Guest post by Landon Saunders
There is a wonderful story about Samuel Johnson, a famous British lexicographer from the 1700’s. He was a very large man, and, as the story goes, after he had become quite well-known, he decided to visit the house where he grew up.
The woman who now lived in it was excited about the famous Dr. Johnson coming and paying a visit to the house. But while she was getting everything tidied up and ready, she happened to look out the window and there, having stepped back several paces from the high fence surrounding the house, was Dr. Johnson—obviously sizing up the distance between where he was and the height of that fence.
Before she could do anything, the great Samuel Johnson, maybe 60 years old, started hurdling his large frame toward that fence. He took a huge leap and made it up over the fence but then went rolling in the dirt on the other side. She went running out and said “Oh, Dr. Johnson, Dr. Johnson, there was a gate over there.” He said, “Dear lady, I know there was a gate over there, but as a boy I used to jump that fence, and I just wondered if I still could.”
I suppose that’s what you would call exuberance for life! We need that exuberance, don’t we? We especially need it during these times when there are so many important and serious things that are clamoring for our attention—things that need our attention.
It can be tempting to trivialize and disregard the importance of exuberance, to see it as not worthy of our time in the face of so many other serious issues. But exuberance for life is not a luxury; it is a necessity if we want to approach any of the challenges of our world today with creativity, compassion, and humanity.
Make exuberance a priority in every day. I truly believe it is the force of life. Maybe this week, you can find your own fences to jump.
As you know, this blog is about finding teachers who guide and inspire us—whoever they are. Today’s teacher is Charles Cook, an Army veteran and former conductor for the New York City subway system; he passed away on August 19 at 79.
When the planes hit the World Trade Center towers on Sept 11, 2001, Charles was a 60-year-old retiree living in Harlem. He pulled on his work clothes, said goodbye to his wife, and headed downtown. Ground zero was nearly ten miles from his home and all public transportation was shut down. So he walked.
When he arrived, he was put to work, digging through the rubble by hand in search of people who might still be alive. With hundreds of other volunteers, he spent a total of three months at ground zero, sleeping on the floor of a nearby Brooks Brothers store.
In 2005, that experience inspired Charles to volunteer in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina left the city in ruins.
At ground zero, he was told that, “if you was down there in the first two to three weeks, it cuts your life expectancy off about five to 15 years,” he said in an interview in 2015. “But I don’t regret that,” he added. “You come in this world to go. It’s a matter of how you go. Do you make a difference, was your life meaningful?”
When Charles headed for New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, he told the filmmakers: “I wasn’t really doing anything with my time. But now I have a purpose, you know. When I’m helping someone, I have purpose.”
I like to think about Charles making that ten-mile walk down through Manhattan, with thousands fleeing in the other direction. What was he thinking? A couple of things strike me about that story.
First, it’s a good kick in the behind. I confess, it’s easy to look around at all the problems in the world and think, “Why doesn’t someone do something?” But Charles thought: “I’m someone, I can do something.” He just got up and did what he could.
We can’t all volunteer at a big disaster. But we can all do something.
Second, Charles got something from that experience that money can’t buy—something that nurtured him on the inside, a deeper sense of purpose and a clearer perspective. So I leave you with his words:
“You come in this world to go. It’s a matter of how you go. Do you make a difference, was your life meaningful?”
[NOTE: This is a guest post by Landon Saunders.]
One of my favorite poems by Stephen Crane is about a man who had a wooden tongue. It goes like this:
There was a man with tongue of wood
Who essayed to sing,
And in truth it was lamentable.
But there was one who heard
The clip-clapper of this tongue of wood
And knew what the man
Wished to sing,
And with that the singer was content.
Being understood. Just to know that someone “knew what the man/Wished to sing.” What a transforming moment that can be. If only someone would listen, could hear us, could get beyond the inflection of our voice and the choice of our words…and understand!
Communicating can be hard work. Especially when it seems that every topic is a possible powder keg. Having a conversation can feel like we are navigating a minefield where one misstep—a misplaced word or a misunderstood phrase—and relationships are wounded, perhaps beyond repair.
But don’t give up! Keep trying to communicate with patience, compassion, and hope. There will be times that it will feel like no one understands what you’re trying to say. But, when that time comes, remember the vivid picture of the man with the wooden tongue, the one who understood him, and the peace that understanding brought. That peace is worth the work it takes to find it.
I think one thing we could use right now is a Silver Linings Playbook (to borrow from the title of the hit 2012 movie). We need strategies for finding the light that leaks out around the edges of the dark cloud we find ourselves under.
One who was especially skilled at finding light in darkness was Bill. W., a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In his book, As Bill Sees It, Bill talked about why A. A. was so successful at bringing real help and healing to struggling individuals around the world.
“Every aspect of this global unfoldment can be related to a single, critical word. The word is “communication.” There has been a life-saving communication among ourselves, with the world around us, and with God. From the beginning, communication in A.A. has been no ordinary transmission of helpful ideas and attitudes. Because of our kinship in suffering, and because our common means of deliverance are effective for ourselves only when commonly carried to others, our channels of contact have always been charged with the language of the heart.”
As a guest to A. A. meetings, I’ve been deeply impressed with the way members talk with each other. It does seem that they’ve found a new kind of language born of struggle, failure and pain. It’s a language that cuts through pretense, a language of honesty and authenticity, a language of humility and humanity and humor, a language of the real, of what essentially matters, a language of both deep acceptance of the way things are and hopefulness for growth, a language of vulnerability and daily victories.
As Bill mentioned, it’s a language beyond “ordinary transmission of helpful ideas and attitudes.” It’s a language beyond psycho-babble or pompous platitudes or philosophical pronouncements. It’s a language of the real. A language of the heart.
Could it be that these difficult times might help us become more fluent in the language of the heart?
We know the language of everyday routine. The language of the daily chatter of the media. The language of helpful advice. The language of the noise in our heads. But sometimes the words feel empty. Sometimes they even turn to ashes in our mouths.
And sometimes, we sense the need for a deeper, more authentic language. A language beyond games and mere noise. A language that helps us tell it like it is with us. A language that lets us look each other in the eye and talk from the heart once in a while. A language that lets us say something that matters once in a while.
How do we become more fluent in the language of the heart? Paradoxically, we might start with the place where language stops—the place of silence. The poet T. S. Eliot said:
“Where can the word be found? Where can the word resound? Not here. There is not enough silence.”
Eliot is talking about how difficult it can be to find a word that connects deeply.
Maybe finding this word and learning the language of the heart begins with getting over the noise, over the busyness, over the fear of silence.
Maybe it starts with quieting our minds, embracing the silence, getting comfortable with it, allowing solitude to become a warm, friendly, welcoming place.
And from there, we move to the silence of true, deep listening and genuine presence—the most precious gift we can give others in our lives.
Maybe silence can help us find those silver linings.
Maybe silence is not the enemy of language after all. Maybe it’s one of our best teachers.
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