Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Life is the great voyage of discovery, and there’s always something new to discover, but there are old things whose meanings we can ‘uncover,’ if we look through new eyes.
It never ceases to amaze me that I can read something I’ve read before, or hear a song I’ve heard many times, and I see something new, something I didn’t notice…before. That’s one of the benefits of memorizing favorite poems—it’s as if the poet continues to add lines. How many times have I said to myself, “I didn’t notice that before!”
It’s great to hear a new story, of course, but it’s also nice to see something old with new eyes, new understanding.
Recently I heard a variation on the serenity prayer used at 12-step meetings. You know the traditional prayer, I’m sure. It was penned by the Rev.Reinhold Niebuhr:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can change and the wisdom to know the difference.”
It’s a great prayer. Short, and to the point, it puts responsibility for gaining serenity, courage and wisdom on the person doing the praying, who knows, of course, what he needs.
Niebuhr knew that we all need serenity, or peace of mind; he knew that living takes courage, we all need it, and when it seems to be in short supply we need to ask for some help to gain enough courage to hang in there, to go on living.
And life requires more than the accumulation of information – we need wisdom, which is of a different category than information.
Whitman said it poetically: “Wisdom is not finally tested in the schools, Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it, Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof.”
The variation of the serenity prayer I heard recently says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the people I can change, and the wisdom to know that they’re both me.”
It’s a new year: 2009. Many among us make New Year’s resolutions – promises to ourselves to lose the extra weight, to slow down, to exercise regularly, and according to a survey in the new year’s day New York Times, this year’s, top resolution is ‘to live within our means…to avoid or limit spending on non-essentials, in response to the world-wide economic crisis; to get back in touch with the simple things, the essential things.’
The serenity prayer is used in recovery groups, or it’s used by people doing their own recovering…and there are a lot of people in recovery from the shock of the economic crash that his last year.
A lot of people were hit very hard by Bernard Madoff – they were hit hard in terms of huge amounts of money that disappeared in an instant, and they were hit hard in terms of betrayal by a man in whom they invested their trust as well as their money. Their eyes are both blackened! It’s a huge blow, not only in terms of money, though especially in terms of money and the security it represents, but also in terms of trust, which is an essential ingredient to our well-being. I’ll get back to that later.
The new year is a time to take a new look at ourselves, at our values; in the spirit of the ancient Greek idea that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ We want our lives to be ‘worth living,’ of course, so we have to do some examining of the life we’ve been living, not just to find fault with ourselves, but to affirm things from the past and to give some direction to the future.
The first month of the year, January, is named for the Roman god, Janus, who has two faces – one looks forward and the other looks backward; Janus holds the key that locks doors and opens doors; there are things we’d like to let go of, and there are doors we’d like to open, doors to new things…so we can see with new eyes.
In his poem, Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot writes, “What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from…we shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
To begin 2009, then, we have to look back to 2008, or the years before that, so we can look with ‘new eyes’ at today. Our new eyes help us to see the past in ways that will enhance the present and provide direction to the future.
I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s famous comment about his father. He said, “When I was a boy of fourteen my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have to old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished to discover how much he had learned in seven years.”
What have you discovered in the past seven years?
One of the good things about being older (and there are some benefits) is the opportunity to look through your parents’ eyes when they were the age you’ve just achieved, and to understand them in a new way, to appreciate them by seeing with the new eyes the years and experiences bring.
I thought of this basic truth as I read a book someone gave for Christmas, published by the Storycorps. It’s called Listening Is an Act of Love: a celebration of American life.
Pairs of people sit together in a recording booth and one interviews the other, and listens, intentionally. Both the listening and the story-telling is ‘an act of love.’ One reviewer said of the collection of stories: “Each interview is a revelation.”
I responded to that word – revelation. In traditional religion, Revelation is ‘a manifestation of divine will or truth.’ In liberal religion we say that ‘revelation is not sealed.’ It’s the ongoing process of seeing with ‘new eyes.’
Look again at the old story of the journey of the three kings. They leave their kingdoms, where they’re ‘in charge,’ and they travel together, and they are changed forever. They have an Epiphany – the three kings become the three wise men when they see the Christ child in the manger – they see with new eyes.
The legend is about the inner, spiritual journey toward deeper understanding – realizing, as this story suggests, that the Messiah, or Christ child, or Christ consciousness, is the ability to see the sacredness of every person, the sacredness of all Life; to sense on the deepest level that we’re all part of this one universe, this miracle-in-the-making.
Each of us is on a separate journey, of course, from the manger to the cross…from birth to death. The manger and the cross are poetic symbols that acknowledge the two ends of each life – birth to death; and between the two is the process of living, of growing toward a deeper, fuller, richer understanding and a more lively sense of appreciation for life itself.
Along the journey we have little epiphanies – revelations.
As we age, we gain a quality of appreciation for parents or grandparents when we reach the age they were when we were born, or when we got married – and we have a son or daughter getting married. “Ah, so this is what they experienced…now I understand.”
Some things require our own experience to truly understand or to appreciate.
