Acknowledgment, Conscience, Rhetoric, and Teaching: The Case of Tuesdays With Morrie
Hyde, Michael J
This essay offers a phenomenological assessment of the moral and rhetorical nature of acknowledgment. The dynamics of acknowledgment arise with the ontological structure of human existence, with our way of being spatial and temporal creatures whose existence, in an epideictic display, opens us to the future. From out of this openness comes a call of conscience, an evocation and a provocation that speaks to us of the importance of an essential vocation: teaching. Mitch Album’s Tuesdays with Morrie is offered as a case study of this entire process.
I write about a phenomenon, a “life-giving gift,” that is essential to the functioning and well-being of human existence: acknowledgment. Martin Heidegger offers this brief remark about the phenomenon when discussing its role in his philosophical project of awakening people to the meaning and truth of Being: “Acknowledgment lets that toward which it goes come toward it” (“Letter on Humanism” 237). Acknowledgment, in other words, is a capacity of consciousness that enables us to be open to the world of people, places, and things so that we can “admit” (Middle English: acknow) its wonders into our minds and then “admit” (Middle English: knowlechen) to others the understanding we have gained and that we believe is worth sharing.
For a phenomenologist like Heidegger, this entire “admission” process is mandatory for establishing the “truth” of anything and the “knowledge” that comes with it. Phenomenologically speaking, truth happens first and foremost as an act of disclosure, a “showing-forth” (epi-deixis) or epideictie display of something that discloses itself to us and that, in turn, can be disclosed by us to others in some symbolic manner for the purpose of “knowing-together” (conscientia) what is the case regarding some matter of concern. The assertion and validity of any “truth claim” presupposes the occurrence of such an act and thus the acknowledgments that initiated and continue to sustain its status. “Knowledge,” insists Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is in the end based on acknowledgments” (378). Stanley Gavell stresses the moral implications of this central claim of “ordinary language” philosophy in arguing that acknowledgment is “something owed another simply as a human being, the failure of which reveals the failure of one’s own humanity.” Indeed, for Cavell, “The crucified human body is our best picture of the unacknowledged human soul” (The Claim of Reason 430, 434). With the narratives of the Old Testament in mind, Emmanuel Levinas would have us think about acknowledgment as what is going on when we are abruptly awaken to the presence of “otherness” in our lives, especially when this presence is in need of a caring response. “Where art thou?” “Here I am!” Acknowledgment of otherness is a moral act that “accomplishes human society” as it promotes “the miracle of moving out of oneself,” of egoism becoming altruism (Difficult Freedom 9).
Heidegger, Cavell, and Levinas make much of the importance of a phenomenon that each contends is all too easily taken for granted and forgotten in the rush of everyday existence, at least until the lack of it in our lives threatens our well-being-and then it sometimes is too late to fix all (or any) of the hurt. What I have to say about acknowledgment integrates and extends what these philosophers emphasize in their considerations of the phenomenon: The dynamics of acknowledgment arise with the ontological structure of human existence, with our way of being spatial and temporal creatures whose existence, in an epideictic and rhetorical display, opens us to the future and all that comes with it, including death and whatever (if anything) follows from that fact of life. From out of this openness comes a call of conscience, an evocation and a provocation that speaks to us of the importance of an essential vocation: teaching. Acknowledgment, conscience, rhetoric, and teaching operate together on a primordial level of existence that is always right before our eyes, hiding in simplicity and familiarity, and ever-ready to show its challenging presence when some out-of-the-ordinary occurrence, some existential disruption, awakens us to the “otherness” of its presence.
A more detailed phenomenological assessment of these related concerns is offered in the next section. This assessment takes form as I distinguish acknowledgment from the related act of “recognition.” While making this distinction, I introduce additional existential concerns that come into play when acknowledgment is at work and that speak to the ontological importance of the phenomenon. As a way of further illustrating and applying the findings that are generated by the assessment, I present a critical reading of Mitch Albom’s bestselling book, Tuesdays With Morrie. Here we are told the story of a sociology professor who was known for his consistent enactment of the life-giving gift of acknowledgment. Albom’s story is a reciprocation of this gift-a well-crafted effort in epideictic rhetoric. The story thus allows us to see how acknowledgment is “made to happen” in an artistic way. The lesson offered here is one that emphasizes the important role that a too-often maligned art (rhetoric) has to play in creating and sustaining humankind’s moral well-being, or what Cavell describes as our potential for “moral perfectionism” (Cites of Words 11).1
The Ontological and Moral Status of Acknowledgment
What would life be like if no one acknowledged your existence? Another way to put the question is this: Have you ever thought about your own death . . . your funeral . . . and who might show up “to pay their last respects”? And when thinking about this last matter, have you ever become upset with those people who you believe should have attended the ceremony but did not? Even when we have passed to the “great beyond,” we still imagine ourselves craving the goodness of the life-giving gift of acknowledgment. This gift is powerful enough to bring the “dearly departed” back to life, at least in our minds and hearts. Those who remain unacknowledged in everyday life are isolated, marginalized, ignored, and forgotten by others. The suffering that can accompany these ways of being in the world is known to bring about fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, and sometimes even death in the form of suicide or retaliation against those who are rightly or wrongly accused of making our lives so lonely, miserable, and unbearable.
We need acknowledgment as much as we need such other easily taken for granted things as air, blood, and a beating heart. Acknowledgment safeguards us against “social death.” One senses the presence of this state of being, for example, in the lives of college students who “don’t fit in with the crowd.” “Where art thou?” Not hearing a welcoming “Here I am!” can sometimes even lead a young person to admit that he or she “feels like dying.” Like their teachers who publish so as not to perish and who then worry incessantly over who, if anyone, is even reading their work, students are an especially vulnerable population when it comes to dealing with the hurt of being unacknowledged by their peers (and, to be sure, their teachers).
Acknowledgment provides an opening out of such a distressful situation, for the act of acknowledging is a way of attuning consciousness toward others in order to make room for them in our lives. With this added living space comes the opportunity for a new beginning, a second chance, whereby we might improve our lot in life and feel more at home with others. There is hope to be found with this transformation of space and time as people opt to go out of their way to make us feel wanted and needed, to praise our presence and actions, and thus to acknowledge the worthiness of our existence. Offering positive acknowledgment is a moral thing to do.
Notice that my remarks about acknowledgment do not contain the word “recognition.” People oftentimes speak of these two phenomena as if they were synonymous. For the purpose of this essay, however, their difference must be kept in mind. As Calvin Schrag reminds us, “The blurring of the grammar of acknowledgment with the grammar of recognition is one of the more glaring misdirections of modern epistemology” (117-18). The definition of “recognition” found in the Oxford English Dictionary reads: “The action or fact of perceiving that some thing, person, etc., is the same as one previously known; the mental process of identifying what has been known before; the fact of being thus known or identified.” The phenomenon of acknowledgment, however, entails more than the mental process of identifying what has been known before.
