Have You Been Morally Lucky?

In the year my wife and I returned to Chicago from my stint as an East Coast college professor, we encountered a surprising November snowfall. I remember heading for work on the morning after the Thursday evening whitening of the autumn world.

We lived in an apartment building located in the city’s Northwest corner. My work-a-day routine was always the same. I drove the half-block west from Summerdale toward a dependable stop sign. It never failed to be on the job.

The speed limit on the perpendicular road ahead was 35 miles an hour. I needed to take care and look for a break in the traffic before making a 90 degree right turn.

The snow said otherwise.

My sedan skidded as I approached the stopping place and knifed forward. No stop, no checking for other cars, just a horrifying bolt into no-man’s land.

Nothing happened, no other vehicles. I reached the opposite side of the thoroughfare feeling hugely lucky. Not only in the conventional sense but “morally lucky.”

What does that mean?

Though I didn’t exceed the required pace as I neared the STOP, the law argues I was going too fast “for conditions.”

Yes, I could have been injured, perhaps killed. Yes, I could have done the same to someone else.

What is less obvious is a hypothetical responsibility. A typical reaction to my story lacks the unfortunate ending to call the thought to mind. No harm, no moral implications. This is as much or as little as we think about it.

But what if my misguided missile shot into the intersection and killed someone? Then, I guarantee you, blame enters the theater. Then, part of the human race says I was irresponsible or careless. “He should have known better.”

I’d not disparage those who judged me in the lethal version of the incident. Indeed, I can’t find any unfairness in finger-wagging at a less than 100% irresponsibility or carelessness on my part. I drove the car, and the license allowing me the privilege demanded I do better.

Please understand, I’m sure no one would think of my behavior in moral terms, good or bad, but for bodily injury to another. Without an accident, the label “lucky” alone applies.

I offer this meditation on an everyday occurrence to reveal two things:

  • Human well-being, positive or negative, turns on incidents like this.
  • The judgment rendered by that same humanity rests on many such accidents or their absence.

But it is even more complicated.

Are you inclined to fault a person born under different conditions than your own who becomes a drug addict, a criminal, or a vagrant? Does the place you and the other land on the first day of life alter your chances of being a “good” person?

Is this not another version of the slippery street and the happenstance of a late-night snowfall? Is this not akin to my ramming someone or entering an empty boulevard?

Most of us applaud the hard work, resilience, or wisdom we possess, pointing to such qualities when explaining our relative “success.”

I encourage everyone to reflect with gratitude on the genetic lottery’s part in predetermined advantageous physical, emotional, and intellectual gifts. Thank God if you choose.

You and I are among the morally lucky some of the time. Who might any of us have become in another setting? With other parents or in a different country?

For myself, on another day, or a minute earlier or later, I might have caused another’s death driving along as I did.

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The images are the work of Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website. The first is called Metra Train Platform, 8/20. The second is an Alaska Road Sign, 2021.

“A Lonely Profession”: Clevenger and Giulini on Conducting

We think of conductors as a bit like ancient potentates, the last trace of sedan-chaired royalty. The reality is different, of course.

An old story is told about Serge Koussevitzky greeting admirers after a concert by the Boston Symphony, the orchestra he led for 25 years. A bejeweled woman stood awestruck before gushing.Oh, thank you, thank you, maestro. You are a God!

Not a person to minimize his talents, Koussevitzky hesitated for a moment before saying, “Well, you know, it’s a big responsibility.

The late Dale Clevenger, internationally esteemed solo horn player of the Chicago Symphony (CSO), also aspired to a conducting career. A man of no small ego, he attempted to extend his commanding presence within the body of his colleagues to a place in front of a similar group.

The brass virtuoso did direct ensembles in many locations. Nevertheless, he didn’t fulfill the dream “to become a respected (and permanent) conductor of a major orchestra anywhere in the world,” as he told the Chicago Tribune in 1986.

