compassion and grace

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amanda-gore/compassion-tips_b_2189837.html?utm_hp_ref=gps-for-the-soul&ir=GPS%20for%20the%20Soul

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Compassion and Grace

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Here are a few tips to develop the virtues of compassion and grace in your life.

Start with yourself! The best place to start is often the most challenging — compassion for ourselves! We are usually our own worst enemy, expecting ourselves to be perfect and being the first to judge and condemn ourselves.

Your first task is to accept yourself just the way you are — “warts” and all — and to give yourself grace. Catch yourself when you criticize yourself and question the validity of what you are telling yourself.

Be wary of the judgments you use on yourself. Are you really a loser? Ugly? Hopeless? Or whatever unhelpful thing you label yourself as. You are doing the best you can in all areas of your life, given your current level of skills and knowledge. Remind yourself of that constantly.

If you know you are not doing your best, then change things so you are.

The mission of The Joy Project is to develop your capacity in all areas of life so you can, and do, unconditionally accept and love yourself — which means you can truly love others.

Review and forgive. Rudolf Steiner suggests a great exercise: At the end of every day, review everything that happened — backward. Forgive yourself for any mistakes you made. Forgive others for the mistakes they might have made. Bless the day and the lessons you might have learned.

Bless everyone who helped you by presenting an opportunity to learn those lessons!

See the big picture. Being compassionate means you have the ability to see a bigger picture of what is really going on. Most of our judgments and irritations and frustrations come when we are caught in our own little drama world and we don’t have an understanding of all the elements involved.

Steven Covey tells a story of going home on a train one evening after work in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He is tired and crabby and just wants a peaceful trip home. At one station a young man with three small children boards the train and sits next to Covey. The children are running all over the train, disturbing passengers and making a noise. After a while, an irritated Covey asks the man to control his children.

The young man is startled, apologizes and says, “We have just come from the hospital where their mother died.” In a heartbeat, Covey’s behavior changes from irritation to compassion and caring. Understanding the whole picture changes everything.

Consciously look for and ask questions to give you more insight into all aspects of a situation before you respond with anything other than compassion!

Remember we are all connected. If you behave selfishly, you are disconnected from the whole! In this state it is difficult to have compassion for others. Whatever you do affects others — we really are all one. We share the air we breathe, and there is a collective consciousness that affects us all. If you don’t believe that, think of how one person’s mood can affect an entire team or family.

What you do does matter, and so does what you think, because it shines out in the spirit in which you do things! Being compassionate means you are aware of the influence you have on everyone and everything.

Be kind — it’s a start to compassion! I remember hearing Wayne Dyer say, “It’s better to be kind rather than right.” How true! Think about that the next time you are in a “battle” of wills, which is really a battle of our egos trying to control others.

Consciously chose kindness. You will be more peaceful, and your heart will be more joyful!

Give others the benefit of the doubt. This is the simple way of giving others grace. We are continually blessed with grace. We make mistakes all the time and are constantly forgiven. Each time a toddler falls over when learning to walk, we don’t berate them and point out how stupid they are! If we did, they would never survive emotionally. Nor do we assume they are trying to fail.

Yet, when others make mistakes around us, or behave in certain ways, we jump at the chance to assume the worst! We assume (making an ass out of you and me!) that people are talking about us, or that they are out to get us.

Stop it! Believe that people are doing their best and always take the “high road.” That what they are doing has good intentions. Most people don’t wake up wondering how they can make your life miserable! Remind yourself of that.

Be tender: Remind yourself everyone is fighting a hard battle! This gives you patience and tolerance and helps you treat others with tenderness.

Being tender not only makes you feel better but lifts others’ spirits and connects you heart to heart. It’s especially important in personal relationships. We find it easy to be tender with children, but our expectations (which determine our reality) are much harsher for adults!

Listen to your heart. It will always choose the compassionate path! Be aware of your compassion intelligence. Are you using it every moment, especially in the middle of a fight, argument or disagreement?

As the Dalai Lama says, “The true aim of the cultivation of compassion is to develop the courage to think of others and to do something for them.” It’s much easier to be selfish!

So there you have it — just a few small, daily steps that will allow compassion to flow from your heart to all those around you. You may be surprised at how much more popular you “suddenly” become.

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alda-sigmundsdottir/emotional-health_b_2246212.html?utm_hp_ref=gps-for-the-soul&ir=GPS%20for%20the%20Soul

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The Most Interesting Part of Human Experience:  Emotional Dimension

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Recently, while listening to “The Moth” (one of my absolute favourite podcasts), I heard the storyteller say this: The emotional dimension is the least interesting part of the human experience. 