For example, I can recognize a person walking toward me as an old acquaintance. Once we meet, some ritualistic behavior might be enough to satisfy the demands of proper decorum: “Hey! Long time no see. How’ve you been doing? What’s going on?” A few more seconds of “conversation” and we are off once again on our separate ways. But what if the acquaintance was hoping for more than the recognition that I had given him? What if he was looking forward to the added space and time, the openness, that comes with my genuine acknowledgment of his presence and that provides a “dwelling place” (ethos) for developing a more caring conversation? This ethos of acknowledgment establishes an environment where people can take the time to know together some topic of interest and, in the process, perhaps gain a more authentic understanding of, and feel more at home with, those who are willing to contribute to its development. Recognition is only a preliminary step in this process of attuning one’s consciousness toward another and his or her expression of a topic in order to facilitate the development of such existential knowledge and personal understanding. Acknowledgment makes possible the moral development of recognition by enabling us to remain open to the world of people, places, and things even if, at times, matters become boring or troublesome. Perhaps such openness was what my acquaintance wanted and was willing to give. I, on the other hand, opted to keep the relationship in a state of simple recognition-a state that may give the impression that one is being noticed and that genuine acknowledgment is thus a possibility. People can become quite skilled at faking acknowledgment.
Remaining unacknowledged is a slight to one’s being. The damage done disrupts a person’s sense of self-worth. Depending on how seriously they are taken to heart, such disruptions can move a person into a state of anxious wonder about his or her existence: “What am I, what am I failing to do, what should I do?” If only for a moment, we are likely to loose our bearings in life when, for whatever reason, we find ourselves in situations that disrupt our current “comfort zones” such that we must address such questions “for our own goodness,” as well as for the goodness of others. The disruption exposes a degree of incompleteness in our being and thus triggers a “metaphysical impulse.” We are creatures whose longing or “nostalgia” (from the Greek nostos: to return home) for security and completeness makes us susceptible to the ailment of becoming homesick for familiar and welcoming surroundings where others show heart-felt concern for our well-being.
An example of one experiencing such homesickness to an alarming and “death-defying” degree would be a person whose health has been disrupted by a serious and incapacitating illness that, among other things, undercuts the person’s mastery of existence, breeds despair, helplessness, and a feeling of abandonment (being unacknowledged), and thereby directs the person to question life’s meaning, purpose, and ultimate worth. In such a state of suffering, writes Levinas, “there is an absence of all refuge. It is the fact of being directly exposed to being. It is made up of the impossibility of fleeing or retreating. The whole acuity of suffering lies in the impossibility of retreat. It is the fact of being backed up against life and being” (Time and the Other 69). But where exactly are we when we are “backed up against life and being” and left unacknowledged?
Short of ending our lives in death, disruptions can bring us face-to-face with the ontological structure of our own spatial and temporal existence. This structure functions to open us to the contingency of the future and thereby, within this openness, gives us a place to be toward all that stands before us, awaiting understanding. Although typically measured by us with such inventions as clocks, calendars, maps, and computers, this entire process is not itself a human creation. The way in which what was (the past) and what is (the present) are constantly open to the objective uncertainty of what is not yet (the future) defines an event that is always already at work before we decide to notice and calculate its presence. Human being, in other words, has something about its very existence (Being) that is more and thus other than its own making, something that shows itself to us when our everyday rituals and routines are disrupted and we must then face the future without the “assurances” that are provided by these social and psychological mechanisms of everyday life. The disruption brings about what is commonly referred to as “a moment of truth.” But this moment was there all along with the ontological structure of our existence. The dimension of objective uncertainly (“the future”) that is part of this structure is forever at work in both a “deconstructive” way to call us and our claimed truths into question and in a “reconstructive” way to call on our ability to assume the ethical responsibility of affirming our freedom through resolute choice such that we can maintain some semblance of meaning in the face of uncertainty (Hyde, The Call of Conscience 40-78; The Life-Giving Gift of Acknowledgment, esp. chapter three).
Human being thus shows itself to be ontologically structured as an evocation and a provocation, or what both Heidegger and Levinas describe as the most original instance of “the call of conscience”: As it discloses itself to us, existence calls for the responsiveness of concerned thought and action, for that which enables us, even in the most distressful situations, to take charge of our lives as we assume the ethical responsibility of affirming our freedom of choice and thereby become personally involved in the creation of a meaningful existence. This is how systems of morality come into being in the first place. The “perfectionist” driven language of morality is the language of responsiveness and responsibility that is called for by the ontological workings of human being.
The actual disclosing of this process, and “the call” that emanates from it, define the “being of language” (Logos) in its most primordial state: the original presenting and “saying” of all that lies before us. Here, at this ontological level of existence, language is not understood first and foremost as a capacity for communication but rather as the original and silent manifestation, the “showing” (Aufzeigen), of what is (Heidegger, Being and Time 49-58, 310-25).2 This original act of disclosure comes before any symbolic act that attempts to disclose whatever truth is at issue at the time. The call of conscience (of our Being and its otherness) that calls for concerned thought and action “dispenses with any kind of utterance,” writes Heidegger. “It does not put itself into words at all; . . . Conscience discourses solely and constantly in the mode of keeping silent” (Being and Time 318).
Heidegger speaks to us of a discourse that is more original than anything he or anyone else has to say about it.
The essential being of language is Saying as Showing. Its showing character is not based on signs of any kind; rather, all signs arise from a showing within whose realm and for whose purposes they can be signs. . . . Even when Showing is accomplished by our human saying, even then this showing, this pointer, is preceded by an indication that it will let itself be shown. (On the Way to Language 123)
Elsewhere Heidegger provides a description of what he is doing when articulating such observations: “To speak means to say, which means to show and to let [something] be seen. It means to communicate and, correspondingly, to listen, to submit oneself to a claim addressed to oneself and to comply and respond to it” (Zollikon Seminars 215). Conscience calls and Heidegger, listening attentively, phenomenologically, responds with a discourse meant to disclose to us the ontological workings of this call, its way of disclosing-saying and showing-itself to that particular being who has the capacity for acknowledgment (to let “that toward which it goes come toward it”) and the ability to represent symbolically what is perceived to be. Heidegger, in other words, offers us a “truth claim” about that which allows such a claim to be made; he struggles to disclose the disclosing of a more primordial event: Being and its otherness.
