Ethics & Public Policy Center

Thinking Is Self-Emptying

Published in The Point on November 30, 2020

This essay is a response to Joseph Keegin’s essay, “Wisdom That Is Woe,” which was published on The Point’s website in October.

My first day of school—two and a half weeks after I came to America—was exhilarating and depressing. I loved school because I loved to learn. But having moved from Iraq to Greece and then from Greece to America, the idea of yet another plunge into alienation petrified me. I arrived at a primary school in Fullerton, California in January of 1979. I remember that I wore one of the few Greek outfits included in my suitcase. Boys and girls stared at me and snickered.

I was guided to a desk. The wooden lid was decorated with a long sticker of the English alphabet stretching across the top edge from left to right. Inside was a yellow, well-sharpened pencil, a pink eraser and some books. The day went past in a blur of confusion. Shortly after lunchtime, however, something miraculous happened. The teacher drew her stool to the front of the class and centered it just so. Hushing the students, she opened a book and began to read. For the first time that day, no one looked at me. She spoke words I did not understand, but emotions are universal, and the soul quickly grasps a story. I stared at the cover of the book and tried to memorize every detail, so that I could read it for myself once I learned English.

That story, I found out months later, was Charlotte’s Web. It was the first book I read in English on my own, and it suited me well. My heart ached for the little pig Wilbur and for a friend like Charlotte—someone who would like me and look out for me, just as the spider did for her companion. My family moved three times and I attended three different schools within my first two years in America. Books became my solace. In the summers, the library was our nanny: my sister and I packed the lunches and our parents dropped us off before they went to work. Often, I would sit between the stacks, pulling out volumes at random and reading whatever I found. I escaped into the British countryside with Beatrix Potter. I read The Twelve Dancing Princesses and dreamed of dancing. I found volumes on Greek mythology, and was surprised that in America there were books about the gods I had learned about briefly in Thessaloniki. I read Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade NothingSuperfudgeDeenie and many others. At some point I came across V. C. Andrews’s gothic novels and devoured them as well. Eventually I found myself reading Wifey, and from there it was an easy slide into romance novels. Then I encountered Anya Seton’s Katherine—a historical novel about Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt—and after that I discovered Chaucer. From there it was the Brontë sisters. I read Wuthering Heights three times, Jane Eyre six.

I was an untutored reader. I may have dimly intuited that there was such a category as canonical literature, but mostly I was unaware of such things. I just read, and couldn’t stop reading—because if I did, I would die. In every book I read I looked for the world and for myself. What was it? How did it work? Who was I and where did I fit into it?

Emigrating from Iraq to Greece to America, I didn’t just cross borders but civilizations. As a philosophically minded little girl I wanted—needed—to understand how to make the shift from one worldview to another. It is facile to tell the uprooted to assimilate, as if it is as simple as learning English or changing hairstyles. As a preteen, I believed the only way to end my identity crisis was to erase my old existence—to erase the Eastern me in order to create a Western one. But I was young, and the ways I attempted to do this were mostly self-destructive (at one point, I cut “I hate me” with mirror shards on the inside of the wrist). I was so disoriented and detached from my surroundings that I wondered if I existed at all. This made the act of reading existential. Where Descartes uttered, “I think therefore I am,” for me it was: I exist because I read, and I read because I exist.

Immigrants are stereotyped in the American mind. One stereotype is the immigrant as ravager. Another is the immigrant who is a poor nobody in their country of origin and comes here to become a somebody. But aren’t immigrants already a somebody? Were they nothing until they came to America? These questions pertain to Joseph Keegin’s recent essay about class and philosophy because in the United States immigrants and natural-born citizens are submerged in the same “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mythos. I do not mean that such inspiring stories never come true—they do, often. But just as often they don’t. And because the myth pervades society, those who fall short of this threshold are all too often overlooked, judged according to a standard that in many cases they are simply unequipped to meet.

