Grace J. Humbles

Grace works on the communications team at Covenant College and lives by the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, TN, with her husband. Her favorite philosophers include Wendell Berry, Bob Dylan, and Kim Kardashian.

Yes, All People

Fireworks shooting across the Tennessee River last Saturday, two blocks from my head, kept me awake. The finale in Chattanooga is a waterfall—they pile roman candles on Market Street Bridge and you watch them cascade into the water. The first time I saw real fireworks was on top of our family car in the Jordan’s Furniture parking lot. Mom’s encouraging look told me the best part was coming—the very end, with the most beautiful and bright and colorful fireworks. But I felt the vibrations in my sternum and cried and shook and covered my whole head with our Toy Story blanket.

One night, my brother knocked over a lamp while he was running down to dinner. It burned straight through that Toy Story blanket—his favorite—and down the carpet till the floor was on fire. Why did the bulb get hot? Shouldn’t someone invent a bulb that can get bright without burning up my brother’s Toy Story blanket? Then I understood that light bulbs were really little balls of fire, at the ready to burn houses and blankets.

I knew where to go when my sister yelled, “Fire!” We headed to the wall. Always to the wall, across from the basketball hoop, in front of the two spindly cherry trees with stakes as helping arms. For a long time I actually believed the wall would keep a fire out—stop it from touching our tiny white arms and legs and Lion King pajamas. It didn’t matter that the wall was one-sided and only went up to my seven-year-old chest. It was safe, because Mom had told me it was safe. We never fixed the hole in my brother’s bedroom. The perfect light-bulb-shaped hole with concentric layers of plywood and carpet was still there when we sold the house.

There is a certain kind of palpable fear that builds up in the back of your throat—a sort of sinking. I remember it the first time I felt abandoned. I remember it in the fire. I remember it as clear as fireworks reverberating in my chest. It’s reserved for special threatening moments out of my control. When I’m running from a parking garage to my apartment building at 2:00 in the morning. Running to the wall, because it’s safe there.

Through funny mediums like Twitter and Facebook and Google+ posts, women have bravely put voices to these fears in their grown-up forms. They push aside temptations to withhold and disappear, and ask each other to remember what it was like to have a wall that saved them from fire. At the same time, it’s easy to divide and detach—to remind men that they couldn’t understand, couldn’t fathom, couldn’t feel the same fear that yes, all women feel. But in that little moment we have a chance to cleave in solidarity to the things we share. My brother has never run to his apartment in fear, but I know his empathy is real—as real as the time his favorite blanket almost burned our house to the ground.

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Meeting the Grotesque in True Detective

Consider reading this piece alongside another True Detective entry by Alex Miller Jr., published several weeks ago. Warning: contains spoilers. 

I met the South in the back of my parents’ minivan when I was thirteen. The South hits you—in all its prayer-in-schools and porn-on-billboards glory. The billboards really got us. The only billboard I remember in Massachusetts was an anti-gun ad tallying how many people had been killed so far that year by gun violence. This, however, was a whole new world. Signs advertising the “Lion’s Den,” “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “$tripper$” graced the four-lane highways, side-by-side with “Jesus Saves,” “REPENT” and “I Saw That. -God.”

I’m the one Flannery O’Connor’s talking about in the essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” when she writes, “Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader.” I surprised myself as much as anyone when I moved to the very tip of the Deep South to go to college. “They readin’ down there yet?” my Uncle Billy asked. Even more surprising, I discovered Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison. They grabbed me like the $stripper$ highway sign.

When I heard about Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The opening credits on the first episode grabbed me—like the Jesus billboards and Morrison’s Milkman. It was fascinating and distorted and crazy good.

As I met True Detective’s main characters, Cole (played by a chilling Matthew McConaughey) and Hart (Woody Harrelson), I was re-introduced to the Deep South through wide and long landscape shots, regional accents and Southern color. In an interview with HBO, Pizzolatto confirms this intentional introduction to Vermilion Parish, Louisiana.

“In the same way we’re establishing Cole and Hart with as much nuance as possible as dimensional human beings, we want to establish this landscape as realistically as we can, not only on its own, but as a background for our main characters as something they live in that effects them and surrounds them.”

The place has a hold on the characters in True Detective, and the show continues to weave the stories of Hart and Cole alongside striking images of Louisiana. As Alex Miller explains in his essay run in Curator earlier this month, Cole and Hart are detectives attempting to solve a heinous crime we’re introduced to in the first episode. A girl named Dora Kelly Lange is murdered and left in front of a sprawling tree in an occult and ritualistic display. She’s wearing a crown of deer antlers, there’s a spiral drawn on her back and her body is positioned in prayer—a gruesome scene. The show follows the detectives on their nearly twenty-year search for the freak who murdered Dora Kelly Lange and, as we discover throughout the show, many others.

