Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Power of Literacy

Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her.

He put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.


Not my favorite rhyme and one I choose not to do with the kids. Domestic imprisonment is not a theme I support. However, I came across another verse:


Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, had another and didn’t love her.

Peter learned to read and spell, and then he loved her very well. *


My interpretation? That literacy has the capacity to help open the heart to love. But how?


Fiction: Enlarges our power to imagine the other, to step inside other shoes.

A woman working with teens in jail asked them what they planned to do when they got out and was met with blank stares. She discovered that they couldn’t imagine a future, but simply reacted impulsively to the sensation of the moment, just moved from one sensation to another. She found out that none of them had been read or told stories as kids, none of them read books. They lacked the ability to project themselves into a story, into a situation, with multiple models of how they might respond. So she began telling them stories, eventually had them start writing their own story and that changed everything. 


Non-fiction: Encourages us to engage in ideas supported by authority.

“Author” and “authority” are connected and unlike “publishing” on Facebook, requires authentic background to present ideas coherently, with multiple references from other authors on the subject, often coupled with a practice of reflection combined with life experience. The reader can—and should—approach the ideas with both openness and a healthy doubt. By reading other points of view on the subject, one can establish one’s own point of view. Note— point of view is distinct from opinion, the latter frivolous and instinctive with no expectation of supporting data, the latter crafted from a more rigorous discipline. Not only does our healthy curiosity stay alive through non-fiction reading, but our capacity to think independently protects us from mindlessly accepting conspiracy theories or lies told by people purposefully manipulating us for their own ends. 


Poetry: Provides a direct road to the soul.

Poetry combines both the story aspect of fiction and the ideas of non-fiction, but it’s primary gift is like music, with the rhythms and musical sounds of language and images going directly to the soul and lifting us up to a larger world. Again, people who not only know that the soul is real, but are committed to enlarging their own through the encounter with poetry are people who might open up more fully to compassion, caring and love. 


Let me be clear. People in oral cultures can experience all three, telling stories around the campfire, discussing ideas, reciting poetry or singing their sung versions. It's not all about books. But in a literate culture, people who don’t read— meaning mostly people who can read, but choose not to—are often narrowed in their experience of the world, vulnerable to Fox News and Qanon insanities and less likely to open their minds and hearts in the way that both the world and their own souls need.


This is on my mind because I’m noticing how much happier my almost-six-year-old grandson Malik is since he has learned how to read. Last year, he was inching through those primary readers, but now he is as fluent as can be, reading chapter books effortlessly with a rhythmic flow and not even pausing at words like “camouflage, lasagna, sandcastles” and more, with good inflection and perfect comprehension. Not only has his imaginative world expanded, but his sense of accomplishment of independence, of growing toward a capable adulthood, has risen many notches. I can’t easily attribute the diminishment of whining or crabbiness solely to reading, but I suspect there’s a deep connection. He now has a private world into which he can retreat and the freedom to choose which worlds attract him. 


Joseph Campbell, one of the more influential and fascinating thinkers I’ve encountered in my life, said he had a five-year period where he read every day for eight hours. Like monks sitting in meditation in caves or John Coltrane practicing his horn “25 hours a day,” reading became his yogic practice that brought him into the fullness of his extraordinary capacity for thought, understanding and deep compassion. It’s an authentic path. One of many, but so freely available to all. 


 Thanks for reading this!


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