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I was recently pondering an anecdote I heard years ago (forgive me this lapse of memory in not recalling the names of the persons involved, or the author who first recorded the events herein) about two writers who lived in ancient Greece. They were each champions of two quite different systems of writing. From an early satirization by one of the other’s work, to a build-up of what might be called flaming today, they each participated in a quite public feud concerning the finer points of each other’s methodology. This continued on for decades, into the twilight of these men’s old age. Then one died, and quite unexpectedly the other offered to write the former’s eulogy. Therein the living man proclaimed –

“Though the vitriol in our words to each other might lead the public to believe there was deep animosity between this sage and I, even yet, I would shout from the rooftops “I loved this man”. For without him where would I have found the flint upon which to sharpen my wit? Without him where would I have found the voice with which I speak? And I like to think that I am not alone in this regard. You see, often as not in these later days, whenever we passed each other on a busy street, I noticed a twinkle in his eye when he recognized me. We would nod to each other in a way that, I imagine, was a recognition of the fact that two knives sharpen each other.”

Perhaps a certain aspect of human nature leads us to believe that in a perfect world we would live our lives free of adversity. That in utopia on earth, we would dream and our desires become manifest. We would float from day to day in a timeless idyllic space and know no loss, no risk, no challenge. We would open our mouths and, effortlessly, our ideas would fall with perfect clarity upon lovingly open ears and there would be no need to comment on these words aside from “yes”, because each thought would be so true, whole and brilliantly rendered.

Yet our bodies decry a different function. They do not float. They cleave to the earth, bound by stubborn gravity. Without the labor of speech or gestures, our thoughts remain encapsulated in our bony craniums. We must work for food and shelter, even in a first class modern world where everything seems to come so much more easily. And what if we do not make an effort? What of Lords and Kings? Nature seems to have a devious plan to root out laziness from amongst us. When we are free from toil our muscles wither (even the mental one), we grow fat, and we become prone to disease. We die off far more quickly than we would in a world full of difficulty. As the ubiquitous saying goes, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” It seems that this would include the vacuum created by a physical paradise, a dreamy future free from labor.

There is a secondary psychological oddity in us humans. In our self-righteous indignation at this never-ending burden of exertion, we look for others to blame. Perhaps we are too sophisticated to blame a group – Jews, Men, Conservatives, Stand-up Comedians, The Media, Aliens. Perhaps we place a single face on our monsters naming them mother, father, the boss at work, the idiot critic in the morning paper, the difficult child, the first man, the first woman, the Devil or God, himself.

Yet in blame we fail to see how these difficulties, these drudgeries both past and future, define our selves.

Camus touched on this in his dissertation on the myth of Sisyphus. For those of you not familiar with the myth, Sisyphus was condemned to push a large boulder up a hill, then watch it fall back to the bottom, and then repeat the process, again and again, for all eternity. Camus pondered – what if Sisyphus seized on this endless task and owned it? What if he used it as a measurement of himself and relished the work despite its pointlessness? Then there would be joy in that labor, and more joy in the idle moments of relief walking back down that hill, fully aware of his hands, limbs, feet, the lightness of air through which they move, the ease of walking down a graded slope.

Then there is something deeper. The Buddhist’s say – never claim, “He beat me, he lied to me, he robbed me.” But rather, say – “I allowed myself to be beaten. I allowed myself to be deceived. I gave my wallet back to the universe.” This may sound like a dangerous dictum in a world focused on justice and retribution. Yet this tenet is not intended as the foundation for a legal system. It’s intended as a reminder to the individual that there is a way to perceive usefulness in every crises, every loss and still maintain an orientation to the larger world around us, not stuck on this or that past irritation which bothers us still.

What if there were another construct? What if we could imagine that prior to this life we had a brief tete-tete with God (however you picture him or her or they or it) and filled out some contracts.

