The Quixotic Soul

It comes from Don Quixote, if you’re wondering,
(sounds like: “kee-hoh-tee”). More on him later.
 
“[Five] is a time when the eyes are wide open and the patterns are not yet set; a time when one has not yet been hammered into accepting everything as immutable and hopeless; a time when the hands can not do enough, the mind can not learn enough, the world is infinite and colorful and filled with mysteries. Five is a special time before they take the questing, unquenchable, quixotic soul of the young dreamer and thrust it into dreary schoolroom boxes. A time before they take the trembling hands that want to hold everything, touch everything, figure everything out, and make them lie still on desktops.“
—Harlan Ellison: “Jeffty is Five“1
 

It begins with an encounter, something you haven’t done before: jumping on a two-wheeler for the first time, climbing the elm, standing up to a bully, wooing a pretty girl. Encounters with the unknown accelerate us into a fuller level of ourselves. When we first engage with them, we are not strong enough to overcome them; we become strong enough through the encounter. A Mentor shows us how, someone who’s been through the journey before, climbed the trees before us, shot the deer, or won the girl. Then he steps aside and we do it for ourselves—and do it badly. But eventually we do it well. You have to be willing to be bad at something before you can become good at it. It’s a pattern in life that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Most famously, men like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and most recently Jordan Peterson have pointed out the importance of this simple pattern of life, in various ways.


Western man stands at a crossroads of heroes, or maybe heroism. Archetypes and patterns and old books can’t fix all the world’s problems—mankind can’t do that himself regardless—but we pass on our values through the stories we tell our children. Or, we fail to. There is something to be learned of ourselves in the patterning, but what is perhaps the most absent element of this is the role of the Father as the central Mentor in our lives, the passer-down of the values, the heritage, the Torch of Why. Young men today face a difficult situation in the West: broadly speaking, their civilization is imploding upon its own culture, collectivism is eroding independence, and the classical masculinity that built the Western world is despised by their own teachers and elders. They can either descend further down the road to total collapse, or they can reclaim Home, reclaim Family, and reclaim Truth. The problem is that nobody’s going to show them how. A good book can help, though.


Take Don Quixote, one of the great works of Western literature. Don Quixote lived in a world where the stories he’d grown up hearing—stories of knights and maidens and dragons and giants—were obsolete, replaced by a world of reason, rationality, and progress, but to him, it was also rather … soulless. Don Quixote created adventure in a world that no longer saw the value of it. He saw giants in the windmills. His soul rebelled at the passivity of his age. Campbell put it this way:

 
“Our life evokes our character. You find out more about yourself as you go on. That's why it's good to be able to put yourself in situations that will evoke your higher nature rather than your lower. ’Lead us not into temptation.’ Ortega y Gasset talks about the environment and the hero in his Meditations on Don Quixote. Don Quixote was the last hero of the Middle Ages. He rode out to encounter giants, but instead of giants, his environment produced windmills. Ortega points out that this story takes place about the time that a mechanistic interpretation of the world came in, so that the environment was no longer spiritually responsive to the hero. The hero is today running up against a hard world that is in no way responsive to his spiritual need.“
Joseph Campbell1
 

Natural Education

When my two eldest daughters, Nevaea and Avonlea, were maybe three or four years old, we would take them to Starin Park, on the opposite side of the university campus from where we lived, and let them play. My wife Elizabeth and I would sit on a bench and talk or maybe read our respective books (I probably read Dune for the 42nd time), glancing up from time to time to be sure the girls were alright. They would climb on the playground equipment and have little adventures in the summer shade. For the most part, the places too high for them to go were also too high for them to reach, so we rarely had to intervene in their play. It was a problem that solved itself, the best kind of problem, to my mind.


But—and it never failed—one of the mothers at the playground would eventually come over to us.


“Is that your kid?”


I would glance up from Dune. “Yes.”


“I thought you should know: she’s climbing on the playground.”


By George, she was right. “Yeah. I see her.”


Bafflement would flickers across the mother’s face. “She could fall off that thing and get hurt!”


“Yes. She could.” I would return to the adventures of an Atreides, while she would leave stormily.


If any of my girls climbed somewhere high enough that a fall would seriously injure her, I would bolt faster than a political coverup, and without prompting, but every single time this event happened (yes it did happen and a number of times, almost verbatim to this description), a resulting fall by either girl would result in a bruise, a skinned knee, and/or a lot of tears. But the tears would pass, the knee would heal, and from the fall they would learn to not fall next time. In other words: they would get a little better at adventuring. In still other words: they would become a little more competent. Confidence comes from competence. When allowed to adventure, flourish, and have some freedom, kids grow competencies. They come “home” to mama when they skin their knee. They often did.

Meanwhile, this is the same child (Nevaea, specifically), who three years later championed her way to the top of that same playground with her little wooden sword, claimed it as her flagship, and made all newcomers swear “oaths of fealty” to her before being allowed to board.


Proud daddy moment.