I had to go back and listen again to make sure I had heard correctly, because this just boggles my mind. How can anyone not be interested in the emotional dimension of human experience?

To me, the emotional dimension is the most interesting part of human experience. Exploring the emotional dimension has been for me like exploring a landscape filled with thrilling revelations and experiences, beauty, truth, joy, exaltation, intense pain and the innumerable other nuances that constitute being human.

The narrator in that Moth story was a scientist, and in listening it was brought home to me that not everyone is like I am — some people find beauty and truth and joy and exaltation in concrete stuff like facts and numbers and formulas. Which to me seems absolutely bizarre — but to them, I assume it is no less real than the emotional dimension is to me.

My fascination with the emotional realm began years ago when I fell into a black hole that some people termed “depression.” I have always disliked that word, to me it seems too generic, too limited, to describe the countless shades of the emotional black holes that exist in the psychological universe. “Depression” conjures up visions of someone who is “down,” who maybe has low self-esteem, and who doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning because they just can’t face the day. To me it doesn’t quite do justice to getting up every single day to battle demons you don’t have a name for, or going outside only after dark because you need to be invisible — because going out in broad daylight is too intense, and it means that everyone can look at you and judge you and hate on you in the worst possible way (or so it seems to your twisted mind). It doesn’t quite capture the feeling of being possessed by a strange and evil power that inhabits your mind and your body and that you can only call “it” — a power that is as real to you as those people you encounter on the street and who you are convinced are your enemies. That power that incessantly whispers about your worthlessness and how you will never be set free from your own self-hatred and own self-destruction, that you will never have the happiness you so long for because “it” owns you, now and forever.

Maybe scientists don’t fall into those sorts of black holes because they have names for them. I don’t know.

In my case, it was one of my greatest blessings in life to be forced to confront that intense spiritual malaise that threatened to eat me alive. In doing so, I learned some of the most important lessons I could ever hope to learn — essential lessons about myself, about this strange journey called life, and also about other people. I learned how we all have stages that we need to go through in order to be whole and stable and functional in life, and if we get thrown off the rails, so to speak, we don’t get there. I also learned that none of us make it to that destination without being thrown off the rails — the only variable is how far off we are thrown, and how well equipped we are to get back on track. Some people never manage it. Some people stay possessed forever and are eventually destroyed by their own inner darkness. I’m sure we all know of people like that.

But it is in finding our way back to the track that tests our character, that makes us strong as people. And becoming the best versions of ourselves that we can ever be is a lifelong process — and one that I find utterly fascinating.

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christina-patterson/the-conference-that-showe_b_2260272.html

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The Conference That Showed That Compassion Can Be Taught

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Everyone smiled. The woman who greeted me on the door smiled and the woman who told me where to register smiled and so did the woman who gave me a badge. Perhaps these women always smile, or perhaps they thought they had to. Perhaps they thought that if you were running a conference on “empathy and compassion in society,” aimed at “professionals in education, health and social care,” the least you could do was smile.

You might think “professionals in education, health and social care” don’t need to be taught about compassion. You might think compassion was what got them into their jobs. You might, in that case, have been living in a world where you’ve never been in a hospital, or a care home, or a school. Compassion is what gets some people into nursing, teaching or social care. But compassion isn’t easy to keep up. Compassion, as those of us who have had experiences of the lack of it, in hospitals, doctors’ surgeries or relatives’ care homes, know, can fade.

“You don’t,” said the man on the stage, in the packed hall of Friends’ House in north London, “need to be religious to develop compassion for others. We need a secular approach to human values. I believe we can begin by acknowledging that everyone we meet is a human being just like us.” The man, who was called David Rand, and who was from something called the Tenzin Gyatso institute, was reading a message of support from the Dalai Lama. Quite a few who were taking part in the conference quoted the Dalai Lama. Quite a few people were practising Buddhists, though most, apparently, weren’t.

I’d already wiped a tear away at footage of the youth conference at the Royal Festival Hall the day before. “It’s vitally important we have our eyes opened,” said a young Londoner on the giant screen with the kind of smile that makes you want to smile, too. “I just sent a text to my mum, saying how much I loved her,” said a girl whose big, blue eyes were shining. “I went to the youth conference yesterday,” said the filmmaker Roger Graef when the footage ended, “and was very moved by the whole thing.” He had, he explained, made a film about the neglect of old people called Who Cares? He’d made another one called The Truth About Adoption and another one called Kids in Care. On the night the film about adoption was screened, he said, all the websites for adoption agencies crashed.