In his book Dignity (2019), the writer Chris Arnade makes a distinction between the “front row” and the “back row” in contemporary American society. For Arnade, what distinguishes those in the front row is not only their greater material resources, but also their access to established channels of success, most importantly in education. Whether they were born into their privilege or climbed their way up, they are the in-group. They are the people willing to move for jobs and education, to build resumes. They are the ones “concerned with the acquisition of prestige and profit,” as Keegin writes. On the other hand, the poor, the shut-out, the addicts—those that have some or no education, those who don’t even know where to begin to climb up—are in the back row. But thinkers are not confined to one row or another.

With this in mind, Keegin takes up Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, by Zena Hitz. He appreciates the book, he relates to it; but in the end, he believes that Hitz’s model of a thinker, “for whom thinking arrives as a source of happiness and comfort—[is] rare, exceptional.” Where Hitz argues that the marginalized poor can find solace, and a wealth of a different kind, in the life of the mind, Keegin says: not really. More often than not, those who come from unsuitable backgrounds, those “bitten by the viper of philosophy,” end up becoming even more marginalized and isolated by their compulsion to think. They are the ones “left desperately struggling to soothe its sting.”

In her book, Hitz draws lessons out of the lives of two characters in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, Elena and Lila. Both girls are from the back row of their society and both are prodigiously talented. But while the intellect of one is by necessity deferred, relinquished, even feared, the other’s is nurtured and utilized. Elena goes away to university and uses her gifts to charm and climb, landing in the inner circles of the intelligentsia. By contrast, Lila attempts to pursue the life of the mind only to be disenfranchised by her own poverty-stricken family. In a rage, her father throws her out the window into the street. She turns to work and marriage, suffers mentally, endures abuse and a life of physical toil. Elena is the archetypical back-row-to-front-row success story. Lila stays in the milieu she was born to, shut out from the intellectual world. She never leaves Naples.

But as time passes, Lila comes to understand that intelligence goes beyond purely intellectual work. She realizes she doesn’t need school or any other cultural institutions to know that she is intellectually alive. Elena, all her life, is attached to the physical manifestations of her work, rewards which she craves in order to affirm that she is intelligent—to affirm that she is seen. Lila’s intellect, on the other hand, is a gift she gives to Elena and to others who are close to her.

As far as we know, Lila doesn’t stop reading, writing and exploring. She teaches herself Greek. At one point, Lila gives her diaries to Elena for safekeeping—Elena reads them with fervor and then throws them into the river. She lives by the idea that cerebral pursuits are only valid when they result in novels, academic appointments and the other signals of elite approval. Ferrante’s books thus pose the question: Is it that we need those circles, or we want those circles? Are they necessary for a flourishing life of the mind? Are they necessary to be seen? I think Hitz makes it clear that the answer is no. We don’t need to be seen in such rarefied spaces in order to read and wonder. And yet, as Keegin points out, we live in a society where it is only within these established channels that the thinker can both think and eat.

As with Joseph, the deepest thinkers I have known have not often been the ones who work in established channels. They are the ones who start fledgling magazines, who write and work where they can. A brilliant young woman I know has a day job and also reads and writes prolifically—rarely does she publish. She told me once that the goal is to pour it out, release it from your mind and onto a page. That page may end up in the garbage, or in the ocean. Occasionally, it might also end up in someone’s hand.

In the Christian Bible, Chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, the author gives a litany of men and women throughout Jewish history who heroically chose the good and did the good—exhibiting faith even in the face of death. Men and women who went unnoticed, unappreciated. They were mocked and ridiculed, imprisoned and killed. “They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” They were “destitute, persecuted, tormented.” And then the author writes this remarkable statement: “of whom the world was not worthy.” This is a profound recognition of the discarded within history. Such people change the world in ways that even they don’t understand. Elena is banal; Lila haunts. This passage, this very phrase—of whom the world was not worthy—is what leapt into my mind when I read Keegin’s catalog of wounded thinkers.

