Duke Ellington spoke playfully about what helped him create his great works of music.
“I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.”
I love what this implies: that there is a way to take the things that are draining our energy—and find in them new sources of creative, joyful energy.
And I don’t think we have to be musical geniuses to do that. I think it’s a human thing.
In other words, there is a way to relax and accept and make use of EVERYTHING that happens in our lives—good and bad.
And, since, this is Thanksgiving week, let’s take this a step further.
Do I dare say that there is even a way to be thankful for everything that has happened in my life?
Obviously, we would never wish for bad things to happen. But we know that Trouble comes into every life without exception. It’s part of being human in this world.
And one thing is for sure: accepting and being grateful is more energizing than being resentful. Forgiving (ourselves and others) is more energizing than regretting.
So perhaps—if we quiet our hearts and minds—we can even be grateful for what we can learn from the Trouble…for the way it helps us grow stronger, wiser, more empathetic…for the way it helps us become a more whole person.
I think Trouble can help us relax and be more grateful for each ordinary moment—when there might not have been a moment.
We can be grateful for the opportunity to participate in this world, a participation which includes joy and trouble just as a great symphony includes dark, somber passages as well as light, joyful ones. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote,
“It’s a serious thing to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world.”
Today, the whole world is very interested in finding alternative, natural sources of energy such as wind and solar.
If Ellington is right, we have an alternative source of natural personal energy right under our noses: the acceptance and playful use of even the things that get us down.
No matter what you or I believe about religion, it has been part of the human story for thousands of years (in good and bad ways).
So, it’s important to ask: What is religion really about? What is it for? At its core, at its best, what is it designed to do for human beings?
I like the way theologian Reinhold Niebuhr responds to this:
“Man comes to terms with his universe only by heroic and poetic insights. Religion, the whole of man adjusting himself to the whole of life, involves precisely these two elements—poetic insight and moral vigor.”
There are a few things to reflect on here.
“The whole of man adjusting himself to the whole of life.”
Sometimes life feels like Macbeth’s famous line: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day…”
But I think we yearn for more than that. We want a way to embrace the WHOLE of life—birth and death, successes and failures, work and relationships, tears and laughter, dreams and disappointments—with our WHOLE heart, mind and soul.
Religion should help us grow toward wholeness. How? Niebuhr suggests two gateways.
Max Ehrman provides an example of poetic thinking about life and faith in his famed essay, Desiderata:
“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here…Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
And then…“Moral vigor.”
Here’s a simple example of this from advice columnist Ann Landers:
“Keep in mind that the true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good.”
It’s my belief that the great ideas of literature, religion and philosophy are—at their core—really about the same things that your life is about and my life is about.
It’s all about the wonder and mystery and pain and joy of being a person in the world.
Albert Camus expressed this well in the following quotation. (Please forgive the ‘genderness’ in the quote. By “man” he clearly means “person”.)
“Great ideas come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear amid the uproar of empires and nations a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirrings of life and hope. Some will say this hope lies in a nation, others in a man. I believe, rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and words every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. Each and every man on the foundation of his own suffering and joys builds for all.”
A couple of responses.
“If we listen attentively, we shall hear…the gentle stirrings of life and hope.”
There is so much noise in the world, so much uproar—on TV, online, in schools, churches, politics. But where in all that noise do we find something to nurture the heart?
As T.S. Eliot wrote:
“Where is the knowledge lost in information? Where is the wisdom lost in knowledge?…Not here. There’s not enough silence.”
Maybe what we need is not more noise…but more silence. More quiet awareness.
Maybe the choice we face is this: to be in the world as one who is merely adding to the noise…or to be one who listens attentively…listening quietly to his or her own life…listening carefully to others…listening for what truly matters in life.
“Each and every man [person] on the foundation of his own suffering and joys builds for all.”
I think Camus is suggesting that the quiet, thoughtful listeners are the ones best equipped to stir up life and hope in themselves and others. And that your quiet quest to be alive and aware adds something significant to the world. As poet Mary Oliver wrote:
“It is a serious thing to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world.”
How do we get access to the wisdom we need in life?
Read a lot of books? Frown and use big words? Make important pronouncements on the issues of the day? Adopt a serious, pensive attitude and perhaps grow a beard?
Thoreau suggests a different approach:
“Not by constraint or severity shall you have access to wisdom, but by abandonment and childlike mirthfulness.”
Here’s what I get from his words:
This is the wisdom of turning loose…of getting over ourselves and getting out of our own way…of pouring ourselves completely into the projects and relationships and even the problems that come our way.
It’s the wisdom of living and working all-out instead of half-way. It’s the wisdom of giving and loving and forgiving freely instead of holding back…for the more we give, the more we get back.
And then there’s the wisdom of…
This is the wisdom of keeping our inner child alive…of learning to laugh and be playful… of living in the present.
I took my three-year-old granddaughter out to get french fries, which she loves. As we sat there enjoying them, she suddenly announced, “This is the best day of my life!”
I asked, “Iris, why is this the best day of your life?”
She said, as if it was obvious, “Because it’s today.”
Pretty wise, isn’t it?