Saturday, June 11, 2011

Prompted by a Clever Email...

"To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target."

A friend of mine just emailed me a list of lines like that one, lines called "paraprosdokian," which make the reader back up and reread, smiling with a new understanding. One of the best emails I've received in years! I plan to use many of the lines as writing prompts for my students, but first I will use the one above as a prompt for my own writing, here....

What a circular feat of marksmanship, when you can declare yourself a bulls-eye no matter where your mark lands! This reminds me of people I've met who need to win at everything (or at least to appear successful), so they reinvent the goals as they pursue them, so that they can always end with the convincing assertion, "That's exactly what I meant to do/say/prove," no matter what happens. This is like the author whose book gets banned for actually inciting drug use among teen readers, but rather than express remorse or outrage, the author nods and says, "It's a sad consequence, but that's why I had to write those passages--to bring forward those predisposed to drug abuse, so that they could be treated and helped." Random consequences that seem to "miss the mark" thus disappear when the end is not predetermined. It's like the justification, "Obviously, this just wasn't meant to be then," when used as a cover up for feelings of inadequacy. That's not to say that I don't think "things happen for a reason," or some occurrences are "meant to be." I do. I just DON'T think they serve as rationalizations for missing one's mark; I thing that part of pursuing one's goals with integrity and tenacity is the equal ability of admitting one's inadequate results, with the aim of finding a more effective manner to pursue similar goals in the future.

Similarly, some take credit where none is due, claiming that they intentionally "hit the mark" when they did so accidentally. But to save face, they move their target, so to speak. One of my poems was once featured in a poetry analysis column in The Writer, and the columnist praised my poem for its Shakespearian double entendres in the final line--two of them. I knowingly created ONE of those double meanings, and only realized the second one when she pointed it out. I could have claimed, "Of course, that's exactly why I chose that word," but I'd be lying. (To this day, I tell that story to my students when pointing out some of their unintentional, serendipitously perfect word choices, making them laugh over their own subconscious, natural brilliance!)

The idea of changing the target as our shot lands also reminds me of using situational ethics--changing the rules to fit a context and serve one's ego. For instance, a person justifies accepting an illegally burned film on DVD, saying, "I'm only showing it to my friends because they'll get a thrill out of seeing the film before everyone else. It's not like I'm charging admission and making money off the filmmaker's work. THAT would be stealing, but this isn't." Translation: "My friends will think I'm cool for giving them a sneak preview, AND for saving them money." Never mind the fact, when pointed out to the DVD "owner," that the friends would have been paying patrons of the film if they had to wait to see it in a theater! That's not stealing? Change the definition, change the legitimacy. Aim for a fixed target and you could end up on the outer rim, or worse, on the dirt beside the target. But move the target to meet the flying arrow, and you're sure to seem like a winner.

That paraprosdokian pondering sheds light on the irony of self-righteousness in a world governed by relativity. We cannot "miss our marks" in the absence of clearly defined, stationary targets/goals/values. But is hitting the mark really as important as the manner in which we aim? And is missing what we aimed for actually something to be ashamed of, or an opportunity for continued growth?