At the time, I was working as an English Lecturer for the University of Wisconsin, a post I maintained for seven years. Freshman English 101—the class everyone looked forward to, said nobody, ever. It was mandatory. It was dreaded. It was mine. Time to roll up the ol’ sleeves and do some grammatical gardening. “Welcome to the strangest English class of your life,” I would tell them, and boy howdy, I meant it. Much of it was remedial, but without letting them know it was. This became necessary over my time there. Many of them came into university at about a fourth-grade reading level and wholly incapable of writing. They’d never moved past the five-paragraph format, couldn’t pen anything beyond book reports, and most didn’t know what a verb is. Oh, they could decode letters across a page into a vague simulacra of words which they could mentally clothesline-pin into estimates of sentences, but they couldn’tread. Many had never been read to, or at least beyond picture books, and most of them had no idea what written language ought to sound like. Immersing themselves in the pages of a text, formulating images of the men and women (or whatever), seeing lines between the themes, objects, places, discerning subtext in dialogue, these things were all absent in the vaults of their mental vocabularies. My job was to teach this lot how to write.


But this isn’t about writing. It’s about adventuring.


 

Accursed Docility

As the days went on and as my seven years at UW rolled forward, I observed an even deeper problem than the inability (and unwillingness) to read, especially in the young men, something unsettling early on became epidemic by the end—they were docile. Some of it was simply that they didn’t want to be there, sure. That was to be expected. But it was more than that. I’ll talk about the larger problem of college later. A sort of … dullness of spirit settled on them. One thing a man ought never be is docile. He should be pious, active, focused, protective, and dangerous in the right situation—yes, a man should be dangerous.


This book is going to say a lot of things like that. Even worse, actually. You might not want to be seen reading it. Maybe print out a cover of a more acceptable book and tape it over the cover of this one. You’ll be glad you did. Don’t misunderstand. None of the young men I worked with were stupid (though plenty believed they were, and were often even proud of the idea), but they were docile.


On the first day of class, I would show them an advertisement for a program called Grammarly, a wondrous piece of software that can not only correct spelling errors (what can’t?), distinguish transitive from intransitive verb use, passive voice, and a host of other problems. What’s more, it can be applied to email, writing software, just about anything. How counter-intuitive is it for an English teacher to show his students software like this in class? Sure enough, their eyes would crackle with excitement, and when the ad finished, I would ask them a simple question: when did it become admirable to be inept at everything? One of the ads extolled the need to make college “easier.” Translation: you shouldn’t become stronger; you need your environment to become gentler to accommodate your inability. The ads, I pointed out, was selling them on perpetual incompetence with huge success. One has to admire the marketing brilliance of the thing.


Can’t write?


It’s okay.


You shouldn’t be expected to hold more than a kindergarten-level mastery over your own native language, anyway.


Here, let our software do it for you.


Because it’s better than you. And always will be.


This, they did not like, especially the men. Righteous anger can be an interesting motivation. What then? I would ask them why, when they would eventually graduate, a company wouldn’t be better off hiring the software than hiring them, since the software is the one with the actual skill.


Two years after graduating from high school, I took the ACT. I never studied for it. The English section passed, and next came mathematics (never my best subject). It was a transformative moment for me (though not until reflection years later). I pulled a pencil off my ear. Every other student in the room pulled out an algebraic calculator. Those are moments that make us realize how doomed we really are. The test was designed for people to use calculators, but such machines were totally off-limits in my education. As you can imagine, I scored very, very poorly, due to not finishing the exam.


One way to think of it as the difference between a tool and a machine. When you handle a tool, the skill is inside you. Take the tool away and you can still perform whatever task you were already doing, though less efficiently. Machines are things that possess the skill themselves. You only learn how to press the buttons. You know how to work something, rather than how it works. Younger generations are often referred to as “tech-savvy” for obvious reasons, but most of them are anything but. They know how to use technology, but few understand how it works. Running a web search in five seconds is using a machine. Taking the phone apart and re-soldering a loose battery peg on the circuit board so it will charge properly, now that is tech savvy.


When I was first courting my eventual wife (Elizabeth), she worked as a supervisor at Starbucks in downtown Minneapolis. During her time there, the newer, automatic espresso machines replaced the older, manually-operated ones in those locations. Elizabeth had spent several years of her life learning the coffee trade, mastering the pulling and timing of a shot, inculcating a skill into herself. When the automatic machines came out, newer employees never needed to master things like timing a shot. They could simply push a button and the machine would do it for them. They themselves never developed the skill. At the time, it bothered both of us on principle, but neither could probably say way. Chalk it up to disgruntlement over becoming a little bit more obsolete.


By the time I came into teaching, we had developed an entire culture of automatic machines. Young people could not remember phone numbers, calculate mathematics, spell, or even keep track of their own time. Their phones did that. Their cars diagnosed themselves, clothes de-wrinkled themselves, instant-coffee machines poured themselves, and in large part, their papers wrote themselves—especially with Grammarly.