God, seated at a desk filled with paperwork might shuffle through your personal contract and say: “I see you’ll be born, tomorrow. Ah, a girl, at that. Always nice to meet someone who relishes a challenge. Well, that’s true, not as challenging these days. So I see you’ve filled in all the necessary forms. Yes, yes. Overall goal: to develop the will to speak in the midst of adversity, chiefly within the form of the written word. Good. First Obstacle: deeply religious parents with whose opinions you clash, and in that clashing define the boundaries of your will, determination, and resiliency. Ah, so you’ve got a sense of humor, eh? Or did you think I wouldn’t read this? (laughing) No, no, it’s fine. Where was I… Second Obstacle: a less than perfect sense of social norms, which drives you to drinking until and when you finally confront your tendency towards escapism. Sounds familiar. Third Obstacle: atrocious choices in matters of the heart. Now there’s a popular item. Fourth Obstacle: a certain lack of ambition, coupled with a crippling inability to make firm decisions based on a tendency to over-examine everything. Hmm-hmm. Hmm-hmm. Sounds as though you’re being a little hard on yourself in advance. What’s that? You’re right; I’ll grant you that you’re not exactly setting out to be Joan of Arc. I just don’t see why all you newborns feel the need to begin in such a state of isolation these days. Challenges of loneliness, difficulty in connecting with others. No, no, there’s no need to explain, I’ve heard it several billion times – quite literally, actually. Well, everything seems to be in order. Just initial here and here. Sign here. Initial, initial. Sign and date. We’re done! Happy birthday in advance and good luck. Why, thank you, and yes, I will keep in touch. Just listen for me in the wind. Next!”

There is a lesser-known Beat writer named John Clellon Holmes, who published a book entitled “GO!”. In that book he describes an incident which occurs between the then unknown Allen Ginsburg and a popular hanger-on named Thor (so named for an unusual pastime of plucking radio antennas off car hoods and then walking down the street with a bunch of them in his hands – which from a distance, did strikingly resemble the god of thunder with a fistful of lightning rods). At a small party, Ginsburg suddenly bursts into the room with a big clutch of wilted daisies in his white knuckled fist. “I’ve had a revelation!” he cries. Then rushes up on the startled Thor and drops to his knees before him. “Thor, you’re my monster. I just realized today how significant that is. As a token of my affection for your monstrous ways, I’d like to offer you these.” He offers the flowers which the startled Thor accepts, somewhat awkwardly. The young tough examines them for a moment, a blank expression on his face, sniffs them, then silently drops them on a nearby table otherwise filled with empty glasses and over-flowing ashtrays. Ginsburg looks dejected for a moment, and then stands up quickly, “Well, still, something to think about. Bye.”

I’m not proposing that it would be a prudent idea to throw out the law, or to stand idly by with a goofy grin while injustices occur. What I am suggesting is that given the choice between letting pain/ frustration own you, or you owning your own pain/ frustration, isn’t the latter the wiser of the two? And in taking possession of that pain along with all the other elements of this life, from beginning to end, to look for the work of which you are capable, to rally to the quest, to greet each boulder as the toil which tests you, each glass of spilled milk as the chore which justifies this body, each proffered blade as the surface against which you may yet achieve sharpness….

And finally to greet each monster along life’s way (father, mother, carping critic, difficult child, Devil or God) with a raised glass and a brazen salute, defiantly shouting,

“Le Kiem!” (To Life!)





------
"All the darkness in the world
cannot put out the light
of one candle"



Comments

The following comments are for "The Value of Adversity"
by hazelfaern

What Happened?
I'm intrigued by the absolute lack of response on this. What happened? Was the title bad? Was the opening lame? Was the length prohibitive? C'mon, you can tell me. I'm all ears.

( Posted by: hazelfaern [Member] On: March 3, 2004 )

Greek Vaccums, Pen
Actually, it strikes me that if what I'm writing is too dense for a broad spectrum of readers to get through, that I'm not doing a very good job as a writer.

I'll admit that it's grating to slip into the control panel and see a low number of page views and more significantly, no ratings or comments, on a given piece. The reason I posted my question, though, was more out of a sense of curiosity -- 30 Second Logic and The State of Poetry each got significantly higher response rates. If they're posted in the same area, what creates the divergent reaction here? Is it a matter of titling? Is the word "value" too loaded for contemplation?