While still pursuing that goal, Clevenger consulted the legendary maestro Carlo Maria Giulini (1914 – 2005).

The Italian musician’s association with the CSO began in 1955 and included the period in which he was its first Principal Guest Conductor. Giulini and Clevenger made music together from the first chair horn’s arrival in Chicago in 1966 to the conductor’s last concert leading the group in 1978.

In June 2013, Clevenger told me about their final meeting, two years before Giulini died.

I called one of his sons to arrange an interview with him (at his home in Italy) — to chat with him, talk about old times, and so forth. He was stately, elegant, classy.

We talked about my being a conductor, and he said, ‘Dale, every night after the concert (as part of the orchestra), you can go home to your house, sit down at your table, drink tea, rest, talk to your wife and go to sleep.

‘I go to a hotel room.

Clevenger continued.

There are many comments like that from conductors who admit what they do. It is a lonely profession because when you walk out of the hall, all the lauding words of your greatness, and the audience’s applause and so forth — that’s gone.

The stage is empty. It’s like (the life of) an actor. You are lonely.

World fame, like everything else, has a cost. Chorus members of the Lyric Opera have described witnessing international stars, the mothers of young children back home, getting off computer-assisted video chats with their offspring, then breaking into tears.

Yes, they choose it, but the price isn’t reduced because they own the decision.

I offer this without judgment, for your consideration only. Eminent performers are lucky to have their gifts and the freedom of such choices.

Still, we all play out the values we choose, living with what we gain and what we lose in so doing.

Choose wisely.

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The cover photo of Giulini comes from the excellent biography of the conductor by Thomas Saler.

Plans Before Sunset: A Woman Who Says “Yes” to Life

I once met a famous man who said, “We are all in transit.” Just passing through. Best, then, to talk with someone who willingly provided her perspective on the lengthy journey.

As she approaches her 10th decade, this lovely individual offered more than her share of wise guidance just by describing her plans. They do need revision on occasion, don’t they?

Before you hear her voice, let me give you some background.

Catherine Pearlson (CP) was born to the generational expectation of taking your male spouse’s name when married. These days we might perceive it as an automatic first step toward removing one’s identity. Men in the business world trimmed off some more of her selfhood, despite her degree from one of the finest universities in the world. Remember, she lived in the real-life version of TV’s Mad Men moment.

Her dad died early, but CP benefited from a kind stepfather and a sparkling presence, as well as three qualities in equally short supply: resilience, boldness, and wit. She persisted and persists.

Losing friends and loved ones infiltrates any long life, but Ms. P. continued to say yes to the crazy journey each of us encounters, no matter how much time it took to reclaim herself. Her will and self-affirmation survive, despite more than one serious illness from which she rebounded.

Catherine has known the death of one spouse and divorce from another. Here is what she told me:

On Monday, I was at the Senior Center when I noticed a flyer on the wall:

Therapy for Healthy Seniors

It spoke to me.

My ex-husband passed away a few weeks ago, and it took me back to a dark time in my life. The feelings always lurked inside, ready to emerge. They returned me to the birth of my current name and the beginning of my best identity. The yin and the yang.

A few days later I met with the therapist. She radiated kindness as I recounted the familiar stories. The general outlines. She asked about my goals. Here’s what came up after I went home:

  • I want to make peace with myself before I die.
  • I want to accept the people who populate my life for who they are as they reveal themselves to me.
  • I want to spend my time doing things that reflect my vision of my best self. Pretty lofty targets. But I guess that’s what goals are, right?

This charming woman mentioned inventing her name. I asked her for details.

In the aftermath of my divorce from my second husband, I realized I wanted to choose a last name for myself.

If you had asked me at the time, I would have said the desire came from not wanting to go back to my maiden name and certainly not wanting to keep my married name.

Now, in hindsight, I know it primarily came out of a yearning for my own identity, no longer attaching myself only to the role of a wife or mother or my determination to do something creative in the world.

