We have discussions in my English class about all kinds of delicate issues: race, growing up and sexuality, family traumas. I write questions on a plastic sheet on the overhead, and they all complain about my handwriting and write. Then I sit on my stool and we discuss. In the novel we just finished, a husband hits a wife “to show her who’s boss,” so that was our topic today.
At first, some students are eager to repeat the pop psychology mantras. “He must have had abuse in his home.” “Real men don’t hit women.” “Someone who is really in love with you wouldn’t hurt you on purpose.” I try to affirm the truth in those statements, while pushing the conversation further. True, in a teenage relationship, and early in a relationship, these mantras will work. If you’re going to be in a long-term adult relationship, though, you are going to be involved in some cruelty.
I think of times I’ve tried to hurt someone on purpose. It was usually someone I loved. We’re talking about this ugly scene in the book, but all I can see is myself screaming at my ex, trying to think of something worse to say that I haven’t said before. Or snapping at my sister with the same emotion. People I loved? Sure.
We had the talk about how societal values change. How it used to be perfectly okay to hit your wife, or your kids. They were your property.
I often say things like, “It’s complicated. It’s hard to know.” Not because I’m trying to promote moral relativism– not with historical context, and not here either. It’s because that is the only thing I become more sure of, over the years, that it is complicated, and that it is hard to know. When does nastiness become abuse? What is unforgiveable?
My students have a greater need for generalities and rules. They’re younger. I loosened my grip on a lot of rules as my twenties went on. Early in your adult life, with few experiences under your belt, I needed a lot of rules and maxims. Without gathered personal wisdom or knowledge of yourself, rules give you some structure.
For the class I’m taking, I read Kierkegaard today. I love Kierkegaard, so much my eyes were tearing up, reading his theories over my coffee. Yes, that’s right, I whispered to him, as if he were sitting close to me.
Kierkegaard loves the individual and the specific. Individuals and specifics are important because love is only individual and specific. You can’t love someone in general. Love doesn’t shoot without a target. As I’ve gotten older, I do know that: I love how both the baristas leaned on their elbows the same way and read while I read. I love the kid who earnestly raises her hand to read her neatly written piece, and the one who stands up and reads only to make everyone laugh. I don’t love any of the rules I followed to make me safe. While rules may be useful, or necessary, they are not loveable.