Monday, February 18, 2013

30th Year Reflections/34: Ethos

“From the time we are born, the narrative cradle of story rocks us to the collective heartbeat of our species, ushering us across the threshold of consciousness and into the domain of humanity.” — Marshall Gregory, Shaped By Stories: The Ethical Power of Narratives

I came across Gregory’s book quite by accident. A recent “Weekly Briefing” post from the Chronicle of Higher Education led me to an article/obituary about Gregory (he passed away at the age of 72 after a career as English professor at Butler University) that intrigued me about the man and his work. I wanted to read more by him, and so found his Shaped By Stories on our shelves. At the moment I’m about half way through the volume, so will not unpack all of his arguments here. I will say that the book is worth reading. I will also say that the sentence quoted above is one of the most lovely I have read in some time. There are others like it in the book.

Part of what caught my attention was the title. I am drawn to stories—as perhaps some of these posts give witness to—and agree with Gregory that there are various powers in narrative that we sometimes employ in the classroom, or with our colleagues. What is key to understanding his work is the assertion that our obsession with stories—and his prior claim that we are, indeed, obsessed with stories—“exerts a potentially serious influence on [our] ethos: on the kinds of persons [we] turn out to be.” Ethos, as Gregory points out, is “the Greek word for character…to persons as ethical agents, as people who make decisions about good and bad and who decide their own conduct.”

His book has caught me at what might be termed a tender moment. I have been reminded in very recent days of my own ethos, of the decisions I have made (for good or ill), and in the nature of my own conduct. I have made both good and bad decisions during my career. At times I have conducted myself in an honorable manner, at other times not. I am not proud of the latter. In some cases there is a sense of unfinished business, of a need to ask forgiveness, of being reconciled. These are not terms bandied about in library school, but perhaps they should be. We need to spend some time in the classroom, and in professional development, thinking about what it means to be an ethical agent.

This is not a confessional—although confession is good for the soul—but perhaps more rightly a reminder of our humanity. We all have flaws. We have our good days and our bad. Perhaps the question to ask (among the many that we could ask) is what kind of ethos do we bring to our work? As I write this it is now Monday morning. I’m struggling with the fact that I’m three or four days late in posting this piece; it runs against my character—or my desired character—to be late, to not fulfill a promise. At the same time, I look at the week ahead, of meetings and classes already on the calendar, as new opportunities to connect my ethos with each of these events. What will I bring to each day and to each person I encounter?

A passage springs to mind from another story—one of my favorites: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. At one point, when Frodo and Sam are held captive by Faramir, a crisis is presented to Faramir in the form of the ruling ring. Sam has inadvertently disclosed the Hobbit’s possession of the Ring of Power to Faramir, a prince of Gondor. Trying to recover the moment, Sam says “Don’t you go taking advantage of my master because his servant’s no better than a fool. You’ve spoken very handsome all along, put me off my guard, talking of Elves and all. But handsome is as handsome does we say. Now’s a chance to show your quality.” Faramir, faced with both a crisis and a challenge, displays his own ethos. At the moment of decision, Faramir utters these words: “And here in the wild I have you: two halflings, and a host of men at my call, and the Ring of Rings. A pretty stroke of fortune! A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality!” A short time later the crisis has passed. Faramir will leave the ring with the Hobbits. He says: “We are truth-speakers, we men of Gondor. We boast seldom, and then perform, or die in the attempt. Not if I found it on the highway would I take it I said. Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them.”

What is our ethos? What character do we bring to the workplace each day? Who are our models, the people we wish to emulate? Do we have a Faramir to our Sam?

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