Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Today I was teaching the poems of Emily Dickinson--one of my favorite poets--and I was prying answers out of them like pulling teeth leading a discussion about the following poem:

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

I explained that the first lines of the poem contain a paradox: a statement that appears impossible or contradictory at first, but contains a deeper truth. I We decided that the paradox here is that behavior that seems crazy can actually have a method to its madness, or come from a person who is ahead of his time. Human beings get very uncomfortable when one of their own deviates from the norm, however. It reminded me of an experience I had in college, so I shared it with the students, who at least were interested enough not to fall asleep (many of them do tend to drowse off when we're reading poetry).

I was taking a sociology class, and the assignment was to identify a social norm, violate it in public, and write up our observations of people's reactions. For example, there is a social norm not to make lengthy eye contact in an elevator, so you could stare at people in elevators and see how they react. (I'm guessing not well.) I wasn't up for that kind of awkwardness, so I decided to go to church barefoot. Completely barefoot--no socks or anything. We weren't allowed to explain what we were doing while the experiment was going on, not even if people asked directly, but afterward we were supposed to debrief them so they wouldn't be driven crazy by curiosity.

It turned out I had two basic kinds of reactions to describe. First, the four- and five-year-olds knew it wasn't normal for a grownup to have bare feet in church. And they didn't mind asking me straight out, "Why are you barefoot?" And, inevitably, the next question was, "Can we be barefoot too?" They didn't much mind that I was breaking the norm if they got to break it too.

As far as grownups, people who didn't know me just gave me weird looks, but you could see the wheels spinning in the brains of acquaintances who were trying to piece together why in the world I had nothing on my feet. "She seemed so normal the last time I saw her," they seemed to be thinking. Yet they didn't want to violate the norm of minding their own business by asking me directly like the kids did. Some people made up their own explanations, like "So did you hurt your foot?" But they knew that wasn't it either, because I didn't have on a brace or even a bandage. I would smile and change the subject, and you could tell it was bugging the daylights out of them.

My dad let me make an announcement after church as my professor had instructed, and oh, the relief that washed over the faces of those who had noticed my weirdness! It was a fun experience even for someone like me who doesn't like to venture into the "weird" end of the spectrum of human behavior. But I learned that I wanted to be more like the little kids, whose attitude was, "That's weird, but it looks fun--can I try it?"



  1. I remember that assignment. Ours was a group assignment, and we went to the airport (this was before 9/11 so we could be all over the airport) We dressed one guy up in the most OBNOXIOUS outfit - floor lenth sheepskin vest, stripped pants with boots, weird hat, and then had another guy dress in a suit, and then had them sit directly next to people at the gates. We compared the time it took for the people next to them to move to a different seat. SO funny

  2. I remember when you did that assignment, and strangely enough, I was thinking about it just the other day during a rather dull moment in a Council meeting when I was somewhat fantacizing about doing something out of the norm. Not that I would ever have the nerve to do such a thing, but it's nice to daydream.