I chose Catherine Pearlson because it sounded like a writer’s name.

Here’s one unexpected thing I learned from doing this: when I told my children, my family, and my friends about my new name, not one of them questioned the decision.

They accepted the alteration straight away. My inner conviction came through to them. This was a significant boost to feeling right about the first step in my new identity.

Upon severance of the marriage, the judge said I could change my name for free as part of the divorce decree. I refused. I counted up my pennies and paid for the name change as an independent action.

My friendship with CP popped up in the last few years. She is a glowing delight, still learning, still finding a way forward even during a pandemic, and still writing, too. I hope her words speak to you as they did to me.

How many people do we meet who are beautiful inside and out, with a dash of wisdom, too?

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I have changed the name of “Catherine” to protect her identity. The first image is the Umm al-Fahm Skyline at Sunset by Moataz Egbaria. Next comes Crepuscular Ray Sunset – Telstra Tower, Canberra by Fir0002. Finally, Preparations for the Open-air Concert of the Dülmen Summer at Wiesmann Sports Cars, Dülmen North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany (2018), by Dietmar Rabich. They were all sourced from Wikimedia Commons.org/

A Checklist For Change

Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens)

If you meet someone not seen in 20 years, only to discover he is unchanged, you might ask

Why not? Shouldn’t he have been altered by time and experience?

Unless your old friend has been “on ice” — freeze-dried, flash-frozen, cryogenically preserved — isn’t change a reasonable expectation?

The writer Mark Twain thought so. He saw the long-gone youthful version of himself in need of lots of revision:

Ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful chuckleheadedness — and an almost pathetic unconsciousness of it all, that is what I was at 19 and 20.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as self-observing and motivated to reshape himself as was Twain. According to Edward Young in Love of Fame:

At 30 man suspects himself a fool;
knows it at 40, and reforms his plan;
At 50 chides his infamous delay,
Pushes his prudent purpose to resolve;
In all his magnanimity of thought
Resolves; and re-resolves; then dies the same.

The 19th-century writer Robert Louis Stevenson was less amusing and more scornful on the same subject:

To hold the same views at 40 as we held at 20 is to have been stupefied for a score of years, and take rank, not as a prophet, but as an unteachable brat, well birched (spanked) but none the wiser.

It is as if a ship’s captain should sail to India from the Port of London; and having brought a chart (map) of the Thames (River) on deck at his first setting out, should obstinately use no other for the whole voyage.”

What follows is a short (and incomplete) checklist of areas of personality or behavior that might be expected to alter during adult life.

The Thing You Cannot Do. Let’s start with something different for each person.

Late in her long life, Eleanor Roosevelt was asked what guidance she might give to the people listening to her on the radio. She said,

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Indeed there is no better or more crucial potential area of change than whatever the “thing” is for you. What is it that is too hard, too scary?

Only you know the answer.

Physical Activity. “Use it or lose it.” T.S Elliot put it in a few more words —

The years between 50 and 70 are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.

Don’t let your bodily capacities go without a fight. Concede only what age requires, not more.

Interests. Do you read only the same types of books, listen only to the same music, engage in the identical hobbies of your youth? Some people keep learning, exploring, and investigating new things. They say that it keeps them young.

Beware of retirement without friendships and other interests to fill your former workday. Those who lack such things are often miserable. One is well advised to diversify one’s investments in activities and people, not just a financial portfolio.

Appearances. Ecclesiastes tells us “all is vanity.” That portion of the Bible reminds us that much of what we value has no real meaning or purpose. Thus, perhaps your attitude toward the “appearance” of things, whether it be a dress or your residence, might be subject to modification as you age.

The wise man or woman recognizes what is worth esteem and dismisses many contrary opinions of others.

Material Things. To continue the point just made, no one gets out alive. In the end, you leave life with as little as you had when you arrived. Nonetheless, some become more covetous, continuing to shop and buy in an apparent effort to outlast their possessions.

