Into the Mess: Living It, Loving It
Ha Nguyen, Australia
Ha Nguyen is a PhD candidate in Language and Literacy Education, at the Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. She is interested in English Literature in English Language Teaching and Reader Response Theories. She is also engaged with poststructuralist concepts of learning through life-long appropriation of social discourse and genre.
With each event in one’s life, one can never be the same person one was before. I think this is true for everyone, though to differing degrees. Events can be big or small, planned or accidental, happy or sad, normal or abnormal, or a hundred nuances in between. Some moments stick in our minds, some others fly away immediately only to flash back at a later stage, when bits and pieces of life are coming together. Events can belong to the past or they can be playing out at the present, but no events are ever really complete, because they trigger and merge into other events. In a spiral pattern of development, history repeats itself at all points, but with an ever higher level of perception. This way, life is at once old and new.
In terms of learning, the construction of knowledge out of the interplay between the old and the new is what propels us towards greater understanding. Learning, however, is not merely the assimilation of new information into an existing schema but also cognitive and emotional engagement with the event at hand. No automatic mechanism exists for learning to take place, in which the input of events and schemata unfailingly churns out deeper insights. Instead, learning takes time, human will and effort. To learn, one has to get into the flow, a state of engagement so that intense reflection seems effortless. Even then, there is no guarantee that change will happen straight away or less painfully. The modification of one’s perspective, which underscores learning, is a back-and-forth movement which relies on the chemistry between the flow of reflection triggered by new events and the existing perspective.
People who believe in a fixed identity would ask: Why do I have to modify my perspective? What if I just aim for my own purposes and do not let any experience have an influence on me? What would principles be for if I changed every time I experience something new? Well, it lies within our power to be what we want to be. We could definitely choose to let our experiences pass us by, slipping through our fingers without any trace of significance in the stillness of our lives. Conversely, we could try retaining something of the experience and learn from it, making it useful. Human will can turn even the most undesirable happening into a learning event, which I think is the most sustainable way people can overcome obstacles in their lives and generate energy to continue living. The business of living can be tricky sometimes, not only when the going gets tough, but also when people suddenly realize they have nothing to occupy themselves with. When people cease to be involved in forgetting, remembering, fantasizing, planning, being productive, doing charity, having fun, loving others, following routines, or exercising power, all the mechanisms of life seem to have been exhausted. Fortunately, people can learn. And this potential can never be exhausted. When the old meaning of life falls out of place, people can learn to create a new meaning. Perhaps this explains why many people return to study after many years of various adventures with life. But learning can take different forms, and the new meaning of life is often not a substitute for but a development from the old meaning. Basically learning is a self-sustained tool to generate meaning and renew one’s life, but learning can also be the meaning of life itself – the fullest life we could ever have, perhaps. I remember someone saying: “When all is lost, the future remains.” But when all has been lost, the future looms menacingly rather than offering any promise. Even for the most futuristic souls, the future is always a big unknown. So for me, the only remaining thing when all is lost is the ability to learn from the loss. If one does not learn, one cannot move on and there is no future. In this extreme circumstance, as in all circumstances, learning takes on added strength.
But what is learning? Is it about finding truths “out there”? According to Misson and Morgan (2006), we can never have unmediated access to the world: We can only know it through perspectives, constructed in an individualized network of discourses. While “truth” has begun to sound like a cliché, “perspective” is a beautiful word to me, suggesting freshness, complexity and fluidity – things human. To learn is to enlarge, deepen, shift, or otherwise modify one’s perspective on life and oneself. In this stream of thought, to learn a language is to modify one’s way of structuring the world and expressing oneself, to the extent that one not only memorizes the language but also appropriates it for one’s own uses. In order to do this, one needs to engage and interact with texts affectively, cognitively and behaviorally, finding a new self in them. Harris (1987) sees the text and the self as plural, constantly changing in encounters with new discourses. One way to have some will to venture with a second language is to consider it a means for self-expression. In this view, the self is treated as a fixed given, waiting to be expressed by language. Language can be an instrument to be thus manipulated, but it can also be seen as a powerful force of self construction: By participating in discourses, one finds and creates a self to express. If teachers could make students see the significance of interaction in language for learning in this sense, perhaps students would find a new source of motivation, realizing that their own uses of language not only express who they already are but also shape who they are becoming. In a broader sense, almost all learning happens in language, and therefore the ability to use language intelligibly, creatively, individually conditions one’s advancement in life.
We shall now return to answer the skeptical questioning of change. Why do I have to modify my perspective? We do not “have to” modify our perspectives, but they are likely to change anyway. If we actively learn to modify them, we will paddle our own canoes through whirlpools along the way and make it a joyous exploration. If we refuse to learn, we risk losing control of ourselves in the face of unexpectedness during the journey, and any whirlpool we encounter may drag us down into its abyss of negativity. Thus, learning through change can be a self-help mechanism for us to remain in control of our own lives, at the same time keeping us resilient and happy with whatever happens outside our control. The second question: What if I just aim for my own purposes and do not let any experience have an influence on me? Whether we want it or not, experiences in life influence us all the time, and it is better to be aware of this and make the best of them than to let the experiences get the better of us by trying to ignore their impact. The third question: What would principles be for if I changed every time I experience something new? People change all the time, but this does not mean that they do not have guiding principles. Principles help us judge the situation at hand according to our own values and channel our changes towards reconciliation between the old and the new self, minimizing shock and buffering transition. Moreover, the most valid principles and values are those that are open to modification over time and space.
