Having the Last Word.

There are times when we, most of us at least, would like to have the last word. But some of us need it too much.

I speak of what I know. I’m a kind of a recovering Last-Worder.

Last-Worders tend to come in types, of which I have artificially narrowed down to three. (This is meant to be read while listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter.):

Like ants on crabs, wisdom scurries not, he says.

Wisdom Dispensers are just sure that you, and everyone around them, need to be edified. And so what they have to say to you is w-a-a-a-y more important than what you have to say to them. They act as if they are listening to you, but they are really listening for an opportunity to complement your progress towards their point of view or to correct you with the drop of another golden nugget. They can never allow any discussion to end without giving you some last pearl from their reservoir of wisdom.

A prominent subtype of the Wisdom Dispensers are the Cryptologists, who use intentionally cryptic language or esoteric jargon.  If you to ask them to clarify what they mean or put it in plainer terms. This put them in the delicious position of having you prove your own inferiority, from which they can either take pity and bend even lower to enlighten you, or choose to ignore you as unworthy in front of others.

There are other subtypes as well. But nearly all these people nearly have to slip in one last thing into a conversation that registers (dis)satisfaction, pronounces (dis)approval, or leaves the impression that they really have been maintaining a detached position above it all.

Can’t seem to keep the faith, as if that’s all I need to do.
I’d rather walk away than take what belongs to you.

You can have it, I don’t want it, and when you’ve got it, I’ll be gone.
It won’t matter what you’re saying, when the damage has all been done.

Watch out for the insecurity officer.

Homeland Insecurity Officers are insecure about some fundamental aspect of their own sense of stability, and they are determined to demolish everything and everyone they perceive as a potential threat to it. Into this category fall the subtypes of the Defenders (who continually defend their weaknesses), the Crusaders (who ride their issue into conversations whether the conversation is about their issue or not), the Dismissives (who denigrate others so as not to have to deal with the substance of what they have said), and the One-Uppers (for whom everything is a competition in which they have to trump others). Having the last word to these people is crucial in maintaining the illusion that they are invulnerable by projecting their insecurity onto others and having the last word with it.

Some words will cut you down like you were only in the way.
Why should I stand ths ground? It won’t hurt as much to say:

You can have it, I don’t want it, and when you’ve got it, I’ll be gone.
It won’t matter what you’re saying, when the damage has all been done.

One trick's all that pony needs.

One Trick Ponies have decided to combat complexity by denying it. Their world does not rest on the complexity they loath because they fear it has them involved in something they can’t control, but on one unshakable explanation or phenomonon. And because this explanation or phenomenon does not really exist, it is practically unassailable. Into this category fall true believers of all kinds: conspiracy freaks, Tea Baggers, Birthers, angry young radicals, political ideologues, extremists and fundamentalists of various kinds. They will always have the last word in order to reaffirm to themselves that their reality trumps yours else they lose their one explanation and, with it, their whole world.

Sometimes we’re blinded by
the very thing we need to see.
I finally realized that…
you need it more than you need me.

You can have it, I don’t want it, and when you’ve got it, I’ll be gone.
It won’t matter what you’re saying, when the damage has all been done.

–Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Last Word

Now, you might say that there’s more than a fair bit of irony in a professor talking about people who like to have the last word.  And, you would be right. And truthfully, one of the reasons that I initially went into my field was so that I could have the last word.

Venice floats on pilings.

I thought that Classics would give me a way to explore the history of ideas and culture like one might explore a city like Rome or Istanbul: layers replacing layers, each new stratum utilizing, covering up, or rediscovering some of the rubble of what went before, each a hybrid of old and new. But finally, underneath it all, there would be relatively solid ground. Instead, I found a Venice: a city floating on pilings driven deep down into the unstable muck, its foundations slowly shifting and buckling, a stubborn and tragic testament to all that is both wonderful and wretched in humanity. Academic disciplines, science, philosophy, and religion are ways of drilling and driving pilings down into the marsh. Our lives are built upon a variety of them, and together they give us some measure of stability. But the farther down, instead of increasing clarity, I discovered increasing complexity. Instead of finding the firm foundations of authority, I discovered a rich and fluid ambiguity. It offered me no last word, but instead, a lasting exploration.

Reaching that point is like reaching the spot on the map where it says, “Beyond here there be dragons.” There are risks and costs no matter what you decide to do. I chose to go on.

And yes, there are dragons out there.

My time over the edge of my previous map changed me, and it also changed the ways, and the reasons why, I teach. I now think that good teaching is really about letting students have the last word. A good course should be something like a conversation with a discipline and/or topic, and you can only bring that discussion along so far in a semester. I try, in various ways, not to finish the conversation and hope that some students will continue it even after I, and the class, have passed over their horizon.

And I backslide from time to time. I have a hard time leaving a conversation sometimes, I push things too far others, or have to get a lick in just to show I can. But I’m trying. I try to remember that needing to have the last word rarely depends upon what you know; more often it depends upon what you are unwilling to know. I see this in myself, and other fellow last-worders everywhere who still need to have the last word, whether they speak for themselves or grant that privilege to a proxy. Having the last word means that you reserve the right to finish the discussion on your own terms. The end game is already predetermined. The map is already set. Because of that, there really isn’t any room for change, discovery, or growth.


2 comments for “Having the Last Word.

  1. Whitney
    January 13, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I am attempting to recover from “Last Word Syndrome” as well.

  2. Susan Nelson
    January 12, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    You have stolen my song. The one that I used to play at high volume and truly give up the last word to several people who needed it more than I did. Besides, the damage had all been done. But, occasionally, especially when teaching, I still need to make that correction or change the direction of a conversation. But, that is part of my job. I’m the professor for a reason. In my family, however, I have learned that the people who most need to hear the last word, won’t listen. So, I am silent more than I am comfortable with at times. Still, the damage has all been done.

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