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We humans are a complicated lot – and we are learning more and more just how complicated we are.
We have this thing we call ‘consciousness,’ awareness, or a degree of enlightenment, if you will.
In a recent book titled Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson, who studies human consciousness, writes: “The human mind can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given moment – the most generous estimate is that people can be conscious of forty of these.”
I don’t know how you can measure the possibility of 11 million pieces of information, but I understand the point – we have a degree of consciousness, and we have a larger degree of unconsciousness.
David Brooks, in his book, The Social Animal, says, “Some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that the unconscious mend does virtually all the work and that conscious will may be an illusion.”
That doesn’t invalidate Emerson’s point in Self-Reliance, but it does put things in perspective.
Brooks says, “The conscious mind merely confabulates stories that try to make some sense of what the unconscious mind is doing of its own accord.”
As I understand it, those stories Brooks says we ‘confabulate’ are called religion, poetry, autobiography, journalism…and all kinds of speech-i-fying…
Brooks writes: “The outer mind hungers for status, money and applause – the inner mind hungers for harmony and connection (which he defines as)…those moments when self-consciousness fades away and a person is lost in a challenge, a cause, the love of one another or the love of God.”
Ah, yes: we are here to connect – not only to connect with one another, but to make a deeper connection to our selves, to make a better connection to the unconscious mind.
The sacred literature of all the religions does just that.
How do I know? Because that literature has survived the revolutions and the reformations – the huge changes of the past few thousand years. It lasts, I believe, because it touches ‘11 million things’ in the unconscious mind.
These religious stories are so powerful that many truly believe them to be literal truth, and in a deep, deep way, they are right! They are true. They are, in fact, truer than true, because they connect us – they connect our little, surface conscious mind to the deep well we call the unconscious mind, and that part of us is always at work, that part of us that is filled with memory and meaning.
The unconscious is doing most of the work – the work of making sense out of this life, the work of moving us through the days and nights, the work of making decisions when you stand at those ‘two roads that diverge in a wood.’
Some of those stories are framed in a form we loosely call poetry – the use of metaphor and simile, comparing the things we know on the surface to things that lie way down deep in ourselves.
Poetry sometimes reaches in and touches those places… those sacred places, if you will.
If Timothy Wilson and his fellow researchers are right, our conscious life is directed by the vast unconscious wellspring we carry from moment to moment…
Poetry, then, is one way to get in touch with what’s moving in us, down there ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes how his young son, then three years old, awoke during the night and called out to his mother. “Touch me, only touch me with your finger,” the young boy pleaded. The child’s mother was astonished. “Why?” she asked. “I’m not here,” the boy cried. “Touch me, Mother, so that I may be here.”
To be touched is to become real; to be here…to be connected to another.
In the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo painted God and Adam reaching their hands to touch one another – they don’t quite touch. The traditional interpretation is that God is giving life to Man. But God breathed the breath of life into the clay, and, the story says, “Man became a living soul.’ My interpretation of Michelangelo’s painting of God and Man reaching toward one another is that Man reaches for God but never quite connects. Man must connect with other men/women/souls to become human; to evolve; to move toward God…to take on God-like qualities, like love, kindness and compassion.
Now I want to share a poem that touches me…maybe it has touched you, or it might touch you now.
Do you know the poem by Robert Frost: The Death of the Hired Man?
I did a little survey and found that a majority of folks knew of the poem, but only 11% could tell me anything about it, and 45% of those actually got the poem confused with other poems by Frost, Whitman and Longfellow.
(I confabulated that survey, as David Brooks would say!)
The poem is a narrative – a short story about two people, husband and wife, Mary and Warren, who are talking about Silas, their hired hand on the farm…
While Warren was in town, Mary has taken Silas in, taking pity on his…but Warren is still angry with Silas for having left him during haying time, when he needed him most…
They talk about home – what home means; they talk about forgiveness, pride, self-respect…they talk about aging, and money, or the lack of it.
The poem begins with Mary ‘musing on the lamp flame.’ The muse in us reaches down into the deeper levels…
The Death of the Hired Man, Robert Frost,
Mary sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table
Waiting for Warren. When she heard his step,
She ran on tip-toe down the darkened passage
To meet him in the doorway with the news
And put him on his guard. “Silas is back.”
She pushed him outward with her through the door
And shut it after her. “Be kind,” she said.
She took the market things from Warren’s arms
And set them on the porch, then drew him down
To sit beside her on the wooden steps.
“When was I ever anything but kind to him?
But I’ll not have the fellow back,” he said.
“I told him so last haying, didn’t I?
‘If he left then,’ I said, ‘that ended it.’
What good is he? Who else will harbour him
At his age for the little he can do?
What help he is there’s no depending on.
Off he goes always when I need him most.
‘He thinks he ought to earn a little pay,
Enough at least to buy tobacco with,
So he won’t have to beg and be beholden.’
‘All right,’ I say, ‘I can’t afford to pay
Any fixed wages, though I wish I could.’
‘Someone else can.’ ‘Then someone else will have to.’
