Monday, July 23, 2007

Linguist Friend responds to Ms. Kitty's Meme

I understand from Ms. Kitty’s meme-assignment that I can save my soul if I write about eight defining moments in my life at which I might have lost my soul (on some points the jury is still out), or at least I learned something from the experience.

1. In the early and mid-20th century, American aeronautical engineering benefited from the immigration of German and other Central European applied scientists. When I was in the 3rd grade, the younger son of one of them was in the same class as I was. Richard (now a military historian) gave me academic competition such that I realized that whereas earlier I had done well enough, now I had to do better than I had known I could, which was a good habit to establish early.

2. In the same period, I was introduced to the elements of music theory and piano. I quit when I realized that I would never be a good pianist. I repeated this sequence with the recorder, the classical guitar, and singing. I learned a lot about music theory, and my father made sure that I learned about musical acoustics. But eventually I realized something: never let yourself or other people nudge you to do something because you or they think you should do it. Do what is fun and you are really good at, especially if other people are not good at it.

3. In my second year of college, I took an introductory course on linguistics from a great scholar on the history of languages. But, by that time, the historical approach he practiced no longer set the model of research in his field; it had been partly replaced by models drawn from mathematics. He himself had once had to choose whether he would accept a university scholarship in math or in linguistic studies, and had chosen the latter, which he now regretted. So, in late middle age, he tried to renew his mathematical studies, which of course led him nowhere; when he retired three years later in ill health and depression, he did not live long. One has only one life, and it needs some basic continuity and consistency.

4.. Early in college, I asked our family physician to refer me to one of his East European relatives to help me to improve my spoken Russian. He introduced me to his pharmacist aunt Shalumith Schneider, the daughter of a scholarly Vilna rabbi. She gave me years of friendship and tutorial in Russian language and literature. Since her native city was a great center of Jewish scholarship (the Vilna Gaon, the Vilna edition of the Talmud), she also gave me an implicit orientation in terms of her recognition of and devotion to the value of learning.

5. When I married at age 22, it was to someone who initially seemed well matched, an agnostic (read: no interest in religion) daughter of an American diplomatic family. Thirty-one years later, she moved back across the country from LA to her native Maine, and a year after that she filed for divorce. She had borne our children, typed my doctoral dissertation, and developed a private practice in counseling in an LA suburb. But the marriage had progressively turned emotionally sterile, starting halfway through. At times I say that I have never seen a bad divorce, on the principle that once either one of the parties has left in some sense, then the sooner the legal action is finished, the sooner both parties can get on with life. But divorce may bring terrible practical situations, including the freedom to commit appalling stupidities.

6. When I wrote my doctoral dissertation, I focussed on the grammar of an ancient language that was fundamental in East European studies. Since almost all of its early manuscripts were texts translated from Greek Christian sources, to write my dissertation I had to read thousands of pages of late Greek texts. This was effectively a total immersion course in Eastern Christianity. Although this material has never been central to how I earn my living, I have never entirely left it, and it has been a perennial background factor in how I think about the world and religion. Immersion leads to absorption.

7. When the Cold War and East European studies cooled, I shifted my orientation to the basic study of speech on a physiological level. This entailed learning much more physically-oriented biology and lab electronics, joining the 20th century after being (figuratively) educated in the 19th. This was a process of reacculturation so complete that my main research colleagues have been in medically- and engineering-related fields, and I belatedly came to understand the engineering research people who were around me in my childhood. But it cost time, money, and some of the personal input that my children should have had.

8. In my early teenage years, my parents helped start a small Unitarian fellowship in a tiny retired synagogue. I had no idea what they believed; my own religious ideas at that point mainly came from Julian Huxley. My Unitarian connection was weak when I went to college. Later, my devotion during free time was mainly to my family. It was not until the late 1980s that I really reconnected with UUism. That it did not attract my wife was not surprising, but I was grateful that the congregation was there when she left in late 1994, and the local UU congregation wherever I am has continued to be an important focus since then.

On some levels, my later years have made it possible for me to tie some things together better. I have lectured in Russia (in Russian) about my work on laryngeal physiology. My studies of Christian and Jewish sources give me a broader perspective on UUism, complementing the humanist perspective that I inherited from my father. Friends such as CC and Ms. Kitty have made me more aware of the importance of (different) aspects of progressive Christianity. At times I am still aware of the deeply destabilizing effects in myself of divorce after a long marriage, but I have survived so far, although I am entering the high-upkeep years of the human organism. An older physicist friend, once a student of Dirac and the younger Bragg, sent me a birthday card for last year, writing: "Life is precarious; be prepared for surprises." Indeed!


Comrade Kevin said...

I think the first time I might have lost my soul was when I turned 11 and started actively questioning Christianity. As a boy, I was quite pious and had no doubts whatsoever regarding the Trinity, the Divinity of Jesus, and the concept of Heaven.

Organized religion, in my humble opinion, was designed for people who are not intelligent enough to think outside the box and to not see things in anything less than black and white terms.

At the time, I thought this was a travesty. Upon further reflection, I am glad that Organized Religion exists: as a means of preventing crime, as a means of building community, and as a means of providing a sense of solace and purpose for many people.

Though I came to reject many things about Christianity, I never lost my belief in God. I've always believed in the concept of a higher power. This caused some degree of friction in my last relationship because my then-girlfriend was a committed atheist. She wanted to be a theist, but she had major issues with trust and abandonment. It was better for her to believe in nothing and not be disappointed than to believe in something and to be disappointed.

Lilylou said...

Linguist Friend, what a lot of interesting moments and turning points in your life! Your soul seems to be in good shape, my friend, and you've made a great many wise choices. In the places where the wisdom might have been shaky, you managed to turn the outcome into something solid. Thanks for participating in the meme.

LinguistFriend said...

Kevin, I am often jealous of how much people receive back from that belief in God, however it works. I look at the mainline churches and wish very much that they would find a way to revise and update their beliefs so that they would not become extinct, because they do much good as they are.
People manage to work with extreme divergences in belief as couples, but it must be hard. I have never had to deal with that sort of incompatibility.
Kit,I have made some stupid choices as well as some wise ones, and sometimes I just made mistakes when I was having too hard a time to cope with things well. Thanks for tagging me for the meme.