Thoughts about Getting it Right

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As January nears its end, I pause during a break this morning to revisit my New Year resolutions drafted about a month ago. I suppose the reason I pursue this annual habit of Resolutions is the hope of “Getting It Right” this year. I like the idea of resolving to improve life every time we close an old chapter and open a new one, even if it does seem artificial to do it January 1.

Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered an historic address at a Harvard commencement titled “The American Scholar.”  That speech remains one of my favorite writings of all times, and I continue to read it more than once a year.  In that day, Emerson addressed an American consciousness that was still trying to define itself. There would be those today who say such days are long behind our nation.  I am not so sure.  In fact, I am less sure today of our collective identity as an American people than I was a few years ago.  But this is what Emerson said as he marked that graduation anniversary as a transitional time for the American Scholar between past and present:

Year by year we come up hither to read one more chapter of his biography.  Let us inquire what light new days and events have thrown on his character and his hopes.

I like the childlike wonder that marks the New England Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century. At ages 30, 40, 50 and beyond, they remained curious and optimistic about life’s possibilities.

Let me take you back to a scene from our American heritage last century: It was a stifling hot afternoon in the offices of Hartford Insurance in Connecticut.  The oscillating fans were perpetually whirring, driving documents and memos all across the desktops, across the floors, into wastebaskets.  The adjustor, sweating inside his collar, was hurrying down the corridor when suddenly the Vice President stepped into his path, and said “Brownie, could you step in here for a moment?”  Surprised, Lynn Brown stepped into the spacious office, and stood hesitantly before the V.P. who merely sat on the corner of his desk, staring fixedly into space, saying nothing.  The adjustor just waited, nervously.

“Brownie, do you have any ideas on what ‘imagination’ means?” asked the V.P.

After an uncomfortable silence, Lynne replied, “Not at all.  I have no ideas on that.”

Silence.

“Well.  Why don’t you give that some thought in the next day or two and we’ll talk further.”

Years later, recalling that day, Lynne Brown told a reporter.  “He never brought it up again, and frankly, I’m glad.”

That Vice President of Hartford Insurance made a good income for his Connecticut family, benefited from his Harvard law degree, and maintained his spacious home and manicured lawn.  He walked two miles to his office every day, and walked home.  And as his mind explored during those walks, he spun the ideas into poems.  That aging Vice President who just wanted to talk to someone about “imagination” was our American poet Wallace Stevens.

Robert Henri, the American artist who founded The Ashcan School, was like an aging prophet as he continued to inspire the seven young newspaper illustrators who gathered in his studio at 806 Walnut Street in Philadelphia as the twentieth century dawned. Throughout his prolific life, he not only painted, but wrote, taught classes and gave public speeches. His electrifying book, titled The Art Spirit contains these words:

When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature.  He becomes interesting to other people.  He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding.  Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible.  The world would stagnate without him, and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others.

Wallace Stevens and Robert Henri in their later years relayed a message in stark contrast to the one given by our writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible.  I also like that writing and have drawn from it in previous New Years’ meditations.  But the writer of Ecclesiastes has grown quite old and cynical and argues that “there is no new thing under the sun.”  He’s convinced that he’s seen it all.  As he develops his argument about how the world continues to do the same weary routine, he laid out the words “the sun also rises.” Those words were snatched up to become the title of the first novel of a young American writer Ernest Hemingway. But as this young writer fought back depression in his early years in Paris, struggling to find a new voice, he wrote the following, which didn’t get published till years later, after his death:

. . . sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

Emerson’s argument is that yes, the world, and all that is in it, is millions of years old—there is nothing new under the sun.  But we are the ones ripe for new experience, new adventure, primed for a New Year.  There is much left for us to discover, about life and about ourselves.

I like that sentiment.  And it stirs me each New Year.  And I think New Years resolutions are offered with the sentiment of trying out new things, but also that constant, nagging rejoinder to get it right this time.  And it’s that itch of “getting it right” that carries the tinge of guilt and regret.  I mean—why cannot the New Year be embraced solely as a new tack, the next mile of the journey, a different window through which to peer?  Can it not contain suggestions of a different collection of books to peruse?  Promptings to a change of activity?  A change of scenery, what the painter Henri Matisse called “cleansing the eye.” A new hobby?  A different kind of work?  Or, if you please, less work and more rest?