In contrast, others care less for “things” and disencumbered themselves, including giving their money away.

Self-Assertion/Anger. One might hope to learn diplomacy, be more direct, enlarge the capacity to stand up for oneself, and reduce sarcasm, not to mention outbursts and a desire for vengeance.

Food. Do you eat only what your mother made for you? Other things might be delicious. Do you dine the same way you did growing up or moderate your appetite and control salt intake?

Time. Most people become more mindful of time’s passage as they age, sensing its increased velocity with less of the race track of time ahead. Robert Southey wrote,

Live as long as you may; the first twenty years are the longest half of your life!.

If this notion doesn’t alter how you use the fleeting moment — cause you to employ it wisely — you are not paying attention to a basic fact of human existence. For example, famous musicians (Artur Schnabel, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Bruno Walter) narrowed their repertoire as they aged. They wished to concentrate on the music most meaningful to them, knowing the day was short.

Sex. Biology and age dictate some changes in this department.

Plato applauded the reduction of passion in older men. He believed they were not as much the plaything of emotions as those in the burst of early manhood. Rationality was thereby increased in his view.

An old joke about intercourse and marriage goes something like this. If you put a penny in a jar for every time you have sex in the first year of a permanent relationship and take one out for every time after that, you will never empty the container!

Money. If you know someone who lived through the “Great Depression,” you may realize traumatic events can generate long-lasting effects. Many of those who survived a decade of 25% unemployment remained very careful about spending.

On the other side are those who spend without regard to the possibility they might need it for a rainy day or their child’s education.

Ambition. Most of what is excellent in the world, and too much of what isn’t, is due to ambition. I’m speaking of blind and belligerent ambition in the latter case.

This quality tends to swallow younger selves, but some of the power-hungry are only chronologically mature, to humanity’s misfortune. Here are thoughts from Colin Davis, a 38-year-old symphony conductor when he offered them:

I think that to so many what happens (as we age) is the death of ambition in the conventional sense. The great driving motor that prods you and exasperates you and brings out the worst qualities in you for about 20 years is beginning to be a bit moth-eaten and tired.

I find that I’m altogether much quieter, I think; I don’t love music any less; but there’s not the excess of energy that I used to spend in enthusiasm and in intoxication (with it). I feel much freer than I’ve ever been in my life.

Friendship. Besides freedom from physical pain and financial instability, little produces mature life satisfaction as much as friendship. Many realize this as they age and come to value fraternity and intimacy more.

Appreciation. Some of us see the downside of life, others the upside. The unlucky may have good reason to be unhappy.

Unhappiness can also be found in how an individual perceives the world. His lived reality may not be much worse than the norm. As the losses pile up later in life, we do well to nourish our sense of gratitude.

Being Like Your Parents. Just about everyone tries to make sure they imitate only their parents’ good characteristics, leaving the rest behind. The act of disencumbering ourselves of this unwanted baggage is the job of a lifetime if one is honest.

Robert Lowell described its difficulty in “Middle Age” from For the Union Dead:

At forty-five,
what next, what next?
At every corner,
I meet my Father,
my age, still alive.

A sobering thought. But then, much depends on cherry-picking the best of your parents.

No time to lose. Or, perhaps you needn’t make haste.

I guess it all hinges on what you think about the need to change.

But trust me, you do need to.

So do we all.

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The top photo is of Mark Twain.

Bela Bartok’s Simple Philosophy of Life

pouring-light

The conventional question about optimism is whether you see your glass as half-empty or half-full. But let’s look at the same cup differently.

Let’s think of the object as the container of all your capabilities. All your physical skills. All your creative talents and human endowments.

Now turn to the goblet again. Ask not if the glass appears half-empty or half-full of those gifts, but perhaps a more important question:

What will you do with them? What will you do with whatever is inside?

