Tag Archives: humility

Robert Frost’s “Mite” of Wisdom

Robert Frost is one of the best known 20th century American poets and one of the first poets I stumbled across in junior high school, being forced to memorize one of his poems, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  I also remember him reading a poem as I watched the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on TV, getting my first impression that a poet might be a person of importance!  I can’t say that Frost has made my personal pantheon of poets but I do like his work, deeply admire the story of his personal struggles, and am particular struck by one of his poems which I will now share, “A Considerable Speck.”  This poem takes the simple experience of Frost witnessing an innocent insect frittering about on a piece of paper on his desk, sparking the image in his mind of the human predicament of the daily life of frenzied, hyper-kinetic activity without ever taking a pause to contemplate, “Just what is the point anyway?” There is a certain foolish dimension to life the consideration of which can actually deepen the meaning of life if we will give it occasional attention.  Frost used the image of this desperate little “speck” of life on a piece of paper to suggest an occasional venture into the humility of finitude.

A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
Then paused again and either drank or smelt–
With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn’t want to die.
It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
Then in the middle of the open sheet
Cower down in desperation to accept
Whatever I accorded it of fate.
I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
Collectivistic regimenting love
With which the modern world is being swept.
But this poor microscopic item now!
Since it was nothing I knew evil of
I let it lie there till I hope it slept.

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind. 

 

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The Irony of Speaking the Truth

This truth matter is really heavy on my heart recently primarily from the assault on “Truth” by the Trump administration.  In the past week I have explored truth’s subtlety, a subtlety that is so pronounced that I think it is something we can never grasp objectively but Some “thing” that peeks through our heart occasionally in spite of our deep-seated, unconscious effort to not let it happen.

But please note the irony I am demonstrating.  I will admit that at present moment I believe I am speaking…or writing…what is truthful otherwise I would not even bother to offer this verbal deed to the oblivion of the cyber world.  But what I say here, and in real time, is only a perspective of how I see the world and can never be thought of as “objective.”  Everything we do and say is only our “skewed” way of viewing the world but it is important that we put this “skewed view” on the table in daily exchange with other people, be it here in the cyber world and or in day-to-day life with people we encounter.  The dialogical engagement with other people is imperative so that we can avoid the temptation of speaking, thinking, and living in an echo chamber.

The echo chamber is lethal.  If we isolate ourselves within a safe cocoon of group-think we are signing our death certificate, so to speak, as the soul cannot thrive in the resulting abyss of “empty self-relatedness.”  This isolation, if not broken, will spell our doom individually and collectively without Divine intervention; for, in that self-imposed prison we “feed even on the pith of life” as Shakespeare not

Human Bondage and the Mystery of Truth

I want to continue to explore the Carl Sandburg poem, “Who Am I?” and focus on the notion included in the poem that Truth is a “captive” quality in our heart.  It makes no sense that such a noble quality of Truth is hidden, even imprisoned in our heart, suggesting that beneath the surface of our conscious life there are things of which we are unaware.  Truth is usually seen as a commodity in our life, a body of wisdom that we can claim as our own if we subscribe to what we see as essential tenets of Truth, and hold steadfast to them.  But poetry, and certainly Holy Writ such as the Bible, if taken superficially will lead us to believe that “I” know the truth and so would anybody else that listened to my passionate affirmation of this “fact.”  But Sandburg throws a monkey wrench in this mind-set, insisting that “Truth” is not factual but is a hidden dimension in our heart always seeking expression but only in the context of our conscious wish to avoid it.  If we understood this wisdom, it would give us pause about our certainties and encourage us to hold firm with them but to realize that other people’s understanding of the matter might be different than our own.  The absence of this humility is daily on display in our world in the Trump administration.

