Thursday, May 4, 2006

Flat on my back, continued...

Well, I saw my doctor yesterday, then this morning I had an MRI of my lower back. Turns out I have a herniated disk—more or less the same problem my father had 25 years ago, when he was just about 5 years older than I am now. What the heck do you know.

So I am off work for at least the rest of the week, and starting to get bored. Although the Percoset makes some things particularly interesting. It used to be that standing up from prone, besides being a move action that provokes attacks of opportunity, was simply an exercise in excruciating lower-back pain. Now it has the added fascinating dimension of dizziness and nausea! Good times never cease.

I did not set out to whine. I'm not sure what I did set out to do, besides write as a way of killing the mind-numbing boredom. And I figured I could say anything I darned well pleased, then blame the Percoset. I took another dose about a half-hour ago, and things are definitely getting funny.

Rob Heinsoo had this response to my post about midlife crises:

I certainly acknowledge that roads not taken *were* not taken, but I'm slightly more assured that interesting flashing shadows are still available in our ongoing lives. Nothing is ever really over. 

I acknowledge and welcome that truth, but in my mind, there's something significant going on that is about accepting that some choices close off other options. I know that, in theory, I could leave my job, go get a Ph.D. in New Testament studies, and possibly get a new job as a professor. I could do that, and I could create a new life for myself that would make me happy—possibly just as happy as I am with this life. But I feel like the important thing for me right now is to realize and accept that I'm probably not going to. That thought doesn't make me particularly sad, perhaps a little wistful. It's like going through boxes of old photos and packing them up. ("My yesterdays are all boxed up, and neatly put away"—Sheryl Crow) 

I suppose that people who turn midlife into a crisis react to that realization with panic. They might look at some of their not-taken paths and decide they need to pursue them now. And so they quit their jobs and leave their wives and start chasing their other dreams. I don't even mean to be as judgmental about that as I sound. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, hey, I'm entering midlife now. I'm not going to have a crisis about it. It's merely interesting to observe. And it's drawing me back into a more reflective state of mind than I've experienced in a while, which is something of an added bonus for those of you who enjoy reading my doped-up ramblings. (Yes, both of you.)

I had an additional thought on Us and Them, since I finished it the other night: In describing an experiment conducted in 1954 where the researchers artificially created, and then broke down, a strong sense of us-and-then thinking among a group of young campers, Berreby writes: "Freud arrogantly called this kind of line drawing 'the narcissism of minor differences': the boys stretched to set each tribe apart precisely because they were so alike.The arrogance lies in the assumption that someone else... can decide which differences are minor and which are not... His catchy phrase invites you to condescend to people whose differences don't matter to you, letting you imagine that this gives you insight into your problems. But it doesn't. When it comes to human kinds, all differences are equal: equally minor, because we can find differences so easily between any two people; and equally grave, because once a difference is taken seriously, it has power to alter thoughts and feelings."

I remember the college religion class where my professor introduced the idea of "marginal differentiation." In the context of discussing the Gospel of Matthew, which takes pains to point out the differences between Jews and the early Christian community which produced Matthew's gospel, small differences in the interpretation of Jewish law were taken extremely seriously. Why? Because in every other way, my professor argued, the two communities were so very similar. He compared it to advertising campaigns that make a big deal out of ribbed condoms (do they really make any difference) or ridged potato chips. (To this day, I can't see a bag of Ruffles without thinking of ribbed condoms and the Gospel of Matthew. Huh.) I think this concept of marginal differentiation is more or less the same as Freud's "narcissism of minor differences," minus the condescension. 

Which reminds me of another story. The private school my son attended several years ago was trying to get up to speed on issues of diversity, and to that end brought in a very interesting guest speaker to talk about racism. He started the workshop by having the attendees divide ourselves into three groups based on our answer to this situation: You drive along a stretch of highway every day, and you know that the left lane is closed some distance ahead. At what point do you merge right: early, at the last minute, or somewhere in between? Once we had grouped ourselves, he had us talk to each other about why we chose the way we did, and that discussion actually got pretty heated.

In making the transition from that conversation to a discussion about race, he said something to the effect of, "Look how much emotion got stirred up when I divided you according to the way you drive. How much more emotional do people get when we talk about race?" I actually raised my hand and said, "I don't get worked up about race. I don't care what color your skin is, but people whose driving is dangerous or selfish have an impact on me every day of my life!" The way we group people into kinds, as Berreby says, has a lot to do with the emotional weight we attach to those kinds. That's about the only thing that makes some kind-groupings more important, more "real" in some sense, than others. Any grouping is only as significant as people make it, in much the same way that money only has value because we all agree it does. 

Why am I going on about this? Well, because I think it's interesting. And blame the Percoset. :) For more thoughts:

I guess that's about enough for tonight.

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