This is a common theme in the Storycorps book. The first story in the book is told by Cynthia Rahn, age 48, to her friend Adriene. Cynthia’s story is about starting school in Appalachia in the early 60’s.
She says, “I lived very far out in the country, and I had just started kindergarten with a lot of kids from town that I didn’t know. I looked poor to everybody else, and certainly everybody else looked rich to me. And so I felt a little intimidated.”
One kindergarten memory stands out for Cynthia. Her class was designing a diorama of life on the farm. For homework, students had to find something they could contribute to the diorama, something representing a farm.
When little Cynthia got home, she remembers changing out of her school clothes and went outside to play. After coming in, eating dinner and getting ready for bed, she realized she had forgotten to do her assignment.
Her mother had just gotten home from work and was tired.
“Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get something that represents a farm,” she told her mother. They looked around. “We had nothing,” she says. Cynthia started to cry.
“I can’t go to school tomorrow and not have anything,” she told her mother. “It’s too late,” her mother replied.
She said, “This was 1962 in rural Appalachia. I mean, there were no Wal-Marts. You couldn’t just ride out and get something.”
Her mother told her, “You should have thought about this when you got home.”
The next morning, after her mother had left for work, Cynthia went downstairs to discover a barn, made of paper, sitting on the kitchen table.
She says, “I went downstairs, and sitting on the kitchen table was a barn made out of notebook paper. She had just taken plain notebook paper and folded it. She folded the walls, she folded the roof, she folded doors that open so horses could go in and out. It was like magic. I looked at it—there wasn’t a staple in it. There was no tape. She had just folded a barn for me.”
“When I arrived at school everybody was so amazed at my barn. And I just felt like the most special kid in the class. My mother is not the origami I had no idea where she learned to do that or how she knew how to do it. I have no idea how long it would have taken her to do or how she figured out how to make that barn.
“It made me a happy little girl, and I was very popular that day in school. I just felt like a queen. And I knew, too, that she cared.”
By telling her story to a friend, the 48 year old Cynthia was able to see her mother with a wonderful sense of appreciation – not that she hadn’t done that before, but it’s an important affirmation of the love that was loved into her; to tell the story is to honor her mother, and to affirm the very process of how it is we’re each ‘becoming a person.’
“I knew that she cared,” she said. She might have added that when she went to bed that night she was questioning whether her mother really cared about her – her anxiety about the school assignment, whether she really understood that a little girl in kindergarten suffers, too.
Then she discovered the paper barn and she learned something about her mother’s love for her, something that became part of her, something that she carried for the rest of her life, and no doubt passed on to others.
Sometimes, when we look back to an experience, we see with new eyes. It helps to tell someone — the listener allows us to hear our own story – that’s what makes listening an act of love. It not only helps to connect us to another person, but to re-connect with parts of ourselves that may otherwise be lost, without someone to listen.
We see ourselves with new eyes; we see our parents with new eyes, and we make sense of our lives and come to terms with things that may be unresolved until we talk them through. There’s a religious aspect to listening – and that’s a faith statement!
It’s also about the difference between having information and having wisdom. We can accumulate information from other people, or from books, or from Googling the internet, but we can only get wisdom by reflecting on our own lives, our own insights. We have to do it for ourselves but we can’t do it by ourselves.
Listening to other people’s stories helps us to understand our own story, and encourages us to tell our own story.
The three kings become the three wise men. They took a journey; they followed a star; they left their old kingdoms over which they ruled. When they arrived at the stable, they were ready to see with ‘new eyes.’ They had their epiphany. It’s not a story about something that happened 2,000 years ago – it’s about what is happening now, on the inner, spiritual journey we’re on.
It’s all about change; it’s about growth toward wisdom. The legends and myths survive because they reveal truths that are otherwise too deep for rational explanation.
(I thought of another variation on the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot explain; the courage to explain the things I can explain, and the wisdom to know the difference.)
The legend of three wise men who traveled to the manger to see the baby Jesus, to see the divine within this newborn, the potential within each one of us to become an authentic, genuine self, to be engaged in creation, reveals the holy, the sacred.
The Roman god Janus holds the keys to the doors and the gates, the past and the future.
Last year was difficult – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on and the economy crashed against the proverbial wall, with revelations about sub-prime mortgages and the latest Ponzi scheme masterminded by Bernard Madoff. It was an enormous robbery of so many people’s money, a fraud of epic proportions, but it was also a betrayal that undermines faith in human nature, going right to the core of what the basic trust required for us to live in the world.
Emerson put it this way: “If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being.”
I would add, if a man is deceived, if he falls for the lie he loses trust in his own judgment and his very being is undermined.
It’s small consolation to say that we’ve learned some important and necessary lessons, but the truth is we still have a lot to learn, collectively and individually.
In our despair we might say ‘stop the world I want to get off.’ Robert Frost said it a little differently in the closing lines to his wonderful poem, Birches, about his boyhood, his time of innocence, when he went out to fetch the cows and learned to swing on the birch trees. I’ll include the entire poem so that the closing lines ‘make sense.’
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the line of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches;
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.