Autumn Leaves, Grass, and the Ideal of Nature

Kahlil Gibran writes of a conversation in Nature (his 1918 work “The Madman: His Parables and Poem”):

“Said a blade of grass to an autumn leaf, “You make such a noise falling! You scatter all my winter dreams.”

Said the leaf indignant, “Low-born and low-dwelling! Songless, peevish thing! You live not in the upper air and you cannot tell the sound of singing.”

Then the autumn leaf lay down upon the earth and slept. And when spring came she waked again — and she was a blade of grass.

And when it was autumn and her winter sleep was upon her, and above her through all the air the leaves were falling, she muttered to herself, “O these autumn leaves! They make such noise! They scatter all my winter dreams.”

Richard Jefferies, the writer besotted with Nature, writes (“The Life of the Fields” published in 1884) of watching “the earth….every blade of grass, each separate floret and petal….” 

“Each gives me”, he tells us, “something of the pure joy they gather for themselves….Feeling with them, I receive some, at least, of their fulness of life.” 

Then, he soars.

The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time….This is real life, and all else is illusion, or mere endurance. 

Echoing sages, he writes: “To be beautiful and to be calm, without mental fear, is the ideal of nature. If I cannot achieve it, at least I can think it.”

Peace 🙂

“Condemn none….”

In excerpts from the journals that the sculptor Anne Truitt wrote over seven years (“Daybook: The Journal of an Artist”), we read (in an entry dated 16th August): “I have always been mystified by the speed with which people condemn one another. Feeling as righteous as Christ chastising the money-changers in the temple, they cast their fellows into the outer darkness of their disapproval. This seems to give them intense pleasure.”

In a 1959 conversation with the BBC, Bertrand Russell pointed out that “In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

Alain de Botton encourages us, in “The School of Life: An Emotional Education”, to recognize that “we have a duty” to ensure that our “interpretations of the lives of others” are “generous”.

In an illuminating 2010 essay (“Empathy with the Enemy”), the philosopher Roman Krznaric writes: “I suggest that we should approach empathy as the ultimate form of travel, a means of transporting ourselves into other lives in ways that can illuminate our own. There is no need to limit where we take our journeys. We must extend our empathetic imaginations not just to the dispossessed or disadvantaged, but also to those whose views and actions we might oppose or disdain, from wealthy bankers to bombastic politicians to racist work colleagues – even the sibling who broke a favourite toy. There are few better ways of bringing us face to face with our own prejudices, uncertainties and inconsistencies. That is how empathy can become both a moral guide and a basis for a philosophy of living. Socrates saw the path to the good life in the effort to “know thyself ”. The lesson of empathy is that we will only discover ourselves by stepping outside ourselves.”

Swami Vivekananda (“The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda”) advises us: “Condemn none; if you can stretch out a helping hand, do so. If you cannot, fold your hands, bless your brothers, and let them go their own way.”

Peace 🙂

“Who are you to teach others?”

Peace Pilgrim writes (“Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her own Words”) that “there’s only one person you can change and that’s yourself.” She goes on: “After you have changed yourself, you might be able to inspire others to look for change.”

The psychologist Erica Reischer, writes (in a 15th September 2014 piece titled “Change Yourself First”) about adopting a dog with her husband.

“We soon realized we needed help managing a variety of challenging puppy behaviors, so we signed up for a dog-training class, eager to train our dog and change her problematic habits.

To our surprise, the dog-training class was less about training our dog and more about training us….we learned that to change our dog’s behavior, we had to change our behavior first. And that is a lesson we can apply to our relationships with people, too.”

Erica ends with a lesson for parents (and for each of us): “….to change your kids [or anyone], you have to start by changing yourself.”

During his second visit to meet Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, M argued (“The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna”) that people who worship clay images as God should be told that “the clay image is not God.” Ramakrishna Paramahamsa responded with a deep Teaching: “That’s….one hobby of you Calcutta people — giving lectures and bringing others to the light! Nobody ever stops to consider how to get the light himself. Who are you to teach others?….Suppose there is an error in worshipping the clay image; doesn’t God know that through it He alone is being invoked? He will be pleased with that very worship. Why should you get a headache over it? You had better try for knowledge and devotion yourself.”

Photo by Oliver Rowleyon Unsplash

In “Time Must Have a Stop”, published in 1944, we listen to Aldous Huxley teach through one of the characters, Carlo, that “there’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” Aldous goes on:

So you have to begin there, not outside, not on other people. That comes afterwards, when you’ve worked on your own corner. You’ve got to be good before you can do good — or at any rate do good without doing harm at the same time. Helping with one hand and hurting with the other — that’s what the ordinary reformer does….The wise man begins by transforming himself, so that he can help other people without running the risk of being corrupted in the process.

Peace 🙂

Hope and Faith

Yesterday, the indefatigable songwriter for America (indeed, for the world),  the 71 year-old Bruce Springsteen sang at the Biden-Harris inauguration (“Land of Hopes and Dreams”):

“This train carries saints and sinners

This train carries losers and winners

….

This train carries lost souls

I said, this train carries broken-hearted

This train thieves and sweet souls departed

This train carries fools and kings

This train, all aboard

I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted

This train, faith will be rewarded….” 

Photo by Nick Dunlapon Unsplash

In “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities”, Rebecca Solnit writes that “hope is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine.” She continues: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty there is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.”

