living.
My situation as a professor of literature at a military institution is situated at the intersection of these two worlds. My job is to get gung-ho 21-year-olds to stop and reflect before acting: acting is almost too easy for them—that’s why they came to a military institution, many of them, rather than going to a civilian college. The physical side of things is a given for my students; my job is to help them understand the value of getting off the wheel and sitting in the corner of their cage to just think. My challenge as a 56-year old father of young children and daily gym rat is to not retreat into the jaded “burned-out professor” mode typical of someone who has seen decades of young men and women lose the luster of youth from their eyes and enter the far murkier reality of dicey marriages, trying children, and the sacrifices we all make to get along. If I wanted to, I could do nothing but sit in the corner of the cage—in fact, it’s a pleasure to get back on the wheel. Being covered with sweat at least once a day keep my mind in its place. Not to mention that it keeps my fur glossy and eyes, I hope, bright.
Plus it teaches humility: the besetting sin of the pure intellectual is the illusion that the world of one each thinker creates matters a fig to others, or that it’s anything but a thought world. Can it be made real? Should it be? These questions, acknowledging the physical world, remind us that others exist. Intellectuals incline to solipsism, and the fact that the world rarely replicates what they’ve built in their heads causes many of them to despair, or curse the world, or simply implode into sputtering impotence. This is the way intellectuals go bad. There’s a comparable way that people of action go bad. The besetting sin of men and women of action is that they destroy for the sheer pleasure of hearing the “boom,” like children throwing priceless china to hear it go tinkle. It satisfies them—but this is just as great a solipsism as that of the too-intense intellectual: the problem is that it’s bad for the rest of us. Wars are fought and countries ravages just because it’s what some man (most typically) of action felt was right for him. The rest of us pay the price.
At its worst, my home institution, the US Naval Academy, divides schematically into gyms and parade fields on one hand, academic classrooms on the other; the two sides never mesh, and the number of midshipmen who are physical “studs” as well as refined intellects (the true meaning of the much-misused phrase “scholar/athlete”—not here used as it’s usually used, to mean low performing athletic recruits who take classes they have to be dragged through) are, lamentably, few. What’s the purpose of what we do in the classroom? I insist on asking. I don’t ask this in a narrow sense of “how will I use this to earn money” or “how does this help me out-gun my enemy?” that is far too often used nowadays, at institutions where the humanities are falling under the budget axe. For the purpose of the ability to reflect does have real-world payoffs: it makes us able to get out of the prison of the actual. We can conceptualize a different set of circumstances than we have. And so, we can move towards achieving it. It’s eating our seed corn to cut humanities and social sciences (or for that matter science) so everybody can major in business administration.
This living hand-in-glove relationship between thought and action is my life, which means it informs the (I believe abnormally) wide range of my writing. At one end, the side of the world as it is, is situated the political thought of “Why Liberals and Conservatives Clash” or my current consideration of the place of the military in the America of 2010, “Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide.” The most fundamental message in these books is consistent: we have to strive to understand the big picture intellectually so we can see the specific things we do, our course of action, as related to other courses of action. Liberals and conservatives are related to each other, the yin and yang of the political world. The military is the hammer of the civilian hand. Thus bad blood and animosity between alternatives in either case are pointless; all of us play our role in the whole by acting out our own parts. In more general terms yet, we have to be committed to the specific, and committed to the general of which we’re only one instantiation. (The point is fundamental to Hinduism.)
Yet at the other end of the spectrum of my written works—passing through works on dance (which takes place as an athletic activity but is intellectually patterned and formed motion) and pure aesthetics (what makes one object art and another not? what does art do for us and how can we react to it that’s different from reacting to things that are not artworks?)—is the close to plotless fictions of “Twilley” or, slightly more bound to action, the one-man soliloquies of “Kigali, Rwanda,” or “Women, and Berlin.”
“Twilley” consists of the world of details as it appears to a man who, having been abandoned by his wife, walks through a department store, takes a bus ride to the small town where he has grown up, sits in his parents’ empty house, and masturbates in an empty field. Its epigraph is the observation of Ludwig Wittgenstein, from his “Tractatus”: the world of the happy man is different from the world of the happy one. The narrator of “Kigali, Rwanda,” is a young sex- and women-obsessed American diplomat in the mid-1980s who finds himself HIV positive in the center of the AIDS epidemic, central Africa, in the early 1980s: he’s gotten it from prostitutes and in an odd way, this seems to him to be his fate. Works like these pose the question: what do we do with the over-abundance of reality that surrounds us? We swim in details: some are beautiful, or interesting. What are they for? If we don’t notice them, do they go to waste? How do we redeem them by being aware of them? Are we responsible for noting the world?
And in the middle between these two extremes of my writer’s are the works that openly pose the question of the relation between silent contemplation and action, like “Running is Life,” that suggests that we can solve Descartes’ split between body and mind by running through largely deserted land- or cityscapes before the break of day, being aware of the stage sets that later will come to life when the curtain of each day rises once again.
I write to understand life, which is my personal journey as it is that of each of us—a sort of secular “Pilgrim’s Progress” of the new millennium—with the hope that it will help others on their personal journeys as well. My answers will not necessarily be those of others. But the process is common to us all: we learn by the equivalent of people watching, seeing how others deal with the same questions that we too must solve, and sometimes helping us to pose them at all.