Saturday, April 19, 2008

Understanding Shorn't.

"What part of shorn't don't you understand?"

- Michael, 'The Office'

That line is from this past week's episode of The Office (414: Chair Model), and I still think it has to be one of the best lines ever. (Right up there with, "You can't fire me, I don't work in this van!"). Kevin and Andy are in Michael's office, trying to persuade him to help them out with a problem, and his response is, "Wish I could, but I can't. Well, can, but won't. Should, maybe, but... shorn't." When they continue to object, he cuts them off with, "What part of shorn't don't you understand?" Which is great on so many levels. Because, firstly, 'shorn't' isn't a real word, so in a strict sense there's no reason for them to understand it. But then, it's clear enough from context what it means that it still communicates his point quite effectively. (Later he suggests that they take on the task of doing something about their problem themselves, and when Andy declares, "We won't let you down!" Michael mutters, "Well, you can't, because I don't care.") Over the course of the episode, we find out that Kevin has recently gone through a very bad break-up (which puts his over-reaction to the problem in perspective, as we can all relate to how little nuisances can be the last straw during rough emotional times), and so his little triumph at the end is also a moment of self-mastery, finally seeing something go right that he helped to bring about. Michael's refusal to fix the problem is, then, in some ways (and completely accidentally on his part, of course) the means by which he actually helps Kevin on multiple levels, rather than just the single most obvious one.

Which brings me (in a lame, indirect way) to this idea of self-restraint. I was just now going over a conversation in my head that I had with Brian the other day at work. I mentioned to him that I tend to think less of men who make off-hand remarks about attractive women strangers they see, especially in that particular way guys make comments to other guys (like they're children at the zoo telling their friends how cool the orangutan looks). Brian objected that it's better at least to be honest. From that point on in the conversation, nothing I said could sway him. Civility, consideration for women as equals not objects, emphasizing personality over looks... all of this he reduced to various forms of dishonesty. At one point he asked me, "Don't you think you're attractive?" To which I replied, yes, but don't you see how that's utterly beside the point? It is precisely because I am attractive enough to have received or overheard such comments--while also being a woman of substance and self-confidence--that I know it's not really flattering or likely to lead anywhere. Again, he objected that I was expecting men to be dishonest about what are "only natural" reactions.

So just now I was reviewing that conversation in my head, trying to figure out how I could have articulated myself clearly to get my point across. Because, of course, I am not for dishonesty or mere pretenses to politeness. I'm also not necessarily for repression of natural biological urges or reactions--I believe in celebrating the body and its physicality and sensuality. But people seem to forget that the brain is also a part of biology, and that much that we assume is "instinct" is actually closer to cultural conditioning (think Pavlov-meets-MTV, now men are trained to salivate at the sight of only very particular versions of beauty and to declare these versions alone "naturally" attractive, while missing out on the myriad other ways beauty presents itself). So surely, breaking down this conversation into the dichotomy of honesty versus dishonesty was not helpful in illuminating these complex aspects.

Then, just now, I hit on a good metaphor. As usual, the metaphor is: art. More specifically, a man playing the piano. I was trying to imagine a way of explaining this idea of self-restraint as akin to the space or silence that surrounds a work of art, the aesthetic frame which, in the very act of "limiting" an art object, actually heightens and thus expands the work of art itself.

I think of one's life and one's self as works of art. Because I believe in reincarnation, I have often wondered what the relationship is between the "Deep Self" and the personality of a given incarnation and its particular body. The way I came to understand it is that we are given these bodies and these circumstances in time and space as "raw materials" as such, to work with and shape into vessels of spiritual experience (in a very similar way that an artist or creator works with materials to create vessels ("art objects") of aesthetic experience ("works of art"); for me, aesthetics and spirituality are very closely connected, which probably explains my love of Druidry's bardic mysteries). So working to better myself, to center myself, to attend and listen and learn, to grow, to become, to express, to shape and work with myself physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, intellectually, spiritually, etc. are all part of the process of being a living "work of art." While the self might be like, say, a sculpture that, over the course of a lifetime, is honed and polished from a rough block of marble (or, perhaps, built up and molded out of clay)--the actual life itself is like a dance or a musical performance. It is an on-going process, extended through time, that cannot be understood or summed up in a single static moment, in the same way that a dance or a song must be experienced through time as song or dance. These two ideas blend together, so that the process of the self becoming a Work is itself a Work--the sculptor dances his molding, sings his chiseling. If you follow.

So, if this is how I have come to imagine the act of living in general, how might I put this honesty/dishonesty question into a similar context? My answer is: think of a man at a piano. Now, one day this man may see a beautiful woman walk by the window of the studio where he practices... perhaps so beautiful in every way that he is moved to ecstasies of emotion, and cannot help but want to express this emotion, this adoration and joy. That is, after all, the nature of ecstasy--a going-outward of the self, a transport or rapture (from Old French, meaning to be carried away). So this man turns to the piano, and begins banging away at it. Bang! bang! bang!, elbows on the keys, fists, palms, fingers flying! He moves with utter abandon, and his movement is honest, certainly--but it doesn't amount to much. Why? Because he is not practiced, he has no self-mastery, no self-restraint. So the beautiful woman hears this noise coming from the studio, and shakes her head, wondering who would abuse such a fine instrument in such a way? She has no sympathy for the man and his adoration, because for all his honesty he has never learned the art of real communication. In the end, it is just as easy to bang away at a piano when one is indifferent, as it is to bang away in jubilation.