Keegin gives us the example of George Scialabba, a writer who has suffered much and yet—as Keegin also tells us—is “driven by an unquenchable urge to think.” In his most recent book, How To Be Depressed, Scialabba tells his story through a collection of medical records from his years of psychiatric treatment. Reading him talk about his depression and writing, I saw how the wounds of philosophy can be useful—not in a material way, but as agents for healing others. Wounds can be a gift to the world, if they can help other people to know themselves.

To help my family I started working at fourteen. But prodigious reading—my weapon against the darkness—continued into my teenage years. It was through reading that I learned there was such a thing as Ivy League colleges. But my parents wouldn’t let me go away to college. “Cal Poly is over the hill, you’re going to Cal Poly,” my father shouted at me in a fit of anger. I raged back about their strict Iraqi ways, their suffocating rules, my lack of freedom. I went to the bedroom and cried, and I gave up on myself forever (or so it felt). I should say that California Polytechnic University Pomona is a great school; I’m very grateful to have studied there, especially in their physics department, which is where I ended up. But at that time, I couldn’t get over my disappointment over not going away.

Coming from an immigrant family meant there was a strong emphasis on the professions. A biology major was the quickest route to fulfilling the requirements for medical or dental school, and since my parents wanted me to be either a doctor or dentist, they signed me up. I wanted to do something connected to reading, but they told me I ought to worry about becoming financially well-established. To want something else made me strange to them; in an Arabic saying of my mother’s that is hard to translate, I was “the rotten onion”—the odd one that doesn’t fit. My intelligence was a gift only if it led to success in the right kind of profession.

I worked full-time and put myself through school—halfheartedly. With money from my paychecks I bought books. Since I had access to a college library, I did the same thing as when I was younger—I went to the library and read. I married in my early twenties and had a baby; I returned to work and college classes after maternity leave. I changed my major to physics because it was so beautiful that I wept every time I studied. I felt as though I had finally found a well to sink into. But it didn’t work. I divorced and became a poor single mother living on school loans. Another marriage, more children—the path to that Ph.D. evaporated.

A few years went by, and I tried to have another go of it. I went to law school to study constitutional law so that I could climb the ladder. I discovered political philosophy. I tried to sink into that well but by then I had very little mass left; all I could do was float. My circumstances were insurmountable, and my mind—the mind that had never shut down—went dark.

“I never stopped thinking,” Keegin writes. The mental darkness slowly faded, and I began searching again. It happened like it always did with me: through reading I found theology. And that’s how I walked back into the light. It took many years, but eventually I accepted myself as an autodidact; the turmoil calmed, theology and philosophy kissed, and the sun rose. When I converted to the Roman Catholic Church I decided to stop giving up on myself. At 51, I’m no young up-and-comer, but the hell with that. If I don’t write—I don’t exist. So I read and I write. To quote from another book in the Christian Bible, the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Mark says that “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” I feel this acutely.

James Baldwin once said:

It seems to me that the whole effort is not to avoid suffering or the inevitable deformations which one encounters in a life, but to use them, to use one’s suffering, to understand the suffering of other people … It is adolescent, I think, to look back, and wish it had been different. You’ve got to make the most, precisely, of what it is.

That’s what I try to do. The wounds of the last 51 years—whether they are self-inflicted or not—may or may not heal. Nonetheless, they are the channel from which thinking flows out to others, whether directly to the world, like Scialabba, or to loved ones and from there into the world.

Hitz and Scialabba’s books are providential. With dimwitted politicians across the political spectrum, our celebrity-crazed culture, the destructive power of unrestrained capitalism, the groaning of the despoiled earth, the cries of the back row that go unheard, the disillusionment and disorientation of a society that desperately needs to be rehumanized—all of this requires broken and humble thinkers, the wounded thinkers. When I read Joseph’s essay, I felt like finally, here was someone who understands the internal torment of thinking that I’ve lived with all my life. I don’t believe such pain can ever entirely heal, at least not in this world. Thinking is estrangement. But if it can be named, and given shape, then it can also be self-emptying. And then it becomes something more than a curse.

Luma Simms is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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