Based on your comment, I'm going to surmise that I dipped into too abstract a field with this entry, and probably should have seriously cut down on it's length.

Out of curiosity, why'd you title your comment "Greek, in name only"? Was it all Greek to you? Just the title? Or something else, entirely?

( Posted by: hazelfaern [Member] On: March 6, 2004 )

Specifics
Thanks, Pen. Actually, I can see the Greek connection now. Ok.

Actually, I kept this a little abstract because of some of the furor caused by The State of Poetry. See, I made the unforgivable gaffe, there, of invoking a members work in a rant in which I jumped all up and down over standards. So, I was writing this -- mostly prompted by a lot of bitter comment making on the site -- and thought, why not keep it abstract? My point still works.

I was hoping to convey this other option. So people make sharp and critical comments about your work. Ok. Use it, you don't have to fight it. If the comments are wholly unjustified and pointless, then maybe on one hand you've thought a little more about your personal philosophy. Or maybe, on the other hand, it may spark you to prove your philosphy's value by writing sharper stuff. Either way, there's value in finding an honest critic and working through the difficult stuff. Maybe more than simply getting a written pat on the back every time you post something.

Or maybe I'm just a crazy masochist.

At any rate, I think I'm going to rate this a 5, for satisfactory writing that nevertheless totally fails to succeed in conveying it's point.

( Posted by: hazelfaern [Member] On: March 6, 2004 )

took some time to think about it
I believe the reason you didn't get much feedback on this was that it made most of your readers do a fair amount of thinking. After thinking, they found that they agreed with you, and found themselves with nothing more to say.

Quote:
Buddhist’s say – never claim, “He beat me, he lied to me, he robbed me.” But rather, say – “I allowed myself to be beaten. I allowed myself to be deceived. I gave my wallet back to the universe.”


I'm familiar with this passage in the Dammapada, and it's not exactly what Gotama said. He said:

Quote:
"he beat me, he lied to me, he robbed me" for those who harbor such thoughts, there is no relief; for those who do not harbor such thoughts, there is peace.



The idea

Quote:
“I allowed myself to be beaten. I allowed myself to be deceived. I gave my wallet back to the universe.”


is your own extrapolation, and it suggests that being beaten, lied to and robbed is strictly a matter of personal will, a matter of whether you permitted it. The thought is Nietzschean, but not Buddhist: the Buddhist ideal is that stated by Bodhidharma, full submission to karma, not, as your passage suggests, struggling against it. This is what Jesus meant when he said "Do not resist evil."

That said, I particularly liked your imagined contract briefing with God, prior to birth. Charming and insightful.

As for owning your own pain; it's better to transcend it, by recognizing that all pain comes from failing to recognize the Whole. It leaves us with a temptation to self-pity, which robs us with self-importance.

The answer to "Why me?" is "Why not you?"

( Posted by: johnlibertus [Member] On: March 31, 2004 )

Really, johnlibertus?
I will baldly admit that I re-worded the last portion ("I gave my wallet back to the universe") of that quote to suit myself (a terrible habit, one should never quote from my quotes with certainty). But are you absolutely sure there's no way the rest of that second portion doesn't exist in some form? A schismatic sectarian translation? I'm reaching, aren't I?

Good grief, I'm mildly befuddled and embaressed. I did study Nietszche and Buddhism at the same time, so perhaps I just got my wires crossed in recollection.

And the whole of the essay was certainly not an invitation to *struggle against* (even the mangled Buddhist text) but an injunction that it is precisely that struggle, mental sticking, not seeing the Whole (as you say) which is so very bloody futile. And you must admit, karma is not considered to be completely random, is it? So an ownership of dharma and resultant pain might be more Hindu than Buddhist but, still, I think, not a far stretch in the final analysis.

All in all, I sincerely appreciate your comments, John. I'd quite given up on anyone really taking any insight out of this and your critique has quite refreshed my hope that in prose I'm not rambling on too abstractedly to be understood. Many gleeful thanks.

( Posted by: hazelfaern [Member] On: April 3, 2004 )





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