Eighteen years ago, Henry Feingold taught me to doubt. He was a high school history teacher, in his early thirties, and I, then fifteen, was one of his students — nourished, like nearly everyone else, on the bland and unexamined assumptions of the day. This was the eve of the Sixties. We had not yet turned against ourselves. Or shot a bullet through the front (or was it the back?) of a young President’s head. Or learned to question our country, our cities, our schools, our parents, our sex. To drug ourselves, when the questions became too painful. To smile what we thought was the Buddha smile, imagining we were accepting all we felt powerless to change.
Henry Feingold smiled, too — but it was a sadder, more ironic, and, in its own way, more hopeful smile than that. He took very little for granted, or so it seemed. Neither America’s innocence, nor its corruption. Neither the use of force, nor the trading of guns for flowers. He asked us questions no one had asked us before, and let them hang there, like exotic fruits. Skin, pulp, and seed, I swallowed.
I rarely think about Henry Feingold, but I did dream about him a few weeks ago, which is why I’m writing this. In my dream, I thanked him, for teaching me to doubt, which, my dream reminded me, is the beginning, and the very breath of faith. A simple faith — not in the words of a President, a lover, or a guru — but in our own ability to find the truth, by taking nothing on hearsay. To question, and by questioning, to know — if not the answer (sometimes we are not yet ready for the answer) at least the question, the height and breadth, the inside and outside of it. For the texture of the question is the clue to its unraveling, and so, the texture of our faith. E.E. Cummings put it simply: “Always the more beautiful answer who asks the more beautiful question.”
Experience is the only teacher, but only if we raise our hand, again and again, asking those questions that rise spontaneously from our heart of wonder — embarrassing and simple questions, and in our own language. Otherwise, our “truths” are hollow at the heart, received wisdom, hand-me-downs that never fit just right: social truths, not personal ones; ideologies, not a politics of choice; religious doctrine, not the religious life.
Thus, much of my crotchetiness about what’s called “The New Age,” my abhorrence of the word “spiritual” (I wince at its mention, like an old lady hearing the word “fuck”), my self-conscious shunning of anything self-consciously uplifting. Why is it, I ask, that those seeking to create the greatest good often end up creating what seems to be the very opposite? Dividing, instead of uniting? If, in the name of God, we see the Devil in our fellow men — because they do, or don’t what we don’t, or do; because they dance with heavy boots; laugh, or fart, at the wrong time; insult, with a screech of chalk, the blackboard of our desires — if, because of this, we point a finger, we are pointing at ourselves. Thus, revolutionaries who abhor the abuse of power become its petty abusers. The Vatican, chasing down pornography, acquires one of the world’s largest collections. Americans, sent to Vietnam in the name, God help us, of freedom, burn down huts.
We are free to do most anything, yet, understanding so little about freedom, we confuse it with license, as we confuse living with style. Years ago, the author Ken Kesey suggested the revolution would be won once everybody started smoking pot. They smoked pot in Vietnam.
Styles, like people and nations, come and go, die and are reborn; they are as expendable as bodies, for the soul of humankind has questions, many of them, and we are the living shape of those questions, humankind’s raised hand. The universe — our teacher of teachers — answers us perfectly. If we pretend not to hear, it answers us again, a little louder: in the bed, with a loved one; in the fields of Vietnam; in the foreign ports of the imagination. Our lives speak us to ourselves, with the limited vocabulary of our years. What we learn we learn for one another, and must learn well enough to teach, by example. In the classroom, everywhere.