O’Connor’s “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” probes the shocking elements of Southern literature and, in turn, has something to say to this Southern literary screenplay. O’Connor reflects on why Southern writers seem to have a fixation on freaks. Her response: They are still uniquely able to spot a freak when they see one. O’Connor credits this keen Southern sense to the “Christ-haunted” nature of life in the South. She writes,

“The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.”

Religion has a heavy role to play in True Detective. From our first glance at the murdered woman on her knees in prayer, there is a strong current of religion running through the eight-episode story. When asked about the religious overtones and undertones in True Detective, Pizzolatto often reminds interviewers that he grew up in the South. The show is set in Louisiana. This is a story of the South, and it’s hard to imagine a Southern story without religion.

At the very end of O’Connor’s essay she gives one final pat-on-the-back to Southern writers, but concludes with a fear and a warning that one day writers in the South might do away with grotesque and uncomfortable mysteries. She writes,

“I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in gray-flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.”

While we watch True Detective unfold and see breaks in the case, multiple suspects, and interrogations, we also get a glimpse at the hidden lives of Hart and Cole. We see their “suits,” their social lives, and meet Hart’s family. But we also see behind the curtain. “The world needs bad men,” Cole tells Hart. “We keep the other bad men from the door.” Cole recognizes his own inner turmoil, anxiety and inconsistencies. Hart, in his suit, with his beautiful family, has a harder time. He’s blind to his exploits with young women, his anger and his fooling around. He blames marital problems on his wife. He can’t see the freak he is. Cole, in his realism and honesty has an inverse blind spot. He can’t seem to entertain the idea that there is more to life than the stories we tell ourselves in our heads.

The finale brings both men face-to-face with a gruesome freak—the serial killer they’ve been looking for. And in the face of the grotesque, in the death of a serial killer, the pair seems to hobble their way toward hope. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Pizzolatto explains his idea for what became a controversial ending to True Detective:

“To me, the challenge was to not only let these guys live, but show true character change through this journey. That passing through the eye of the needle in the heart of darkness has actually done something to them. . . . We don’t know what kind of life they’ll have. But I think we can be sure that each man is more willing to acknowledge the presence of grace. That was one of the ways that they both failed the same: Neither man would accommodate the idea of grace for their own reasons. Where I wanted them to go in their journeys wasn’t a point of redemption or conversion or even closure but a point of deliverance.”

This is the kind of fiction O’Connor writes about in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Southern writers who truly understand the grotesque are the ones who write with an eye toward mystery—they want to push the limits of the everyday, because that’s where the real story is. O’Connor writes,

“Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do. . . [h]e will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not.”

True Detective ends with Hart and Cole in the parking lot of a hospital. They’ve defeated the “freak” serial killer, and they’re recovering together. They look up at the sky and Cole launches into another metaphysical rant he’s become known for. They talk about the oldest story—the battle between light and dark. Hart, who has previously berated Cole for his nihilism, says, “It appears to me the dark has a lot more territory.” The two talk for a minute longer and begin to walk away when Cole turns to Hart,

“You’re looking at it wrong—the sky thing.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”

This story—the story of Hart and Cole—along with the stories of O’Connor and Faulkner and Morrison, is a Southern story. It’s haunted by religion and pushes toward mystery. It brings the grotesque to the HBO screen and its characters meet evil and grace face to face.

I think O’Connor would’ve been proud.

Hardwired Humans

When I entered my small liberal arts college as a philosophy major, I joined just three other girls in a sea of philosophically-minded boys. In my experience, the gender gap was partly due to the popular but unacknowledged idea that girls weren’t “wired” for the discipline of philosophy; they were, however, wired for elementary education. This same threatening stereotype that caused girls to underperform in math and science seemed to be alive and well in other areas of academia. Sheryl Sandberg, the author of the book Lean In comments on the phenomenon:

“Stereotypically we believe girls are not good at math. Therefore girls don’t do well at math, and it self-perpetuates. If you ask a girl right before she takes a math test to check off ‘M’ or ‘F’ for male or female, she does worse on that test.”

What makes these stereotypes grip us so tightly? Why are women (and men) so quick to believe the generalizations others make about them? There are no easy answers to these questions, but I think examining our metaphors is a place to start.

