Fill in the blank quiz questions can be a breeze or a bummer. Like multiple choice, they leave little margin for error or ambiguity. There seems to be no room to elaborate or hedge one’s bets by fluffing up an answer to cover as much terrain as feels right. So, with that in mind, inevitably and with a sigh, we at AU are faced with the classic query: how was your summer?
Of course, summer’s not over yet. One of the greatest joys of distance education is that even in a grouped study setting we can still go outside and play on our own schedule. At AU we truly own our schooling; it’s our studies and our time. Summer still beckons as the days get a bit shorter; some great adventures remain to be had. Sometimes we become entangled in daily affairs to our detriment and particularly at our peril lest summer vanish into an ether of vague regret. As Henry David Thoreau famously stated: “the mass of (people) lead lives of quiet desperation” (Thoreau, 1854). Yuck! Luckily, some late-summer fun can limber us up for acquiescence to autumn’s inevitability.
Tao Now While Summer Remains
Here the Chinese Taoist school of philosophy springs to mind; its sages remind us that, like a late-blooming flower, we bloom in our own time and where we’re planted. Years ago (but yesterday in a cosmic sense) I was introduced to this philosophy of capturing the moment in a course titled “East Meets West”.
Taoism teaches enjoyment rather than rumination. Moments pass and there is only one ‘now’ and a single ‘today’. The key is to realize opportunities when they arise. Chuang Tzu summarizes this need to seize our desires and not be carried away from them:
“Great understanding is broad and unhurried; little understanding is cramped and busy. Great words are clear and limpid; little words are shrill and quarrelsome. In sleep, men’s spirits go visiting; in waking hours, their bodies hustle. With everything they meet they become entangled. Day after day they use their minds in strife, sometimes grandiose, sometimes sly, sometimes petty. Their little fears are mean and tremble; their great fears are stunned and overwhelming. They bound off like an arrow or a crossbow pellet, certain that they are the arbiters of right and wrong. They cling to their position as though they had sworn before the gods, sure that they are holding on to victory. They fade like fall and winter – such is the way they dwindle day by day. They drown in what they do – you cannot make them turn back.” (Chuang Tzu, 2016)
Such can be the existential considerations when facing a simple question about our past couple of months.
In terms of Chuang Tzu’s concern with others, we at AU may happily recall that “we” are not “they”; we’re no stultified zombies wiling away the sunset of summer in dark, Dorito-laced, basements of the mind. We AU scholars are the cream of the academic crop when it comes to getting things done regardless of the season. On these waning summer days, this time of year calls for, if anything, a looser reign over our productive predilections. If a late summer’s evening captures our attention this is a time to cast aside our corporeal studies and enter the rapture of summer fun—before it’s too late!
To Ask a Question is to Answer It
We can displace answering the question about how our summer was, and its consideration in terms of the past tense, but no avoidance tactic will hold out against the trudging march of time itself. Summer may be what we make of it, and how we make the last days and weeks count, but to truly account for how it was for us requires some sort of methodology.
Or does it? Our human minds think in terms of systems leading to pronouncements. Sure, we could give an off the cuff answer that our summer was “fine” or “fun” but, honestly, that’s not very intellectually stimulating. And schooling, especially when we aren’t herded into 2:00 pm classrooms at a brick and mortar institution on a sweltering afternoon, can always be fun so long as it doesn’t preclude that funnest season of all: summer! The question of summer becomes one where seriousness, such as how many memories we count or how many goals we achieved, meets the inexorable draw of intangibles that leave us with a truly sublime flavour on our palette.
Edmund Husserl noted that we are meaning-making machines whose end game is one of outcomes: “Reason allows for no differentiation into ‘theoretical’, ‘practical’, ‘aesthetic’…being human is teleological being and an ought-to-be” (Husserl in Derrida, 36). What matters most to each of us includes our studies but also our favourite activities; summer is not a catch-all phrase implying certain priories at the expense of others. Summer is what we make of it in a way that nests with our true desires and goals. The key to a good time, then, is to know what we really enjoy and go out and do it. Me, I like to snorkel in Okanagan Lake, but for many peers the prospect of sharing space with fish and lakeweed is downright abhorrent. As opportunities dwindle, it pays to know what we really want from our ephemeral moments of play.