It might be convenient for me to pause here to reflect upon words like “change” and “modification”. Most people do not change abruptly every time they experience something new. Even though abrupt change does happen at tipping points, underlying it is an unseen process of accumulation of experience. Generally, change happens gradually as a result of our reactions to events in our lives, whereby we resist against or align with their influence upon us. Normally, however, our reactions are more complex than sheer resistance or alignment (Misson & Morgan, 2006). For example, we may resist some elements of an experience while accepting others; we may resist an experience at one time but later accept it in the face of new circumstances; we may accept something new, but with some modification. Indeed, our reactions often fall into the grey shade between the black and white of total resistance and alignment: That grey shade is called appropriation, or modification. All change, and all learning for that matter, is appropriation of a place for ourselves in new experiences and discourses.
All people change. Those who do not believe in change are the ones who change most abruptly and negatively. This is because change works both intellectually and emotionally. While we often work hard to control what we think, we neglect what we feel and as a result let our unattended feelings run riot in the confined recesses of our minds, which will at one point or another overflow and hold sway over behavior. Understanding our emotional engagement as well as rational thought, actively finding ways to harmonize them is how we remain in control of ourselves, benefiting from change rather than letting it wreak havoc to our lives. Having said this, I would like to relate it to one of the most powerful literary characters I have ever read, the missionary, Mr. Davidson, in William Somerset Maugham’s story Rain. This missionary is portrayed as a man of God, austere, rigid and spiritual, with an unattractive but pious wife. He is devoted to transforming a prostitute into a righteous woman. He spends a good deal of time with the prostitute, trying to teach her right from wrong, in which he has almost succeeded. But in the end, just before leaving, he shocks himself by having sex with her. As this goes against everything he has consciously believed in, he takes his own life, and the prostitute goes back to her former way with ever more contempt for men. This tantalizing story deepens our insight into human nature, and more than that, it shows how unattended sexual tension can accumulate and work on a person against his will. Surely, an intellectually hard man like the missionary would never think of having sex with the prostitute, but he must have desired it unconsciously. The prostitute must have changed him emotionally without his knowing. Had he been aware of this, he would have had more control of himself, or at least taken precautions against his destruction. For me, the beauty of this bleak rain-filled story lies in its depiction of the emotional vulnerability of people who refuse to acknowledge the fluidity of living. Another literary character who sticks in my mind, Huck Finn in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, provides a different example of change. During his escape from a corrupted civilization down the Mississippi river with Jim, a runaway slave, Huck learns instinctively and emotionally about human relationships. But due to the circumstances of his life, he is unable to reflect on his experiences intellectually and as a result his maturation into manhood is the triumph of “a sound heart” over a socially deformed mind rather than a reconciliation of the two. For both the missionary and the castaway boy, change is an emotional journey rather than an intellectual one, and it is likely that neither of them understands this. The biggest difference between them is that while Mr. Davidson is hard and fast in his way and therefore vulnerable to emotional breakdown, Huck Finn deals spontaneously and flexibly with other people and can therefore avoid calamities and rebound from misfortunes.
If fictional human beings, living in fictional worlds, change during our process of reading, and are recreated with each new reading, then real human beings, living in their palpable worlds, also change all the time and are constantly recreated every time they participate in a new discourse. I myself am changing while writing this reflection. Try as I may to be consistent, I cannot help some degree of self-contradiction which needs to be resolved, and which signals a shifting perspective. This would surely disappoint people who believe in final answers and the certainty of knowledge. But for me, as for those who sympathize with post-structural thought, knowledge is created by people, and people constantly recreate themselves by recreating knowledge. Thus, we learn by seeking ever greater complexity and justification instead of settling for simple, clear-cut, one-off answers to our own experiences.
I shall attempt to round up my messy thoughts by talking yet a bit more about myself. I see every living experience as a problem that needs to be solved. As such, my life is made up of problems. Yet up till now I have got through them all, rebounding from disappointment, temptation, failure, embarrassment, depression and shock, not because I look forward to the future, but because I can learn from them. Learning gives me the energy to live the present when everything seems bleak. I have made it my own mechanism of survival, which is working wonders for me. As long as I learn, I see how important different things are in my life, face my fears head-on instead of relying on someone else to shield me from them, understand that networking is vital, not because you can make money from it, but because people care about each other and help each other grow. This mechanism means that I derive happiness from within myself even though relating to other people meaningfully contributes greatly to who I am. The more I learn, the more deeply I understand that even the most intimate relationships cannot be taken for granted, and that people have to work on them all the time to keep them growing. The most destructive mistake that we can make is to impose our will upon others, however good that will is. Every time we do this, we hurt somebody, perhaps even without anyone knowing. Besides, people simply do not learn by somebody else’s will: they learn by their own free will. The truly powerful people are those who exercise influence and not imposition. To influence means to acknowledge and respect others’ perspectives and only suggest to them another way of seeing things, inviting them to consider it, hoping but not requiring others to think along the same line. This not only taps into human pride and desire to know, but also aligns with the belief that people only ever really learn when they construct the knowledge themselves. Different people construct knowledge in different ways, and they constantly reconstruct it as long as they live. In this sense, knowledge is always a mess. Nevertheless, I invite you to jump into that mess with me and find its meaning for yourself. The chances are you will love it.
Harris, J. (1987). The plural text/the plural self: Roland Barthes and William Coles. College English, 49(2), 158-170.
Misson, R., & Morgan, W. (2006). Critical literacy and the aesthetic: Transforming the English classroom. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English.
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