The art of margins

At the end of a chapter of a book I’ve been cherishing, a sophisticated but equally affable character died all of a sudden. The author I was admiring up to that point allocated a single sentence to describe his suicide and took off in haste, leaving half of a page blank.

She moved on, but I couldn’t. To come to terms with his understandable but unforgivable act, I needed that empty space. It actually felt comforting.

What appeared to be an irresponsible act of leaving a room was in fact an invitation. The muted space was another creation that amplified my emotion; it was big enough to contain my share of the story and also confined enough to hold the tension.

The art of margins also appear in the musical performance. Below is a part of the conversation between Japanese writer Murakami Haruki and Seiji Ozawa, the former conductor of Boston Symphony Orchestra, describing pianist Glenn Gould’s performance in the book “Absolutely On Music.”

Gould ends a phrase, takes a brief pause, and moves on to the next phrase.
Ozawa: Now that—where he took that pause—that’s absolutely Glenn at his freest. It’s the hallmark of his style, those perfectly timed empty spaces.
Murakami: Ordinary musicians don’t do it?
Ozawa: No near. Or if they do, the spaces don’t fit in as naturally as this. It doesn’t grab you—you don’t get drawn in as you do here. That’s what putting in these empty spaces is all about, isn’t it? You grab your audience and pull them in (22).

The genius of the work that involves heart-to-heart communications lies in the ability to pause at the right time and make a room for the person on the other end to chip in.

Leaving a space, not jam-packing it, completes a great work.

Margin by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0


Hope vs. Optimism

During the interview in On Being, Rebecca Solnit said,

Hope, for me, just means a Buddhist sense of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen and that there’s maybe room for us to intervene, and that we have to let go of the certainty people seem to love more than hope and know that we don’t know what’s going to happen.

Wait. How is hope different from optimism? Both of them replace the anxious air of uncertainty with something brighter, positive and satisfying. But I admit they do feel different. Unlike the rosy and flawless optimism, hope has some mud stains, dirt and tears on it. Hope doesn’t smell sweet; it’s rather sweaty. In other words, hope is a mental power, whereas optimism is a mental image. Hope encompasses the determination to dream despite the undesirable, current condition and get one’s hands dirty to make tomorrow a better version of today. I wonder what accounts for these differences. Although it sounds controversial, they may originate from the fact that hope is grounded upon the reality, whereas optimism is devoid of or even insulated from the reality. After all, walking in the air is easy, but doesn’t push you forward. It’s walking on the ground that moves you forward

Here is how Ms. Tippett put it in her book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.

Hope is distinct, in my (the author’s) mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reverse truth. It lives open eyed and wholehearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be (233).

Ah… well, it’s my hope to be as lucid and contemplative as she is someday.


Learning as an emotional process?

I also read Descartes’ Error, by the neuroscientists Antonio Damasio. Damasio had noticed an unusual latter of symptoms in patients who had suffered brain damage to a specific part of the brain—the ventromedial (i.e., bottom-middle) prefrontal cortex (abbreviated vmPFC; it’s the region just behind and above the bridge of the nose). Their emotionality dropped nearly to zero. They could look at the most joyous or gruesome photographs and feel nothing. They retained full knowledge of what was right and wrong, and they showed no deficits in IQ. They even scored well on Kohlberg’s tests of moral reasoning. Yet when it came to making decisions in their personal lives and at work, they made foolish decisions or no decisions at all. They alienated their families and their employers, and their lives fell apart.

Damasio’s interpretation was that gut feelings and bodily reactions were necessary to think rationally, and that one job of the vmPFC was to integrate those gut feelings into a person’s conscious deliberations… The head can’t even do head stuff without the heart… When the master (passions) drops dead, the servant (reasoning) has neither the ability nor the desire to keep the estate running.

