Sometimes a passage in a book that is otherwise not very (subjectively) memorable sticks with a person for life and this passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera — left behind after a visit from “The One,” which gave the book added significance — was truly the stone tossed into the pool that left eternal ripples. I read it in 1986. I know this because among the volumes of “The Examined Life” is one that records this moment.

We’re not all designed the same way, but we all (it seems to me) want to belong somewhere to something. We’re born into a family and belong there. It’s the prototype for our whole lives, maybe. It feels good to belong, to be accepted, understood, wanted.

There’s something even a little scary about NOT belonging — maybe our primordial memory KNOWS the truth about people which is that they are capable of killing the stranger, the odd man out. “Us vs. Them” seems to be built into us.

In 1986, when I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I had only been back in the US from China for two years and the memories of the stories I’d heard of life during the Cultural Revolution were still — well, ARE still — pretty vivid in my mind. One of the milder stories is about one of my students who was subjected to extra political study just because she was a little bigger and whiter (yes) than the people around her. And why? She’d shown promise as a swimmer when she was very young and the government and put her in a special program for kids they thought might turn out to be Olympic material. She’d had a better diet, more exercise, and a different life than the other students. Of course, when her early promise wasn’t realized, she was back in the “normal” world to learn how to teach English. It wasn’t only these stories. In China I’d lived an experience very, very, very few (none?) of the people around me had lived, and I’d felt strangely at home in that very foreign country.

On top of THAT most of my life people had said, “Kennedy you’re WEIRD.” Even at the international school where I was teaching ESL most of my colleagues had linguistics degrees and many made a point of letting me know that my English masters degree was not the best training for teaching ESL, after all, they’d studied LANGUAGE I’d only studied words actually being used to express ideas.


This “us vs. them” thing? I don’t think we humans can overcome it.

Kundera called it “circle dancing,” and wrote,

“Circle dancing is magic. It speaks to us through the millennia fro the depths of human memory. …All her life she had looked for a group she could hold hands with and dance with in a ring. First she looked for them in the Methodist Church, then in the Communist Party, then among the Trotskyites, then in the anti-abortion movement, then in the pro-abortion movement; she looked for them among Marxists, the psychoanalysts…she looked for them in Lenin, Zen Buddhism, Mao Tse-tung, yogis…I, too, once danced in a ring. It was in the spring of 1948. Communists had just taken power in my country, the socialist and Christian Democrat ministers had fled abroad, and I took the other Communist students by the hand…then one day I was expelled from the Party and had to leave the circle. That is when I became aware of the magic qualities of the circle. Leave a row and you can always go back to it. The row is an open formation. But once a circle closes there is no return…” (Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kundera is right. Circles form around labels that may or may not even mean the same thing to all the dancers, and soon belonging to the circle means more than what the label actually represents. Words are slippery things. And maybe it’s human nature (for some? all?) to cling more tightly to the circle than to continually examine what the circle comes to represent. It seems like many of the world’s biggest cataclysms — like the Protestant Reformation — have resulted from someone examining the circle’s doctrines. Of course, that results in the formation of new circles, new cataclysms, on and on. It’s not pretty.

I’ve only belonged to a couple of circles. After my experience with the last circle (which was great) I had a better understanding of myself and a deep appreciation of my dad’s advice, “Don’t join anything, MAK.” I might still be “weird” but I don’t hear that any more. I hear, “You’re probably the coolest friend I’ve ever had.” Yep. What does that mean? Ultimately, I think, the most dependable, most honest, circle to which I can belong is that of being happy with myself.

20 thoughts on “Circles…

    • Yeah, that’s Matisse. It hangs in the Hermitage Museum. Gary, I think and you and I are both safe from the “basic” moniker. 😀

  1. “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member” (or something close to that) was Groucho Marx’s version of your dad’s advice. And, on the topic of Matisse, an artist and singer/songwriter neighbor commemorates “National Fake Matisse Day” by producing a Matisse-inspired work on the latter’s birthday each December 31.

    • Our gradeschool would have a yearly art night. The kids would all learn about different artists and then paint in their style. On the art night kids would dress up as artists and sit by a painting that they had done. It was great fun. I have my son’s “Matisse” framed over my mantel and my niece’s “Starry night” there too.

    • Circles are appealing to us humans, I think. We are always making them. Quilting circle, sewing circle, men’s prayer circle, etc. Lines? Dodge ball, up against the wall (etc.), Red Rover, a police lineup…

  2. “Us and Them” seems to be an inherent human trait. Almost always devolves into “Us vs. Them.”

    A circle will rail on the evil of exclusion in the other circle while being just as exclusive itself.

  3. This essay is relevant:
    I read the whole thing aloud to a friend within the last year. The patterns that groups take. We were both amazed and astounded by it: he’s predicting what is happening on Facebook. And how do we outgrow this? I think we stop categorizing. I pretty much don’t care or register gender or what people are wearing. I read their “cloud”, the emotional baggage that is in storage. It is automatic on my part, survival learned in a childhood with alcoholics and enduring food insecurity. I told a counselor that I couldn’t NOT read it. She grimaced. “Why do you think I am a counselor?” It was very useful for patients but my partners HATED having me poke the cloud and say, “Hey, what’s that?” It is not socially correct. But in the end we have to get past the categories. My daughter says, “We make up all the words.” Yes, we do and we make up all the categories too. Stop thinking that the category is important and actually see the human being!!!

    • We did make up all the words and then we mistake the words for the reality behind them. We see a dragon in the clouds and don’t see the clouds any more. I imagine it’s humanity’s way of “making sense” of the world, but in a very real sense it denies the world its actual sense. As a “little old lady” with white hair and arthritis I now experience — more than at any other time in my life — “being” the person telegraphed by my appearance. I got adopted by a neighbor family as “grandma” and I’m not in the LEAST “grandmotherly” person (except for my appearance). Their expectations of me are based on on who I am, but what they think they see. I’ve bucked against this and I’ll keep bucking, but it’s hopeless. Seeing actual human beings is relentlessly challenging and I don’t think people want to do it. It’s too much work.

      Interesting your comment about seeing people’s “cloud.” I guess I do that too thanks to my mother the secret drunk and my dad who lost the ability to speak. It was an extremely helpful trait when I was in the classroom and tasked to make a connection with 35 people (x however many classes).

      I’ll read this article on our next 90+ degree day. Thank you!

      • Hugs. I want to be seen as a grandmother, because I don’t want to be burned as a witch…. I’m not either one, but if they choose one, I’d rather they choose the grandmother.

  4. Us vs. Them is constant. Why do we humans feel better about ourselves if we’re not THEM? I know there is comfort in conformity, but there also is joy in being ONE: Yourself.

    • I agree. No matter what happens in our lives, we are stuck with ourselves. And individually we evolve which means we’re not always all that livable. I guess being part of a group takes some of the responsibility for self off our shoulders.

  5. On my first trip through Czechoslovakia (it was the 80s), I’d bunged two books into my backpack just before leaving home. As it happened they were by Bulgakov and Kundera, and I didn’t realize it until I was sitting in a railway station and reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, because people turned to look at me as they passed. Fortunately both were in translation, so the police did not bother me.

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