Opening Reading: e e cummings
rain or hail
the best he kin
till they digged his hole
sam was a man
stout as a bridge
rugged as a bear
slickern a weasel
how be you
(sun or snow)
gone into what
like all them kings
you read about
and on him sings
heart was big
as the world aint square
with room for the devil
and his angels too
what may be better
or what may be worse
and what may be clover
sam was a man
grinned his grin
done his chores
laid him down
Victor Hugo said, “I sense two men in myself.”
Is this what Cummings was saying about his man Sam, a good man, with a big heart, and “…room for the devil and his angels, too…what may be better or what may be worse… nobody’ll know…”
Last fall I visited a friend who had recently moved to Manhattan and he told me that he was immersing himself in a City he had loved from a distance for years.
He has a tiny apartment, that he adores, was just a couple of blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Location, location!) He was clearly a man in love—in love with the big Apple. He looked at that orchard and said, with relish, “Let’s just walk through the Met so I can show you some of the favorite things I’ve discovered.”
One of the first pieces we visited was a powerful sculpture called The Struggle of the Two Natures of Man by George Gray Barnard. Barnard spent two years on this piece, giving form and substance to that line from Victor Hugo’s poem: “I sense two men in myself.”
My friend is a Congregationalist minister with whom I’ve been in dialogue for over 20 years. I cherish his friendship; we know one another very well—he knew I’d appreciate this marvelous sculpture that symbolized a major part of our twenty-year dialogue about the nature of man; about our potential for good and evil and everything in between.
We stood there in silence—a comfortable silence; a respectful silence, appreciating and absorbing and beauty of Barnard’s work as well as the statement it makes.
The sculpture has two identical men—the two aspects of each of us—who are struggling with one another—wrestling. One is standing, the other is lying down. He appears to be defeated, but he’s still holding on to the other’s leg. The one who appears to be dominating over the other is clearly being held, trapped, by the other.
The one who is dominating at the moment could clearly be pulled down at any time, switching places.
We don’t know which is which, but we know that the sculpture is a statement about the two natures within each of us.
What are the two natures we humans possess? Is it simply good and evil—the creative and destructive potential within each of us, represented by the Hindu gods: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva?
Brahma is the creator; Vishnu is the preserver; and Shiva is the destroyer. The Hindu myth says that Brahma grew in a lotus out of the navel of the sleeping Vishnu.
You can’t tell by looking at Barnard’s sculpture which one is the angel and which one is the devil. Lincoln referred to ‘the angels of our better nature.” Calvin said we’re all sinners in the hands of an angry god. Billy Graham says that we’re all sinners but Jesus loves you anyway.
What was Barnard saying with that marvelous sculpture?
As we stood there together I was remembered a line from Henry David Thoreau—similar to Victor Hugo’s line “I sense two men in myself.” Thoreau said “The savage in man is never completely eradicated.”
While Thoreau’s comment is pulpit-like, Victor Hugo’s remark is more self-revealing—more like a man talking to his therapist.
What are those ‘two natures’ we sense within ourselves?
It seems too simplistic to say that it’s good and evil; the creative and destructive aspects of the human.
Remember that line in Chief Yellow Lark’s prayer: “I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to be able to fight my greatest enemy, myself.”
Our base (basic) nature struggles to survive, at all costs, under all conditions. The savage can be seen as vicious, merciless, brutal.
The word savage is rooted in the Latin silvaticus: of the woods brutal—from which we get the word sylvan; in Roman mythology Sylvanus is the god of the woods.
(The Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde syndrome touches on the question about the ‘two natures,’ but in the extreme that’s about sanity v. insanity and all the places in between. The recent case of the B.T.K. serial killer in Wichita, Kansas, is another infamous case in point.)
We tend to think in terms of positive and negative aspects of the personality. Can we talk about that aspect of us which has the instinct to survive—the will to withstand extremely difficult circumstances—without putting a negative spin on it? Isn’t that one of the two natures of man?
I have a friend who survived the tsunami; he was swept into the streets and he got in touch with that survival instinct, and he talked about those moments when it was, as he put it, ‘every man for himself.’ He wrote about the experience:
“Two days ago, I was in an internet cafe in Phuket, Thailand when the two tidal waves hit the beach a block away. Three seconds after I hit the send button of the letter I was writing I heard a loud roar. I looked out the window and water was rushing down the street. “Good God,” I thought. “What is going on?” However, everything happened very quickly and suddenly the water was rushing against the door of the internet room where I was alone. I realized I had to get out fast, but I couldn’t open the door because the flood of water had pushed a big desk against the door. I was trapped and the room was rapidly filling up with water. I looked around and realized I couldn’t get out and the water was now up to my waist.
