MamaBlogger365 – Mommy Queerest by Kimberly Dark
Proud Parents, Rhetorically Speaking
My son Caleb just graduated from UC Berkeley last month. I watched and celebrated, along with loads of his family and friends. And I heard this phrase over and over again at the receptions and dinners we attended: “I’m so proud of you!” Parents said it to their children again and again; friends said it to each other: “I’m so proud of you!”
Caleb got a BA – double major in rhetoric and linguistics – and this fall, he’s moving on to graduate work at University of Chicago. Pretty hot really. He’s a house-a-fire. And I’m so happy for him – so glad that his clear-thinking, passionate social justice focus has found its way to places of power and status. He benefits those places as much as he benefits from them. He’s moving past my achievements and it thrills me to see that. I’m happy for him, for his potential and for what he will bring to the world.
But am I proud?
It seems obvious enough to say, but the truth is, I avoid the word “proud” when I speak of him. Somehow it seems to aggrandize my contribution. The fact is, I’m lucky. But am I proud?
As my son has learned in his fancy rhetoric education, to define a word is to limit it, to place boundaries – and why would we want to do that? On general principles then, perhaps I’m proud because the common usage includes that bright-heart, open-chest feeling which I surely have when I look at him and can’t help but smiling – sometimes, can’t help but crying.
But I’m a writer, not a rhetorician, so I went to dictionary.com for a little clarity. The first definition is “feeling pleasure or satisfaction over something regarded as highly honorable or creditable to oneself (often followed by of, an infinitive, or a clause).”
See, that’s just the thing that makes me uncomfortable. His successes are not creditable to me. The second definition is worse, “having, proceeding from, or showing a high opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, or superiority. And then the third is the one I find most feeble. It’s that smarmy definition employed by Gay Pride Festivals, namely, “having or showing self-respect or self-esteem.”
Self-esteem indeed. If we truly had self-esteem, we wouldn’t need to feel “pride” in just being alive. No, this is still not appropriate on behalf of my son.
Other than my trouble with definitions, being proud of him getting a degree would somehow mean that I find this accomplishment particularly laudable. Well, it IS an exciting accomplishment – but to my mind, no more exciting for the public praise it garners than any other well-sustained effort. It means something in the same way that sailing around the world or building a house or writing a novel means something. It is an accomplishment of will, learning, strength and tenacity. I hesitate to be proud though, because I don’t believe it means that he’s better than others who went to less prestigious universities, or didn’t go to university at all. I hope he knows that I applaud his accomplishment and that I am truly elated by the cachet he is developing to do good work. And still, I eschew pride.
Along with those who say, “you must be so proud,” there’s another strange sentiment I’ve begun hearing when I deliver news of his graduation. Some people think his degree is impractical. They roll their eyes when I share that he’s pursuing graduate work in philosophy, and some even wonder what rhetoric is. Indeed, he also knows that these fields aren’t seen as money-makers and yet so far, his work on educational equity and teaching have been very practical. I remember when he told me of his deep interest in philosophy – his joy and passion for a misunderstood field of study. It was almost a “coming out” moment. He spoke resolutely about the more concrete applications of rhetoric (law and cultural critique, for example) and then said nervously, “but what really makes me happy is… the history and theory of rhetoric.” I smiled compassionately and assured him that I loved him not just in spite of his feelings for rhetoric. I found his feelings good and natural…
But really, what the devil is wrong with people? They’re spewing pride and disdain around like fertilizer for the garden of cultural foolishness on which we all must tread! It seems that those who would poo-poo philosophy as a foolish field do not truly understand that no matter what you do today, you still have to make your way tomorrow. No matter what degree you earn, you still have to make a life. No one act will secure the future. However, there are practices and ways of thinking that will brighten the path and lighten the load. And to the extent that philosophy is concerned with how we think about what world we make, he is well on the road.
Whether a bricklayer or brain-surgeon – or more likely in America today a “customer service representative,” one has to pay attention to the present in order to be responsible to the future. And perhaps part of that process involves not being too prideful. After all, pride pumps up the ego which can really get its pendulum swinging between conceit and shame, between feeling superior and feeling unworthy. Really, the middle ground serves us best: to be good, to do well.
So, I’m a grateful parent more than a proud one, watching my son’s considerable accomplishments. And I am happy for him and for the world he will influence with his sharp mind, steady feelings and growing influence. May his graduation to the next challenge be a useful milestone for all he touches…
Kimberly Dark is a writer, performer and sociology professor. She is elated that her favorite son is home for the summer after receiving his BA and before beginning graduate work at University of Chicago. Learn more at www.kimberlydark.com.
Photo courtesy: ronnieb | MorgueFile