Poet John Donne understood the bondage of his will on this issue, declaring that the Reason he has assumed would lead him to Truth, is “like an usurped town to another due…(and) is captive’d and proves weak or untrue.”  In the beautiful sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” he portrays this internal conflict in the human heart that wants the freedom of truth but is stymied on the pursuit without Divine intervention.  Here is an excerpt from this sonnet:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Sandburg and Donne realized that humankind has a divided heart.  Yes, we want noble qualities like “Truth” but fail to realize that on another level, “No we don’t!”  They realized that Truth is very disruptive to our status quo, personally and collectively, and does not come without a willingness to pay the price of disillusionment.

“What is truth?” asked Pilate.

“What is truth?” asked Pilate.  This question posed by the Roman officiate who held in his hands the fate of Jesus still haunts us today.  A Showtime series put this question on the table again in the context of marital infidelity, as reported in this WaPo story:   https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/tv/step-1-to-start-loving-the-affair-admit-theres-no-such-thing-as-truth/2015/10/01/71b98422-65fa-11e5-9223-70cb36460919_story.html

Truth, in my youth, was pretty cut and dried.  And what made it so certain was living in a very narrow, conservative world of Arkansas fundamentalist Christianity. But I remember it with a certain degree of fondness, that qualification “certain degree” explaining why I don’t live there anymore.  If I’d have been a “True Believer” (See Eric Hoffer) I would still be there today but thanks to the infinite grace of God…and I mean that sincerely…I am not there and thus am left with the insecurity and doubt which I see as an essential dimension of faith.

But, nevertheless, Pilate’s historical and archetypal query, resonates with me profoundly.  I do so firmly believe in Truth even as I have so little doubt in my ability to quantify, define, and own it.  But I do firmly believe that Truth is present, even in my obscure little life, and in the absurdity of our collective endeavor.  Or, as my brother in Spirit, Billy Shakespeare, noted with his observations, “There is a method to our madness” and, “A Divinity doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

But Pilate’s question is still on the table, in this instance with reference to marital faithfulness, but also to very relevant questions of my culture—abortion, gun control, evolution, and more fundamentally the notion of the old Superman tv series bromide, “Truth, justice, and the American Way.”  Is there anything “firm” and therefore “real”…or “Real”…out there? My vote is a firm “yes.” Truth is there, and “here,” but “woe is me” if I ever venture into the arrogance of thinking that I own it.

Donald Trump Flirts with Humility

“Humility comes hard to the humble.”  I’ve said this many times, bringing attention to a lesson I’ve learned that when one is steeped in a culturally tradition of being “humble” it is very hard for any real humility to sneak through.  And when it does begin to penetrate that hard shell of self-righteousness, it is almost always quite painful.  I’ve given up on that and the rest of Christian virtue, coming to believe that the best I can hope for is that something I call “humility-ization” is underway in my life and will periodically have my arrogance brought fully to my attention.  And this itself does not make me humble!  It just makes me aware that there is something other than I am aware of that is present in my life, some indescribable and ultimately Ineffable mystery that is unfolding in my life…and the whole of life…and occasionally it subjects me to a rebuff.

Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the Republican Party nomination for the President in 2016, is the perfect embodiment of narcissism and egotism that I have ever seen in a public figure in my country.  His arrogance is so profound that even those in his own party have brazenly confronted him on the matter and he has merely responded with more arrogance and bluster.  But two nights ago in a debate with ten others vying for the nomination, perhaps he demonstrated the criticism is getting through even to him.  Perhaps.  At the end of the debate, the moderator posed a light-hearted question, “Name a hypothetical code name that you would want from the Secret Service should you become the President.”  Trump’s response, with a slight pause and a faint smile of self-consciousness, responded with, “Humility.” Wow!

What’s inside always comes out.  This is true individually and collectively.  Trump is putting on a show for our collective psyche, demonstrating in flesh and blood a parody of a conservative theme of the political far right—American exceptionalism.  I too love my country and think also that it is “exceptional.”  But I think all countries and cultures should be encouraged to have “community” pride without taking it to the extremes we often see here and in other extremist groups around the world.  This is also egregiously apparently with churches and religious groups who should have pride in their spiritual tradition but take care to not let the poison of human arrogance tempt them to believe they are the only ones who have “got it.”