Heidegger describes this event as the original “bringing-forth” (poiesis) of the truth of what is to our attention (Question Concerning Technology 10-11; Poetry, Language, Thought 62-74). Another Greek term that is appropriate to use here is epi-deixis: a “showing-forth” of truth. This term, of course, heads us more in the direction of rhetoric than poetry. Regarding the genre of rhetoric (epideictic) most steeped in this primordial discursive event of the saying (showing) of Being, Quintilian has said: “Indeed I am not sure that this is not the most important department of rhetoric in actual practice” (2.1.10). Λ phenomenology of the truth of Being and its call of conscience lends ontological support to this claim. The saying or disclosing of our temporal existence defines the most primordial form of epideictic speech and “public address.” There is something fundamentally rhetorical about human being, something that is always already at work calling for concerned thought and decisive action, for critical judgment and resolute choice.
Human beings are fated to face the challenge of acknowledging and answering this call on a daily basis. As Heidegger notes in his discussion of the “special distinctiveness” of human being, our existence is the “site,” “clearing,” “opening,” “dwelling place” where Being comes to call, where it presents itself in all entities, in their “truth,” and where this display of what is can be brought into language by creatures capable of this meaning-giving act. Responding to this call is humankind’s most original vocation (Being and Time 256-73; Introduction to Metaphysics 205; Identity and Difference 31; Parmenides 140-44). Acknowledgment lies at the heart of our being. With its transformation of space and time, acknowledgment opens a place for us to be and to feel at home with others so that we might know together the truth of matters of importance (Hyde, “Introduction” xiii-xxviii).
The Bible offers one of the most famous ways of telling a story about acknowledgment: In the beginning God offers an avowal- “Let there be!” An avowal is a form of acknowledgment. The “Word” of God opens the biggest place of space and time known to humankind: the cosmos. Our mission on earth is to be “at home” with God in our hearts and minds. The religious soul, in turn, is promised that when no one else is caring enough to help a person who is suffering from some existential interruption and who cries out “Where art thou?,” God will always be there with a life-giving gift-one that can soothe the pain and suffering of being homesick. Moses and his people wandered in the desert for forty years, but not without the hope that they would eventually reach the “promised land.” In Judaism, the word for dwelling-place (makorri), be it “promised” or not, is also a word that refers to God’s presence. Even God needs a place (e.g., the planet earth) to be heard and responded to (“Where art thou?” “Here I am!”), a home away from home (heaven), if you will. Judaic tradition stresses that we are capable of responding to God because we are gifted with a “heart”: the ability to be awed by and to wonder and care about others. “I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the Lord” (Jer. 24:7). “The Lord appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect [Hebrew: tamin or “wholehearted’]” (Gen. 17: 1-2). The heart allows for a genuine acknowledgment of, and a “knowing-together” (Gk. sunei-desis; Lat. con-scientia) with, God. In the New Testament, the word “heart” becomes the moral operation of “conscience” (1 Gor.8 and 10).3
The story of acknowledgment found in the Bible offers itself as being the most truthful and compelling narrative detailing the origin and wonders of the phenomenon. My brief consideration of this “religious” matter should not be read, however, as an argument for the “rightness” or “wrongness” of any institutionalized religion. Rather, I offered it as an illustration of how the ontological workings of acknowledgment can take on a specific narrative form. Echoing these workings, the rhetoric of this narrative speaks of a transformation of space and time that opens us to the presence of “otherness.” This opening to otherness clears a dwelling place where the concerned parties can feel at home with each other as they engage in caring (heartfelt) conversation about matters of interests. “God” need not enter the picture in describing the ontological workings of this process. Western science’s way of performing the task is seen in such mathematically-oriented and related theories as “The Big Bang,” “string theory,” and “evolutionary psychology”-all of which stand guard against “God-in-the-gaps” thinking (Ferris 310-11). The phenomenological approach taken in this essay also assumes this stand. Yes, there is a dimension of “otherness” to our Being that we did not create, is empirically verifiable (especially in moments of anxiety), and whose “mysteriousness” is easily likened to God. But we have no way of knowing, beyond what is allowed for first and foremost by the workings of acknowledgment, if the association is legitimate and thus warranted.”1 What will be tomorrow? Who can say for sure? Thinking about tomorrow, or God for that matter, presupposes our being present to and acknowledging the epideictic display of our own existence and its otherness.
Levinas’ philosophy makes much of this dimension of otherness or “alterity.” He employs a term to describe the functioning of this dimension that, although dear to all religions, need not be first and foremost associated with their institutionalized discourse in order to be meaningful. The ontologically rooted call of conscience that awakens us to “otherness” is, for Levinas, an act of “teaching.” According to Levinas, this “first teaching teaches” the importance of being open to what is other than oneself and thus what for all intents and purposes is “infinite” and thereby “mysterious.” In its most genuine sense, writes Levinas, teaching “is not a species of a genus called domination, a hegemony at work within a totality [some institutionalized religion, for example], but is the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality” (Totality and Infinity 171). Directed by what the ontological and epideictic display of our existence has to say about what it means to be a human being, the everyday practice of teaching (be it inside or outside the classroom) is a vocation that is dedicated to opening people to what is perceived to be the truth of some matter of interest so that they might better understand the matter, discuss it, and perhaps take issue with any claim being made regarding the matter and related concerns. The teacher is called to do this first and foremost by the otherness of existence and its call of conscience, which is always calling us into question as temporal beings who are on their way to what is not yet, the future.
The ethic of scientific inquiry and research that advocates the related obligations of being open-minded and self-critical when seeking the truth of whatever is under investigation is certainly a result of people paying homage and being responsive to this fundamental existential calling of the otherness of existence. The same can be said, of course, about the ethic of religious inquiry. Along with acknowledgment, conscience, and rhetoric, the activity of teaching is essential to humankind’s communal and moral well-being and the truth on which it is built. Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie offers an especially enlightening narrative that speaks to both the ontological and existential significance of this all too easily taken-for-granted fact. My assessment of this narrative includes pertinent “personal” experiences.
A Case Study
Many students, colleagues, and friends encouraged me to read this nationally bestselling book before I took the time to do so. I had hesitated mainly for two reasons: First, having been told what the book was about, I did not think at the time that it would have much to say that was new. I was already quite familiar with the scholarly and popular literature on “living the good life and dying the good death.” I had been keeping up with this literature since 1981, the year my greatest teacher, my father, suffered complete kidney failure. For the next four years he lived a hellish life: his body and mind never took kindly to the required regimen of high-tech medicine and psychiatric care. He died in 1984. Although not as much as my mother, I journeyed with him as things continued to get worse. Henee, my second reason for ignoring the suggestions of others: I didn’t need yet another author telling me about the experience of being with a loved one who is dying; I had already lived the experience and carried the psychological scars to prove it. When I finally did read the book, I was not disappointed, although there was something about the story that bothered me.
