The Nature Of Definitions
How strange that 46 years later, I should be thinking of a geography teacher in school; one I didn’t particularly like. A ”Miss,” a spinster, a maiden lady as polite society said in those days. I remember how my father of blessed memory would explain the pathology of any woman of a certain age who had not married. I know now how inaccurate his inferences were, but I was convinced even then that I would be in some kind of trouble at some point, because I might not be the kind of person men wanted to marry.
Miss. G. taught us what she said would be one of the most important concepts of our young lives. We were in suburban Boston, and she had migrated up from the South, the Atlanta, Georgia region, with an accent that did not exactly engender trust in nice Massachusetts girls.
She said the most important thing to learn in geography class was not geography. Countries would change quickly, climates would change less quickly, but we had to learn to think.
She asked us for a definition of a definition. None of us was equipped. Alright, she would tell us something that was not a definition. To say we were all confused was a great understatement.
I still remember the exact words she said. “A gazgiz is not a circle.” Great. Miss. G. could have been a gazgiz.
Okay. First we had to say what a gazgiz was. It was a geometrical figure. The girl who yelled out that we were not supposed to be studying geometry until 10th grade — well, I guess she became a political bureaucrat with that kind of mind.
An open, planar, geometrical figure, made up of a series of line segments connected at angles. By now I had angrily pointed out to her that “gazgiz” was “zigzag” backwards, and she was tormenting us with a made up word we would never use anyway.
But the truism derived was a precious one. Ultimately she broke down and said it. “A definition is always built the same. It has two parts. One part tells how it is like other things; what groups of things it belongs to. The other part tells how it is different from other things.” OMG – as the kids today would respond (by texting) — she was right of course. I ran through my head every example I could think of, every example of different kinds of things. And she was right, this fit.
Curiously enough,within weeks of this presentation we would all find ourselves using Venn diagrams to make exactly the same kind of definitions. My reaction could have predicted my later idea. “You can use this thing to define…People.” Miss. G. hastened to tell us that people were a lot more complicated than the Gazgiz, and this sort of idea is really hard to apply to people. You can apply it to people just fine. It is just that people tend to belong to lots of different groups, and have several ways in which they are unique. I sometimes get people who tell me, in one way or another, “I don’t know who I am.” It sounds strange when I write it here, but personal identity is a complex notion, one that often goes at odds to what society says or does when it gives people messages. Just one random example from many available – I once treated a 21 year old unmarried Spanish-speaking woman of Mexican origin who had made it into the U.S. with much difficulty about 8 months before. She said that she was not sure who she was, quickly and nervously, through a Spanish interpreter, repeatedly. Sometimes I use Venn diagrams. This patient was a bit paranoid and not very sophisticated. But I dove in to the concepts, without the Venn Diagrams. Being Mexican is a powerful identity, what with the histories of the Aztecs and the Spanish Colonial period and all of these things, and the Germans (who I blame to this day for importing the accordion – the sound of which reminds me of suffering livestock). Without dizzying her completely, I got the interpreter to give her some kind of extremely brief synopsis of Mexican history. She was one of a number of people who had undergone hardships to come to America. She did not think I knew much about this group, but I told her just enough about how the Cossacks ransacked my grandmother’s place in Russia and how she schlepped onto a boat enduring many hardships to reach the U.S. Then the patient was forced to nod. At least she stopped saying that I did not know about this. She belonged to another group — women. I am always careful with this one, for like all too many women, she launched into a variation of the “all men are scum” speech. I had to tell her minimally there are at least a few examples, one of whom I happen to have married, and someone would help her work on her picker-outer later. The unique things about her were a little harder to scrape up, but we did — schooling, childhood experiences, talents. They were just as evident. However, she had never really noticed.
We tried to put them together in a single sentence, and told her emphatically that this was in no way even nearly complete, but it was the beginning of saying exactly who she was. She could journal and discover more. Everything was right and true. There were no wrong answers. She seemed to understand, and said she would continue the task — first alone, later with a therapist if she liked. Is that all there is to it, she wondered? Basically yes, I told her, and got a bit of a smile. If she had been wildly paranoid or needing of medication, it may have been a bit more difficult, but really, that is it. My schooling is certainly one of the things that has made me unique. I smiled, too, as I remembered Miss G.