“Rhetoric is the Art of speaking suitably upon any Subject.” – John Kirkby, A New English Grammar, 1746.
“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.” – Yip Harburg
Have you ever accidentally bit the inside of your cheek and then noticed over the course of the next few days how often your tongue goes there to fiddle with the injury? Perhaps while sitting at a conference table or across a meal with some friends, the disturbing thought might creep into your consciousness that you probably look slightly foolish with your tongue pushing your cheek out in curious gyrations. Without having been aware of it, you may have appeared to the people you are sitting with as to have taken up the habits of chewing tobacco or harboring small rodents in your mouth. Once you become aware that you are doing the tongue-to-cheek yoga, it seems like it should be easy to stop, but it never is. You can say to yourself, “Okay, tongue, let it go,” and then a few minutes later, there's your tongue rolling over the spot again like a dog with its favorite chew toy. It's in these moments when we realize that our conscious brain may drive the car, but there are other passengers in there riding along, playing with the radio, and leaving snack food containers in the back seat.
Why is this? How is it that our primary consciousness can make a direct and simple request for our tongue to stop what it's doing, but the tongue merely waits until consciousness is preoccupied with something else before it continues its rumba with the inside cheek of the mouth? How can this one muscle of our body be so disciplined when we ask it to savor a flavor or enunciate a thought become so independent and rude when it wants to massage a minor mouth injury? Clearly, the conscious mind likes to think it's the captain of the ship, steering our lives through the sea of existence, but somehow our bodies have hidden crew members who pursue their own agendas well beneath the ordinary apprehension of awareness. Every weekday morning as I step into the shower, I remind myself of how much time I actually have to bathe, to get dressed, and to scurry out of the house without being late for work. Once in the shower, however, the soothing warmth of the water commandeers the body, and after a few minutes when the work-brain begins to insist it needs to move along or be late, the rest of the body sings a chorus of “not yet, not yet” and the eternal struggle between mind and body continues like a ceaseless round of tug of war.
It is in these moments when our primary identities seem to want one thing while other subconscious influences seem to desire something else that our central conscious identity – the one who thinks of itself as “you” and who uses the first-person “I” to refer to itself – catches glimpses of the other energies that motivate our decisions. As much as we may want to think of ourselves as singular, rational, self-determined individuals who make conscious choices based on evidence and experience, the reality is we are actually a menagerie of wild ideas, feral emotions, and peculiar behaviors that, for the most part, the zookeeper of our conscious keeps contained and sedated for the sake of propriety and self-preservation. Just as our tongue seeks out the sore, sometimes this precarious collection of rogue ideas and unexpressed passions looks for cracks in our central understanding of “what's real” or “what's true”, and this probing can lead us to ongoing feelings of anxiety over comprehending both our the universe and our role within it.
Sometimes, at seemingly random moments, we find ourselves struck with an awkward discomfort for being nothing other than ourselves, and we wonder, “Where is this worrying coming from?” It's coming from the discomfort of being in charge of a zoo where all the animals want fed at the same time. It's coming from the sneaking suspicion that there's more going on than we'll ever know or be able to get a handle on. It's coming from a bewildering onslaught of information and a never-ending discussion on what we're supposed to care about. Well, what if don't care about the same things as other people? There's so much we are supposed to care about – from personal hygiene to world hunger – how can we care about it all? No wonder we sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed by life, and we can't exactly put a finger on what is bothering us. Perhaps it is because being human means we are going to be bothered by a lot of things: ideas, feelings, and behaviors that overwhelm our ability to cope with them all at one time.
One of the wisest counselors I ever knew once said, “The word “should” is the most mentally ill word in the English language because whenever we are using the word, we are not dealing with the way things are but dealing with an illusive concept of how things ought to be. The world we actually live in will never be the place we think it 'should' be.” This idea – that reality ought to be different than it is – is perhaps the most dangerous beast we try to contain within us. While there is nothing wrong with seeking a better life for ourselves, our families, our nation, or our world at large, merely complaining that the world needs to change is an attempt to escape our reality rather than deal with it.
This, for me, is where rhetoric comes in. Being able to communicate well with others, appreciating the factors that are mostly likely to influence thinking and behavior, are not the contemptible tools of manipulation, but the implements for carving out our place in the world. Though rhetoric is often maligned as the empty bombast of politicians and snake oil swindlers use on the naive, its true purpose is not to mesmerize people into believing what is not true, but to highlight the most sentient aspects of whatever we honestly do believe is true. As much as rhetoric is the study of how to convince others of the rightness of our particular ideas, it is also the art of consciously tracking the ways in which we talk to ourselves when we are seeking the answers to the quintessential questions that afflict our mortal existence.
There are, of course, many other options for remedying the psychic discomforts that come with modern human existence. Some people find release from anxiety in prescribed anti-depressants while others sedate themselves through alcohol and other widely available psychotropics. Some folks have found great relief through the salve of religion while others have found equal solace in the concepts of philosophy. I don't recommend it for everyone, but I have found the study of rhetoric to be an excellent tonic for ongoing relief from the reoccurring angst that comes with the chronic fretfulness of contemporary life. The study of rhetoric has helped me understand the boundaries of reality and become more comfortable with the acknowledgement that there's always going to be more to life than merely distinguishing between what is right from what is wrong and separating what does exist from what does not. Unfortunately, better understanding of theory does not always lead to better practice. This past week after telling myself I was not going to lose my temper at a presentation on “improved educational practices,” I completely went off on a rant after the presenter used the phrase “inarguable research” when describing how treating children as cogs rather than human beings will results in higher achievement scores. I guess when it comes to controlling my tongue, I sometimes have more to worry about than it roaming around the inside of a cheek.
My original intentions when setting up this blog was to focus upon the arguments that people use to defend beliefs that diverge from mainstream thinking. More and more, however, as weeks have passed, I have come to the realization that the question that concerns me most is not really “why do some people believe in the existence of spaceships, ghosts, werewolves, or angels?” but rather what does the word “existence” really mean? When we draw the line of existence, between what is and what is not, how do we define the context for the conditions in which things can exist from when they cannot? This is my ongoing journey, and for the readers who are going down this path with me every week, I cannot say how much I appreciate your company and your comments.
Keep thinking rhetorically, and I will return next week.