Should I Want a Tattoo Too?

Posted: October 18, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

As I find myself getting older with ever increasing grace, realizing more and more how selflessly I’ve dedicated myself to helping others in myriad ways small and large, and yet still feeling like I should work more to further improve myself, I can end my day on a happy note and look forward to waking up the next day on an upbeat note as well.

I say these things not out of conceit or to blow my own horn–not as something personal, but as business, meaning it’s impersonal and objective, no different from saying that two plus two is four. I’m simply giving an honest appraisal of myself, taking note not only of my successes but also my shortcomings. For like arms and legs, fingers and toes, we humans wherever we happen to live and work and however young or old we may be we all unfortunately have some shortcomings.

This doesn’t mean we’re bad people who are out to harm others and need to be carefully watched and monitored. Nor does it mean we’re bereft of virtues and our lives must, of necessity, turn out badly. Oh contraire. Despite our shortcomings, we’re perfectly capable to doing good things and being regarded, rightly, as good people. So when I describe my virtues and the way grace follows me about, I’m being perfectly objective without ignoring I also suffer some shortcomings, though, since I wish to highlight my honesty, I should mention that these shortcomings seem to be decreasing both in number and severity as I continue working on them.

Of course by publicly making these claims of virtue, I expose myself to the possibility some may dissent from what they believe is my far too rosy account of my person. So be it. For I’m sufficiently convinced my virtues speak for themselves and that enough of you very dear turtles reading this post will find no difficulty agreeing with me and hence rise to my defense should some misguided personage wish unfairly criticize me, for their own purposes, whatever those purposes may be.

I wish to emphasize my virtues here in the Turtle because I believe one of my best traits is the graciousness and good cheer with which I take criticism. I don’t get angry or resentful, nor do I mindlessly lash out at my critic or critics. My response is the precise opposite. I welcome criticism since I view it as an opportunity to grow and mature. Here’s the kind of person I am: If I’m doing something wrong, I want to correct the situation as fast as possible. Criticism isn’t about hurt feelings and defensiveness; it’s about correcting mistakes, growing in depth and breadth, and becoming more accomplished in whatever one’s doing.

Now that you, you ever patient, understanding, and insightful Flaneurite, fully realize where I’m coming from you can better appreciate my immense disappointment in reading the post of a Flaneur reader furiously attacking my previous post about the hopelessly hackneyed phrase “thinking out the box.” This ruthless effort to undermine my integrity and philosophical commitment to clear expression and deep thinking jarred my hard won equanimity. As far as I was concerned the reader willfully chose to misunderstood the point my post was making.

Peter Stern's reaction to Blake Whitmore's critical post.

Peter Stern’s reaction to Blake Whitmore’s critical post.

The critic implied I wanted folks to remain victims of our pedestrian, shallow, mindless , and power crazed country. In fact, my point was precisely the reverse. I wanted to encourage people to think and create for themselves unfettered by mindless cliches about creativity and liberation.

I believe it’s no longer possible to pick up a freshman textbook on writing, or thinking, or communicating, or interpreting without running across the term “thinking out of the box,” so ingrained in the brains of our generation has this unwonderful phrase become. In fact my point was that its cliched status renders it incapable of inspiring genuine creativity and the kind of liberation which encourages becoming a free spirit.

One of the ironies of that phrase is that it conjures up one of the key issues inherent in wanting to go outside today’s system, whatever term we happen to use to describe it. The problem is this: if everyone’s doing it, is what they’re doing really liberation? For instance, if 2/3 of Wall Street traders sport tattoos, are tattoos still tattoos? Or if Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales sell record numbers of grunge jeans, are grunge jeans still grungy? Or if you prefer let’s ask if almost all poets are writing in free verse is that verse any longer really free?

This is one way to characterize the problem of telling people to think outside the box. Exhorting them to think outside the box places them firmly inside it, with the additional drawback that they mistakenly think they’re really outside it and liberated. In many ways, after discussing Plato’s Cave Parable this week with RMU Humanities Professor Mr. Gerry Dedera,  I thought I could see parallels between the box cliche and the illusions the cave prisoners regarded as real.

Plato's Parable of the Cave illustrated.

Plato’s Parable of the Cave illustrated.

In conclusion, let me say that my critical reader helped me see that I should have stated more explicitly that I thought the box metaphor was the kiss of death, yet that for some people it could indeed inspire them to live a liberated life. On the other hand, implying that most people will be transformed by the notion of going outside a box leaves me cold and worried it’s the box, like Plato’s cave, that they’ll never leave.

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