Here is how one person approached the task: Bela Bartok, the 20th-century Hungarian classical composer. He was 64 when he died in 1945, still full of ideas to be put to music paper, not given the life to express them and further enrich us.

The genius regretted it, saying on his death-bed, he had hoped to exit the world with an “empty trunk.” The man might as easily have referred to an empty glass or locker.

His musical being, occupied by what he could yet compose had he “world enough and time,” was still overflowing. The European emigre sought to expend everything on the job of life. Spill the suitcase out. Unpack the riches within.

Since he was born with nothing, Bartok believed he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself and his fellow-man: to share whatever “good” or goods he possessed, to reveal the talents nature bestowed upon him and those he developed.

Bela Bartok, 1927

Bela Bartok, 1927

Creative people often feel chosen. Some consider their craft a “calling” impossible to ignore. They write or perform, not only as a livelihood. Indeed, more than a few sustain their artistic aspirations even though they can’t make a living doing it.

Bartok himself was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment at the time of his death. These people persist out of an “inner necessity.” They cannot do otherwise.

Bartok’s notion is no different than the sports heroes who try to “leave everything on the field,” giving their entire capability to the game. And, while most of us are not inspirational leaders, geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate the most admirable of them: to reach for all we are permitted, work hard, and face challenges instead of running away.

By this standard, a full life would include loving our friends and family passionately and well, seeking always to enrich our knowledge and understanding; and bestow the world with whatever we have to reform it, and us, into something better — to make all our possibilities real, as Bartok hoped.

To choose such a life rejects dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” These seekers refuse self-protectiveness — the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced, the life of “might have been, if only…”

The master wrote one of his greatest works, the Concerto for Orchestra, while fighting the leukemia killing him.

The rest of us can’t claim the same excuse if we slip away with some part of the best of ourselves held back — at least not yet. Why? Because we enjoy the gift of time.

For some of us, the goal of life seems to be filling our luggage with as many things as possible. Things external. For Bartok, the mission was to empty it of the things internal. Many are torn between the two –- a life of consumption or a life of creation. There is a choice.

To Bartok, the playing field of life awaited his best efforts. His regrets reflected his desire to have done more, not consumed more.

Is there a better philosophy of living?

——-

This post is a reworking of one I published almost eight years ago. The subject of the top photo is a lamp designed by Yeongwoo Kim called Pouring Light.

The Therapeutic Value of Reading

 

If you have been socially-distanced into submission, as many have, you might be reading more than you once did. Have you turned to self-help books, more news articles, history, poetry, novels, or something else?

The decision depends on what your goal is.

Distraction is called for, at least some of the time. Understanding our politics provides another enticement, though “hair on fire” prose of questionable truth won’t find me turning the page. I salute take-home guides to personal problem solving unless they offer you an escape from changing your life by thinking about it alone.

One might categorize writing differently. Sometimes the language of long and short stories is therapeutic in itself. Virginia Woolf’s work comes to mind. Here is a bit from To the Lighthouse:

What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

The author’s reflections and her lovely way of expressing herself make me wish to know more. She takes me outside of my mind and back again to show me the inside. The author transports me. I am caught in the updraft of her sense and spirit.

Books can make one laugh, too, and good-natured humor at almost any moment has value.

For me, however, most of the time, I’m searching for a new idea, a way of thinking from a perspective I passed over. I don’t require a happy ending, just one I find believable.

I want my eyes to widen, an enlargement of my view of the world, my imagination inspired, my humanity extended. Yes, reading offers this help.

Take a quote from the late Christina Crosby, who wrote of her life after a paralyzing accident of endless residual pain:

In order to live on, I must actively forget the person I was. I am no longer what I once was — yet, come to think of it, neither are you. All of us who live on are not what we were, but are becoming, always becoming.

Yes, I want words like these, arranged to communicate insights just beyond my reach until I read them. I want Dr. Crosby’s eloquence and frankness, the greatness of spirit in her fortitude.