Morrie was dying and confined to his house, but he remained happy and inspirational even as his body was slowing being overwhelmed by the progression of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS). Upon finding out about Morrie’s illness, Mitch traveled seven hundred miles by plane and rental car to his house every Tuesday for fourteen weeks so that he, alone, could take one more class from his famous and favorite college professor. The topic of the class was “The Meaning of Life,” which “was taught from experience.”
No grades were given, but there were oral exams each week. You were expected to respond to questions, and you were expected to pose questions of your own. You were also required to perform physical tasks now and then, such as lifting the professor’s head to a comfortable spot on the pillow or placing his glasses on the bridge of his nose. Kissing him good-bye earned you extra credit. . . . Although no final exam was given, you were expected to produce one long paper on what was learned. (1-2)
From this class came Tuesdays with Morrie, a book intended to acknowledge the life and times of a great acknowledger, a teacher who, as Albom puts it, “saw you [the student] as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine” (192).
What bothered me about this book emerged in the context of the memories of my father’s illness; the years of fieldwork I had spent in hospitals and intensive care units while doing research on the ethics of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide; the interviews with doctors, nurses, theologians, medical ethicists, patients and their family members, who were all willing to share with me and members of my research team their stories about winning and losing the “battles” with serious illnesses and accidents. The war metaphor looms large in the history and practice of medicine and also in the lives of those who medicine is obliged to serve. It is awesome to witness and hear first hand accounts of the joy that accompanies the winning of these battles. Some people even talk about how their outcomes were “miracles.” But with war also comes casualties and haunting memories.
I found it hard to believe that Albom’s professor could continue to be so joyful and inspirational with full knowledge of all that ALS was destined to do to him. Inspired by his teacher, Albom spoke of the disease as being
like a lit candle; it melts your nerves and leaves your body a pile of wax. Often, it begins with the legs and works its way up. You lose control of your thigh muscles, so that you cannot support yourself standing. You lose control of your trunk muscles, so that you cannot sit up straight. By the end, if you are still alive, you are breathing through a tube in a hole in your throat, while your soul, perfectly awake, is imprisoned inside a limp husk, perhaps able to blink, or cluck a tongue, like something from a science fiction movie, the man frozen inside his own flesh. (10)
Albom then goes on to relate how Morrie decided to deal with the situation:
He would not wither. He would not be ashamed of dying.
Instead, he would make death his final project, the center point of his days. Since everyone was going to die, he could be of great value, right? He could be research. A human textbook. Study me in my slow and patient demise. Watch what happens to me. Learn with me.
Morrie would walk that final bridge between life and death, and narrate the trip. (10)
As I have elsewhere admitted (when writing about an ALS patient who exhibited similar resoluteness), I find such a devoted and courageous attitude to be the source of a heroism that is necessary if the moral consciousness of humanity is to prosper (Call of Conscience 260-61). Still, Morrie’s story sounded too perfect. Here was a person who dreaded the fact that, owing to his disease “one day soon, someone’s gonna have to wipe [his] ass” (22). That day had come and, for Morrie, it was “the ultimate sign of dependency. Someone wiping your bottom.” But Morrie was determined: “I’m trying to enjoy the process.” Albom was surprised. “Enjoy it?” he asked cynically. “Yes,” replied Morrie. “After all, I get to be a baby one more time” (49). Really?
I remember my father telling me how complications from his dialysis treatments sometimes resulted in him becoming so “impacted” that a nurse would have to stick her hand far up into his anal cavity and “pull out all the shit” that he couldn’t push out himself. My father was a proud and great man. He died a hero. But because of the “humiliating” situations that plagued him throughout the four years of his illness, he sometimes required psychiatric treatment. The first time I visited him in the psychiatric ward, he stared at me and cried: “Look what they’ve done to your daddy.” It was the saddest moment I ever shared with my father.
Throughout his book, Albom makes sure that we know that Morrie’s situation was grueling and sad. We also learn that Morrie’s suffering would sometimes lead the professor to cry because he felt bad for himself. Albom writes about the day the “seventy something” Morrie and his wife, Charlotte, received the diagnosis of ALS. “Charlotte had a million thoughts running through her mind: How much time do 1We have left? Ho1W “will 1We manage? How will we pay the bills’?” As for Morrie, he was “stunned by the normalcy of the day around him. Shouldn’t the “world stop? Don’t they know what has happened to me?” “But the world did not stop,” writes Albom, “it took no notice at all … [and Morrie] felt as if he were dropping into a hole” (8). Indeed, such lack of acknowledgment can be both painful and terrifying.
The same thing happened to my mother and father when he was rushed to a hospital’s intensive care unit for dialysis treatment after his kidneys first shut down. But their questions never stopped as the days, weeks, months, and years went by. My father-despite periods marked by calm, hope, and a lot of love from family and friends-continued “dropping into a hole.” Like ALS, renal failure and its physiological, psychological, social, and economic consequences go on every hour of the day; they are not things that can be carefully observed, acknowledged, and fully appreciated by being in the presence of the dying patient for only one day a week.
I cannot believe that Tuesdays with Morrie tells the whole story of this man’s battle with ALS. Albom is a wonderful writer and story-teller and his weekly visits to his teacher’s home say much about who he is as a caring soul, loving friend, and devoted student. But I am certain that his work has holes in it. Yet, for my purposes, that makes it all the more relevant.
Albom’s work defines an effort in epideictic rhetoric: he writes in praise of a teacher who helped change his life for the better; he writes to disclose something of the truth of a person whose particular way of being can still speak of “goodness,” depending, in part, on how good of a story-teller Albom is. As will be discussed in greater detail below, Albom was transformed by a master of acknowledgment. He writes in order to return the favor with the same life-giving gift, thereby helping to secure his teacher’s wisdom and loving-kindness in the minds and memories of others. Human beings like to think that they will be remembered after they are gone for whatever good they have done. They are fated to develop this desire because of the ontological structure of their existence and the acknowledgment it calls for.
Morrie is dying as he teaches a course on “The Meaning of Life” to one student, someone who has heard him say “I want to tell you about my life. I want to tell you before I can’t tell you anymore. … I want someone to hear my story. Will you?” (63). Morrie, who wants his tombstone to read “A Teacher to the Last” (134), is seeking acknowledgment. With tape-recorder in hand, Mitch is there to hear and respond to the call so that he can complete the course’s final assignment of writing “one long paper” on all that he has learned. The issue of rhetorical competence is thus at hand: How is Albom to construct and compose his paper so that it tells, thereby showing-forth, the story of a wonderful human being? Acknowledgment and rhetorical competence are, indeed, related. Thus another necessary and related question: What is the most fitting and thus most appropriate way to speak of both Morrie’s life and death?
