The Vital Lesson


First, to relieve your anxiety (!), I will simply tell the lesson:  Don’t take yourself seriously.  Not too seriously.  In fact, not seriously at all.  If you do, the Beadle Bumble said it prettily – you are “a ass.  A utter ass.”  And here’s Oscar Wilde:  “Life is much too important ever to be taken seriously.”

(It’s important to note that nobody else should be taken too seriously either —  but you already knew that.)

Starting with Big Bill Shakespeare (with whom I shall also end), “what fools these mortals be.”  A modest expansion:  “Life is a tale told by an idiot/Full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.”

Now then.

I am not kidding, nor being Pollyannaish, when I say that it wasn’t all bad having my squalid beginnings.  The best part I can think of was not feeling a subconscious obligation to adhere to the religious superstitions and political orthodoxy prominent in my family and in my part of the forest.  (Also, becoming familiar with the language of those forty-seven King James scholars made for a perfect entree to Shakespeare – except that his vocabulary was greater, since he was largely making it up as he went!  And he did sometimes say naughty words, which they did not – mostly.)

I recall especially the time right after my father died, and we were sent home from the orphanage we’d all been living in.  I repeat a brief narrative here, because it contributes to understanding what I’m up to:  The nuns in the orphanage had preached that non-Catholics would go to hell.  The Baptists I returned to live among believed every bit as fervently that it was Catholics themselves who were hell-bound.  (This was circa 1949, when beliefs were – perhaps – held even more rigidly than they are now.)

The problem was not simply theoretical for me, like how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, because it involved my father’s immediate destiny.  Of course, I thought about it a lot, and realized that I didn’t take the supernatural part seriously.  I thought the whole idea of hell was mean, and that I just could not square it with the good-guy deity I had this vague idea about (leading me beside the still waters, and that).  Having eventually got that settled, at least tentatively, to my satisfaction I had an invaluable epiphany:  I had had to deal with these totally authoritative voices, whose beliefs were directly opposed to one another.  Both groups sincerely believed their claims, down to their tippy-toes.  But somebody was wrong, just the same.  Probably both.  Certainly, both!  They were both, in fact, full of shit.

I don’t know how much further I was able to go with those ideas then; but it seemed to me that I needed to figure out a way to judge things other than listening to whoever spoke with the greatest assurance.  Now, I trust no voice but my own.  (It has its own demands.  We apostates are surprisingly beset by ethical goads, despite our reputations.)

Because I was developing a deep distrust of the reliability of those around me, I fled to the reading of books, not because I was sure I’d find truth there either, but simply because I hoped to.  My first encounters were with Mickey Spillane’s sex and violence.  Somehow I shifted to Ellery Queen mystery magazines.  But just through luck, I soon found Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and the delightful Beadle Bumble; and Steinbeck’s Doc and the derelicts and others in Cannery Row and Tortilla Flats, in amongst both authors’ more sober stuff (Oliver Twist; Grapes of Wrath).  These were enough to awaken the skeptic in me, and help me to notice how foolish, indeed, we mortals can be.

 * * *

 Ben Franklin suggested imitating Jesus and Socrates.  I have come to think of this advice as the golden rule of humane letters.  The orthodox Fundamentalism that I grew up with tangles the story of Jesus in with supernatural mum-jum so thoroughly that they’re difficult to separate.  It took me until adolescence to understand this.  Until then I’d been an advocate of the whole deal, but when I taught the third-grade boys’ Sunday school class I simply avoided teaching supernatural stuff.  If it was in the lesson plan, I found a suitable substitute.  Compassionate behavior was what I liked to talk about.  I did this subconsciously until, as I became more aware of what I did in my head, I caught myself.  Then I squirted out of that pinched system like a watermelon seed.

I think Franklin was suggesting replacing the superstitious strand with critical thinking, and facts.  Works for me.  Actually, I love it.  It’s that idea that brought me to calling myself a Christian atheist – sometimes, a Jesuit pagan – to use the guy’s name, rather than his title.  I admit that I also do it to annoy the orthodox, because it causes them maximum cognitive dissonance.  Fundies are very well practiced at rationalizing, but they are best at practicing on known discrepancies.  They have formulas, I think.  Treacle in a can.  My idea has the potential to blow their circuit boards, and I like it.  That’s probably wrong of me.

Baptists are a queer lot.  Contentious.  Litigious.  Dumbbells.  “You think that?  I got a Bible verse says otherwise.”  “Oh yeah?  Well yada yada yada with your Galatians, but Second Thessalonians says different.”  Their denominations are as numerous as the sands of the sea, and they will split and splinter ‘til day is done.  Our denomination – Conservative Baptists – had already split from the Northern Baptists, who had split from… somewhere else.  While I was there, they split again.

