Chapter 76: Hardness
“Living people are soft and tender.
Corpses are hard and stiff.
So hardness and stiffness go with death; tenderness, softness, go with life.
And the hard sword fails,
The stiff tree’s felled.
The hard and great go under.
The soft and weak stay up.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Of the many things that puzzled me about the Biblical stories growing up, one always stuck out: when God is hurling plagues at the Egyptians in Exodus, and Moses asks for his people to be let go, God repeatedly “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart. It puzzles for two reasons: first, it seems to relieve Pharaoh of responsibility, and second, it prolongs the Hebrew’s bondage and increases the suffering of the innocent Egyptian people. Why doesn’t God just snap his fingers and zap them to the Promised Land?
In the wake of the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, we heard a new piece of language beyond the usual “thoughts and prayers” rhetoric: “harden.” Schools should be “hardened.” In addition to the idea of “arming teachers”—the very teachers, mind you, who are allegedly brainwashing children to hate America, apologize for their race, bend their gender, and smash capitalism—the solution, we are told, is to to turn schools into the inverse of maximum security prisons. “Parental rights” involve not having your children’s heads filled with psychologically discomforting ideas, but not, evidently, having them go to school without having to worry about getting their brains blown out. You have to work hard to conjure a more potent symbol for the right’s psychological propensity for repression and projection. Within the schools and without, they seek complete control and security to protect children from dangerous ideas and dangerous people, never questioning the real sources of danger.
Every educator knows that the key ingredient for learning is creating a classroom environment of “psychological safety.” “Social and emotional learning” and meditation and yoga in schools—the very things that can cultivate the qualities of meta-cognition, empathy, impulse control, and so on that conservatives valorize as “the virtues,” the very things whose deficiency in the culture breed the isolation, anxiety, and depression that lead teens to harm themselves and others—have similarly been targeted. What drives hardness is a fear of introspection, of vulnerability, of intimacy. As many have pointed out in the last few years, fascism is not an ideology but an attitude: it fetishizes strength, understood in hyper-masculine terms as firmness, rigidity, domination, and the triumph of the will. It takes root in countries with high levels of social isolation and weak mediating institutions between the individual and the state. The fact that schools—the sites in which intergenerational transmission, the condition for the continuation of civilization—are now a front in the culture wars should cause alarm.
This latest dust-up over gun control and schools, like that over Wokeism in schools, is a symptom of a broader and deeper educational problem. The adults who harbor these fears need to be educated, and to be educated is precisely to relax the grip over your heart. Nothing impedes learning like fear of the strange and the unknown, and the desire for the safe and the known. One reason these adults are reacting this way is because they do not feel psychologically safe in the culture. So they act out. As educators—and every citizen should see him or herself as an educator—it is on us to listen and try to understand. People harden because they are hurting, and they are hurting because they feel the bond of trust between the heart and the outside world has been severed. The heart of the heartland has become hardened, and its hardness has been well earned; and the heartland is not just “flyover country,” but the most human and humanizing spaces in every place—family, school, church. If we do not take measures to soften it, it will just keep sending us more Trumps.
Eventually I came to understand the meaning of the scene in Exodus. God doesn’t literally harden Pharaoh’s heart (nor does he literally do anything—the events and effects that befall the characters are better understand in karmic terms). The ruler’s reaction is a function of his karma; his past cruelty has made it impossible for him to hear the cries of the suffering, and only when he suffers the same injustice that he perpetrated on the Hebrews—the killing of a first-born son—does the tension in the story break. In addition to this, the Egyptian people are not exactly innocent: they tolerated and benefited from the enslavement and exploitation of the Hebrews. As in many Biblical stories, the main character is a symbol for the people as a whole, as Moses and David are for the Hebrews. Moses comes from water and leads the people to freedom through water. Pharaoh is the ruler of the kingdom of stone that builds tombs for the dead. Moses and David are leaders who know they’re not God. Pharaoh thinks he is a God.
The story is a pertinent allegory in this sense: the Egyptian people are the children of the Hardeners, who don’t realize that their absolutistic defense of the 2nd amendment, their proposals to arm teachers and barricade the doors, and their blaming of gun violence on “mental health” will only result in more misery for their children and communities. The Hebrews are the rest of us counting the days toward deliverance, in thrall to the whims of a deranged minority. The Pharaoh is the group of leaders who maintain the militia-industrial complex—the NRA leaders, donors, and lobbyists, the spineless GOP Senators, the rapid MAGA congressmen, and the right-wing media.
The Biblical lesson here is that we must work to “hearten the hard.” Maybe we should teach that in public schools. I suspect many of the Hardeners would soften at that proposal.
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