“I Don’t Know How You Do It”

This phrase leads a secret double life. Its day job is simple, normally an expression of praise and awe, a compliment to someone who deals with challenging life circumstances. The neighbor who cares for a disabled spouse while somehow holding down two other jobs, or the colleague battling cancer while raising a family and managing elderly parents.

When I first had my daughter, I heard these words often because I was parenting totally alone, finishing a graduate degree, and teaching – all at the same time and with no help from family. What’s more, my daughter’s first year was atypical: premature, poor weight gain, physical and speech therapy for nearly two years.

Like many new moms, I spent weekends talking to other parents on playgrounds, at play groups – the usual.

And that’s when I noticed that these words have a shadier life than I realized. That’s right, this phrase moonlights. It is bringing in beer money while the kids are in bed.

But sadly, the beer isn’t very good. It’s more like a stale wine cooler.

That’s because when people tossed out this apparent call of wonder – “I don’t know how you do it!” – they were generally not curious and not inviting conversation. In fact, the effect was more often the opposite: the phrase really served to shut down the possibility of exploration or connection. It was a way to sum up – and dismiss – my situation before the speaker had understood it.  A way of saying not “I don’t know” but “I don’t really want to know.” In some cases the vibe was disapproving, veering toward, “That’s crazy and wrong!”

So I began to understand that this phrase was living in disguise, not really a compliment but a coded sign of difference, exclusion.

The early parenting years are now behind me, and I’m lucky to have friends who really want to know how things are.

But the crucial point is how this tendency to reject other people’s experiences plays out on a cultural scale. Einstein’s words, “Imagination is more important than knowledge” is now something of a cultural cliché, but it’s worth probing a bit. As Einstein intended, the quote is widely applied to learning itself: Imagination (rather than knowledge alone) is a crucial ingredient for progress and evolution of many kinds.

Implicit in this idea is that imagination is necessary for new knowledge because discoveries, technologies, and species  – which eventually become conventional knowledge – depend on the exercise of imagination. So even if imagination is more valuable than knowledge, they are in fact interdependent.

The relationship might be more important than the hierarchy.

This idea has huge consequences for the social interactions that shape culture. Precisely because we cannot know absolutely the experience of another person, we can only learn more by taking the trouble to find out and using what we hear to imagine a life different from our own. Imagination, it turns out, is also a necessary ingredient of empathy.

Why does this matter? Because without empathy, there can be no social progress. Without some understanding of the experiences of others, it’s hard to justify policy supporting the needs of people in diverse societies.

Case in point: the news cycle has long discarded this story, but I’m still wondering how Michelle Knight, Gina DeJesus, and Amanda Berry (and her young daughter) survived imprisonment in the house of monster for a decade. I’m not talking tabloid curiosity here. We need not indulge in bad taste and pry out the grim details. I want to know how these women survived and will survive the psychological fallout – and not in the broken-down catharsis of talk shows either – but in the basic sense of human suffering and the stories that human beings have told for millennia as a way to make sense of it.

Entertainment is not the goal, in part because this wondering encourages me to notice another important social fact: Ariel Castro, the deranged captor, had already escaped justice for the crime of domestic violence against his former wife, whom he had beaten so badly that she suffered a blood clot in her brain, among other injuries.

I want to know how that crime was allowed to go unpunished. And I want to know how we can prevent similar situations from happening in the future (for a great start, read this blog).

This type of empathy would necessarily change some of our everyday personal interactions. It would mean shifting from the fatuous, “I don’t know how you do it” (which is, after all, a given) to, “so, how do you do it” – an invitation to imagine and know.

The ethics behind this question might seem irritating, like a finger-wagging preschool exercise on selflessness. Ultimately, though, it’s about much more: If we’ve closed ourselves off to other people’s pain, we are also likely missing out on a lot of joy. Shutting out the kind of empathy nurtured by imagination is to live a muted company-guy existence  – a life no doubt fed by the stifling corporate culture that now runs much of the world. That culture goes out of its way to stifle how much we want to imagine – and hence know – about other people. The result is escape from the colleague’s dark hours of chemo, the friend’s demoralizing drug addiction, and in the worse cases, the awful suffering wrought by a neighbor’s insanity. But it also means exclusion from the joy of unexpected recovery, the hopeful life that appears out of nowhere.