”Just then, there was a loud roar and a second tidal wave came racing up the street; it was the most terrifying noise I ever heard…worse than “incoming.” in Vietnam. I thought, “Well, that’s it.” However, the second wave hit the desk and immediately lifted it out onto the street. That allowed me to open the door and jump into the rushing water. Across the street there was a cafe with a cement verandah. I swam and struggled through the flood of filthy water, filled with chairs, cars, debris etc. and climbed onto the cement porch. However, the water was still rising. Fortunately, there was a tree next to the porch, so I climbed up the tree. People were screaming and crying. Many were drowned because they couldn’t swim. The entire town of Phuket was wiped out. Eight people were killed 50 yards from my hotel, which fortunately is on a high hill. My motor scooter was swept away. Then, I had to decide whether to stay in the tree or head for higher ground. Some police came by in the street on a boat and said another big wave was on the way. They took out an old man and a lady in the boat. I wanted to go with them, but of course, I couldn’t do that. I thought of what it must have been likeon the Titanic.
“I decided I did not want to stay and take a chance on another wave, so I plunged into the water again, and made my way down the street until finally I reached dry ground. Then I walked back to the hotel, which had been evacuated and all the guests sent to another hotel on a nearby hill. Now, I’m back in the first hotel, which has no water or electricity, but at least it’s safe. The entire beach and all the property are gone. Cars upturned everywhere. I’ve been through some close ones but this one tops them all.”
One of the two natures we sense within ourselves has something to do with surviving. That’s the same mechanism or instinct that can get out of control, leading to insatiable greed and lust for power, and so forth, which become self-destructive—at least destructive of that thing we call the human spirit, or the soul.
His initial response to being hit by the wave that moved the desk was to survive. But when he felt relatively safe and the police came to the rescue with a small boat, he didn’t get in—he made reference to the Titanic, which has been a study in the ‘two natures of man’ for nearly a century. (1912)
Some time ago I listened with a group of colleagues to a woman who had survived the holocaust. She told us her story, and someone made a comment about her heroism. She said, very sternly, “Please do not call me a hero. I’m a survivor.” Then she said, “There were times when I stole bread—I did whatever I had to do to survive—I’m neither proud nor ashamed, but I’m certainly not a hero.”
The savage is never completely eradicated. There’s a basic survival mechanism that’s built in—it’s not about good and evil; it’s morally neutral, in a way. On the other hand, there’s a heroic quality—the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of another—not just a loved one, but even a stranger.
In the famous story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, the captain of the ship on which Jonah was fleeing his mission to Nineveh finds out that the storm is Jonah’s fault. Jonah tells the captain to throw him overboard so the sea would calm and the ship would be saved.
But the captain refuses, at first, saying, “Look, you’re a human being for god’s sake, we can’t just throw you overboard.” (Or words to that effect.)
Maybe the two natures of man are the sacrificial nature on the one extreme, and insatiable greed on the other; selflessness and selfishness; basic survival mechanisms, and the survival mechanisms ‘out of control,’ or taken to the extreme.
Those with whom our nation is at war seem to have no trouble enlisting men and women, young and old, who are willing to strap a bomb on themselves and be sacrificed for their cause. To us they are crazed terrorists; to others they’re heroes.
We all wonder how we would respond in an extreme situation, like the Titanic or the tsunami—we hope that our higher nature would prevail and we wouldn’t take someone else’s place in the lifeboat.
There’s something about the human experience that wants to be tested—challenged, put to the test.
Sometimes we purposely challenge ourselves. The mountain climber doesn’t climb the mountain simply ‘because it’s there’ as they like to say; there are lots of people who see the mountain and don’t climb.
There’s a riveting story about one such climber of the most challenging mountains, Aaron Ralston, who was hiking alone in a canyon in Utah a couple of years ago when a boulder broke loose and fell into the crevice he was navigating and the boulder pinned his right arm. He was trapped.
After five days in that untenable trapped position, after consuming his supply of water and food, he used a pocketknife to amputate his own right arm and free himself.
The food and water had been consumed, but not his zest for living. He had more mountains to climb.
