Kay Ryan, “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It”

I confess my knowledge of Aristotle is on par with my knowledge of nuclear physics. It’s nearly non-existent, even though I’ve spent considerable time studying Xenophon and Plato. Still, some stray bits and pieces of Aristotlean reasoning have stayed with me. One is the idea that a political regime taken to an extreme is no regime at all (e.g. insist on too much democracy, and you get tyranny). Another I’ve put as a maxim: you shouldn’t reason the same way in emergencies as you do in normalcy. A country fascinated with having as leaders generals and businessmen who have leveraged bankruptcy to their advantage, then, obsesses with the notion that knowledge is a panacea, able to solve any problem at any time. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Insist too much on the solution and the actual problem becomes obscured. Kay Ryan, in “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It,” dwells on how artifacts of bad reasoning stay with us:

We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The first fear
being drowning, the
ship’s first shape
was a raft, which
was hard to unflatten
after that didn’t
happen. It’s awkward
to have to do one’s
planning in extremis
in the early years –-
so hard to hide later:
sleekening the hull,
making things
more gracious.

Life as a ship should imply sailing over waters calm and harsh. I don’t know about you, but for all of my life I’ve been hammered with “How will you survive?” even in situations where I was doing perfectly well for myself. In this case, life as a ship takes a distinctly different shape: The first fear being drowning, the ship’s first shape was a raft. Fear means panic, and panic means throwing any old thing together, including something that cannot possibly suffice for the future. The raft was hard to unflatten after that [drowning] didn’t happen.

So Ryan starts with three ideas which expand upon our Aristotlean maxim. First, if you build from your fear and your fear only, you’re doing hack work. You’re not actually building anything useful for later. Second, you’re not appraising the situation correctly. Maybe drowning was a legitimate fear, but you exaggerated it at the expense of every other concern. Finally, what you built not only fails to suffice for your journey, but must be replaced.

Regarding that last thought: you still have to float. You can’t just throw the raft away. The fear of drowning was legitimate enough. It’s awkward to have to do one’s planning in extremis in the early years — so hard to hide later. This doesn’t mean Aristotle was wrong and people with advice at their worst are right. It’s more like this: no matter what, we’re going to be informed wrongly, stuck with some degree of fear or panic and reliant on some relic of it. (It goes without saying that anyone who wants to compare one person’s pain with another’s offhand is a complete idiot. What goes for normal situations always looks superficially similar to deadlier ones.)

So we’re stuck. We’ve got some fear, some bad reasoning, hiding in our reshaped ship. Is papering this over a denial of reality? If we sleeken the hull, making things more gracious, are we failing to be true to ourselves? These questions don’t really follow from Ryan’s treatment of the problem; “awkward” planning in early years, it being “hard to hide” the faults later — these concerns indicate a disposition which wants to change, which wants to solve problems. But I think those of us who get nervous can identify when we’ve wondered whether our fears, our worries, are something more permanent we can’t deny. Ryan implies an answer to this through the title: “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It,” we are committed to being works in progress. As a result, grace is possible. We can be gracious, as long as we are willing to recognize our rough edges, how we’ve been wrestling, consciously or not, with our own formation.

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