Whenever I think of really stupid things I’ve said, two examples come quickly to mind.
First, when I was a 24 year-old teacher in my first year at a new independent school, I suggested – in the middle of a heated faculty meeting – that we form a union.
Do I need to tell you that the headmistress (Yes, that was the term then in vogue.) was less than pleased with my suggestion or that the rest of my colleagues greeted the idea with stony silence? In hindsight, I chalk my impulsive outburst up to having watched “On the Waterfront” one too many times. Even Marlon Brando, though, might have given me the cold shoulder after that.
A few year earlier, I was an English major taking my first seminar style class (on Jane Austen) when the professor started our first class by asking the only male in the class what I thought of “Emma.” I had found it profoundly tedious, and blurted out, “The author was a woman who wrote about women for women.”
I fancied this a rather insightful comment, but when I looked around the room, the other faces almost screamed, “How did this knucklehead ever get in this class?” (It is, by the way, a look I’ve seen a number of times during my 28 years of wedded bliss.)
Anyway, “stupid things I have said” is a category that came to mind when I stumbled across William Deresiewicz’ piece in today’s “Wall Street Journal.” I wonder if this essay should be required reading in all boys schools?
HOW JANE AUSTEN TAUGHT ME TO BE A MAN
I was 26 when I read my first Jane Austen novel, “Emma,” the story of a spoiled young lady in Regency England who fancies herself a matchmaker. A graduate student at the time, I was as arrogant as they come and didn’t think there was much anyone could teach me about life—especially not Jane Austen, the godmother of chick-lit. Imagine my surprise when she taught me not just how to grow up, but how to be a man.
Like so many guys, I thought a good conversation meant holding forth about all the supposedly important things I knew: books, history, politics. But I wasn’t just aggressively sure of myself. I was also oblivious to the feelings of the people around me, a bulldozer stuck in overdrive.
In fact, I was a lot like Emma, the heroine of that first Austen novel I read—was forced to read, actually, because I thought her fiction sounded trivial and boring. Many of the characters in the book were indeed trivial and boring; their banal conversations droned on and on. Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Bates—the dull old man, the scatterbrained neighbor—these were the kinds of people I tuned out in real life.
The funny thing was, the heroine agreed with me. If I was bored with the world of the novel, so was she. But then everything shifted. Emma discovered how much she had to learn by paying attention to the people around her, and so, through her, did I. Once I really started seeing them, the people in my life acquired the depth and richness of literary characters; their stories, the fascination of a novel.
Above all, I started paying attention to what those people might be feeling in relation to me. Surprise, surprise, I really hurt them—a lot. If you’re oblivious to other people, chances are that’s just what’s going to happen. I knew now that if I was ever going to have any real friends—or I should say, any real friendships with my friends—I’d have to learn to stop being a defensive, reactive, self-enclosed jerk.
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English novelist Jane Austen
It took me reading “Pride and Prejudice,” a couple of years later, to find out how. Here was another Austen heroine who seemed a lot like me, except instead of being an arrogant snob, Elizabeth Bennet was brilliant and witty and fun. I eagerly identified with her and took her side in every argument. About halfway through the novel, I fell into Austen’s well-laid trap. Elizabeth, it turned out, was completely wrong about everything—which meant that I was, too. My education came, however, when I noticed how she dealt with it.
Like Elizabeth, I always had a response when someone called me out on something careless or callous I had done. I would scurry around like a beaver, shoring up the walls of my self-esteem: “Who, me?” “No, you must be wrong.” “That’s not what I meant.” “Problem? What problem?”
But Elizabeth did something different. She was strong. She was brave. She was just what men are meant to be. She acknowledged her flaws, and no matter how much it hurt, she owned up to them: “How despicably I have acted!” she cried. “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation!”
Humiliation, I realized, was exactly what I needed, too. Our egos, Austen was teaching me, prevent us from owning up to our many errors and shortcomings, and so our egos must be broken down. “Humiliation,” after all, comes from “humility.” It humbles us, makes us properly humble.
I had come to graduate school with a very different idea about what it means to get an education. Growing up, I had learned to equate being educated with knowing things, knowing facts. And the purpose of knowing things, in a strangely circular way, was simply to “be” educated, to be able to pride yourself on being a “man of culture” (and feel superior to those who weren’t).
Knowledge, culture, ego: That was pretty much the formula. But now I was learning a new idea—about education, but also about being a man. You didn’t have to be certain, Austen taught me, to be strong, and you didn’t have to dominate people to earn their respect. Real men were not afraid to admit that they still had things to learn—even from a woman.