Tag Archives: pragmatism

Knotted Wrack

It was nearly high tide when I paddled out yesterday morning to the channel that lies just east of the cove. Harbor seals sometimes gather and sun on the big rocks that jut out of the water there. Golden brown beds of Knotted Wrack, or Ascophyllum nodosum, undulate and shimmy just beneath the surface. I glided straight into them, intending to skirt and circle the rocks, as I had done before, but instead — froomp! scrape! — my kayak ran aground on a big chunk of speckled granite just beneath the water’s surface (and partly hidden by the Knotted Wrack anchored to it). I was stuck, sitting atop a rock in the middle of the water, a good distance from shore. It felt a little absurd, or like something out of a cautionary tale.

After trying and failing to push off the rock with my paddle, I gained a better appreciation of my precarious situation. Apply too much force, and the kayak would tip; a roll would probably subject me to a beating against the rock. The wrong move and I would end up in the water, most likely cut and bruised, struggling to right the boat. The seaweed would make the rocks slippery.

No need to exaggerate the peril I was in: I was wearing a life vest, and though the water is cold here in Maine, it’s not so cold that if for some reason I failed to recover the boat I could not swim to shore, which I reckoned would take about twenty minutes. Losing my glasses (which, this time out, I had not fastened to my head with a cord) was among my concerns. I understood that I might have to struggle for a short while in the water. I didn’t want to struggle blind.

Keeping calm was essential, and it was also the most instructive part of the experience. Having formed a mental picture of my situation, I had to keep it clearly in view but I could not let it rattle me. The granite and the Knotted Wrack could be my undoing, or I could do something. Acting was less a matter of mastering than of working through my fear: not retreating into panic, but taking stock of risks and understanding what steps I could take to get my kayak unstuck.

When I ran aground, I had been running with the current, east and slightly north, into the channel. With a slow, deliberate reverse paddle, I managed to turn the boat on the rock, pivoting counter-clockwise, so that the bow now pointed west and faced the oncoming current. It was gentle, but enough to help create a little play between the kayak and the rock. Grasping the paddle as a tightrope walker holds his pole to balance, I thrust forward with my hips, as I sometimes do to inch my way into the water when I am launching the boat from shore. I was then able to paddle safely away.

I’ve written before about standing on quicksand. This Knotted Wrack adventure seems to pose another kind of dilemma: the problem wasn’t that I was sinking. I had run aground on an unexpected chunk of terra firma, and I had to struggle alone to get unstuck, right myself and push off. But as I’ve reflected on my experience, it has led to some of the same considerations as the quicksand problem. Take this relatively simple dilemma of getting the boat off the rock and scale it up: imagine a two-person canoe, or a ship with many hands on deck, or another perilous situation involving two, three, or even hundreds, thousands, billions of people. Then you start dealing with questions of cooperation and power.

The last people in the world who should be responding to a situation like this are those who cannot acknowledge its reality or remain calm in the face of it; and it occurs to me that those may amount to the same thing. Denial might be nothing more than a reactive token of fear, and widespread denial — like climate-change denial — might be a reactionary kind of moral panic, even though deniers are quick to call others alarmist.

Nussbaum on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

I turned to Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness to gain a better understanding of the transactional model of conversation and what it might and might not comprise, and to think a little more about why it’s of little help, or at least insufficient, when it comes to cooperative undertakings. Here, Nussbaum presents a broad philosophical and historical look at transactional forgiveness in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and while she doesn’t directly address my much more modest concern, some of what she says about transactional forgiveness — a “central theoretical concept in medieval and modern Jewish philosophy and…highly influential…in the Christian tradition” — applies to what I have said in previous posts about asking and bidding.

For my purposes, the main trouble with transactional forgiveness as Nussbaum describes it — and a shortcoming of the transactional in general — is that it involves scorekeeping. (Imagine a conversation about what to do that was tallied as a ledger of asks and bids. You might be able to measure what’s practicable, but it seems unlikely that tally would be of much use to two people who were committed to doing anything together at all. It might just generate a backward-looking mindset, constant interruption to check who allowed for what, or conflict and resentment.)

When it comes to forgiveness, the scoreboard is a register of the wrongs one has committed and the forgiveness one has obtained by confessing to each count, pleading for forgiveness and doing the appropriate penance. For Nussbaum, this makes people especially prone to the payback error, the notion that score-settling, or allaying the anger of the wronged party, will set things right once and for all in some cosmic balance.

This all makes for an “anxious and joyless” life, in which the “primary commitment to God fills up the whole of one’s life”: all this keeping track of one’s performance or non-performance in relation to an angry God means there is “simply not much room to look at or care for another human being as such, and certainly no room for spontaneity, passion or play.” This is a point to which Nussbaum returns a number of times, and it’s one I would emphasize as well in talking about the ways a transactional mindset can obstruct and frustrate human relationships.

The transactional life is full of “worry.” One must always be watchful, take note of every transgression, scrupulously confess every wrongful act or omission and, in the Christian tradition, every wrongful desire and wish.

The transactional forgiveness process is perfectionistic and intolerant in its own way. The list-keeping mentality that it engenders is tyrannical toward human frailty, designedly so. We must constantly scrutinize our humanity, and frequently punish it. At least the Jewish tradition limits the scrutiny to things that a person can be expected to control. The transactional strand of the Christian tradition contains no such limitations and is consequently…punitive toward the everyday…. Stoic philosopher Epictetus’ instruction, “Watch over yourself as if an enemy is lying in wait,” could easily have been said by many a Christian thinker — or by many a parish priest.

“Ritualized and coercive,” transactional forgiveness leaves “no room for generosity or spontaneity”; nothing is “freely given.” Instead of taking an open, constructive and pragmatic attitude toward our shared future, we are stuck worrying over every little thing each has said or thought or done.