September 16, 2013

Old Man In the Library: When Knowledge Is Rendered Pointless

Late sixties or early seventies I'd guess, capped with a hat my younger brother would buy from a thrift store and dressed in a shirt and blue jeans he has probably owned for years, his big, hairy hands were frenzying about stacking and re-stacking numerous audio books he had picked out for himself atop the shelf, as if organizing them into some system only he knew. I was curiously browsing the rows, nonchalantly.

I glanced at his stack, hoping the direction of my eyes remained unnoticed by him, wondering what in the world this old man was after. War history, economics, politics, science, his interest ran broad. Toward the bottom of his stack I recognized Christopher Hitchens' Mortality and decided to comment since I had been listening to Hitchens' memoir Hitch-22 in my car that week and since he seemed inclined toward conversation.

The exact comment I made I do not recall. What I do remember is he bounced into conversation with me, as though he had been eagerly desiring it, as though he could hardly wait to tell me about his great stack of audio books. In a bewildering flurry, words and stories flew from his mouth.

He is a Vietnam veteran and a retired chemical engineer and completely obsessed with learning - that stack was all his! He told me he agreed with Hitchens. Religion poisons. I slipped in that I was a christian, which, in retrospect, I suppose was my way of informing him that I wasn't going to be hostile or argumentative (particularly since I, too, think some religion poisons quite resolutely). He wasn't phased, though I thought he might think it strange I would read Hitchens, being a popular fundamentalist atheist while he was alive.

This man reminded me of my friends Jeremy Strain and Ben Prindle and also myself, though my friends could actually hold a mature conversation. He continued talking, passionately commenting on Richard Dawkins - of course! - and having heard him lecture twice, somewhere in the area, Oliver Sacks, whose Hallucinations he recommended to me, being open to the truth, which I told him was a passion and concern of mine as well, and a variety of other topics he deemed suitable to bring up in this crash-coarse "conversation" I had been sucked into.

There was no break between his words and hardly time for taking a breath. Apparently, there was just too much to say to ease up and actually be present with another person, to receive what someone else might have to offer, however simple, however profound. Anything I wanted to say had to be coerced through his near impenetrable sentences.

His insatiable appetite for knowledge, and at his age, though at first was inspiring, quickly became, for me in that moment at least, his downfall. Once, I came close to stopping him mid-sentence - there was no other way - and offering him advice on how to actually converse with a stranger, or anyone for that matter, if he cared. Does he talk like this to everyone? My god! To me, knowledge about social and political issues, historical events, or ancient metaphysics amounts to nothing - as in who cares! - if that person is unable to hold a normal conversation with another human being.

I'm not saying this man sucks or I hate him. Nothing of the sort. If anything, I'm glad I encountered him. I just find the acquisition of facts or truth or reality coupled with the inability to shut your yapper and listen backwards. Wisdom is quick to listen, slow to speak, I'm nearly certain.

Eventually, I had to cut him off because it was time for me to leave the library and meet up with some friends who were by now surely waiting for me. I never got his name but I shook his burly hand and told him to enjoy his audio books. He assured me he would, though for some reason now I doubt he will.

Inside my mind or my heart or both there is a pitcher, sometimes empty, sometimes full, sometimes partly filled. And for a reason I am unaware and outside my control when people talk to me and for long periods of time, for me, my pitcher fills up quick. After this I begin to wane and need to pour out. But if someone talks with me, when they pour and I receive and then I pour and they receive I am energized and strengthened like little else.

This dance, this flow, this art - why, I don't know - has become a rare gift, possibly even among those in our society we should expect to find it. Like words and sacrifice emptied of love, knowledge and a searching for truth doesn't mean wisdom and maturity is the soil from which such a pursuit should flower up. It's a shame.

photo credit: Dietmar Temps via photopin cc / photo credit: ohhector via photopin cc