(p. 34 of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt )

I believe that one of the things that experts and scholars should actively try to avoid is being narrow-minded. Mark Twain has appropriately put it; “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Just because we are familiar with the subjects and tools and we are also required to go deep, rather than wide, in our own fields, we often forget that we are sometimes confined by the boundary of our own making. Reading The Righteous Mind, which talks about morality being based on emotion, I stepped back and started to wonder whether I mistook the cognitive part of learning for its entirety. Isn’t learning also an emotional process? Current learning assessment tools and rubrics are designed to measure how much students learned; educators rarely focus on how much students enjoy learning. Self-assessment questionnaires are mostly about students’ confidence on the lecture contents and/or cognitive abilities, not about their feeling. Maybe we educators should ponder how to integrate emotional boost into learning.

Here I am quoting again. “The head can’t even do head stuff without the heart.”


“Learning is social”


Cathy Davidson, who was invited to the campus to talk about higher education, said it was a great experience to run a MOOC course with the enrollment of ~18,000 students from all over the world. She also mentioned that her teaching assistants were exhausted from communicating with students 24/7. “Learning is social and interactive,” she added.

Acquisition of information could happen in solitary, but learning requires interactions for two reasons. First, in order to explain something to somebody, the speaker needs to break the information into bite-size pieces, fill any missing links between concepts, come up with analogies, make a story line, etc. These active mental engagement, largely overlooked in education for a long time, is what converts information to knowledge. Second, having a listener means that somebody cares about you—your understanding, thoughts or opinions on something. It’s an implicit, simple but warm gesture that makes your learning relevant and, more importantly, fun.

An effective teacher evokes an image of an eloquent speaker whose clear explanation, charisma and charm overflow from the stage and grab students’ attention. Nonetheless, in light of the importance of human interaction in learning, I wonder if that image may not be correct. As a professor, I should perhaps strive to be an active listener—someone who finds holes in students’ logic and/or asks smart questions that challenge the student to look at the information from different angles.


Image credit: “Listen” by Steven Shorrock is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

근자열 원자래

“공자는 인이란 ‘근자열 원자래’라고 합니다. 가까이 있는 사람이 기뻐하고 멀리 있는 사람이 찾아오는 것이 인이라고 했습니다” (p92, “담론” 신영복저).

어질다는 의미를 이렇게 간략하게, 마음에 와닿게 정의하다니. 신영복 선생님의 책 “담론”을 읽다가 내 눈이 위 문장의 끝에 머무는 순간, 그 감동은 입안에 들어온 사탕의 민트향이 몸에 사아~ 퍼지고 내 몸 밖으로 잔잔하게 번지는 그런 느낌이랄까?

“인(仁)”이라는 내면의 향기라는게 이런것인가보다. 강하지 않고 은은해서 곁에 더 있고 싶게 만들고, 강하지는 않아도 오래 남아 다시 찾아오게 하는. 처음엔 민트향처럼 느껴진 그 감동에 갑자기 무게가 실려 나를 짓누른다. 아… 너무나도 어려운, 도달하기 어려운 것이 인(仁)이구나.

좀 가벼워 지자 하는 마음에 목표를 수정해 본다. 근자열 원자래를 실천하지는 못해도, 이 은은한 향을 띈 사람을 알아보는 사람이 되자. 멀리 있는 사람을 찾아오게 하지는 못해도 내가 마음 준, 하지만 지금은 멀리 있는 이를 찾아가는 사람이 되자. 가까이 있는 이들이 맘 편하게 내 곁에서 쉴 수 있게 하지는 못해도, 타인이 보낸 배려에 밝게 웃으며 고마운 마음을 꼭 표현하는 사람이 되자.

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글쓰기의 본질

fountain-pen-1851096_960_720“글을 잘 쓰고 못 쓰고는 문장력의 차이 보다는 콘텐츠의 차이라고 생각해. 얼마나 새롭고 참신한 내용을 썼는지가 관건이지. 게다가 스타일의 경우 독자마다 선호하는 것이 다르기도 하고.”

글쓰기 연습을 어떻게 하냐는 내 질문에, 친구이자 내 과학동아 칼럼의 에디터 영혜는 글쓰기의 본질이 무엇인지를 짚어주었다. 그러고 보니 얼마전에 읽은 책 “글쓰기의 최전선(은유 지음, 메멘토)” 에서도 비슷한 구절이 있었다.