As orators like Pericles and Lincoln made abundantly clear in their respective and famous eulogies of their fallen comrades, it takes talent to speak about those who have passed away but who still warrant heart-felt acknowledgment (no matter what shortcomings they may have displayed while alive). Pericles and Lincoln spoke about courage against the backdrop of war. Albom must also consider the war that Morrie is fighting yet losing against a horrible disease. But with this rhetorical situation the main character wants to be known as nothing less than a devoted teacher trying to inspire moral consciousness. Consider this exchange between Morrie and Mitch.
“Mitch,” he said, “the culture doesn’t encourage you to think about such things until you’re about to die. We’re so wrapped up with egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks-we’re involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going: So we don’t get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?”
“You need someone to probe you in that direction. It won’t just happen automatically.”
I knew what he was saying. We all need teachers in our lives. And mine was sitting in front of me. (64-5)
Mitch must figure out a way to write a story about a teacher and a student who knew him to be a model for educators and students alike. In telling the story, Mitch also must take on the role of being a good teacher-one who can write a story that is moving and memorable. In order to perform such an act of acknowledgment, we might expect Mitch to have a host of related concerns in mind, topics that have been addressed earlier in this essay and that his professor was supposedly a master of: attuning consciousness, creating dwelling places, making others feel at home. The problem of saying too much or too little about Morrie and his ongoing situation thus demanded attention. In order to tell the truth about his subject, must Albom disclose everything about Morrie’s life and times, his disease, and his good and bad moments during the class? Clearly, this is not what epideictic rhetoric is supposed to do. When its evocative power is directed toward saying something good about a person, such rhetoric is only obligated to express matters in such a way that something of their truth remains memorable as a source of wisdom, inspiration, justice, and moral integrity. Albom was called on to be a rhetorical architect, not a medical scientist. He had to display an artistic sense of knowing what to emphasize and what not to emphasize, what to speak of and what to remain silent on, and how to tell a moving story that is not so moving that it becomes too difficult to continue reading. I should not fault Albom for leaving things out of his story as long as these omissions, if added to the narrative, would not call his assessment of the truth of his subject matter and the competence of his rhetorical skills into question. Such competence definitely informs Morrie’s story.
We live in a world that places high value on being a celebrity, where “career advisors” teach us that “it really doesn’t matter if your good famous or bad famous” as long as you can become a well-recognized “face” and a source of entertainment (Fortgang). Albom considers Morrie a hero, a man of great dignity and integrity, not a mere celebrity seeking fame by being amusing. When first remarking on his professor’s presence, however, Albom does depict Morrie as being a source of amusement:
He is a small man who takes small steps, as if a strong wind could, at any time, whisk him up into the clouds. In his graduation day robe, he looks like a cross between a biblical prophet and a Christmas elf. He has sparkling blue-green eyes, thinning sliver hair that spill onto his forehead, big ears, a triangular nose, and tufts of graying eyebrows. Although his teeth are crooked and his lower ones are slanted back-as if someone had once punched them in-when he smiles it’s as if you’d just told him the first joke on earth. (3-4)
With this description of Morrie’s presence, face, and the expressiveness of his being, Albom begins the rhetorical feat of bringing his teacher back to life so that readers can believe that, yes, this character is real, somebody who they can identity with, admire, and fondly remember. Morrie is a hero, although he does not look like one. But, as Levinas reminds us, the “face” of a hero encompasses more than the body’s physical attributes; it is also informed by a person’s moral character.
The demonstration of moral character in everyday life prompts the dawning and attuning of consciousness in others. With a person’s heroic actions, we learn of ways of acknowledging and being-for others. Moreover, the hero has much to teach us about a fact of life and death: Ars moriendi is ars vivendi, the “art of dying” is the “art of living.” Morrie makes much of this fact in his class with Mitch: “To know you’re going to die, and to be prepared for it at any time” encourages you to “be more involved in your life while you’re living”; for “[t]he truth is … once you learn how to die, you learn how to live” (81-2). Dr. Sherwin Nuland, in his award-winning book, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, makes the point rather well: “The honesty and grace of the years of life that are ending is the real measure of how we die. It is not in the last week or days that we compose the message that will be remembered, but in all the decades that preceded them. Who has lived in dignity, dies in dignity” (268). Morrie has lived a dignified life and now intends to die a dignified death. It is altogether the right, fitting, and thus appropriate thing to do-something that certainly warrants acknowledgment in the most appropriate way possible.
Albom’s ability to be appropriate when writing about his professor is most evident in his talent for telling what I have termed elsewhere a good “person story” rather than an expert “body story” (Call of Conscience 35-6, 137-39, 167, 252-54). Both types of stories are always called for when treating and speaking about those who are under the ontological assault of some disease. Physicians are obligated, first and foremost, to construct an expert body story, for it is the body-the place where a disease happens-that must assume priority as a matter of interest to those who hope to find a cure. Body stories are designed to cut through the personhood (the everyday, existential trials and tribulations) of the patient like a scalpel, leaving intact only those portions of the patient’s history that can be used to make a good case about some disease, in some body, in some bed. Medical case histories mark out an effort in dissection directed toward offering a depersonalized perception and account of the patient. They are prized for their self-effacing objectivity and efficiency, both of which are communicated via the antiseptic language of “disease theory” and what it has to say about the sick body. As for the person who owns this body, that, again, is a different story. For such a person (at least if he or she is not in a persistent vegetative state) is more than the flesh, bone, and blood of their body; they are also a living history filled with memories, meaningful relationships, fears, hopes, dreams, and other subjectively valued things. This is the stuff of person stories, material that is known to get in the way of a well-told, analytic, and unambiguous body story.
With the progression of a currently incurable disease such as ALS, however, the two types of stories can easily merge, resulting in a horrific “illness story” that is extremely difficult to watch or read. Standing face to face with someone whose body speaks so readily of wounded humanity, we must acknowledge and come to terms with our own finitude. As soon as we are born (or conceived), we are old enough to die. Being reminded of this fact of life, of how our bodies are fated to break down, we are likely to undergo the psychological experience of “annihilation anxiety,” where the future is known primarily by a sorrowful if not terrifying name: death. People like Morrie are not ready to die, but reactions to their presence can often make them feel that their life “is not worth living.”