After severing his right arm below the elbow, he used his left arm to apply a tourniquet, then, with one arm, he proceeded to rappel to the bottom of Blue John Canyon. Then he hiked alone for hours until he found other hikers who helped him, and a helicopter came to the rescue.
There’s an intimate relationship between the idea of a survivor and our notion of hero. Survivors become folk heroes.
The story of Aaron Ralston has a myth-like dimension, like the Titan, Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and was punished by Zeus by being chained to a rock on a mountain, and he had his liver eaten by an Eagle. At night his liver grew back–he survived to live another day, and go through the ordeal once again.
Sometimes life feels like an ordeal to be endured. Job is the prime example.
Aaron Ralston’s story has a mythical dimension—the word Promethean fits; he was defiant in the face of overwhelming odds.
Survival stories capture our imagination because we’re all in the process of surviving, day to day. Most of us won’t be faced with the magnitude of Ralston’s challenging episode; but we’re all capable of imagining ourselves in some kind of situation that requires more from us than we’ve ever yet had to give.
Survivor shows on television have become surprisingly popular. They’re mislabeled ‘reality shows. They attract huge audiences. Why is that?
I’ve only bumped into them switching channels; I’m not attracted, but I’m interested in their popularity. They seem so contrived. You must have seen the ads for them, showing a group of people living on an island in competitive situations, eating and bugs and worms, eliminating one member, week by week, using what looks like a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog process of elimination.
Another kind of survivor show is about women who want to marry a rich young bachelor; one by one they are eliminated until the lucky woman wins the man. (Be careful what you ask for!) Then there are the shows about handsome young bachelors who want to marry the beautiful rich young woman, with only one survivor to tie the knot. I guess it’s the human version of the alpha wolf who rules over the pack.
Another survivor show is American Idol, very popular with teenagers, where young singers struggle to be the last contestant standing, after the television audience votes for their favorite, week after week, to determine the ultimate survivor, the new American Idol.
I’ll mention only one more–the show about a densely populated jungle-like island–the island of Manhattan, ruled over by a rich king with a big red lion-like mane; young wanna-be apprentices tremble at his feet as he growls and carries on, terrorizing job applicants, like some stone-age monster. Then he says the thing the islanders fear more than anything else: You’re fired! The king of the jungle destroys all hope.
I’ve never actually watched the Donald Trump show, so maybe I shouldn’t judge. I only know it’s about jungle-like survival; it’s about the two natures of man.
It reminds me of a favorite New Yorker cartoon I saw man years ago and wish I had saved. The cartoon shows a picture of a mother saying good-bye to her adolescent son; they’re standing together in the jungle, he’s dressed in a Tarzan-like outfit. The caption says, “Be careful, son, it’s like a city out there.”
There’s something that attracts us to survivor stories because we so easily identify with people who are struggling to survive–to move through the ordeal of living, and to savor the joy of loving.
The theme of survival runs through the mythology in the Bible. After the Genesis creation myth everything that follows is about survival. The story says, ‘on the seventh day he rested.’ Then came the eighth day—the one we’re living.
On the eighth day, Adam and Eve are evicted from paradise. They are condemned to death, preceded by an existence that amounts to mere survival under punishing conditions of poverty and depravation.
Then there’s the story of their children, Cain and Abel. Cain, the person in the Biblical myth who was born in a natural way, kills the second person, his brother Abel. The story of Cain and Abel is the first survivor story. Abel was eliminated, violently. As a punishment, God condemns Cain to live, putting a mark on him as a sign to everyone else that he should not be put to death. He has to live! He has to spend his life wandering the earth, an outcast, shunned.
Then there’s the Noah story: Noah and his family survived while all the rest of the people of the earth perished in the flood. Daniel survives the lion den. Jesus, the story says, survived the crucifixion—the stone was rolled away and he ascended to heaven. The underlying theme of Biblical mythology is survival!
There is a heroic quality to every person’s life, including yours and mine. Mythology speaks to us because it tells stories with which we can identify, stories in which we find ourselves and feel ourselves. There’s something liberating about those feelings—that’s why mythological stories were written and passed down from generation to generation.
But there’s an important difference between the hero and the survivor.
We have our own stories of survival: we survive the deaths of loved ones; we survive divorces and diseases and bad decisions; we survive the loss of jobs, the loss of friends; we survive the loss of youth, the loss of stamina and mobility. We survive the depression that results from such losses, and we might have to survive a clinical depression, as described by William Styron in his very moving account of the deep depression into which he had been plunged, Darkness Visible.