Not so long ago, I was known by a certain someone as “The Ruinator.” She meant that I had a habit of sharing insights and information about people and things that “ruined” her perception of them. I’m not talking about gossip. I’m talking about historical or theoretical information. My acts of ruination fell into two categories: (1) intellectual and (2) existential.
Intellectual ruination occurred whenever I provided too much information, such as the time I brought up cannibalism among the Germanic tribes during Caesar’s invasion of Gaul, or the fact that incense was used during liturgies in the early church to keep flies off the altar, which was important in places like Syria. When I followed this up with how Semitic cultures bifurcated the sacred and profane, eyes started to roll.
Existential ruination took many forms, usually by my questioning people’s motives, which resulted in an eye roll again. Interestingly, whenever I was proved right, the topic was dismissed. The most common existential ruination involved sexuality, as in he’s gay, she’s a lesbian. In some cases, the information I shared consisted of observations about telltale signs of repressed sexuality, such as a preoccupation with gays and lesbians by people claiming to be straight.
The greatest form of ruination, however, concerned technical information. I am not an expert in most areas, but I do know some things about a few topics. That’s what happens in American doctoral programs: you learn a great deal about the infinitesimal.
It happened just this week during the Italian choir rehearsal when I pointed out that the line in the score, “ci guidi verso te” (you guide us to you), was grammatically incorrect. The subject of the line, “la gioia” (joy), needed a single, third-person verb (“guid-a”), not the second-person “tu” form (“guid-i”). Actually, this wasn’t a trifle, since there is quite a difference between singing “guidi” and “guida.” The choir director, a Macedonian, is investigating. I have offered my technical assistance and moral support.
Part of this is an occupational hazard, which I recognize and try not to inflict on others. However, it also reflects a concern for accuracy and professionalism. After all, if we can’t get the lyrics right, how can we do the more important task of helping people encounter the transcendent? It isn’t a matter of pride so much as truth. Sure, we want to do a good job, but we want to do the right job in the right way at the right time.
I tried explaining this once to the person in question, but she just told me that, “life must be really difficult for you.” Yes, it is. Of course, in the end she made it even more difficult, but that’s another story for another time.
Life is a plodding process, which is how a teacher and Jesuit priest I admire, John Haughey, described scholarship. Plodding is also how we go on living. We do what we can with what we have and hope that grace will do the rest.