I’d rather take the pain with the joy.

How do you do it?

Noun, Verb, Proverb…

On a college language exam asking for the eight parts of speech, a befuddled student offered these three words before petering out.

I’m glad the poor soul gave up early. Who knows what might have come next, “adventure” instead of “adverb”?

Clearly the exam was something of an adventure as “pronoun” got conflated with “verb.” If only there could be special words that take the place of verbs, it’d save us so much work! Actually, some words already do, like the way I just used “do” as shorthand for “save us so much work” in the preceding sentence.

This is why dictionary.com lists one definition (early 20th cent.) of “proverb” as “a word that can substitute for a verb or verb phrase,” by analogy of “pronoun.” But no such listing appears in the venerable OED (Oxford English Dictionary), and “proverb” has never won a coveted place as a part of speech.

I would like to think the student knew something about this, though that’s sort of like believing you meant to be charitable after losing your wallet.

But wishful thinking is persistent, so maybe this student is just deep. Maybe this promising young person thinks the parts of speech are too freaking dull anyway. Who cares about basic grammar?! Let’s get some real truth in here dammit!

Not all proverbs are mundane, on the order of “money talks,” “two wrongs don’t make a right,” and “when the going gets tough…” A few common ones have a nice ring and say something useful too, like “better the devil that you know than the one you don’t” and “don’t cut your nose off to spite your face.”

My parents taught me these two: “if you want something done, ask a busy person” (true) and “cold hands, warm heart” (quirky). Worthy scientists have actually bothered to prove that cold hands are not a sign of inner warmth.

Then there’s the less common but more interesting maxims, like “a cat may look at a king,” an English metaphor asserting meager rights for social inferiors. The intriguingly vague “No friendship can survive the gift of gold” raises all kinds of possibilities since it doesn’t specify the giver or the recipient. Does it mean one’s gift of gold to a friend will spoil the friendship? Or a friendship can’t survive a sudden fortune for one of the friends? What if both friends hit the jackpot?

Of course, there is no love lost between women and certain adages. Sadly, they are not BFFs, because most proverbs are rooted in conservative, popular belief and reflect centuries of the systematic dishonoring of women’s lives.

So along with justifying bad male behavior (“boys will be boys”) we have, “a woman, a cat, and a chimney should never leave the house,” “a woman, a dog, and a walnut tree: the more you beat them, the better they be,” and, “never run after a woman or a streetcar; there’ll be another along in a few minutes.” And A Dictionary of American Proverbs reveals that the custom of older women not revealing their age, which is still going strong, is rooted not in vanity but in social shame: “A woman over thirty who will tell her exact age will tell anything.”

But it’s not all vile. A gem among the rubble: “An aversion to women is like an aversion to life.” Let’s scrap the “like.”

So yes. I would like to think this student launched a clever protest against the perceived banality of basic grammar. Unfortunately I know better. More than a few college students don’t know the parts of speech precisely because many people believe this type of knowledge is déclassé. Students don’t need to memorize silly facts, the thinking goes, because it’s more important to know how to find, use, and evaluate information.

Which means you don’t need to know basic principles of how your own language works (let alone anyone else’s), or that the U.S. passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, or that some historians believe that language about gender discrimination was included in the act initially as a joke in an effort to scuttle the bill. Because you know, you can just look all those things up online.

Except that you can’t if you don’t even know they exist. The idea that basic facts can be simply summoned at will represents a colossal misunderstanding of what young people need to become literate human beings. If we don’t learn fundamental things about our own language and culture early on, we will have a very hard time grasping much else. There really is no way around this.

With that in mind, here is something that should be proverbial: The students who list “proverb” as a part of speech will someday be writing our wills, handling our real-estate transactions, and making crucial health decisions for us. Or they might be teaching our kids or taking care of us when we’re too helpless to do it ourselves.

But we’re not helpless yet. There’s still time to make sure the young’uns will one day torment the next generation by reciting the lines of a certain dead poet, the one who wrote something about how a little learning is a dangerous thing.

The phoenix theater in Venice fighting a threatened closure a few years back: "from fire one (i.e. the phoenix) can rise again, but not from ignorance."

The Phoenix Theater in Venice, plagued by several fires throughout its history: “from fire one can rise again, but not from ignorance.”