From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Exilic Response—Introduction

[a] Sado Island, Japan
This Round and Square series will examine a social phenomenon that is all around us, yet it remains little discussed. If that sounds like a "theme" already on Round and Square, well, that is the whole point. For all of the reams of paper used to publish substantive and theoretical reflections, there is a great deal of "stuff" all around us that no one seems to analyze very carefully (and, quite often, the everyday way of speaking about them is badly flawed).

[b] E-lba-xile
Such is the case with something I have chosen to call "exilic response." You know the second word, and I am using it in its ordinary sense—an action (or set of them) that is done in reaction to something. But what about the word "exilic?" What could that mean? Well, this is a problem. There is no precise word for the entirety of what I mean (in any language, as far as I can tell), so I have chosen this one to encapsulate a range of meanings. Many people have a series of associations for "exile" (some of them connected to Napoleon, I suspect).  The phenomenon goes well beyond a powerful leader or two, though. Let's start with a few quick definitions.
[c] Away from home in early spring (Yellow Mountain; Anhui)
I want to think of the phenomenon in its full range of senses—even perhaps stretching them far beyond their dictionary definitions. For instance, I want to consider both political exiles forced from office as a kind of punishment (Napoleon), as well as those who choose (like Sima Guang in the eleventh century) to retire from active political life, but against their deepest wishes. Even these situations are very different. "Force" is funny that way, and there remains a difference between deciding to leave (with regret, but of one's own volition) and being escorted out of the office, city, or country by various layers of "personnel." When they take your keys, there's a big difference.

[d] Exilic wandering
These examples have not even begun to test the limits of "exile," though. I wish to go further to examine (and this is the real point of these entries) something much more widespread. Every one of us has experienced it, yet our ways of talking about it are exceedingly shallow. I speak of firings or forced resignations, on the one hand, and perceived slights (being the first person not picked for the varsity basketball squad, or being second...or third...or fourth in a job promotion). The former examples (Napoleon, Sima Guang) are interesting enough, but let's face it—most of us don't move in those worlds (capping ourselves as Emperor or being on the verge of managing a great empire). Most of us finish second in the fourth grade spelling bee, losing to our hated rival because we lost concentration and misspelled the word "chocolate." Many of us will never get over it. Ever.

As I said, almost all of us have been picked just a little lower than we thought we deserved for the junior high choir or the community theater lead. Now here's the problem. Think of the way you interpret someone else's situation. Let's imagine that your friend Delores hoped to become senior vice-president at the startlingly young age of thirty-two. She worked hard, but she is still young. You know Vernon and you know Delores; you can see good arguments for both. You're also not "invested" in the decision, so it is only a momentary blip on your consciousness. Let's go even further, and say that Delores told you the following after learning that she had not been promoted:
I am very happy for Vernon; he is talented and at the peak of his career. I will have my opportunity soon enough, and I love my present job. I am very happy. where I am.[1]
[e] Land of loss

Now consider Michel "Mike" Piguesquin, the longtime coach at his alma mater, a fine Division II football power with visions of "upgrade" that ultimately led to very high expectations. Disappointment with his 7-4 records, season after season, led the athletic director to ease him out and replace him with a younger coach. You know that he was getting "up there," and that he would have to retire in a few years, anyway. You are not "invested" in the decision, so it is only a momentary blip on your consciousness (are you sensing a pattern here?).

"Mike" had this has to say to the reporters from the local newspaper:
I have been a Panther my whole life—as a young boy in the stands at all of the games, as a player in college, and now as coach of the team. I have lived a dream. I have had a great run, and many fond memories. I will continue to be a Panther, and I thank the university for giving me the opportunity I have had. I will be in the stands for every game.  Go Panthers![2]
[f] Rationalize, rationalize
And now here is the fundamental failure of your "social" intellect (don't feel too bad; we all share it). You probably believe them!

Hey, moron! 

If you do buy it, you are almost certainly wrong (we all are, so don't feel too bad). At the very least, you have used your distance from the situation to avoid coming into contact with anything that makes you too uncomfortable. There are neurobiological issues in these matters that we will be exploring soon enough—this is just the introduction to the series. Suffice it to say that you are letting your frontal cortex do all of the heavy lifting (rationalize, rationalize). Don't let your emotions in (limbic system). That might mean that you must identify with your neighbor, and we all know that we have too much of our own pain to deal with. Rationalize, rationalize.

[g] Time and pain
Let's look at it differently now. Think back to a time when you were passed over for the promotion, or were forced out of the position you cherished. If you have lived forty, fifty, sixty or more years, you know exactly what I mean (don't look away; I'm talking to you). If you are a high school or college do, too. You just don't have as many examples...yet). You will, and this is generally a good thing. Charmed lives are dangerous. Just a bit of advice—seek the real kind.

In this series, I we will explore the burgeoning, roiling frustration and anger that people feel when "exiled" (note the breadth of the definition; not receiving a promotion is a kind of "exile").

You know exactly what I mean. Now let's start examining this thread of behavior.

[h] Exilic escape
This series will examine exilic (we have now covered that) responses. So you have been passed over for the promotion, denied a spot on your varsity squad, named "honorable mention" in the county dairy contest. How do you respond? How have others in history—or all across today's world—responded? From Dante (hell for everyone who crossed him) and Dumas (Monte Cristo) to Michael Jordan (cut from his ninth-grade basketball team) and (today, in New York) Cathleen Black, the question is a vibrant one that affects all of our lives—more often than we might realize...except that we choose to ignore it and assume that the "losers" are "okay with it." Unless its us, in which case we steam and fume for years and years. But we don't think our neighbors do...or we don't think about it.

Well, people, we're not ignoring it anymore, because (on some level, at some points in our lives) we're all losers. Get over it. We're going to study exilic response, and will have several "guest entries" in this series, starting this summer with Caitlin Gorevin (Beloit College '11), who is finishing her senior thesis on the topic this spring. If you have a particularly resonant (but printable) "exilic response" story, please let me know about it. We're building a theory here, and we'll do it together.

[1] This is fiction, people. These are just examples.
[2] More fiction. Just examples. 

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