Writing is like thinking: you have to work your way through it. You have to organize your thoughts by moving through them, one at a time. If you can’t think well, you can’t write well (sometimes the opposite is true, too). Although the intention behind crutches like Grammarly are probably all well and good, the end result is an impaired ability to think well. You won’t know what you need to say on the page until you’ve already said it, and then you revisit it, make it better, lather, rinse, and repeat. When a program does it for you, you remain incapable and stilted. Almost every student and every writer wants to avoid the work of writing by pre-writing in their heads, the idea being that, then, all they have to do it “type it up.” This makes as much sense as arriving at a concert and assuring the accompaniment that it’s alright, because you’ve pre-learned piano in your head so all you have to do is “pluck out the notes.”


I suppose if you have an automatic piano, who cares? This is all well and good until the moment the machine breaks down. Most of my students were willing to live with this exchange, and I knew enough by then to understand that you can lead the proverbial horse to water, but getting it to drink?


Many had spent their formative years in some sort of government child-care center, many of which will accept children from as young as six weeks, and they remained there until 3K or 4K, then Kindergarten, then K-12, immediately into university. Though a smattering of family vacations, field trips, and sports dotted the landscape of their lives, the blunt reality—as Harlan Ellison put it in the opening to this chapter—is that they had spent and would spend the first twenty-three or so years of their lives sitting passively at a desk, for tens of thousands of hours. Men, meanwhile, learn through Discovery.


Elizabeth and I have worked with children of every age from preschool through high school. We’ve been youth pastors, VBS leaders, and Awana directors. One night at the Awana program at our church, Elizabeth came up to me shaking her head after passing a couple of fifth-grade boys over against the side wall. She’d overheard them talking over how worried they were about a standardized exam coming up the next day, how, if it went badly, it would affect their GPAs going forward, how upset their parents would be, how it would ruin their chance at a good college and so it goes and so it goes and on and on and on until their whole lives were unraveling in their own thought process. These were fifth grade boys. The only concern a fifth grader should have is his friends finding out how cute he thinks Brittany is over by the basketball hoop.


Meanwhile, working at the university, every term, more and more of them would approach me after classes, through emails, phone calls, etc. to speak with me privately, and the conversations became so formulaic I could recite their problems ad nauseum. Many were depressed, unfulfilled, unhappy, and searching for Truth. While there are often multiple and complex reasons for this, I’m focusing here on what I believe is one of the most foundational ones: these young men were living lives better fit for women—seeking out security.


Not only were their purposes in this season of their lives designed to take the path of least resistance to an end, their lives were strategized, pre-planned, laid out for them from cradle onward in order to gain the maximum likelihood of “success” with the lowest possibility of failure, organized, orchestrated, and entirely devoid of discovery, adventure, or risk—in other terms: soulless and hollow.


Elizabeth and I didn’t draw the connections between the boys at Awana and the docility of the university students for some time. Call it a problem like Quixote faced—an environment that wouldn’t either encourage or even allow the burgeoning hero to explore it, take risks (real ones), fail, and grow through the process.


 

Picking up the Tools

I was around six when my uncles came our house in the country and built our family a deck out in the back yard. I was too young to help, and contented myself to examining a hammer in the garage. My Uncle Paul came in with an armful of scrap pieces of 2x4, and when he saw me there with the hammer, he emptied his pockets of nails and tossed them down on the garage floor along with the scrap wood.


“Here,” he said. “Might as well learn how to swing that thing.”


So I did. Two bandaged thumbs later, I kept on swinging. Within a few years, I’d built end tables, bookshelves, and two sofas. Somewhere in that time, a repairman came to fix an issue with the plumbing (I think, it was a long time ago). He noticed me working on my first of the two sofas in the garage and asked my mother where I’d learned that, and I remember him remarking, “kids these days can’t even swing a hammer. Look at him!”


I was and am no master of carpentry, but I still design and build things, and woodworking has been a constant joy in my life. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the thing I was actually learning is how to learn something. My parents and uncles gave me the space, the liberty, and the advice (when I was smart enough to ask for it) and let me do the rest by myself.


The point is that sometimes—or most of it—your environment won’t be responsive to the way you were designed to grow up, but if that was the end of the story, the young men and women I worked with over the years would never have found something in the great stories that spoke to them.


“Quixote saved the adventure for himself by inventing a magician who had just transformed the giants he had gone forth to encounter into windmills. You can do that, too, if you have a poetic imagination. Earlier, though, it was not a mechanistic world in which the hero moved but a world alive and responsive to his spiritual readiness.“
Joseph Campbell2

I can’t give you an adventure; I had and have my own to discover. I can share with you something that Western man has forgotten, or been deliberately kept from knowing—who and what he is, as found in the stories it used to tell, from Paradise Lost to the Odyssey and, of course, Don Quixote. Beyond these, the most foundational and powerful stories like these are found in the Bible. In the pages soon to come, there will be many stories, not only from books like these but from my own time in the company of them and the young men and women they affected. Most of my students didn’t like English class, but everyone loves a good story. Stories are how we pass our values to our sons and daughters. They’re how we connect ourselves to something larger, and transcend the limitations of our own experience.


“Stories are the wildest things of all. Stories chase, and bite, and hunt.“
Patrick Ness: A Monster Calls


1 Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Books, 1991. Print.

2 ibid.

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