In the end, I want to learn more. I seek enlivenment. The way to this destination requires some amount of disquiet. How is discomfort therapeutic, you ask? Remember, psychotherapy creates a tolerable degree of discomfort, as well. We often must strain and extend ourselves to grow.

The literature for which I search might unsettle me. Do you wonder whether we should bring on more distress in the time of COVID-19?

Franz Kafka created my answer over 100 years ago:

I think we ought to read only the kinds of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.

The not yet world-renowned writer was then 20-years-old.

———-

The first painting is A Beauty Reading by Utagawa Kunisada. Next comes The Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden from the National Gallery, London. The photograph was done by luxfon.com/painting. Third in line is a photo of an Old Man Reading a Newspaper Early in the Morning at Bansantapur, Nepal by Bijay Chaurasia. All of these come from Wikimedia Commons.

“The Best Meal I Had All Day” and Other Words of Wisdom

Emmanuel Terry, my Uncle Manny, is remembered by my brothers for something we heard from him whenever he came to dinner.

No matter the food he ate earlier, our gathering lacked completion until he said, “This was the best meal I had all day!” He smiled and we grinned at what became a necessary secular benediction at the evening’s conclusion.

Though we took his words as a joke, we might have better understood them as a true expression of appreciation, a thanksgiving for the feast and comradery of the moment.

Well before such festivities, Mr. Terry endured the Great Depression of the 1930s, psychiatric hospitalization, electroshock treatment, and service overseas in wartime. Late in life, he suffered the death of his wife, my Aunt Nettie. He knew loved ones and joyous reunions should not be taken for granted.

Uncle M. smiled a lot when we were together, drinking in the companionship and enjoying the laughter we all shared. And, yet, I am the inheritor of a few philosophy texts he read. Too bad I never thought to ask him what in those yellowed pages mattered to him.

Did they contribute to his gratitude?

This brings me to a friend (I’ll call him K), who is entering his 75th year on the planet, a bit longer than Manny achieved. On his birthday, the pandemic doing its worst, he wondered what he might wish for beyond the loving expressions of his children and friends.

While talking to his son-in-law a solution evolved. He planned to bestow some small benevolence on someone he didn’t know. But who, how? Close contact with people would risk lives, both his and the other.

K wasn’t deterred.

My buddy realized an acquaintance in another country might be useful in the endeavor. One owns an eatery in a city where bars and restaurants are open. He chose an establishment over 4000 miles away.

This longtime friend placed a call and asked the proprietor to serve a drink to every person in the place. His confidant would charge the tab to K.

The barkeep honored the anonymity desired by the benefactor of all the strangers. Thus the task was done.

My comrade suggested I take some similar action myself. I told him I would and, also write about his random act of kindness.

Perhaps you enjoyed a beer on my friend, but probably not. I’m guessing if he could have fed the world he would have. None of us can.

We can only do our small part.

Like Uncle Manny, K is a wise man and a grateful one.

It is no accident that these characteristics go together.

Such people make us better than we are.

———-

The adults flanking the young man at his bar mitzvah celebration are his Uncle Manny and Aunt Nettie. The gentleman seated at the right is George Fields. Yes, I am the boy in the middle. It was the best meal we had all day.

Wisdom in Common Things

A typical zoo, lots of kids, and two bears. Or is it something more?

Perspective is everything.

We are in Berlin. The time is the early 1930s.

The question becomes, who is behind bars and who is on the outside looking in? The past gives us one answer. The photographer’s subject appears to be German Jews or any people imprisoned within a totalitarian state.

Yet the image provokes us to reflect upon our “point of view.” Do we accept our way of perceiving the world as the only valid one? Do we think twice, look again, reconsider our history, our actions, and the people around us?

The process of psychotherapy demands this on a personal level. Peaceful protesters in the streets also challenge us to recognize conditions we don’t wish to confront. The psychologist and the demonstrator carry the same message. As Rilke wrote, “You must change yourself.”

