Read this morning from an old book I just happened to find in the stacks recently from 1896 called What All the World’s A-Seeking by Ralph Waldo Trine. It’s been published some 50 times over the years and from the first pages, it’s easy to see why. The answer to the mysterious title is: the joy that giving our lives in the service of others brings. He claims this is the summum bonum, the highest good of life. And who’s surprised, really, since Jesus himself said, “The greatest of all must be your servant?”
So then I read,
“MOST OF THE TIME when we say people are charismatic, we mean simply that they have presence…. They make you sit up and take notice. On the other hand, [there are others who] look like everybody else…These people are not apt to have presence, and you don’t feel any special vibrations when they enter a room. But they are all in their own ways miracle-workers [helping others].”
-F. Buechner, Whistling in the Dark
And I think, isn’t this the pinnacle of ways to pursue adversity? The adversity of little recognition?
It’s definitely the ordinary way. Maybe it’s one of the best.
Which leads us to honest admission time: the big reason I don’t pursue this kind of adversity is I’m a sensitive, quiet guy and things affect me strongly. Life hurts and I like to demand that be recognized, doggone it! If you’re creative, you know what I’m talking about. Whether your sensitivity is by nature or by experience or both, if you’re training attention on the hidden world beyond your natural senses, you’re going to experience this heightened vulnerability. This slow becoming-more-conscious makes the blows of life seem doubly sharp. And everyone wants their suffering acknowledged and comforted, so there it is: I’m looking out for number one.
The only people who don’t behave this way are those who feel intimately loved. And I do, often. But when I don’t, that entitlement can push me to the opposite of sensitivity, to insensitive demands. And that’s a really weird place to be, trying to feel mysterious and delicate things but feeling like my heart is the bull in the bookshop. Sometimes the opposition of a fellow human being is so painful, I have to give up trying, stop listening, and get away so I don’t start shouting at them to listen to their heart.
Come on, now. Drop the gun…
But shouting never works. I’ve tried. And every time I do give in, whatever mysteries I’ve been seeking dissipate and I lose focus. The seeking is over. And I have to re-up my diligence that much more tomorrow…
So that’s that. I also read Wendell Berry’s first story in That Distant Land which speaks of a woman helping a badly wounded man and her boy’s sensitivity to his mother’s pitying, compassionate look. In it is the knowledge of death and her duty to help others, and this rite passes to him in a moment and he’s bestowed with her spiritual knowledge wordlessly. Berry’s message to me here was that I’m to help who I can while I can.
See how it matches What All The World’s A-Seeking? This is beginning to feel like the only task for me this week.
Finally, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet seemed to speak of this same sensitivity. He urges a poet not to seek outside validation but to write because he must and for no other reason than to give shape to the life that doesn’t yet have language. This is the heart of my chosen profession of confession.
So I think all of this is about getting us to stop and listen and speak what we feel.
The thoughts we might capture that others haven’t had time to form.
And to find a way to say them so they’ll know them as their own experiences.
And it’s about much more besides, but it seems clear to me this week that regardless of the distance our words may travel, those who read them may free countless others through them.
Yet, first they must become their freedom.
And before that, they must become ours.
Q: Do you do this too, seeking the invisible with the eyes of your heart so your readers might learn to speak their world free?
And how’s that going for you? :)