I shouldn’t mind his bettering himself
If that was what it was. You can be certain,
When he begins like that, there’s someone at him
Trying to coax him off with pocket-money,—
In haying time, when any help is scarce.
In winter he comes back to us. I’m done.”
“Sh! not so loud: he’ll hear you,” Mary said.
“I want him to: he’ll have to soon or late.”
“He’s worn out. He’s asleep beside the stove.
When I came up from Rowe’s I found him here,
Huddled against the barn-door fast asleep,
A miserable sight, and frightening, too—
You needn’t smile—I didn’t recognise him—
I wasn’t looking for him—and he’s changed.
Wait till you see.”
“Where did you say he’d been?”
“He didn’t say. I dragged him to the house,
And gave him tea and tried to make him smoke.
I tried to make him talk about his travels.
Nothing would do: he just kept nodding off.”
“What did he say? Did he say anything?”
“Anything? Mary, confess
He said he’d come to ditch the meadow for me.”
“But did he? I just want to know.”
“Of course he did. What would you have him say?
Surely you wouldn’t grudge the poor old man
Some humble way to save his self-respect.
He added, if you really care to know,
He meant to clear the upper pasture, too.
That sounds like something you have heard before?
Warren, I wish you could have heard the way
He jumbled everything. I stopped to look
Two or three times—he made me feel so queer—
To see if he was talking in his sleep.
He ran on Harold Wilson—you remember—
The boy you had in haying four years since.
He’s finished school, and teaching in his college.
Silas declares you’ll have to get him back.
He says they two will make a team for work:
Between them they will lay this farm as smooth!
The way he mixed that in with other things.
He thinks young Wilson a likely lad, though daft
On education—you know how they fought
All through July under the blazing sun,
Silas up on the cart to build the load,
Harold along beside to pitch it on.”
“Yes, I took care to keep well out of earshot.”
“Well, those days trouble Silas like a dream.
You wouldn’t think they would. How some things linger!
Harold’s young college boy’s assurance piqued him.
After so many years he still keeps finding
Good arguments he sees he might have used.
I sympathise. I know just how it feels
To think of the right thing to say too late.
Harold’s associated in his mind with Latin.
He asked me what I thought of Harold’s saying
He studied Latin like the violin
Because he liked it—that an argument!
He said he couldn’t make the boy believe
He could find water with a hazel prong—
Which showed how much good school had ever done him.
He wanted to go over that. But most of all
He thinks if he could have another chance
To teach him how to build a load of hay——”
“I know, that’s Silas’ one accomplishment.
He bundles every forkful in its place,
And tags and numbers it for future reference,
So he can find and easily dislodge it
In the unloading. Silas does that well.
He takes it out in bunches like big birds’ nests.
You never see him standing on the hay
He’s trying to lift, straining to lift himself.”
“He thinks if he could teach him that, he’d be
Some good perhaps to someone in the world.
He hates to see a boy the fool of books.
Poor Silas, so concerned for other folk,
And nothing to look backward to with pride,
And nothing to look forward to with hope,
So now and never any different.”
Part of a moon was falling down the west,
Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw
And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
Among the harp-like morning-glory strings,
Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves,
As if she played unheard the tenderness
That wrought on him beside her in the night.
“Warren,” she said, “he has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.”
“Home,” he mocked gently.
“Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.”
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”
“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
Warren leaned out and took a step or two,
Picked up a little stick, and brought it back
And broke it in his hand and tossed it by.
“Silas has better claim on us you think
Than on his brother? Thirteen little miles
As the road winds would bring him to his door.
Silas has walked that far no doubt to-day.
Why didn’t he go there? His brother’s rich,
A somebody—director in the bank.”
“He never told us that.”
“We know it though.”
“I think his brother ought to help, of course.
I’ll see to that if there is need. He ought of right
To take him in, and might be willing to—
He may be better than appearances.
But have some pity on Silas. Do you think
If he’d had any pride in claiming kin
Or anything he looked for from his brother,
He’d keep so still about him all this time?”
“I wonder what’s between them.”
“I can tell you.
Silas is what he is—we wouldn’t mind him—
But just the kind that kinsfolk can’t abide.
He never did a thing so very bad.
He don’t know why he isn’t quite as good
As anyone. He won’t be made ashamed
To please his brother, worthless though he is.”
“I can’t think Si ever hurt anyone.”
“No, but he hurt my heart the way he lay
And rolled his old head on that sharp-edged chair-back.
He wouldn’t let me put him on the lounge.
You must go in and see what you can do.
I made the bed up for him there to-night.
You’ll be surprised at him—how much he’s broken.
His working days are done; I’m sure of it.”
“I’d not be in a hurry to say that.”
“I haven’t been. Go, look, see for yourself.
But, Warren, please remember how it is:
He’s come to help you ditch the meadow.
He has a plan. You mustn’t laugh at him.
He may not speak of it, and then he may.
I’ll sit and see if that small sailing cloud
Will hit or miss the moon.”
It hit the moon.
Then there were three there, making a dim row,
The moon, the little silver cloud, and she.
Warren returned—too soon, it seemed to her,
Slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited.
“Warren,” she questioned.
“Dead,” was all he answered.