In “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness”, Erich Fromm agrees with Rebecca. he writes: “Optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair.” He then takes a position that what we need is “rational faith in man’s capacity to extricate himself from what seems the fatal web of circumstances that he has created. It is the position of neither “optimists” nor “pessimists” but radicals who have rational faith….” This “faith”, the basis of what Erich calls “humanistic radicalism”, is not a dreamy all-is-well view of the future — rather it “seeks to liberate man from the chains of illusions” by making fundamental changes that are “necessary” in “political and economic structure….our values….our aims…and in our personal conduct.”

And what is “personal conduct” here? The remarkable Father Gregory Boyle (the source of hope and faith for many many) teaches us with the simple profoundness that we see in the truly wise (“Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship”):

Personally, I don’t think he [Jesus Christ] wants so much for us to wave palm fronds at his authority, but rather….to live as he would.

Peace 🙂

“Grudge none, Forgive All”

Muhammad Ali tells us in his autobiography, “The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey” that “People say that I gave away too much money during my boxing career.” He goes on: “They write about how some people took advantage of me, stole from me, and how I let them get away with it. Even when I knew people were cheating me, what was important was how I behaved, because I have to answer to God. I can’t be responsible for other people’s actions. They will have to answer to God….I have never sought retribution against those who have hurt me because I believe in forgiveness. I have practiced forgiving, just as I want to be forgiven.”

Photo by Aaron Burdenon Unsplash

Parker J. Palmer writes (“Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit”) about listening to the late black Senator John Lewis as they travelled together in a bus.

In 1961, he and a friend were at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when several young white men attacked and beat them bloody with baseball bats. Lewis and his friend did not fight back, and they declined to press charges. They simply treated their wounds and went on with their Civil Rights work.

In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man about John Lewis’s age walked into his office on Capitol Hill, accompanied by his middle-aged son. “Mr. Lewis,” he said, “my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?” Lewis said, “I forgave him, we embraced, he and his son and I wept, and then we talked.”

As Lewis came to the end of this remarkable and moving story, he leaned back in his seat on the bus. He gazed out the window for a while as we passed through a countryside that was once a killing ground for the Ku Klux Klan, of which Elwin Wilson had been a member. Then, in a very soft voice — as if speaking to himself about the story he had just told and all of the memories that must have been moving in him — Lewis said, “People can change . . . People can change . . .”

In the Introduction to his translation of the Upanishads (“The Principal Upanishads”), S. Radhakrishnan writes: “A forgiving attitude frees the individual. We should grudge none, and forgive all.”

Peace 🙂

“Try to be Kinder”

In “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”, Karen Armstrong writes that “one small act of kindness can turn a life around.” Jack London explains why in “White Fang”, a story about a wolf-dog, published in 1906. He writes that “Human kindness” is the “sun shining”, which helps us flourish “like a flower planted in good soil.” 

Naomi Shihab Nye observes, in the poem “Kindness” (one of the poems in in “Words Under the Words: Selected Poems”) that “it is only kindness that makes sense anymore….”

In the commencement address to the 2013 graduating class of Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences , the writer George Saunders tells his audience:

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Sunset, Coimbatore — photograph by the Bibliophile

Guy Stagg narrates, in “The Crossway”, his pilgrimage-walk from Canterbury (the UK) to Jerusalem — a walk (probably about 5000 kms) he set off on trying to recover from a nervous breakdown when he was about 23 years young. Towards the end, we read what is probably the main illumination from his pilgrimage : “In the end, the kindness was all that mattered.” 

In his 1865 novel, “Our Mutual Friend”, we read Charles Dickens on the spirit of kindness — it is having “a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts….”

Peace 🙂

“Love Everyone”

We listen to Swami Vivekananda (“The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda”) exhort the Graduate Philosophy Society of Harvard University on 25th March 1896: “Love everyone as your own self, because the whole universe is one.” What does this loving mean?

Thich Nhat Hanh, in “How to Love” teaches us that “True love includes a sense of responsibility and accepting the other person as she is, with all her strengths and weaknesses. If you only like the best things in a person, that is not love. You have to accept her weaknesses and bring your patience, understanding, and energy to help her….” 

The psychologist Erich Fromm writes in “The Art of Loving” that “the main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one’s narcissism.” Thomas Merton explains this in “No Man is an Island”: “The beginning of love is….the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

Evening in Coimbatore — photograph by the Bibliophile

In a letter to his son (14 years young), written on 10th November 1958 (“Steinbeck: A Life in Letters”), the author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck writes: “There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect….The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.” 

If we want the world to heal and bloom, we would do well to ponder something in Swami Vivekananda’s lines deeply — he says love “everyone”….

Peace 🙂

“Be Water, my friend”

Kate Marvel, climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, writes in a 2017 OnBeing piece that “We should never have called it Earth. Three quarters of the planet’s surface is saltwater….” 

W H Auden ends the poem “First Things First” (in “Collected Poems”) with this immortal line: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”

“Water World” — painting by Deepa Krishnan

Shannon Lee begins “Be Water, My Friend: The True Teachings of Bruce Lee” with the following words from Bruce Lee, her father:

Be Water. Be formless, shapeless, like water.

You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.

You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.

You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.

Now water can flow or it can crash! Be water, my friend.

In “The Penelopiad”, we read Margaret Atwood: “Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it.”

Peace 🙂