Sunday, May 21, 2017


. . .a palace lady sitting in quiet contemplation, presumably following the admonitions in the accompanying lines: "Therefore I say: Be cautious and circumspect in all you do, and from this good fortune will arise. Calmly and respectfully think about your actions, and honor and fame will await you."

It’s sunny, sixty degrees, and the collared doves in the blue spruces are sobbing less, I presume because at least some of them are sitting on eggs instead of courting.  The Baptist cyber-carillon next door (there’s no bell, just an electronic imitation) has just now begun its day of bonging.  I’m ready to start my second cup of coffee and go back to sorting my stacks of papers, discarding 90% of it.

Much of it is relentless self-examination, beginning as soon as I was able to think “reflexively.”  I guess that’s what it was when people around me began to say, “Well, you’re a big girl now and therefore . . .”  Fill in the behavior they wanted.  At first it was the behavior itself I questioned, but now I am addressing the whole idea of “reflexivity,” because I see it used in reviews all the time, but am very fuzzy about what it means.

Here’s the dictionary definition of reflexive  (per Google)

1a :  directed or turned back on itself; also :  overtly and usually ironically reflecting conventions of genre or form a reflexive novel
b :  marked by or capable of reflection :  reflective
2:  of, relating to, characterized by, or being a relation that exists between an entity and itself the relation “is equal to” is reflexive but the relation “is the father of” is not
3:  of, relating to, or constituting an action (as in “he perjured himself”) directed back on the agent or the grammatical subject
4:  characterized by habitual and unthinking behavior

Reflexivity refers to circular relationships between cause and effect. A reflexive relationship is bidirectional with both the cause and the effect affecting one another in a relationship in which neither can be assigned as causes or effects.

Reflexivity is the idea that a person's thoughts and ideas tend to be inherently biased. In other words, the values and thoughts of a person will be represented in their work.

What I get out of all this is that the word ought to be “reflectivity” rather than reflexivity which suggests physical knee-jerk reflexes.  Language is always getting itself muddied up like this, confusing words that are similar.  The technical word is “malapropism”, I suppose, but in this case the dictionary accepts the confusion.

Self-reflection in an attempt to break up habitual and unthinking behavior is a good old ancient practice, an attempt to be better.  The hook is in what one thinks “better” is.  My idea was “aretaic.”  That is:  “Virtue ethics (or aretaic ethics /ˌærəˈteɪɪk/, from Greek ἀρετή (arete)) are normative ethical theories which emphasize virtues of mind and character. Virtue ethicists discuss the nature and definition of virtues and other related problems.”  

I wanted to be a good girl without conforming to the people around me.  A friend once said to me,  “You think you’re better than the rest of us, don’t you?”  Well, I try to be.  But I don’t think my definition of “better” was much like hers.

Here’s one of my lists, entitled “Basic Elements to Effective Living” which sounds suspiciously like a title of an article in a women’s magazine:

1.  Openness to raw facts.
Sensitivity of detecting equipment
Lack of prejudice
2.  Realistic organization of facts
assigning priorities
discarding irrelevancies
openness to modification — flexibility
seeing relationships
3.  Ability to abstract, synthesize, infer and imply
set goals
plan methods
4.  Motivation to act
5.  Openness to consequences of actions
6.  Ability to communicate personal realities through symbolization
interpreting oneself
interpreting others
7.  Ability to identify and eliminate prejudices caused by desires and fears
8.  Ability to initiate a wide variety of actions
9.  Judgement as to which action is most appropriate
10.Ability to admit defeat
11. Ability to make alternate plans of action.
12. Ability to avoid destruction of self and others.

St. Augustine trying to defeat death by being Christian.

Rigorous written self-reflection in the West, as opposed to the Eastern scroll at the heading, is exemplified by Augustine in the third and fourth centuries trying to understand what to discard as he tries to convert to Christianity.  It was a tumultuous time, not unlike our own, but then most people in all times think they are struggling with “tumult.”  Ben Franklin is another good example, calling his reflections an “almanac.”

My own list above was written in red ink on a yellow legal pad.  With it was a far more intimate and self-critical essay.  Sample:  “I reach out my hand to others in a perfect imitation of the help I wish to receive — and then when those others seize my hand for their support, I’m filled with panick [sic] and jerk my hand away.  What am I afraid of?”

From the internal evidence of this piece I see that I was writing in the early Seventies, just after returning to teaching after being divorced.  Like many others in the school world of the times and place (Browning), I was much influenced by a high school counselor named Bill Haw, no longer living.  He was coming straight from Detroit where he was educated in Carl Rogers’ school of thought. 

Rather than reflective introspection, which can turn pretty rancid, Rogers’ theory was empathy based.  That is, Rogers had moved from the head-trip sort of thinking like Augustine and Franklin, to wholistic shared-feeling as a basis for understanding.  It could be seen as one way to shift from the mathematical rule-based approach over to a felt meaning based on metaphor and sensory vocabulary.  “What do you feel?  What does it mean to you?”  In terms of theology, I would put Eliade into this category.  It was a culture-wide shift.  The precipice some didn't avoid was the realization that they felt nothing, that nothing had meaning to them.

The problem often is that this sort of thing leads to attachment to other people and the whole syndrome of narcissist/enabler, which thrives in high prairie Indian Country.  I moved on, back to Portland, thinking I could re-educate in night classes at Portland State University.  I would be a clinical psychologist, now that I was a “good girl.”  Alas, at PSU psych meant social work and social work meant statistics and I can’t do math.  

Redirecting to ministry was a workaround.  It meant even more reflective lists and new notions of what “good” means.  It is too context dependent to do alone with lists in the middle of the night.  Nor was any of the theological faculty helpful.  The novelist Richard Stern at least understood the issue. His novels are highly "reflexive". 

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