Albom has to find a way of speaking about Morrie that is engaging, not overwhelming; entertaining and thought-provoking, not merely amusing. The
closest he comes to telling a pure body story is when he describes, as noted above, how “ALS is like a lit candle; it melts your nerves and leaves your body a pile of wax. . . .” Morrie is not mentioned in this description. Here, however, is an example of what happens to the narrative when Morrie enters the scene:
Since my last visit, a nurse had inserted a catheter into his penis, which drew the urine out through a tube and into a bag that sat at the foot of his chair. His legs needed constant tending (he could still feel pain, even though he could not move them, another one of ALS’s cruel little ironies), and unless his feet dangled just the right number of inches off the foam pads, it felt as if someone were poking him with a fork. In the middle of conversations, Morrie would have to ask visitors to lift his foot and move it just an inch, or to adjust his head so that it fit more easily into the palm of the colored pillows.Can you imagine being unable to move your own head? (130-31)
The scene is pitiful and becomes even more distressing when we recall how ALS eventually works its way up the body, making simple things like hand gestures and speaking impossible. Morrie admits feeling a sense of dread: “What am I going to do without my hands? What happens when I can’t speak? . . . They’re such an essential part of me. I talk with my voice. I gesture with my hands. This is how I give to people” (70).
Morrie is a very giving person, an acknowledger second to none. To speak of this aspect of Morrie’s being is to begin telling a person story, and this is mostly what Album’s book is: a story about a person who loves giving a certain gift to others even as he is losing control of his body. “[G]iving to other people is what makes me feel alive,’ says Morrie. “not my car or my home. Not what I look like in the mirror. When I give my time, when I can make someone smile after they were feeling sad, it’s as close to healthy as I ever feel’ (128). “If I can’t give them the right attention, I can’t help them’ (132). Albom elaborates on his teacher’s generosity: “When Morrie was with you, he was really with you. He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world. How much better would people get along if their first encounter each day were like this-instead of a grumble from a waitress or a bus driver or a boss?” (135). Albom remembers being taught this idea by Morrie back in college and admits that it was “more important than almost everything” else he learned in any of his other classes. Albom writes: “I believe many visitors in the last few months of Morrie’s life were drawn not because of the attention they wanted to pay him but because of the attention he paid to them. Despite his personal pain and decay, this little old man listened the way they always wanted someone to listen” (137-38).
Human beings are in need of acknowledgment and, in their “goodness,” are capable of returning the favor. Happiness is associated with the certainty of being needed (Heschel, Man Is Not Alone 193-95). Morrie has a life-giving gift for others: he listens to them and makes them feel needed. It is not until the sixth Tuesday meeting that we learn that Morrie, too, has this need, although it is not Morrie himself who admits it. Rather, it is his devoted wife who acknowledges this fact when she explains to Mitch how his presence is helping her husband: “He looks forward to your visits. He talks about having to do this project with you, how he has to concentrate and put the time aside. I think it’s giving him a good sense of purpose . . .” (101). Indeed, human beings are purposeful creatures. When they have nothing to do they get bored. When they wake up in the morning and see no reason for getting out of bed they are in trouble. We need to be needed. Morrie is no exception. That Albom does not explicitly admit as much may be the result of Morrie never saying it directly “for the record.” The closest the professor comes to acknowledging this personal need is when he is explaining to Mitch how one “really” gains “satisfaction” in life by “Offering others what you have to give.” In responding to Mitch’s cynical reply-“You sound like a Boy Scout”-Morrie goes on to explain: “I don’t mean money, Mitch. I mean your time. Your concern. Your storytelling. It’s not so hard. . . . There are plenty of places to do this. . . You play cards with a lonely older man and you find new respect for yourself, because you are needed” (126-27). In the eyes of students and friends like Mitch, Morrie may be a saint. As Abraham Heschel reminds us: even “God is in search of man” (God In Search of Man 136-44). Perhaps Mitch chose not to expand on the matter because he thought that the need to be needed represented a weakness in people, and given what Morrie was willing to endure, the word “weakness” was not appropriate.
Before commenting further on this possibility, it is important to make sure that the reader appreciates the significance of Morrie’s way of being-for others. Morrie is a dedicated teacher. Even in his deteriorating state, he is a living response to a question: “Where art thou?” Morrie says “Here I am!” by giving others “the right [appropriate] attention,” listening and remaining open to them, and thereby creating a dwelling place where he and others can feel at home as they consider and discuss matters of importance and learn to care for each other’s ideas. Genuine acknowledgment requires nothing less than this entertaining process of engagement. Morrie puts it this way to Mitch:
So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning. (43)
One might describe the philosophy being espoused here as genuinely “religious,” although I have heard some of my students call it “corny” and refer to it as “chicken soup for the soul.”
I do not dismiss such assessments because similar words popped into my mind a time or two when I first read the book. As indicated earlier, I was bothered by how it sounded too good to be true at times. Albom, however, helps to temper such cynicism by explaining how Morrie’s goodness did not simply spring from within. It was rooted in his being raised by a loving family and by his decision after completing a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago to reject the professions of medicine, law, and business and, instead, do research at a mental hospital-“a place where he could contribute without exploiting others.” Here, Morrie learned in a very practical way how human beings are in desperate need of the life-giving gift of acknowledgment. For in working with patients, writes Albom, Morrie observed that most of them “had been rejected and ignored in their lives, made to feel they didn’t exist. They also missed compassion-something that staff ran out of quickly. And many of these patients were well-off, from rich families, so their wealth did not buy them happiness or contentment. It was a lesson he never forgot” (110-11).
Indeed, it is a lesson that no one should forget. Still, in my first reading of Tuesdays with Morrie, I was bothered by the perfection of its central character. And Albom admits that he, too, found Morrie’s story hard to believe at times. Late in the book, for example, Albom explains how he once tried to imagine Morrie healthy: “I tried to imagine him pulling the covers from his body, stepping from that chair, the two of us going for a walk around the neighborhood, the way we used to walk around campus” (175). Albom then asked Morrie, “What if you had one day perfectly healthy . . . What would you do?” Morrie’s answer included such things as getting up in the morning and doing his exercises, having “a lovely breakfast of sweet rolls and tea,” being with friends and talking about “how much we mean to each other,” going for a walk in a garden where he could enjoy watching trees and birds, having a great dinner once again with friends, dancing the night away until he was “exhausted,” and then going home and having “a deep, wonderful sleep.” “That’s it?” asks Mitch. “That’s it,” answers Morrie. Albom admits being “disappointed” with the answer. “It was so simple. So average. . . . I figured he’d fly to Italy or have lunch with the President or romp on the seashore or try every exotic thing he could think of. After all these months, lying there, unable to move a leg or a foot-how could he find perfection in such an average day?” But then, admits Albom, “[he] realized this was the whole point” (176).
