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A Letter from Liverpool: ‘All You Need Is – What?’

Philip Davis, our favorite new blogger is back with more commentary today. Davis is professor of English literature at Liverpool University, author of Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, and editor of The Reader. This post originally appeared on Moreover.

Dear America,

This week someone from Education (it would be) said to me, ‘I am comfortable with my belief-systems.’ I blame you, collectively, for this.

9780199270095.jpgI think of myself as a pro-American Brit in almost everything, and I trust my instincts. When I was researching my Malamud biography, for example, I regularly visited Fine and Shapiro’s deli on West 72nd St as my resort of choice (chopped liver and salami, okay). Only later did an interviewee tell me it was in fact Malamud’s own favorite (but increasingly alas, just tuna).

Still, I blame you for the increasing usage over here of ‘comfortable’. It’s turned belief into a cosy chintz chair with fluffy cushions. Please, do make yourself comfortable.

Please do not. This comfortable stuff is a corruption of the old religious language. I love the blessing upon the child, ‘May the Lord bless you and comfort you, and make His face to shine unto you.’ I love the healing words of Christ in the great Authorized Version – ‘Daughter be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole.’ But comfort is what you pray for, what you might even been given, in trouble – not what you make for yourself in Feng Shui world. Don’t pick up your bed and walk; lie down and get comfy.

But perhaps it isn’t entirely your fault. It must be you, America, that also invented ‘the Comfort Zone’ – as in ‘Get Out of Your . . .’ Extraordinary diverse Nation, how did you manage to invent both? And in what order?

But for God’s sake (and I almost mean that, if I was sure about myself), ‘For God’s sake’, I wanted to say to my Educationalist, ‘Comfortable with your belief-systems! That is why they are systems, designed as such for your precious comfort.’ We have a student questionnaire we hand round in our university (it’s one of our systems) and it asks the question ‘Was the level of your seminar:
a) Too Hard
b) Just Right
c) Too Easy?’

It is like Goldilocks and the Three Bears and all that porridge. That is what Aristotle’s golden mean has come to – the ‘Just Right’ of comfortable warm porridge. There is no tick-box on the questionnaire for Hard, as if that (let alone Too Hard) might be an honourable goal.

Beliefs are not things you can simply choose. Beliefs may be closer to fear than to therapy, more like surprised energy than lazy security. The etymology tells you it is more about strengths, albeit found amidst weaknesses, than about luxuries. Friends of the Blog, remember that great American, William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience:

‘We have a thought, or we perform an act, repeatedly, but on a certain day the real meaning of the thought peals through us for the first time, or the act has suddenly turned into a moral impossibility. All we know is that there are dead feelings, dead ideas, and cold beliefs, and there are hot and live ones; and when one grows hot and alive within us, everything has to re-crystallize about it.’

Light up, not lighten up.

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