Throughout history, we’ve used metaphors from technology to make sense of the human mind. Metaphors derived from telegraphs, typewriters, telephones, and batteries helped us describe the ways our minds work. More recently, the word “hardwired” has grown in popularity. According to my Amazon book list, we’re hardwired for fitness, love, faith, hope, success, relationships, and God. Discussions about human relationships are peppered with similar language, reminding us that men and women are wired differently. However, a dismissal of the use of this metaphor as just another technological descriptor transferred to everyday language would be a mistake. Ultimately, the metaphor conceals some of the most complex and interesting elements of human personhood.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us a good idea of when we first used the word “hardwired” to describe our minds. In 1969, a November issue of Mechanized Accounting used “hardwired” in reference to computers. In 1971, the New Scientist describes the cells of a cat as hardwired. Just six years later, Carl Sagan wrote in Dragons of Eden, “The brain is completely hard-wired: specific cognitive functions are localized in particular places in the brain.”

The popularity of the metaphor is hard to deny. A Google search of “brains are hardwired” returns over two million results, including articles from Psychology Today, Dartmouth University, and numerous books and blogs. The metaphor is so entrenched in our understanding of human physiology that it creeps unacknowledged and un-scrutinized into our everyday language and thought.

In his book The Mind and the Machine, computer science professor Matthew Dickerson analyzes the repercussions of characterizing the human mind as a pre-programmed (or hardwired) machine. Dickerson worries that “a physicalist view of humanity, that we are complex biochemical computers, not only denies free will but, by denying human free will, also denies any real possibility of human creativity or human heroism.” In the physicalist world, according to Dickerson, any sense of self-determination and any chance of real change become nothing more than an illusion. Dickerson also argues that seeing ourselves as machines leads to generalization and dismissal of the individual. The “hardwired” metaphor tends toward grouping of types—men are one way, women are another way, children are yet another.

The danger, here, is missing the individual tree for the forest. Some girls are great at math, science, physics, philosophy and the like. Other girls aren’t. In reality, girls are not wired solely with relational expertise, nor men for engineering. To make these kinds of generalizations ignores the incredible human capacity for growth, change, and simple diversity within a spectrum.

Wendell Berry wrote a series of “Mad Farmer” poems as a move of activism against the dehumanization of the modern world. Berry’s poem “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front” provides the climax to the series and develops a picture of a distinctly un-programmed person. “Manifesto” begins with a description of modern man who wants vacation with pay, is afraid of death, and doesn’t know his neighbors. In the second stanza, Berry calls the reader to something more. The stanza begins:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it

As if in response to the physicalist who argues that everything man does and can do is determined by a pre-programmed biology, Berry calls the reader to act in opposition to this sentiment. He asks readers to love the unlovable, to give away what is rightfully theirs, and to act against the way of the world and the desire for selfish gain.  Berry’s third and fourth stanzas continue his list of actions that “won’t compute:”

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

Every task Berry outlines requires a humanity that evades the hardwired metaphor, a humanity with a willingness to trust, cultivate, and create—and even to fight against natural tendencies. Can the pre-programmed man consider all the facts of the world and stay joyful? When the propositions of life do not compute, can the hardwired man still laugh? Berry’s poetry speaks not to a programmed algorithm of emotions, but to a human reader. The idea of a hardwired person doesn’t come close to explaining laughter in the face of utter destruction.

Berry’s “Manifesto” calls to the image of God within man and pleads for a change of heart and mind—a change toward sanctification. The kind of real change Berry calls for is only possible if the human mind can change. Berry’s work and commitment to the reality of human transformation reveal the gross limitations of the hardwired metaphor.

The most insidious element of the metaphor is not its philosophical limitations or lack of descriptive power; the worst thing about the metaphor is that we believe it. We believe we are wired for X and not Y. We believe we are incapable of change. We buy the lie that our circumstances, biological makeup, gender, and age fully define us. We accept the stereotypes placed on our social groups without question or caveat.

Berry’s poem ends with one final exhortation: “Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction. / Practice resurrection.” Berry asks us to be like a fox—to make mistakes in one direction, turn around, and find our way again. The meandering journey of human life is full of growth and change that the hardwired metaphor ignores. The pre-programmed man does not grow or change or choose to alter his course. To be like the fox, we need to be more than hardwired—we need to be human.

“Girls” & Gadamer

When Girls premiered in 2012, everyone had an opinion about the show. Some hated it, some loved it, and others hated that they loved it. Questions arose like: Who is Lena Dunham? Who is this Hannah Horvath character? Why do I hate her so much? And why can’t I wait for next week’s episode?

Everyone in the U.S. started talking about Girls and Lena Dunham, who, at the ripe-old-age of 25, had managed to write, direct, and start in a hit HBO series. Girls brought questions of sexuality, millennial ambition, friendship, white privilege, and self-actualization into the minds of viewers across the country.