Embedded in Our Thinking #4

A judge in Tennessee provided us this week another demonstration of being embedded in our own thinking and the poor judgment that can ensue.  He refused to grant divorce to a straight couple, explaining…and I paraphrase…”Well, if the Supreme Court can tell us what is and is not marriage then I must wait until they take the next step and announce what divorce is.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/09/04/tenn-judge-refuses-to-grant-straight-couple-a-divorce-because-of-gay-marriage/)

This judge is voicing a conservative trope that is in the vogue currently, “judicial tyranny.”  The Supreme Court’s decisions have repeatedly rebuffed them in recent years and they are peeved, taking the stance that they are being treated unfairly rather than considering that their views, though valid for them and others like them, and not valid for everyone.  But his petulant, childish stance on this matter demonstrates the extent to which the issues are emotional, i.e. “unconscious”, rather than rational.  And that is the issue with “embedded thinking,” those who are plagued with this malady have made an inordinate emotional (unconscious) investment in a vein of thought, ideology, which makes it impossible to reason with them.  They do not “think”, they are “thought.”  This makes me think of something a high school counselor told me one time, “Arguing with a teen ager is like wrestling with a pig:  You both get muddy and the pig likes it.”

Of course, I’m posed with a dilemma with this vein of “thought” I am sharing in that this “embedded thinking” is called “reality” and anyone who stands removed from this “embedded thinking” and criticizes it is also standing outside of “reality” and is therefore…ahem, cough, cough…nuts!  Well, in a sense this is true, but only in a sense.  “Embedded thinking” evolved because it gives the tribe the comfort necessary to go about the business of day-to-day life.  And we need those who will fulfill this God ordained task.  But my concern is that our investment in our “embedded thinking” could back off a little here and there and we would find that we could be a little more inclusive of those that we had been erstwhile dismissive of.  And “backing off” would not imperil our way of thinking but it would imperil our investment in it and, related to this, our investment in our self, or ego, and would be a step in the direction of getting over our self.  And I’m working on this myself!

Another Self-parody of Christianity

A Georgia high school football coach is under fire for orchestrating a mass baptismal service on his team’s football field before a practice session, a video of which has gone viral.  If you watch the video, the scene is comical as the Baptist pastor is seen trying to dunk huge boys, and a coach, in a small galvanized tin tub.  It reminds me of quarterback Tim Tebow’s ostentatious praying on the football field after a touchdown which one wit noted should have merited a penalty flag for “unnecessary and irrelevant display of piety.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mass-baptism-filmed-at-football-practice-prompts-investigation_55e738fbe4b0aec9f3558fc5)

To sum it up, I say, “What’s the point?”  The issue on that football field was a practice session but the coach, being “full of the spirit” wanted to display his spirituality.  In so doing he is making a mockery of a really meaningful symbol in the Christian tradition and giving late-night comedians like Bill Maher more material with which to ridicule Christianity.  And this type of non-sense deserves mockery.  Jesus would be turning over in his grave…if he was in one!

This is another example of the “embedded thinking” that I am focused on right now.  When we are embedded in our own thinking, we  lose perspective and  will often speak and behave in a manner that makes even noble ideas and traditions look silly.  This coach has demonstrated that spiritual fervor can easily be merely a means of displaying our “piety” and the need of making the display simply reveals the presence of the ego in the performance.  The Apostle Paul would call this whole scene “a work of the flesh.”

Spirituality, like every dimension of life, is a perilous adventure for it does provide such an opportunity for us to “strut our stuff” under the guise of piety.  I know.  “Been there, done that” and to some degree I’m sure I’m still doing it for I am still guilty of being “human.”  And if I ever become “Holy” and have “got it right,” please, please…somebody just shoot me!  You will be doing me and the world a favor!

Shakespeare noted, “With devotions visage and pious action we sugar o’er the devil himself.”