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Saturday, September 28, 2013
"The untrained response to robbers and thugs and to those who otherwise err is outrage and retribution. … The appropriate response to bad deeds is pity for the perpetrators, since they have adopted unsound beliefs."
"If they do not right, it is plain that they do so involuntarily and in ignorance. For … every soul is unwillingly deprived of the truth."
— Marcus Aurelius
Well darn. Here is a big hard limestone chunk of planetary wisdom to digest, these days.
Plato — plus later Greek and Roman moralists — believed that people inflict harm unwittingly.
Wrongdoers think they can benefit themselves at the cost of the common good. Who can blame them for not understanding?
“I can,” I thought, last week. At least, it’s been my ignorant tendency.
Maybe the day’s news had stirred up such thoughts.
In those news interviews, various gleeful lawmakers had referred to their latest political maneuver as “a game play.”
Statecraft, it seemed, had been reduced to a sports tournament they intended to win, at all costs, however the nation might go ker-smash. There seemed no sense of gravitas, of deep thought or any interior burden for the good of the whole.
At such moments, it’s hard for me to perceive these leaders as unwitting and blameless. But Plato would figure they were. Even Jesus said, in the worst of moments, “They know not what they do.”
“But they do know,” I reasoned. Surely these consultant-loaded coalitions were acting with strategic and cunning awareness.
Food for thought
Then some alchemy occurred.
I was standing at the kitchen table, making nature-freak cookies for some dear folks who tolerate such fare, pouring in molasses, wheat germ and nuts.
These are no-recipe productions. I just stir in things that seem right, and it usually turns out well.
This time, however, the dough looked too fluid, and just before sprinkling on another brown-flour-shower, a memory downloaded itself from long ago.
Home-ec class, James Madison Jr. High (as we called it then), Roanoke, Virginia: Brownies Day.
There, in the no-nonsense presence of our wise teacher, Estelle McCadden, an interesting problem emerged amongst our 12-year-old selves.
My group of five was standing around our table in a flume of cocoa, obediently stirring up batter.
Towering over the group was one tall, gangly girl whose existence I had not thought of in all the interim decades. She appeared in complete clarity—a benign, apologetic, hunching person, silently begging us hoodlums for acceptance.
Even her oboe-like, abashed voice emerged from whatever cosmic archive stores up all this random compost, and her long-forgotten name — a ponderous, regal, unlikely name — which I’ll say was “Victoria.”
Well, our brownie dough didn’t pour. We figured it should flow right into the baking pan.
“It’s too thick,” someone worried. We stared at each other in vague alarm.
What if we got an F? Was it possible to fail cookbook Cooking?
“My mama adds water,” murmured Vickie, darting a hopeful, apologetic glance at us.
We stared back. Water?
Now here was a person, I realized after decades, to whom nobody had ever said, “Wow, that’s a GREAT idea!”
And we weren’t about to either. But being desperate, we ran with the bowl to the sink to dump in a torrent of spigot water.
“Stirs great now!” we marveled, swooshing it speedily into the pan. The amazed Vickie beamed like a tall lamppost as we slopped it to the oven and slapped the door shut on our miracle.
After the bell rang, a perplexed Ms. McCadden finally pulled our swashy pan of molten mud from the oven, shaking her head.
We realized we had indeed failed Brownies Day, and did what all savvy, self-preserving diplomats do. Blame someone!
“Vickie said to!” we announced in chorus.
Vickie’s eyes instantly dimmed and began blinking rapidly in a dark blur as we grabbed our books resentfully and ran.
“Now baby, it wudn your fault,” I heard the strong mountain of Ms. McCadden croon, a crying Victoria clutched like a collection of bones beneath her kind arm.
“Well there it is,” I thought, scrubbing the present-day pans. The two points in time had merged into a wordless compunction for this unwitting crucifixion, which I knew carried the freight of countless other incidents like it.
Certainly it wasn’t what I’d aimed to cook up, that evening, much less digest — this well-rotted archival compost, astringent with instruction.
But at last it had made sense — what Plato and the old ones believed.
We do wrong because we are unwitting kids, mixing up a batch of mistakes and, with even more oblivion, blaming someone for the result.
Yet for this we are also blameless, Epictetus said. When we know better, we will do better, as will our leaders. That’s the only real game in town.
Liza Field’s column runs every other Saturday in Extra.
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