F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said the rich “are different from you and me.” It wasn’t just their great wads of cash, as Hemingway thought. It was rather that their wealth and influence enabled them to brush off life’s jabs and right crosses when the rest of us would throw in the towel.
So, too, I’ve found, are English professors different from you and me. I have known my share of doctors of philosophy, and I’ve read a great deal of their published material, and I am convinced these folks feel more deeply, think more profoundly and experience life more intimately than do we poor working stiffs.
I came across another fine example of this the other day. Never in my life had I considered mowing the lawn a mystical experience until I read an essay called “The Metaphysics of Cutting Grass.” Suddenly mundane little chores like mowing the lawn and picking up after the dog took on a transcendent aspect.
The author, an English professor at Graceland University (which is sadly in Iowa and not Memphis), discourses at length on the transformative enterprise that is mowing the lawn. Far from a commonplace task, mowing is an “applied art” and a deeply spiritual experience wherein one’s “I” meets one’s “me,” where one works a perceptible change in the “physical, out there, external reality.” I came away from this essay a little wistful over my misspent life, having stupidly mistaken 35 years of deep, meaningful experiences for mere drudgery.
I suppose that is to be expected since I am not an English professor. Only in the mind of a Ph.D. does one’s every routine activity take on great meaning and significance, whether it’s washing one’s shorts or clipping one’s toenails. Metaphysical experiences must be all English professors have when they’re not teaching our children subversive literature.
Nor is it enough to transform one’s own existence. Being an educator, the author longs to find that he has transformed his students’ lives: “Perhaps I yearn too much to hear my echo in the world. Yes, occasionally, I do hear from a former student, several years out, that something I said or did has assumed some meaning in their lives.”
Teachers are the only wage earners obsessed with assuming meaning in other people’s lives. My plumber comes over and cleans out my clogged toilet, but does he sit around wondering if his Roto-Rooting has had a profound impact on my life? I sincerely hope not. That would be creepy. And it’s not even their students’ success that concerns teachers, but their impact on their students’ success. If a student achieves anything, it is the result of his teacher’s guidance and mentoring. If a student becomes a serial killer, it is because the teacher was unable to reach him.
AN IMPORTANT aspect of the metaphysical experience seems to involve what you or I would call zoning out, but what an English Professor calls surrendering “to a mental whateverism.” This is:
a kind of watching, one step removed, the products of unwilled mental activity, products broken free of any establishing context. It’s a being willing, not a willing — a willingness to be open, not a willed effort to establish a goal against which to measure myself.
No doubt you are thinking: that is exactly what I’ve been doing when cutting the grass, but I have never been able to put it into such opaque and esoteric words! Thank God we have English professors to render our unintelligible thoughts into such transcendental prose.
I doubt I will ever achieve that level of enlightenment. When I took out the garbage this evening, I tried to experience the embodied texture of my mental experience. I stood in the alley a good five minutes, trash bag in hand, staring grimly at the Dumpster waiting to sense some kind of invisible growth. Only I felt nothing (except maybe a little foolish). Perhaps I am unworthy. Perhaps I don’t have what it takes, which is apparently a Ph.D. in literature.
True, my actions have wrought some small change in the physical, out there, external reality — after all the Dumpster is changed by the mere presence of more garbage — yet I cannot help but feel dissatisfied. While the Dumpster itself is full, my actions seem empty of any higher meaning.
But I am working on my inner self. There is an old Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” I must go prepare myself. The English teacher could be here any minute.