Do you not notice that the notion of “getting it right” has that all-too-familiar ring of “karma”?  I frequently told my high school students that public school was my karma, because when I was a teenager, I hated public school every day of my life, and couldn’t wait to get out.  Then once I finished all my education and joined the work force, where did I end up—high school.  The Karma complex.  High School was my Karma.  I believed I would remain there till I got it right.  In 2017, I dismissed all that as myth and just retired anyway—let someone else get it right.

How easily we drift to the negativity when we fret about “getting it right.”  It doesn’t have to be that way.  I don’t recall Benjamin Franklin being a dour sort of fellow, all the while he was tweaking his daily self-improvement lists.  I don’t recall Thomas Jefferson being embroiled in negativity throughout his mature life, though he chose to spend every night’s final hour or two in bed reading only texts that would elevate his soul and put him to sleep in a sublime state, so as to lay a proper foundation for the following day.  I see those acts as positive and constructive and forward-looking, at any stage of life.

The New Year is for looking forward.  Emerson once wrote: “why should you keep your head over your shoulder?  Why drag about this corpse of your memory?  . . . live ever in a new day.”  As we explore a new calendar year, it is a good thing, I believe, to recap where we’ve been, evaluate the good and the not-so-good, and look forward to anticipation of a new chapter.  And when we resolve to “get it right” this time, I really believe it can be out of a spirit of wishing to improve an already-good life, to make a good thing better.  Life is a gift.  Exploration of the future is an invitation.  We’ve been given an opportunity to grow another measure, to explore new vistas, and to enjoy the journey.  And what better way to start off this new era than to come to peace with what is now behind us.

Roshi Jakusho Kwong,  in his work “As It Is,” in A Man’s Journey to Simple Abundance, reminds us that every time you use a calculator, you have to clear it.  If you don’t, you’ll have all these old numbers superimposed on your present reading.  So also, when the complications of the past are superimposed on the present, one can only imagine all the distortion, confusion, and suffering that arise. We must find ways to hit the reset button as we move into the new era.  We have to clear the mechanism.  We have to make peace with our demons, as Paul Tillich used to urge.  Accept what is past, embrace what lies before us, and realize that success is the quality of our journey, not just the completion of goals.

I still remember the announcement April 12, 2006, when we lost William Sloane Coffin at the age of 81.  He had been a Presbyterian clergyman and former Yale University chaplain.  He was arrested at least three times as a Freedom Rider, was also prosecuted by the U. S. government for aiding and abetting disobedience to the Selective Service Act.  He later would be a minister at the historic Riverside Church in New York City’s Morningside Heights.  I was saddened by his death.  Just two New Years before his passing I had read his last book CredoIn the book, he recorded these words: “Clearly the trick in life is to die young as late as possible.”

I close this blog with my favorite words from his pen, as he offered perspective on life as something not snatched, but rather given, and he echoed beautifully that enigmatic New Testament passage that says “Whoever loses his life shall find it.”  Quoting him now:

There is in other words a difference between having a friend and being a friend, between having success and being successful, between getting an education and becoming learned.  If we use knowledge, music, art, sports, and eminently others—if we use them just to enrich ourselves, then paradoxically we impoverish ourselves, at least at our very core.  For all things then become as clothes: they cover but they do not touch or develop our inner being, and we become as those who believe they can only become visible when something visible covers the surface.

But if we give ourselves to art, music, sports, knowledge, and eminently to others, then we experience that biblical truth that ‘he who loses his life shall find it,’ shall find life being fulfilled, and find that joy is self-fulfillment, self-fulfillment is joy.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you will check out my website www.davidtrippart.com.

I makShultz reducede art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

 

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4 Responses to “Thoughts about Getting it Right”

  1. Michael Lovette Says:

    An uplifting and inspiring read, wonderfully stated and thoughtful. Thanks for posting.

    Like

  2. Aprilj Smith Says:

    Inspiring

    Like

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