Maybe, lucky for him, the man in our story realizes his mistake. And so, he devotes himself to hours of practice a day. Whether the woman is present to inspire his joy or not, he works away at teaching himself to play the piano--playing boring scales and chord progressions, learning to play the works of others. He trains his fingers to move together with skill and dexterity, he learns to read music and to understand the complex patterns that form its fundamental structure, its backbone. Sometimes, he concentrates so intently on his practice that he loses all sense of passing time and his surroundings. Sometimes, even, the beautiful woman will walk by while he is bent at his work and even stop to listen a moment, pausing to wonder if this is the same man who was banging away before--and he is too intent on his practicing to even look up and notice she is there! Meanwhile, she sometimes smiles to herself, musing that he seems to be improving, and perhaps marveling at his dedication. If the first part of our story was about people who mistake bluntness--saying whatever thought happens to pop into their head--for truly honest communication, this part of our story is about learning to practice. Practice what? Learning to practice loving-kindness. It is important to understand that the man's self-restraint, his self-control at forcing himself through dull exercises and such even when he does not feel particularly moved to play--this restraint is not an end, but a means. It is a natural aspect of the practice, but not its goal. The goal is to become better at playing the piano. This is a metaphor for practicing loving-kindness even to those people who do not seem to inspire it in us immediately or naturally: "loving one's enemies" and recognizing the godhood of strangers as well as of friends, of the ugly and the distasteful as well as of the attractive and the appealing. It takes effort, it takes practice, it takes self-mastery.

But back to our piano-man and his beloved. Perhaps one day he is taking a break from his practice--he is leaning back at the piano, resting his hands, not really focusing on anything--just day-dreaming for the moment. When, all of the sudden (for the first time in months, he thinks) here comes the woman he loves! She has grown used to his intent practicing, and even likes it a bit, so maybe she slows down her pace a bit hoping to catch him at it again, never expecting him to realize that she's there. In that moment of her hesitation, our piano-man suddenly feels a burst of joy and hope again, just like the very first time he saw her--and so, once again, he begins to play his heart out on the beautiful instrument. But this time, something is different. He has self-mastery. He has spent long hours learning how to effectively communicate, to utilize every nuance and potential the piano has to offer. Far from the unskilled banging of his first attempt, his playing now is breathtakingly beautiful, joyous, expressive--he closes his eyes, leans into the instrument, running his fingers passionately over the keys. And the woman stops, amazed and bewildered. And understanding blossoms between them.

This is real honesty. Effective communication requires us not only to know ourselves and what we think and feel, but to know when to keep silent and when to speak, when to reach out to others and when to keep still and listen. It demands that we not only say what we mean, but have an awareness of how we are received, for if others are always misunderstanding us, then our attempts at honesty are pointless. Self-restraint is the "frame," the apparent limitation which, in fact, is what frees us. Without learning to overcome ourselves, to master our selves and wield those selves as instruments, we will never really appreciate the depths and the heights that those selves and their connections can reach. Through his restraint and his effort, our piano-man was able to communicate his adoration more clearly and intensely than he ever could have just by letting loose a torrent of unshaped emotional outbursts. Likewise, the man who knows when not to comment on beauty, who practices looking for beauty and meaning in all people and not only those to whom he feels a "natural" attraction, and who has the intensity to turn inward and distance himself from all beauty for the sake of his self-overcoming--that is the man I trust to be most honest with me, most capable of honesty, and most appreciative of its potential power.

Self-restraint is not the rejection of freedom, nor a denial of connection, but a path towards their very realization. Without it, all our attempted honesty is only passing noise.

And so, bringing this full circle, I've decided to nominate the word shorn't as having this definition: exercising self-restraint for the sake of becoming free. It is not the willfulness of "won't," nor the moralizing of "shouldn't." It's something else entirely


  1. Lovely!

    "Self-restraint is the "frame," the apparent limitation which, in fact, is what frees us. Without learning to overcome ourselves, to master our selves and wield those selves as instruments, we will never really appreciate the depths and the heights that those selves and their connections can reach."

    As a writer and a teacher of English, I see this at once. It would not have occurred to me to think of it in the context you mentioned--rude reactions to strangers--but now that you've said it, I can see how well it works.

  2. Great post, I wasn't expecting it when I googled shorn't. :P

    I agree about the importance of restraint, of boundaries and limits. From sports to music to the economic market, I see the same kind of theme: that quality emerges in the context of a shared following of the rules.

    I love hockey, and I enjoy watching fights in hockey because they are part of the game. As an established and refereed part of the game, it has meaning, even as the same thing happening on a public street would appall me.

    I think there are two kinds of self-restraint: The first is like the hockey example, where you learn to express your impulses at the right time, in the right context. This is, I think, essential to living in society. The second is where you would actually be trying to suppress having the impulse altogether. The latter is dangerous, I think, because I am skeptical of our own ability to remold ourselves as different people.

    Like a lot of things I think it comes down to the conflict between self and others, probably two of the most primitive, opposed, yet interconnected driving forces for behavior. I agree with you up until the point where you advocate for complete denial of the self for the sake of better communication with others. I just think that when you do that, you risk losing your connection to reality and drifting to abstraction.

    In your example, the piano-man stops caring whether the woman is there or not while he practices. Ostensibly, the practicing is for her, but if she is not in his thoughts then it is really for an abstract idea of a woman, and along with denying himself he's denied her individuality as well.

    I love your analogies and I agree with you for the most part, but I do think that individuality, and expressing the self, are things which should be part of a balanced relationship. In fact that's a lot of the fun for me is seeing what makes someone uniquely *them*, and it's easy to lose sight of that and focus only on what you can understand. I think people will always have a part of them that is incommunicable mystery, and I like that.

    Thanks again for a great read.