I find this to be a fascinating realization. Albom writes about a person who, in facing death, is so down to earth that his story at times sounds too corny, too good to be true, too perfect. But the story, according to the author, is nevertheless true: Perfection is something pure and simple, although, as Kenneth Burke reminds us, it can be transformed into something egotistical, selfish, and “rotten” (16-20). Morrie warns about this transformation. Albom realizes that this warning is fundamental to his teacher’s personal and professional calling. By the time readers arrive at page 176, and given all that Albom has disclosed about Morrie up to that point in the book, such a realization should be obvious. When the author shares his realization, you almost want to respond: Did it really take you this long to figure it out? Or, as some of my students put it: “Duh!” The question brings me back to an issue that I promised to address: the possibility that Mitch was stacking the cards a bit when he didn’t clarify how his teacher/hero needed to be needed.
Morrie’s story is also Mitch’s story, and the story of this student is confessional and self-critical throughout most of the narrative. Albom acknowledges, for example, that when he graduated from college, Morrie hugged him goodbye and asked if he would stay in touch. “Of course,” Mitch replied. But he broke this promise as he got caught up in his profession: “. . . I was not only penning columns, I was writing sports books, doing radio shows, and appearing regularly on TV . . . I was part of the media thunderstorm that now soaks our country. I was in demand” (16). Albom goes on to tell how he immersed himself in a yuppie existence: “I made more money than I had ever figured to see.” He married after a seven-year courtship and told his wife that they “would one day start a family, something she wanted very much.” But that day never came. “Instead, I buried myself in accomplishments, because with accomplishments, I believed I could control things, I could squeeze in every last piece of happiness before I got sick and died” (16-17).
Mitch’s story is much different than Morrie’s, for it tells of a person whose quest for perfection is steeped in egotistical and selfish behavior. When first learning of Morrie’s illness while watching a TV news show, Mitch admits that he was both “impressed” and “envious” of all the friends that Morrie had who were still in touch with him. Mitch had been too busy with work to know or care about where his friends from college had gone. This is not to say, however, that Mitch had no need to be needed. On the contrary, Mitch thrived on acknowledgment. He admits as much as he shares an experience he had when the unions at his newspaper went on strike: “I felt confused and depressed. Although the TV and radio work were nice supplements, the newspaper had been my lifeline, my oxygen; when I saw my stories in print in each morning [edition], I knew that, in at least one way, I was alive.” The strike was killing him. “There were sporting events each night that I would have gone to cover. Instead, I stayed home, watched them on TV. I had grown used to thinking readers somehow needed my column. I was stunned at how easily things went on without me” (44-5). Yes, it hurts not to be acknowledged for who you are and what you have done, especially when you believe that it is worthwhile.
Morrie may not actually be as perfect as he is made out to be in a story that has very little to say about his need to be needed, but he certainly has a much greater capacity of being-for others than Mitch does. And in an epideictic work like Tuesdays with Morrie, which seeks to make “life’s greatest lesson” clear, it is this capacity that must capture and direct our attention. Throughout the book, Mitch thus continues to confess his shortcomings as they disclose themselves in the presence of someone who, despite his weaknesses, still evokes an awareness of “goodness” in others. The contrast is rhetorically striking; it makes for a good and entertaining read-one that holds our attention as we wait to see how a teacher’s ability to share the life-giving gift of acknowledgment will affect a student who has yet to become totally rotten with perfection. Will Mitch ever feel at home with himself? We must finish reading the book to know. Are there any readers who are so perfect that they never had to or never will need to ask this question of themselves?
My students sometimes say “duh” to Albom on page 176 because he has demonstrated the appropriate amount of rhetorical competence in directing them toward that moment in the story where it is hard for any reader with a heart not to raise the question. Tuesdays iaith Morrie is a book about acknowledgment, about a life-giving gift that the book itself, in the way it is written, is designed to share with others who, like both Morrie and Mitch, have a need to be needed. Mitch may have other problems, but he is no dummy when it comes to constructing a story that, even at the expense of its author’s reputation, would have us move closer to the goodness of a gift that lies at the heart of human existence.
That said, I have one more piece of evidence to share in support of my reading. In one of his confessional moments, Mitch tells of how, during his first visit with Morrie, he was shaken by his teacher’s appearance and the “faintly sour” smell of his frail body. Moreover, Mitch was disturbed by a realization that was evoked by Morrie’s presence: “I knew, deep down, that I was no longer the good, gift-bearing student he remembered” (28). When Morrie first began to explain to his student how he was dying from ALS and was “sunk,” Mitch was at a loss for words: “I had no idea what to say, so I said, ‘Well, you know, I mean . . . you never know'” (36).
Mitch’s problem here is a common one for people who are not used to being in the presence of a friend or loved one who is dying. Zygmunt Bauman speaks of this problem when he notes:
We do not know what to tell the dying, though we gladly and easily conversed with them before. Yes, we feel embarrassed, and to avoid feeling ashamed we prefer not to find ourselves in the presence of the dying, though before they came to be dying we avidly sought their company and enjoyed every moment of togetherness. . . . Indeed, we have nothing to say to a person who has no further use for the language of survival. . . . We may offer the dying only the language of survival; but this is precisely the one language which cannot grasp the condition from which they (not unlike us, who may still desert them and look the other way) can hide no more. (129-30)
The face of a dying person speaks to us of a fact of life that most people would rather forget. In avoiding their presence, we deny them the respect of acknowledgment and thereby run the risk of contributing to the pain and suffering of their social death. If, on the other hand, we do pay them respect with our presence but do not know, beyond uttering the language of survival, what to say to them, we still promote their social death by not providing them with an environment where their voice can be heard and responded to in a genuine way. A person who is dying and, for his or her “peace of mind,” wants to talk about his or her death, is not being authentically acknowledged if all that is afforded the person are words like “Well, you know, I mean . . . you never know.”
As the story moves on, however, the problem here is slowly remedied by a student who, with the help of his professor, learns to cope with and talk about the sadness of losing a dear and much loved friend. So, for example, in an attempt to develop a sense of how Morrie stood with God as he approached death, Mitch asks him what he thinks about the biblical story of Job and all the pain and suffering it entailed. Mitch reports that Morrie coughed violently and his hands quivered as he dropped them by his side. But then, with a smile on his face, he replied: “I think God overdid it” (151). Still, Morrie later admitted that he was willing to bargain with God so that he might “get to be one of the angels” (163).
And then there was the related lesson about forgiveness: It’s not just other people we need to forgive . . . We also need to forgive ourselves. . . . Yes. For all the things we didn’t do. All the things we should have done. You can’t get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened. That doesn’t help you when you get to where I am.