“글쓰기에서 문장을 바르게 쓰는 것과 글의 짜임을 배우고 주제를 담아내는 기술은 물론 필요하고 중요하다. 하지만 ‘어떤 글을 쓸 것인가’ 하는 물음이 선행되어야 한다. 탄탄한 문장력은 그다음이다. 열심히 잘 쓰려고 노력해야 하지만 그 ‘열심’이 어떤 가치를 낳는가 물어야 한다” (23).

“글이란 또 다른 생각(글)을 불러오는 대화와 소통 수단이어야 한다. 울림이 없는 글은 누군가에게 가닿지 못한다. 말하고자 하는 바를 알 수 있어야 좋은 글이다. 그러니 글쓰기 전에 스스로를 설득해야 한다. ‘이 글을 통해 나는 무엇을 말하고 싶은가.’ 글을 쓰기 전에 스스로에게 중얼중얼 설명하면서 자기부터 설득하는 오붓한 시간을 갖자” (129).

아… 내 질문이 잘못되었구나. 어떻게 글을 쓰느냐가 아니라 무슨 글을 쓰느냐를  먼저 고민했어야 했다. 글쓰기의 가장 좋은 연습은 글로 풀어낼 소재를 깊고 풍족하게 하는 것. 즉, 많이 읽고 많이 듣고 그리고 많이 생각하는 것이구나…

실력이 좋은 것 뿐만 아니라 자기가 하는 일의 본질을 정확하게 꿰고 있는 에디터님으로 부터 오늘 하나 더 배웠다.

“당신이 없는 것을 알기 때문에 전화를 겁니다”



당신이 없는 것을 알기 때문에
전화를 겁니다.

신호가 가는 소리.

당신 방의 책장을 지금 잘게 흔들고 있을 전화 종소리. 수화기를 오래 귀에 대고 많은 전화 소리가 당신 방을 완전히 채울 때까지 기다립니다. 그래서 당신이 외출해서 돌아와 문을 열 때, 내가 이 구석에서 보낸 모든 전화 소리가 당신에게 쏟아져서 그 입술 근처나 가슴 근처를 비벼대고 은근한 소리의 눈으로 당신을 밤새 지켜볼 수 있도록.

다시 전화를 겁니다.

신호가 가는 소리.

책 <정희진처럼 읽기>의 저자 정희진은 위의 시를 ‘간절한 외로움’이라고 소개했다. “읽고 또 읽노라면 외로움이 몸에 가득 차서 손목이라도 그어 몸 안의 외로움을 빼내야 할 것 같은 느낌이 든다.”

하지만 이 시는 내겐 수줍은 이의 사랑표현으로 다가왔다. 상대의 ‘여보세요’ 한마디에 순간 얼어붙을 것을 알기에 그사람이 없을 때 맘 놓고 전화를 한다. 대화는 없다. 하지만 목소리가 듣고 싶은 마음, 그래서 수화기를 드는 설렘, 반복되는 신호음에 맞추어 쿵쾅거리는 심장소리가 시에 가득하다.

빈 방을 채우고도 남아 그사람이 돌아올 때 까지 쌓여 있을 전화벨 소리가 울리는 동안 수줍은 화자는 듣는이 없는 이야기를 모두 속삭였으리라. 전달되지 않아서, ‘부재중 전화 7건’ 이 찍히지 않아서, 그래서 상대가 나의 마음을 몰라준다고 해서 간절한 외로움이라고 하고 싶지 않다. 정말 외로운 사람은 누군가를 이렇게 품을 여유조차 없을 테니까.

<정희진처럼 읽기>에 소개된 참 멋진 시가 하나 더 있어 아래에 붙인다.

사랑법 첫째


그대 향한 내 기대 높으면 높을수록

그 기대보다 더 큰 돌덩이를 매달아 놓습니다

부질없는 내 기대 높이가 그대보다 높아서는 아니 되겠기에

커다란 돌덩이를 매달아 놓습니다

그대를 기대와 바꾸지 않기 위해서

기대 따라 행여 그대 잃지 않기 위해서

내 외롬 짓무른 밤일수록
제 설움 넘치는 밤일수록

크고 무거운 돌덩이 하나 가슴 한복판에 매달아 놓습니다