Counseling should cause the client to alter his frame of reference, clean the mirror he holds to his face, reevaluate whether his approach to life is working. If he does not, he remains like those children in the menagerie, on the wrong side of a high fence. But unlike them, he is incarcerated in a cage of his own making.

Try this photograph:

There’s a bit of a story here. I was on a morning walk. If you inspect the photo you will notice a quarter: a 25 cent piece. I bent to pick it up.

The hard object could not be separated from the walkway’s grip. What caused its fondness for the ground?? I suspect the coin dropped before the cement dried. The metal stuck.

Was it an accident or the result of someone’s plan? With what intention?

Several possibilities come to my mind:

  • to make a permanent mark lasting as long as the sidewalk. A kind of immortality.
  • As an experiment. Imagine the experimenter stationing himself nearby and tabulating how often people awaken to the object and hesitate over it. Or recording how many passersby attempt to dislodge the quarter and for how long.
  • Perhaps a prankster wished to frustrate anyone wishing to put it in his pocket.
  • Did the “two bits” offer philosophical instruction on the question, “how important is money, and what are you willing to do to get some? Break the pavement? Break the law? Where does the dollar fit in your system of values? Will you get on your knees in worship before its streetside alter?”

Here is one last picture to contemplate:

We all carry secrets. Perhaps the boy is sharing one and cautioning nondisclosure. The observer is left to consider how genuine and open we are. Anton Chekhov composed this about a man with a hidden life:

He began to judge others by himself, no longer believing what he saw, and always assuming that the real, the only interesting life of every individual goes on as (if) under cover of night, secretly. Every individual existence revolves around mystery, and perhaps that is the chief reason that all cultivated individuals insist so strongly on the respect due to personal secrets.

One wonders. For some of our friends, even those closest, is the most essential element of their life unknown to us? Might we also be unrevealed to them? If so, what is the cost of our concealed state?

They and we connect the observable dots of words and behavior, hoping we know the whole. Do we harbor shameful moments, episodes of cowardice, a haunted gender complexity? Is a sequestered, buried heart still bleeding, a boxed-up desire locked away, an ancient loss lurking?

Inertia resides in an undisclosed soul, just as stubborn in its stuckness as the 25 cents on my local sidewalk.

Will someone tell the person who left the melded money that there are those who would cherish the other side of the coin? Like the boy’s inner life, we only see half.

Shall I talk to the immovable, rounded copper the next time I pass its way? I’ll read him the Rilke poem about change. You’d think changing would come easily to a piece of change.

—–

The Rilke quotation is the last line from his poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo. The Chekhov quotation comes from his short story, The Lady With the Dog. The first photo is Roman Vishniac’s People Behind Bars.

Thirty-six Righteous People

If you are looking for meaning in life, you could do worse than to consider three dozen people who don’t even know who they are.

The Lamedvavniks are 36 righteous souls whose role in Jewish tradition is to redeem mankind in the eyes of God: by their decency, to compensate for the imperfections of humanity. Their identities are unknown to each other, unknown even to themselves.

Should a Lamedvavnik realize his true purpose and value, he soon dies and his function is taken by another, innocent of the special place he now occupies in the fabric of existence. But for the presence of such precious beings, the Almighty would destroy every human on the globe, as he came close to doing during the Great Flood and at Sodom and Gomorrah.

Each anonymous member of this select group, we are told, is otherwise ordinary. Humility prevents them from any awareness of their uncommon position.

Some religious scholars think the idea of a handful of essential men comes from Genesis, Chapter XVIII:

“And the Lord said, ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.'”

Whether one believes in the literal truth of this part of our ancient inheritance, perhaps these stories offer guidance. The question thus becomes, where does the example of the Lamedvavniks take us?