I always wished I had done more with my work; I wished I had written more books. I used to beat myself up over it. Now I see that never did any good. Make peace. You need to make peace with yourself and everyone around you. (166-67)
Mitch made peace with Morrie up until the very end. He no longer felt “embarrassed or squeamish” about his teacher’s deteriorating condition and, having learned to avoid the inappropriate language of survival when conversing with Morrie, Mitch was no longer afraid of saying good-bye. “After I’m dead, you Calk. And I’ll listen,” Morrie promised (170). This promise was based on the teaching that “Death ends a life, not a relationship’ (174). Language like this was once alien to Mitch. No longer. And so when the day came to say goodbye, Mitch was ready to act appropriately. The teacher and student expressed their love for each other. They both needed to do this. Then, according to Mitch, Morrie’s
eyes got small, and then he cried, his face contorting like a baby who hasn’t figured how his tear ducts work. I held him close for several minutes. I rubbed his loose skin. I stroked his hair. I put a palm against his face and felt the bones close to the flesh and the tiny wet tears, as if squeezed from a dropper. . . . I leaned in and kissed him closely, my face against his, whiskers on whiskers, skin on skin, holding it there, longer than normal, in case it gave him even a split second of pleasure. (186)
“Where art thou?” “Here I am!” Acknowledgment. The need to be needed. It was all there, as were the tears in Mitoll’s eyes that Morrie had always wanted to see as an indication that his student’s heart was open to life, to those in need of help, and to death. “I like to think it was a fleeting moment of satisfaction for my dear old professor,” writes Albom: “he had finally made me cry” (186).
Students need devoted teachers. Teachers need devoted students. Such devotion, whether it happens inside or outside the classroom, presupposes the event of acknowledgment, a life-giving gift that involves the attunement of consciousness, the transformation of time and space, the creation of dwelling places, and the appropriate rhetorical competence that can make such places into homes known for the caring people who live and visit there. The teacher must hear, answer, and raise the call in an engaging way: “Where art thou?” “Here I am!” “Where art t/iou?” The student is obligated to do the same. Both the teacher and the student must learn to open themselves to each other so that they can be the givers and receivers of an essential gift that helps to make life worth living.
Living the worthwhile life necessarily unfolds in the face of death. Life, let alone one that is worthwhile, would not be what it is without its ending. We are a Being-toward-death, mortals who are capable of thinking about and being awed by the fmitude of our existence coupled with the otherness that marks it and encourages us to think beyond its boundaries. Tuesdays with Morrie speaks of all of this. It is a story that is designed to acknowledge acknowledgment by way of the appropriate use of epideictic rhetoric: that type of discourse that is dedicated to disclosing and showing-forth the truth of some matter of importance. Epideictic rhetoric evokes an awareness of the faces of people and of things-who, what, and how they are. This is how Mitch brings Morrie back to life so that readers might acknowledge a great teacher who wanted to be remembered for a gift that he gave to and received from many people, including students like Mitch. It took Mitch awhile to put what he learned from his teacher about the workings and wonders of acknowledgment into practice. The longer we wait to do this, the greater the chances that the role played by death in the process will be clearly recognized. Sooner or later, death has its way. Who will be there for you (“Here I am!”) when you take a fall, and when the time comes to begin saying goodbye to one and all?
Department of Communication
Wake Forest University
1. One final introductory note: Based on reactions I have received from academic and non-academic audiences who have heard some of what can be read here, I suspect that there will be certain observations about acknowledgment (and related matters) that strike readers as being “obvious.” I certainly hope that this is the case, especially given the phenomenon’s ontological significance. The reader who conies away from this essay “dazzled” by all that it has to offer will have to admit the he or she is really lacking in an understanding of something that is essential to the good health of humanity. I would find such a person to be a bit “scary.” The smiles, chuckles, and nervous laughter that I have perceived coming from audiences who have heard me admit as much is reassuring. Is there anyone out there who has no appreciation for the life-giving gift of acknowledgment? Is there anyone out there who is certain that he or she knows everything there is to know about the phenomenon? I possess no such wisdom. Still I hope that at least some of what I have to say about acknowledgment is enlightening-even to those who take great pride in knowing themselves to be the kind of people who are always there to say “Here I am!” when they hear a call for help: “Where art thou?” An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 11th Biennial International Conference of the Rhetoric Society of America, Austin, Texas, May 28-31, 2004. I would like to thank Professor Gregory Clark for his encouragement regarding this project. The essay is adapted from my soon to be published The Life-Giving Gift of Acknowledgment.
2. Also see Heidegger (On the Way to Language 57-136). In this and other later works, he speaks of the “call of Being” rather than the “call of conscience.”
3. I discuss these matters in greater depth throughout The Gall of Conscience and The Life-Giving Gift of Acknowledgment.
4. Heidegger puts it this way: “Only from the truth of Being can the essence of the holy be thought. Only from the essence of the holy is the essence of divinity to be thought. Only from the essence of the divinity can it be thought or said what the word “God” is to signify. . . . How can man at the present state of world history ask at all seriously and rigorously whether the god nears or withdraws, when he has above all neglected to think into the dimension in which alone that question can be asked?” (“Letter on Humanism” 230).
Albom, Mitch. Tuesdays With Marrie. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies. Stanford, GA.: Stanford University Press, 1992.
Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
Gavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
___. Cities of Words: Pegagogical Letters on a Register of Moral Life. Gambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Ferris, Timothy. The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Fortgang, Laura Bermaii.”Career Opportunities.” Winston-Salem Journal. 5 March 1999. A2.
Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Ralph Mannheim. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.
___. Being and Time. Trans. Edward Robinson and John MacQuarric New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
___. Identity and Difference. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
___. On the Way to Language. Trans. Peter D. Hertz. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
___. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
___. “Letter on Humanism.” Trans. Prank A. Gapuzzi and J. Glenn Gray. Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
___. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
___. Parmenides. Trans. Andre Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
___. Zollikon Seminars: Protocols-Conversations-Letters. Trans. Franz Mayr and Richard Askay. Ed. Medard Boss. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001. 215.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion. New York: Noonday Press, 1951.
___. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Noonday Press, 1955.
Hyde, Michael J. The Call of Conscience: Heidegger and Levinas, Rhetoric and the Euthanasia Debate. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
___. “Introduction: Rhetorically, We Dwell.” The Ethos of Rhetoric. Ed. Michael J. Hyde. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
___. The Life-Giving Gift of Acknowledgment: A Philosophical and Rhetorical Inquiry (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, in press).
Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonse Lingus. Pittsburgh, PA.: Duquesne University Press, 1969.
___. Time and the Other. Trans. R. Cohen. Pittsburgh, PA.: Duquesne University Press, 1987.
___. Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Trans. Sean Hand. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1990.
Nuland, Sherwin B. How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Quintilian. Institutio Oratoria. Trans. H. E. Butler. 4 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.
Schrag, Calvin O. God as Otherwise than Being: Towards a Semantics of the Gift. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2002.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. Trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe. Ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.
Copyright Rhetoric Society of America Spring 2005
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved