This weekend, I was fortunate to have a wonderful soul help me look over 18 timed writing assessments, scoring each and giving brief end notes. Not only did this make my work load far more manageable (52 other papers), but it also reinforced a concern I often have about writing -- and about communication in general. The #1 comment my colleague left regarding papers that weren't up to the task was some variation of: Is this really what this reading is about?
In other words, YOU ARE MISSING THE POINT.
Missing the point is an epidemic in communication. People are given messages to comprehend and, somehow, focus on the wrong parts more often than they ought to. Why has it become so difficult to focus on the bigger picture of a text, a comment, or a story? Why do people get lost among the details? I'd like to blame it on attention span, on technology, on those young whippersnappers and their doggone rock 'n roll -- because it's so fun to do that -- but then I would be missing the point.
This problem isn't new. It's been around long before the internet, when people saw Ray Kinsella and compared him to Crash Davis. Heck, it's been around much longer than that.
My theory is that is stems from FEAR. Everything does.
As humans, we have a tendency to label everything we encounter so that we can put it into an understandable context. Why else would a group of doctors call something "Generalized Anxiety Disorder"? Because those suffering from anxiety did not feel comfortable unless their condition was validated. Similarly, it's difficult to tell people that Field of Dreams is a movie about a son who regrets his final interaction with his late father and desperately seeks to do what is right, based on his limited understanding of faith in himself and in the world. It's a heck of a lot easier to say, "It's a baseball movie."
This fear of being on the outside of understanding leads to such oversimplification of "main ideas." My students had an essay that gave a highly nuanced view of why people ought to omit certain truths from others. The general consensus on the thesis: Lying is okay. While close, to be sure, it is not the same thing.
This reminds me of one other instance from the past week. I had the good fortune of seeing a John Mulaney show in San Diego. Mulaney told a hilarious anecdote about a time he was heckled in Murfreesboro, TN. The story culminated in "the best heckle he's ever heard." He went on to make jokes about the name of the city, claiming it sounded like it had been named by a dying Civil War general who must have had a mouth full of mashed potatoes as he mumbled, "Murfreesboro." (Put it on the sign! said his grandson. Exactly as Pappy said it!) My girlfriend nearly died laughing.
I did, too -- especially when I read this critique of Mulaney's bit the next day. The poor sap who writes the article takes offense to many innocuous elements of the comic's tale, ranging from Mulaney's inability to pronounce the town correctly to the fact that, according to his archives, Mulaney may never have actually played in his town. In other words, this columnist is MISSING THE POINT.
Mulaney does not tell this anecdote to criticize the city in any meaningful way. (In fact, he makes the heckler sound articulate and thoroughly philosophical.) He simply points to a town on a map that looks like a "mouthful," and relates an anecdote to accommodate his stand-up comedy routine. It's hyperbole. It's exaggeration. And it's funny.
Maybe Mulaney saw it on a map when he was touring in Nashville and thought, "Here's an ironic idea." If he had written the same Civil War general joke about Nashville, it simply wouldn't have been funny. I'm sure no offense was intended to the fine denizens of Murfreesboro.
Yet this man writes a passionate article defending Murfreesboro and the pride of its residents. He even wastes ink clarifying the actual etymology of the name (because if Mulaney had told his audience, "The town is named after a deceased general named Murfree," they would have rolled down the aisles laughing). He then criticizes Mulaney for a failed sitcom and implies that the disrespect he showed to Murfreesboro will come back to bite him. Touring nationally and (I'm sure) still writing for many comedians and shows, Mulaney doesn't exactly need the endorsement of a town in central Tennessee with fewer than 100,000 citizens. Plus, he's a comedian -- not a member of the census bureau. His goal is humor, not minutia.
I don't have a major philosophical point in this blog. Not this time. All I can say is this: People, spend a little time thinking about the "big idea." You're losing points on essays and you're missing chances to laugh. Exercise the muscle in your head. At most, you can become wise enough to truly grasp the depth of most conversations happening around you. At the very least, you won't lose energy taking offense when someone calls you a San Diegoan instead of a San Diegan.