Though I’m no theologian or moral philosopher, this tale suggests to me that each of us holds responsibility for the condition of the world and our fellow-man. Rather than saying, “They should do something!” perhaps we should ask, “What can I do?”

The humble Lamedvavniks are doers.

Act or stand aside. Do right. Repair the world of men and women or let others take it where they wish. Is the planet so peachy a place we are guaranteed to survive nicely without any effort on our part?

All I can say is, if you believe that, please pass whatever you’re drinking this way.

—–

The paintings are both by Paul Klee. The first is called, Two Gods. The title of the second is, The Saint of Inner Light.

Knowing Yourself, Then Showing Yourself

Writers are reminded to “write what you know” and “show, not tell.” The instructions apply to fiction, but also pertain to the fact of who we are.

Therapists take the closed-up, armored patient, hoping to help him remove his metal plate covering.

His end goal?

To man up.

Up straight, chest out, eyes forward. Self-confidence and pride manifest themselves in the unspoken declaration, “Here I am.”

One encounters rejection this way, but our compensation is exploration of the world regardless of fear. What acceptance we obtain is less essential, but more often real; not the approval of those fooled by our costume, blinded by the bronze.

Much discussion exists on the subject of self-revelation to others, but a first step prepares you to lower your guard. It was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi over 2500 years ago:

Know Thyself

A dangerous effort? The book of Ecclesiastes warns:

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

We seem to have a conflict here. Humans use rationalization, compartmentalization and four “D” words to keep their minds off troublesome realities: denial, dissociation, distraction, and drugs.

Socrates, another son of Greece, sided with Delphi over Ecclesiastes. The legendary teacher didn’t write, wore dirty clothes, and was sufficiently disclosing of what he stood for that he was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens.”

He led them to question their own beliefs.

The philosopher chose his end over exile because he could only be himself as he wished to be, with his people.

Counselors are friendlier to Socrates than Ecclesiastes in their pursuit of the Delphian truth. They recognize no one can show himself who doesn’t know himself.  Otherwise he displays but half — the fragment of which he is aware.

The hearing impaired who are clueless to their deficiency resemble those without self-knowledge. Such men live in a world of sound, but perceive only a segment of it. The undiscovered portion leaves no evidence of absence, no apology in the form of a regretful RSVP.

But Ecclesiastes was no fool. Fearless self-insight exacts a fearful price. Once you realize how you hurt another, the recognition bleeds you. You bleed in the knowledge of who you have been, how you harmed. To the good, now you can improve, apologize. Permission for do-overs, however, is a rare, “sometimes thing.” The damaged don’t always stick around.

Nor does self-awareness recover lost time. Those who wait for aged parents to acknowledge their failure, encounter people for whom internal vision would come with an unacceptable redefinition of themselves.

Fifty-years of error cannot be borne except by the hearty in body and mind. Indeed, all of us of whatever age want to turn from the mirror’s truth, claim distortion, and blame the glass.

A splendid blogger, Clara Bridges, tells us, “I read and write poetry for myself, not for others, and in both cases the revelation is primarily of myself, to myself.”

Clara recognizes the power of journaling, not just expressive and therapeutic, but as a tool for piercing the layers of cloaking armor we wear in our everyday version of Halloween.

Bronze plate is an inflexible thing. Clanging hardware is cumbersome and noisy. All grace disappears, the wearer’s voice drowned out by the dissonance.

A Dance of Seven Veils calls to us. The music is seductive if you are open to hearing it and brave enough. Adding to Delphi’s admonition, it sings, “Know thyself, then show thyself,” one dropped veil at a time.

You partner with yourself in the first dance, others are invited later.

Who knew counselors offer dance lessons?

—–

The first image is Constance Talmadge, Head and Shoulders Portrait,1921, Library of Congress. The second is called, Looking in the Mirror, taken in Surmi, Tulgit, (a small village in Ethiopia) by Rod Waddington, 2014. Both are sourced from Wikiimedia Commons.