The issue that time was whether Jesus would come again before “the Millennium” (never mind what that’s about – it’s just more jub-jub) or after.  Because the denomination’s headquarters was in the next town over (Wheaton, the Rome of Fundamentalism), we had several of their officers in our church, along with some of their adult children.  The president was also our part-time preacher.  Well, the split was like the stories from the Civil War:  lifelong friendships severed, “fellowship in the Lord” rent asunder, families split… insanity.  If Bible verses had been battle axes, they’d have used them to cleave one another’s skulls.  Is this a good place to say “go figure”?

They were taking themselves terribly seriously indeed, over nonsense.  But it highlights an enormous problem with the “voice of authority.”  Luther emboldened everyone by saying that each person is equipped to make up his own mind about the truth.  Actually, though, most people aren’t up to it, or don’t want to spend the effort.  Once you’ve abdicated your responsibility, who will tell you how to think?  Why, the person with credentials – or the one who speaks with most assurance.  Quicksand!  You are lost.

When the world seems sort of OK, people are leery of messing with the system.  But when fear and uncertainty hold sway, the door opens a crack, and demagogues rush in.

* * *

Emily Dickinson occupied her small patch in Amherst.  How, in her tiny realm, could she learn The Secret?

I’m nobody!  Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!                            +

I want her back.

I worked for twenty-some years in a Dun & Bradstreet company.  In the early eighties my “partner,” boss and I were charged with developing the IT project meant to bring our company into the next century – the Electronic Edition of the Official Airline Guide.  (Joe was the hardware guy, I software.  Mel, our superb boss, killed gnats, which were ubiquitous.)  In the company we were the best at what we did, and this was known; but we made executives uneasy.  We seemed not serious enough.  What was true was that we had ourselves and all the rest in perspective.  (I had my uniquely squalid past.  Joe’s and his wife’s parents had all survived the Holocaust camps.)  In the corporate world, this philosophical perspective was, at least in my experience, unusual.

What we did was important, and we succeeded at it.  But thinking about Emily’s bog reminded me:  as project manager for the Electronic Edition, I went into the executive conference room once a month with a detailed report.  I’d talk about an event on the schedule, and much sober pontification would ensue by about 20 suits (three-piece!) seated around the table – everyone seeking to be wise, and to be noticed; croaking like Emily’s frog.

I looked down the right side of the table and caught Joe’s eye.  I waggled my finger at him like a Sunday school teacher, paused, and became interested in slowly examining my finger from all sides – and abruptly stuck it in my nose.  He tried to suppress a laugh, but it erupted somewhat awkwardly, volcanic, in a “braap” sound.  He looked at me.  I had got him in, it was my responsibility to get him out.  But my courage, or my wit, failed me, and I let him down.  Meanwhile, it was like an animated cartoon:  all the suits turned as one to glare at Joe, the offender.  I am still a little ashamed.  Or I should be.  I know.

 * * *

It took me almost all my life to decide that I was really smart.  (I had become aware very early that the human mind is perfidious, and was determined not to be its victim myself.  While striving mightily to be objective, in this respect I now see that I overdid it.)  The good news for me is that knowing at last that I’m a smarty doesn’t lead to arrogance.  That’s the partner to ignorance.

If I get off-balance, I only need to imagine lying on my back and gazing at the cosmos on a moonless night.  Or adopting the persona I have come to like best for myself, that of a wise mouse.  From that vantage point I can watch the human carnival, the Dance of the Cripples, and do my part in it.  Life forces us to tears, often.  Only some of us are given to seeing the humor of it.  I am one.  Grief, though, is a lonely experience; laughter is a social activity.  I plan to exit laughing.

* * *

I am in awe of Harold Bloom, one of my masters.  He seems to have swallowed whole the totality of western culture.  He glides about in it so effortlessly.  Shakespeare is his master, and another of my own as well.  Here is Bloom on Big Bill; then Bill on us, introducing us to that final democracy of oblivion:

The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare, the more one
realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe.  How he was
possible, I cannot know, and after more than two decades of teaching
little else, I find the enigma insoluble.

When Bloom waltzes with words so elegantly, it’s easy not to notice his skill.

Now this is Richard II, returned from French exile to resume his throne; whining about how he’s not going to be able to reclaim his Sceptered Isle after all – and will likely get killed to boot.  (I have broken a couple of lines, for clarity.)  He realizes he’s reached this pass through his own vanity and ineptitude. Shakespeare is not especially kind to him, either:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for
…………………..within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable,
………………………………and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

The Master has taught us the Vital Lesson.  The antic comes at last with his little pin for each of us.

Go in peace – if you can.  (I will.)

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