Sunday, August 23, 2015

Not Zen 171: Results

A professor took her ethics class on a field trip across town. During the trip, she pointed out the porches at the front of old row houses. Her students wondered if they were similar to the stoa in ancient Greece where neighbors met to discuss philosophies.

"Yes," she said. "Front porches are a long-lasting idea."

"No one's using them."

"Well, we have air conditioning," said her teaching assistant. "Nowadays it's more comfortable inside."

"Things have changed," the professor agreed. "Different technologies have led us to different forms of discussion."

They talked about the past and how debates on morality once were long, methodical, and public. They argued about the old religious bans against ancient philosophies. Everyone agreed that spiritual matters needed to be discussed without recriminations. A few young men took the view that vows of poverty, like those taken by Cynics and a few Stoic philosophers, demonstrated commitment to spiritual endeavors. The professor took the contrary position that, if one felt a need to demonstrate detachment from material success in order to impress skeptics, the act became suspect. Detachment from worldly desires, to her, included a lack of desire to impress others.

When they arrived at the museum, the professor took her class on the standard tour. They stopped to examine ancient artifacts and exchange views on the cultures to which they belonged. Afterwards, they visited a famous church a block away.

Outside the church, the group of young men who had debated about vows of poverty declared that they would hike home.

"Is this wise?" asked the professor. "It will be a long, hot walk."

"It's good for us," said the most outspoken one. "A little hardship is normal. Anyway, some of us may prove resourceful and find better ways to return. We'll meet you at the college."

The professor sighed. "All right. If you're not waiting for me when I get back, I expect to see you in class tomorrow."

"Of course."

The young men started their march through the city in the peak of the afternoon. They grew overheated and impatient in a few minutes. They were not gregarious. None of them enjoyed the company of the others for long. They split into groups of two or three. Often, the groups drifted further apart. Students started to walk alone.

The outspoken one saw the situation and racked his mind to come up with a better way. He had slowed behind a pair of his friends. Each wore a light shirt with an open collar. They seemed content to stroll. They had mentioned, too, that they wanted to stop for dinner. They did not seem to be taking their temporary impoverishment seriously. 

He turned a corner and picked up a leaf. A bum they'd passed on the first block of their journey had given him the idea. He pulled a comb out of his pocket. Between the leaf and comb, he could make a kazoo. That would improve upon the bum's attempt at busking, which had been merely to hum with a hand outstretched.

"Bus fare!" he shouted. He threw down a bandana and placed a quarter in it. 

With the comb-and-leaf instrument, he played a tune. It was a ridiculous. The absurdity made him smile, which made passers-by grin. He danced and played the kazoo for another song, then another. An elderly woman threw down a dollar bill. A fellow in a business suit tossed down some change. In a few minutes, he had fare for the trip home.

As he picked up the money and bandana, another student watched.

The second young man had also left his group. He had no money and he'd thought he had no means to obtain any. He'd been contemplating how long the hike would take. Now he'd seen an answer to his predicament. As the first student departed, he took out his own comb. 

He snatched up a scrap of paper from the curb. He threw down his hat.

He began playing even before he thought of a tune. Probably, he guessed, it didn't matter. He shuffled his feet and mimed gestures like a fool. After a minute, he felt exhausted. He started to sprinkle jokes between his musical attempts. He kept going.

His jokes seemed to make people turn away. He reached out harder. He played less on his comb. He shouted his next joke.

"You're scaring away customers!" called a shop manager behind him. She was an older woman, dark haired, who ran a laundry.

"Then just give me my bus fare." he retorted. 

She folded her arms and shook her head. He turned away from her and resumed playing. He kept playing and dancing despite her protests. He reached out a hand to passers-by. The dodged around him. No one gave him money. In ten minutes, a policeman appeared on the scene.

"You're under arrest," the officer announced. "The charge is vagrancy. I've gotten two calls about you."

The officer cuffed the student on the spot. For a moment, the young man thought about resisting, maybe just running away, but he knew he didn't have the speed. Anyway, then he would get lost and he'd still need to hike across the city.

Early the next morning, the professor, her teaching assistant, and a pair of fellow students came to obtain the release of their jailed companion. The teaching assistant kept saying that she couldn't believe anyone could have such bad judgment.

"But he made the same decision that I did." From behind bars, the arrested student pointed to the other one, the fellow who had played the kazoo for his fare. "What makes my decision a bad one?"

"You could have done many things, including simply ask others for fare money." The professor shook her head sadly. "You could have explained your predicament. You could have offered to do work. You could have begged a ride. So many choices."

"You think I'm unwise because I'm unoriginal?"

"Originality is not the point." The professor nodded as the police officer handed her a release form. She signed. "You should have an idea of whether or not you can execute your decisions. This is not something that philosophy students like to hear - that in real life there is not just the decision but execution. You must have the awareness necessary to react and adjust if things go wrong. You must have the ability to reflect on yourself or you will not learn."

"My action was morally the same. It was."

"A moral decision is the beginning of wisdom but not the entirety. As you make your choices, you must do so with an awareness of yourself and the precise situation. That is how you go from moral decisions to moral actions."

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