Taking the Longinus View
Answering the question of how was summer, runs the risks expressed by first Century C.E. philosopher Longinus:
“The characteristic, then, of bombast is that it transcends the Sublime : but there is another fault diametrically opposed to grandeur : this is called puerility, and it is the failing of feeble and narrow minds, — indeed, the most ignoble of all vices in writing. By puerility we mean a pedantic habit of mind, which by over -elaboration ends in frigidity. Slips of this sort are made by those who, aiming at brilliancy, polish, and especially attractiveness, are landed in paltriness and silly affectation. Closely associated with this is a third sort of vice, in dealing with the passions, which Theodoras used to call false sentiment, meaning by that an ill-timed and empty display of emotion, where no emotion is called for, or of greater emotion than the situation warrants. Thus, we often see an author hurried by the tumult of his mind into tedious displays of mere personal feeling which has no connection with the subject. Yet how justly ridiculous must an author appear, whose most violent transports leave his readers quite cold!” (Longinus, 1st century)
As with Kant’s concern with obsessive reasoning that leads to vacillation between poles of arid rationality while never allowing space for one’s heartfelt feelings, Longinus doesn’t want us to express ourselves without feeling passion to match. And, like in the Taoist school, our authentic sentiments submit neither to words or reasoning. Words point the way but feeling is their guide. Such mystery is what makes summer fun so unique; it can’t merely be planned for, it has to be experienced on its own whimsical terms. Thus, in a sense, to ask the question about one’s summer is to answer it; it’s passing is implied such that a shallow and dry (or frigid) response comes to the fore with ease. The question becomes rote, or a fill in the blank bureaucracy lacking meaning. Who can describe their passion in a few words and simultaneously feel its draw?
Perhaps it pays to ponder summer in advance of its conclusion, that we may better advance our interests in the name of a good time. Longinus asserts: “of all these five conditions of the Sublime the most important is the first, that is, a certain lofty cast of mind” (ibid.). A lofty cast of mind seems necessary to capture the most out of summer’s waning weeks. With naked simplicity, natural as a well-attended beach scene, we may imagine the essence of summer for us and thus discover our imagination describing a scene transcendent of both time and place. Maybe it’s a Norman Rockwell painting, or maybe a George Seurat, or maybe a toddlers scribble (isn’t scribbling creativity distilled to its frantic essence?) but whatever we envision about summer goes beyond words and into visuals.
Portraits of Potential
But can our indescribable essence of summer be true; does a picture really represent something or merely portray a narrow view while leaving out legions of facts? Here we turn to Joseph Sen who recently noted the difference between truth and the true. The true connotes a series of facts and realities that, even when taken in combination, are by nature incapable of representing the entirety of a situation. For instance, an AU essay may be late according to your tutors deadline, or to one of your own making, and yet the term ‘late’ covers both. And that term might ignore your difficult emotional condition as you consider the ephemeral nature of summer and seasonality itself. This jumble of true facts overrides the truth, truth which contains more than mere accounting practices can tally. Sen explains:
“We have a tendency to identify the true (facts) with truth (an ideal). What we know to be true are facts taken individually. Cumulatively, we may assume that these make up the “truth”. But they certainly do not if by truth we mean conclusive, unsurpassable knowledge, subject neither to revision nor expansion” (Sen, 2019).
A simple question about the quality of our summer becomes a murky series of data points that, taken together, present a cloudy picture. Facts demand interpretation and only stand alone thanks to an existing edifice of preconceptions and that old bugaboo: common sense. Take the fact that a person went camping a half dozen times over the summer. Without knowing the condition of their minds in regard to the act of camping we have no objective clue as to whether these events were in truth a pleasurable thing for them or not. Maybe camping was forced, as it were, and each time the experience was an ordeal in endurance and an exercise in spouse appeasement. We can only know another person’s state by asking them directly and that often yields contradictory, yet mutually true, facts. The bigger the picture, the greater its complexity.
Sen illustrates: “We get nearer the truth by seeing a situation from as many perspectives as possible. The more perspectives we can gain, the more our tendency moves away from judgement to understanding. Consider an example. Why do other people sometimes seem to be less free than we ourselves are? Maybe this perception is the source of a lot of problems as it can tie in with seeing others as more like objects than we take ourselves to be. It may require an effort but we can imagine other people as equally free. This involves understanding a perspective other than the one we may be immediately given” (ibid).
Far from being at the behest of fungible time and variable place, we are each at AU living a unique experience academically as well as personally. Categories do us a disservice if they limit the scope of our understanding of ourselves or our studies; a biased professor (professing faith in one viewpoint and presenting it as the unvarnished truth) can do our learning damage and that is one reason AU is great: solitary critical thinking is the essence of our junction between learning true facts and acquiring truth about the world we apprehend scholastically. Our tutors guide from a distance rather than lead directly; it’s up to us to make sense of the course material in our own world. To understand ourselves or others we have to gain a comprehension of perspectives and the variables implied therein.
Cycles and Seasons Held Together by the Loop of Learning
Perhaps we enjoyed our summer thus far but are equally or incommensurately excited to hit autumnal activities. Here in the Okanagan, the Hallowe’en supply store will be opening any day, for instance. Summer never stands alone so much as in a perpetual unfolding in regards both to the past, and our past expectations of the vanishing present, and to the future. As a dialectic process any answer we give as to the nature of our summer also contains a kernel of opposition; “true dialectic is the inner and progressive transition of one explanation into another, in course of which it becomes manifest that the explanations of the understanding are one-sided and narrowly limited, this meaning that each of them contains its own negation” (Hegel summarized by Ruhle, 105). To enjoy our summer is to enjoy it as the future potential within the abstract momentary; summer is there if we want it and the future is now!