I remember watching the Girls pilot and feeling disgusted by Hannah’s whiny attempts to guilt-trip her parents into supporting her by telling them about her friend Sophie who didn’t get any money from her parents and who’d had two abortions. Her friend Shoshanna’s non-stop “Like, I don’t know, you know what I mean?!” was painfully annoying. Hannah’s control-freak roommate Marnie stressed everyone out. Shoshanna’s mysterious cousin Jessa was way too bohemian, European, and free-spirited. But I couldn’t get these girls out of my head.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, a 20th century German philosopher most well-known for his work in hermeneutics, was fascinated by how we know and what happens in the knowing process. His ideas about knowing and understanding help bridge the gap between Girls as a guilty pleasure and Girls as an insightful text. In discussing how we know, he writes about humanity’s finitude and reminds readers that our specific place in time and space influences everything we know and study and analyze. We are “situated” at a certain point in history, and our place in time is necessarily part of how and what we know.

Gadamer describes this “situatedness” in Truth & Method:

“The very idea of a situation means that we are not standing outside it and hence are unable to have any objective knowledge of it. We always find ourselves within a situation, and throwing light on it is a task that is never entirely finished.”

This description alone is a start at describing the world of Girls—it’s a bunch of young kids working hard at understanding themselves, but never really pin-pointing what the heck they’re going through.

Gadamer points to conversation as a way to shed light on our hidden situations. In his foreword to the second edition of Truth & Method, he writes that “the experience of the Thou throws light on the concept of historically effected experience.” We don’t learn and grow in a vacuum, and dialog with other people (Gadamer’s “Thou”) can help shed light on things we’re too blind to see. His first step toward solving the difficulties caused by our “situatedness” is to enter conversation with other people, where we can earnestly work together toward understanding.

Gadamer’s ideas of situatedness help explain why I can’t wait for the next episode of Girls. Sure, I’d rather Shoshanna never open her mouth, and I judge Hannah every time she steps out of her door in another outfit that doesn’t fit. But something keeps me watching. I want to watch the conversations unfold. I want to watch the characters stumble toward self-understanding. I want to watch them work at understanding each other. As much as these girls annoy me, I don’t hate them. They’re just people situated in a place they can’t see clearly—but they’re trying. They’re working at it. And that makes me want to root for Hannah to finish her book, for Jessa to find a passion, for Marnie to chill out, and for Shoshanna to become “the Carrie” she’s always wanted to be.

Every character is relatable—not because I relate to their experiences, but because I relate to their struggle to become who they are. In selfish, sometimes caricatured ways, the girls of Girls are living pictures of what it’s like to be a person. It’s not simple. It’s dirty and strange and sometimes full of weird sex and random friendships and loneliness.

There’s no formula Hannah and her friends can follow to become who they are supposed to be. In the absence of a step-by-step guide to life as a 20-something in New York (unless articles from Thought Catalog and BuzzFeed count), Hannah and her girls (and boys) are left to work at finding meaning in bumbling, fumbling, human ways. Their work often results in half-formed truths and feeble attempts at some grasp on reality. Along the way, they start scratching the surface of the kind of knowledge that counts.

In an earlier essay, “Truth in the Human Sciences,” Gadamer writes,

“Knowledge in the human sciences always has something of self-knowledge about it. Nowhere is deception so easy and so near as in self-knowledge, but nowhere does it also mean as much, where it succeeds, for human existence.”

Unlike “hard,” formulaic science, the knowledge that makes our lives rich and meaningful isn’t something we can pin down. Yes, deception is always possible when we’re talking about knowing ourselves. But we have to try.

The real possibility of self-deception is pretty clear in Girls. Hannah’s OCD and Marnie’s relationship woes are near-perfect examples of radical self-deceptions. But there are places, every so often, where these girls succeed—where they get a glimpse of who they really are and what it really means to be a friend and a person. Jessa crying in a bathtub with Hannah after she breaks it off with her husband. Adam giving strangely solid life advice to Marnie in the premier of Season three. Ray realizing that his cynicism might not be worth it. These moments make sense of all the fumbling and bumbling.

Gadamer’s work on hermeneutics and how we apprehend meaning doesn’t shy away from the fumbling and bumbling we see in Girls. His whole project aims to demonstrate how the clear-cut formulas of science, while neat and clean, don’t offer much to people trying to get at meaning. We don’t follow a step-by-step guide. We don’t make calculated experiments. We live. We have conversations. We encounter tradition and religion. We, along with the girls of Girls, make sense of ourselves and the world through an ongoing dialogue that never really stops. It’s not a pretty way to find truth, but it might be the most human way.