“We need compassion,” said a professor of clinical psychology called Paul Gilbert, perhaps stating the obvious, “because life is hard.” Our brains, he explained, have “all kinds of motives that come from our evolutionary past.” Using slides of people, and animals, and a mouse wearing, for some reason, a crash helmet, he set out some of the principles of evolutionary psychology that had shaped his thought. We have, he explained, built-in biases. We’re tribal, but it’s not our fault. The genes in his frontal cortex, he said, would be “very different” if he’d been kidnapped by a violent gang.

When he finished, another Paul spoke. This Paul, who’s also a clinical psychologist, has done pioneering work in the study of emotions for 40 years. He spoke in a video from California and later via Skype. “We probably see more suffering in a week than our ancestors saw in a lifetime,” Paul Ekman said. “What does it do to our brains?”

A pretty young woman called Olga Klimecki tried to give us some answers. She had just finished a PhD on “training the compassionate and empathic brain.” When she started, she said, there were no “longitudinal studies.” The brain activation, she explained, as she showed us slides of brain scans, with bits in red and blue, was “very different” in a “compassionate state” than in a “non-compassionate state,” or a state of pain.

“A teacher at a high-school graduation,” said the next speaker, Patrick Gaffney, “shocked his students when he told them: ‘You are not special. Even if you were one in a million, there would be 7,000 just like you.’ We seem,” he said, “to have created a world in which we’re more and more concerned with ourselves.” To cultivate compassion, he said, we “need to have some ability to focus activity.” But our minds, apparently, can wander away from what we’re supposed to be doing 47 percent of the time.

Mine, if I’m honest, already had. I was interested, but as well as not having time for special acts of kindness, I hadn’t had time for lunch. But in the break, help loomed. As a woman played a harp, smiling staff poured mugs of tea and served giant slabs of cake. These people, I thought, know how to be kind to me.

After the break, Yotam Heineberg talked about his work with gangs. With Rony Berger, a clinical psychologist at Tel Aviv University, he has developed a programme for young people who are at risk of violence, or who are suffering post-traumatic stress. Their Erase Stress program has reached more than 50,000 children whose lives have been hit by natural disasters, terrorism, or war. Children, he said, “get trapped in the cycle of violence.” Their brains get “programmed to think in terms of hateful threats.” Their work, he said, can break the cycle.

Christine Longacre, a former director of a hospice, has done pioneering work of her own. “After my first husband died,” she explained, “I was complaining to an acquaintance who’s a doctor about some of the additional suffering we went through. The doctor said, ‘you don’t know what our training’s like. The ones who survive the dehumanising effect of it are the ones who cut off.'” She has developed a five-month training course in “contemplative end-of-life care.” Greater “physician empathy,” she explained, “has been associated with better patient outcomes and fewer medical errors.”

“If you want to change the future,” said the next speaker, Mary Gordon, “you have to go to school.” And 17 years ago, she did. When she met women whose lives had been “blighted by violence,” she decided to try to tackle the problem at its root. The result is a program called “Roots of Empathy,” which now runs in seven countries around the world. They start by bringing a mother and baby into a classroom, and training the children to observe the baby’s feelings. At the end of the year, the children make wishes for the baby. “They say,” she said, and it made me want to cry, “that they hope Baby Billy gets a daddy, or has a friend, or isn’t bullied, or that his dad gets out of jail.”

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said the economist Richard Layard in the final session, “before people feel that other people are on their side.” But he is doing his best. He has written reports on happiness for governments and the UN, and campaigned for “resilience” programs, and parenting classes, in the House of Lords. “The key determinant of your happiness,” he said, “is your mental health. If you’re not at peace with yourself, you can’t give much to other people.”

“The point of the conference,” said Vinciane Rycroft afterwards, was to look at “the different approaches to compassion and the science, ethics, politics and reality on the ground.” She runs a charity called Mind with Heart, which aims to give young people the social and emotional skills they need to build “a more sustainable society.” She didn’t present her own work, she said, even though she organised the conference, and the day of workshops that followed, because “you have to walk the talk” and give others a chance.

Yes, if you’re doing this stuff, you do. You could just preach about compassion, but the proof is in the studies, the scans and the “narrative interviews” with people whose lives have been changed. The proof, in fact, is in the pudding — and, of course, the cake.

compassioninsociety.org

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welcome changing times    –

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Lady Gaga: An Avatar for Our Times?

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Madonna modelled herself on a sexually unrestrained, powerful and de-sanitised version of Marilyn Monroe and rebelled against patriarchal Catholic constraints of the feminine, using the notion of wanton sexuality as her arsenal. Michael Jackson refused to be categorised according to race and gender and mixed these up in both theatrics and surgery, to much public speculation and psychoanalysis. Freddy Mercury was openly sexually promiscuous and gay and celebrated his choices with an engaging and charismatic physical vitality.

These are just some of the groundbreaking pop icons that Lady Gaga has modelled herself upon. She has said in interviews that her influences are rooted in the past and include singers (David Bowie), actors (Marlene Dietrich), artists (Picasso) and filmmakers (Hitchcock/Fellini).

The result is a hodgepodge that many outside of her fan base find difficult to attribute sense and meaning to.

But perhaps Gaga is an icon that is not meant to be understood or defined. Certainly, she has done more to engage the world in a speculative debate about what she is than any of her predecessors who, though complex, were much easier to pigeonhole. Gaga, it seems, is indefinable.

Reading Gaga through the postmodern literary lens, as if engaging with an open-ended text, is perhaps one way to grasp the slippery Gaga phenomenon. Like a postmodern writer, she has borrowed from the stable that preceded her and has plagiarized, layered herself and constructed a bricolage into the sculptural persona she has become and upon whom it is difficult to attach a singular interpretation.

Gaga is a metanarrative. There is an element of reflexive self-consciousness in all her spectacular public appearances. She has openly declared that she went back and looked at who was original, quirky, offbeat, different and then used all these influences to write herself. This has resulted in a multilayered, mosaiced and exploded spectacle that cannot be categorized or contained in a definite critique.

While some attribute deep meaning to her persona others decry it as meaningless.

Drawing from theorist Roland Barthes’s text The Death of an Author, Lady Gaga reads like a text, which does not rely on deep meaning or lucidity. She becomes a “multi- dimensional space in which a variety of influences, none of them original, blend and clash.” She has set herself up as an “eternal copyist,” at once sublime and over the top and whose profound ridiculous dimensions of the spectacular indicates precisely the truth of any art form. The contemporary artist “can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.”

One could easily believe that she has imbibed Barthes’s theory into her own assemblage — that the artist’s only power is to mix influences, “to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.”

Gaga is a modern day Alice in Wonderland and she appeared on the scene as if she had just arrived through the looking glass.

Hers is a macro-text that makes use of borrowing, parodying, quoting and mimicking other art forms with an emphasis on pastiche, bricolage and intertextuality. The entire wonderland spectacle that she pieces together seems to be a bizarre pictorial play on various theories, including Dada, Deconstruction, Horror, Body Grotesque and Monstrous Feminine. Her use of the term ‘Mother Monster’ is not unintentional.

Unlike other pop icons such as Britney Spears, she has not relied on overt sexual performance to up her street cred — neither does her sex appeal lie in the groin thrusting palpable sexuality of Madonna. It is more a kind of untouchable exhibition of the possibility of sexual adventure. It is there, both hidden and exposed, and definitely not to please the patriarchal view of a woman. Gaga is both self-contained and open. She plays with gender roles. Her sex appeal clearly speaks of a new form of sexuality that is not rooted in 20th Century feminism, but in a contemporary androgyny that expresses self-pleasing rather than other-pleasing.

Could it be then that Lady Gaga is indeed the first icon that resonates with a postmodern reality?

She is a postmodernist in every sense of the word. She has set herself apart from the 20th Century modernists who try to uphold the idea that “works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning that has been lost in most of modern life.

As literary theorist Mary Klages points out, “Postmodernism, in contrast, doesn’t lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality or incoherence, but rather celebrates that.” The motto here is: “The world is meaningless? Let’s not pretend that art can make meaning then, let’s just play with nonsense.” And this is what Gaga does in both her appearance and her music, which some have compared to nonsense nursery rhymes.

Gaga’s music, though described as bubblegum pop, is infused with deconstructive discourse and pulls apart the ethereal meaning that the public has attached to sanitised icons such as Lady Di (Lady Die) or a White Jesus (Black Jesus). So detractors of her music would do well to listen to her lyrics. Like Facebook memes which distribute radical feminist theory in easy pictorial quotes, perhaps bubblegum pop is the way to deliver a message that explodes and deconstructs societal hero-worshipping trends.

Whether this is her intention or not does not really matter. What matters more is that Lady Gaga is an open text — you can read her in any way you want. Who she is relies solely on the beholder’s interpretation of her. She is authored by her fans and she signifies the possibility of a futuristic cyber form of entertainment which relies more on computer-generated hype than flesh and blood.

Could it be then, that Lady Gaga is an avatar and not a human being — at least in the collective imaginary of her huge fan-base?

In computing, an avatar is the graphical representation of the user or the user’s alter ego or character. It may take either a three-dimensional form, as in games or virtual worlds, or a two-dimensional form as an icon in Internet forums and other online communities. The thing about a computer avatar is that the author is the user. It is he /she that dresses the character, chooses the hair, the look, the colour and so on. The avatar becomes the perfect conduit for personal neurosis, dreams, desires and fantasies.

Gaga models herself, perhaps unwittingly, on what a collective avatar would look like. Her sculptural, varied and bizarre outfits feed into the collective psyche of multifarious alter egos allowing many to believe that they have some hand in her creation — that they are the authors.

As the first huge star of the digital age this goes some way to making sense of her. She dresses outlandishly, she makes scant commentary on media platforms, she avoids the paparazzi’s invasion of her private life and her stage appearances are massively electronic and impersonal.

She fulfils the conservative mainstream’s political expectations by not taking sides and writing off activism as irrelevant — yet she will support the LGBTI movement. She wears animal fur and remains unapologetic to the many fans who challenged her on this issue. She will speak against some human rights abuses yet still ignore an appeal from Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel to boycott Israel.

Here in South Africa, she visited the Mara Primary School in Soweto, yet her security team prevented the children’s parents from entering the school — a bewildering and upsetting experience for the children and the parents.

All of this ambivalence suggests that she may not be human after all, but a cyber manifestation of the collective contradictory transferences and projections from the digital-savvy youth who have the power to create their own avatars in the endless cyber-fantasy world that is available nowadays.

Like a computer-generated avatar she changes her art, her definition, her outfits, her politics as if it is the collective imagination controlling her and not herself.

It is in the massive fan base and adulation she receives that we can be assured that she is fulfilling an archetypal notion that exists in the collective, and given the breakdown in meaning and logic of world events, it is a shattered mirror archetype indicative of a fragmented world.

She carries this fragmented worldview on her small frame like a slippery skin. She is both celebratory and cerebral, both computerized and human, both compassionate and inhumane. She is everyone and no one. Her appeal relies on both her presence and her evanescence.

Perhaps then, she is actually a post postmodern digital icon that heralds a future that those of us born in the 20th Century simply cannot grasp in full.

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-celia-greenfield/jane-austen-weekly-irony_b_2253356.html?utm_hp_ref=arts&ir=Arts

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Jane Austen Weekly: The Truth About Irony

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These days, I’m having a lot of trouble with irony. Sometimes I’m even afraid of the concept. Imagine that — a literature professor afraid of irony. Isn’t that ironic?

Why am I afraid? First, there’s the basic problem of definition. In most literary critical uses of “irony,” M.H. Abrams writes, “there remains the root sense of dissimulation, or of a difference between what is asserted and what is actually the case.” So far so good.

But things get tricky whenever you try to apply these terms. For instance, how come it’s ironic when I say I am afraid of irony? There is no difference between what I have “asserted and what is actually the case.” I am afraid of irony. The irony enters because I am an English professor and English professors are supposed to understand irony, not fear it. The irony enters because I have admitted an unexpected truth.

Partly I’m afraid because irony is so variable. In literature, there is cosmic irony, dramatic irony, Romantic irony, and verbal irony (to name a few). There is Socratic irony, which can be either literary or philosophical. And, according to Jonathan Lear’s great book, A Case for Irony, philosophical irony subdivides into “the experience of irony,” a “capacity for irony,” and “ironic existence.”

As if this weren’t enough to make you want to pull your head off, consider the contradictory ways the word is currently used to describe America. A few weeks ago, Christy Wampole complained that irony is “the ethos of our age“; her op-ed went viral. Not so, responded Jonathan Fitzgerald: we’re still in the “New Sincerity moment.” After 9/11 Roger Rosenblatt famously wrote, “One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony.” Five years later, Brian Unger described contemporary comedy as an “irony industrial complex.” Two years after that, Joan Didion said America was an “irony-free zone.” Ahhhhh!

Look, I don’t know if we live in an age of irony or an age of sincerity. I’m just happy when I remember what year it is.

But this much I know is true. Austen is a master ironist. No novel better exemplifies Austen’s irony — or any irony for that matter — than Emma. And in Austen’s hands, irony is fundamentally good.

It is ironic that Emma believes Harriet Smith is too highborn to marry Mr. Martin when Harriet is illegitimate and Emma (like Cher in Clueless) is usually the most status-conscious girl in town. It is ironic (and unwittingly cruel) that Emma convinces Harriet that Mr. Elton is in love with her (Harriet) and then Mr. Elton proposes to Emma. It is ironic that despite her famed intelligence Emma doesn’t see the proposal coming. Her brother-in-law, Mr. John Knightley, warns her about the possibility. But Emma walks off, “amusing herself” with “the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are forever falling into.” It is ironic that Emma is accusing Mr. John Knightley when, unbeknownst to her, she is really describing herself!

It is ironic that after the debacle with Harriet, Emma vows to repress “imagination all the rest of her life” and then immediately launches into a fantasy about Jane Fairfax. Emma thinks Jane wants to steal the husband of Mrs. Dixon, Jane’s best friend. Yet Jane is secretly engaged to Frank Churchill, with whom Emma is shamelessly flirting. From Jane’s point of view, Emma is the potential husband thief. Meanwhile Harriet, who falls in love with Mr. Knightley, becomes Emma’s potential husband thief. That is, Harriet is to Emma what Emma wrongly imagines Jane is to her best friend. Got that?

It is ironic that, after Emma cruelly insults Miss Bates at Box Hill, Mr. Weston obliviously describes Emma as the standard of “perfection.” It is ironic that Emma seems threatened by Miss Bates even though Emma is young, “handsome, clever, and rich” and Miss Bates is “neither young, handsome, rich,” nor clever.

The insult itself is too mean-spirited to be ironic. Miss Bates is painfully vulnerable and dependent on the kindness of neighbors. As Mr. Knightley puts it, “She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to.” Emma loathes Miss Bates’s non-stop talking and her endless (and sincere) professions of gratitude. At Box Hill, when Miss Bates self-deprecatingly prepares to say three “very dull” things, Emma says, “Pardon me — but you will be limited as to number — only three at once.” Afterwards, Mr. Knightley lashes into Emma. “How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent… to a woman of her character, age, and situation?” Ironically, Emma does not even realize what she has done.

When the awareness is forced upon her, Emma is “vexed beyond what could have been expressed.” This from a character who has (or so she thinks) lived “nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” “Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved at any circumstance in her life.” Emma, who lives at “Hartfield” feels the heartlessness of her behavior “at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates?”

In A Case for Irony, Jonathan Lear describes an ideal form of “first personal” irony. It occurs when a person finds herself detached from her aspirations for — and belief in — herself. As human beings, Lear writes, we “make claims about who we are and the shape of our lives.” Irony occurs when a person recognizes the inaccuracy of these claims. John Ashbrook tried to synthesize the point when he interviewed Lear. So, Ashbrook said, “Real irony” is “the gap between what we are actually doing and what we attest we ought to be doing.” Yes, Lear said, but under the best circumstances, this irony is disturbing and anxiety-provoking. An individual is grabbed, shaken and disoriented by the recognition that the she is not the person she says she is and thought she was.

This is precisely what happens to Emma after she insults Miss Bates. Until this moment, Emma believed she had a “happy disposition,” believed she could control everyone around her, and believed she was an essentially good person. Now Emma is so “depressed” she cries; she realizes she cannot even control herself, and she questions her very thoughts and character.

The good news about this irony, Lear says, is that it can be “as affirming as it is negating.” Drawing on Kierkegaard, he writes, “It is constitutive of human excellence that one develop a capacity for appropriately disrupting one’s understanding of what such excellence consists in.” I take this to mean that to approach human excellence an individual must doubt her own capacity for human excellence and doubt that she even knows what human excellence is. (By this standard I, myself, am Mother Teresa.) Instead of encouraging detachment, Lear told Ashbrook, this kind of irony can foster a “deep re-commitment to the fundamental value with which we started.”

Does Emma approach this kind of human excellence? I don’t think so. She ends the novel re-committed to socioeconomic hierarchies and to the traditional values of marriage, not just for everyone else, but for herself. She marries Mr. Knightley who has been her surrogate mother and father and who has, as he tells Emma, “been in love with you ever since you were thirteen at least.” These days he would be arrested.

But as for literary excellence, there is no doubt. Emma sets the standard of perfection. And it does so partly because of its mind-blowing irony.

 

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