Bill Long 12/4/05
Wisdom for a Frenetic Age
As I was making the rounds of Holiday parties this year, I stopped in at one in Portland for alums and parents of Colgate University students. The refreshments and company were warm on a dull and gray day, but what caught my attention as I was about to leave was a framed text by the host couple's (Dan and Mercedes Belica) front door. Normally people just ignore these things, thinking them small maxims or breezy words of encouragement to get through the day. But I decided to stop, right there in the entry hall, and study the posting. What I saw was a text of 30 or so lines, in graceful script, said to be found in Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Baltimore in 1692. I checked and discovered that Old St. Paul's was founded in 1692, and so the attribution looked suspect. Later I discovered, and Dan confirmed, that the words were written in the 1920's by Max Ehrmann from Terre Haute, IN. Nevertheless, the spirit of these words is so wise and insightful that I wanted to share them with you, interspersed with some of my reflections. The Latin word "desiderata" means "things to be desired," and you can decide for yourself about that one. Let's go stanza by stanza.
"Go Placidly Amid the Noise and Haste,
And remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
Be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
And listen to others,
Even the dull and ignorant;
They too have their story.
1. The noise and bustle that surround our lives, especially at this time of year, threaten to overwhelm us and deprive us of a peaceful center. So many things have to be done. So much requires our attention. And, so many things scream at us from every possible source. Talk TV-shows screech at us; images blast our psyche from the moment we arise until the instant we retire. Finding a calm center in the midst of the storm is the first thing desired in life. Our peace may rest in silence, in not contributing to the din all around, in realizing that the rhythms of our life are more satisfying if they are set by our own hearts rather than the demands of the screamers. Seek the silence. Seek to hear the voices within and ignore the demands from without. Trust those inner voices, providing that you can even hear them.
2. The Scriptures say, "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" (Rom. 12:18). The Desiderata adds a nice gloss to this biblical thought, doesn't it? It urges us to be on good terms with others to the extent that we may do so "without surrender." That is, it recognizes that a peace purchased by giving up the self, by surrendering one's integrity, by being either cowed or bought off, is not a peace worth having. But, still, strive to be on good terms with all. It is not an abandonment of one's values to embrace a person with whom you disagree. Such an action can be rather the recognition of a common humanity and the shared reality of longing for a better day, even if the embracing partners define that day differently.
3. Savor the exhortation to speak one's truth quietly and clearly. Why quietly, since sometimes we think that all the world must needs hear our truth? Sometimes we think our truth is so right, so timely, so TRUE that it ought to be proclaimed from the housetops or at least on cable TV. But Isaiah may know more about truth than we do. In speaking of the servant of God, who has God's spirit on him and will bring forth justice to the nations, Isaiah says:
"He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street..he will faithfully bring forth justice" (Is. 42:2,3).
Faithfully bringing forth justice and quiet speaking are linked. Those of us who grew up in the shadow of the civil rights movement, take notice. Marches, press conferences and corporate capitulations may not be the essence of seeking or doing justice.
4. While it is on the subject of speaking and listening, the stanza closes with that charming morsel about listening to others, even those who are "dull and ignorant." Why? Because they have a story, too. This statement recognizes two things. First, there are people who are dull and ignorant. Dull here doesn't mean "boring"; it means a person of limited intellectual capability. Second, these people have their way of telling things, their truth, their language. Modern linguists believe that even though English-speakers all speak the same language, each individual speaks his or her own version of the language. Every person is idioglossic or idiolalic. We hear the language freshly minted when we listen to another person tell his/her story. So, not only do the "dull and ignorant" have a story; they have a unique language in which to tell it. Honor that and listen for it, for it is a gift to us.
Note the way the Isaiah passage, quoted above, continues. After portraying the servant as one who will quietly bring forth justice, it tells how he will speak to various groups of people. It says:
"a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench" (Is. 42:3).
The world might quench these "dim wits" or break these weak branches, but the Servant of God will not.
The next essay continues our exposition.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long