The basis of optimism

Grammarly shared this on Facebook, on 24 January 2015

Grammarly shared this meme on Facebook, on 24 January 2015

The reason we all like to think so well of others is that we are all afraid of ourselves. The basis of optimism is sheer terror. (The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde)

“Oscar! I don’t get it. Please explain!” That was my reaction when I recently encountered again these words, spoken by Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s famous novel. But with time to think, I’ve come to the conclusion that I really don’t do optimism. I’d say I’m a realist. Life is tough enough without setting myself up for disappointment.

You know the old saying referred to in the Grammarly meme: an optimist sees the glass as half full whilst a pessimist considers it half empty. I don’t think that’s the kind of optimism Wilde had in mind: his words (in the mouth of Lord Henry) align optimism with something akin to hope − but a hope predicated on a terrifyingly low self-esteem.

For many of us, optimism is about making the best of a bad situation – it is what we opt for when our circumstances are far from optimal. But hoping for the best is tantamount to fearing the worst. That’s why the words “think positive” so often jar with me: they invariably send the signal, “There’s something wrong here” … or, “They won’t like me” … or, “I’m not good enough”.

“Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed,” was, according to Alexander Pope, the ninth Beatitude (see note below).

All too few of us can meet every situation with equanimity – acknowledging feelings, but not involving them in the decision-making process. So now I’m pondering what Marianne Williamson means when she declares:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

Feeling insecure is hardly unusual among human beings. We’re generally not so much scared of other people, per se, as afraid of not fitting in. But, as Williamson explains, “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

On the other hand, St Paul warns his readers “not to have exaggerated ideas about your own importance. Instead, develop a sober estimate of yourself based on the standard which God has given to each of you, namely, trust” (Romans 12:3, Complete Jewish Bible).

That word, trust, is akin to confidence. And confidence seems to work, even when it’s a con. Coco Chanel put it well: “Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”

But, as is so often the case, it is to Lao-Tzu we can turn to sum it all up for us: “Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.”

 


NOTES:

Read the Wikipedia article about The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

Alexander Pope (in collaboration with John Gay) wrote his “Blessed is he …” in a letter to William Fortescue (23 September 1725), declaring it “the ninth Beatitude which a man of wit (who, like a man of wit, was a long time in gaol) added to the eighth.” (Wikiquote)

Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) Copyright © 1998 by David H Stern. All rights reserved.

The Coco Chanel quote appears in Believing in Ourselves: The Wisdom of Women by Armand Eisen (editor).

Williamson, Marianne. 1992. A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. New York: Harper Collins. [Chapter 7, Section 3 (p190-191)]

Note About Nelson Mandela: The quote from Marianne Williamson is often found on the Internet incorrectly credited as being from Nelson Mandela’s Inauguration Speech, 1994, especially the last sentence, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

On Good Friday

Stations of the Cross #5, "Simon of Cyrene carries the cross", Notre-Dame Basilica, Geneva.

Stations of the Cross #5, “Simon of Cyrene carries the cross”, Notre-Dame Basilica, Geneva.

On Good Friday I sat in church, watching and listening as most of the congregation followed the priest around the fourteen Stations of the Cross. The woman with the walking-frame, stoically devout, completed the circuit with the others, while her white-muzzled black dog hobbled back and forth up and down the nave, stopping to receive attention from some of those who, like me, had remained in their pews.

Meditations translated from the words of French poet Paul Claudel were spoken gently by a man known for his work as a broadcaster. Between the meditations, periods of silence were terminated by spells of difficult and discordant organ music – some strident, some morose – which I could have done without.

I had earlier told the woman who had welcomed me that my parents had been married in this church, and that I had been baptized here.

I will return to St Peter’s on Willis on Easter Day, looking forward to the Eucharistic ritual I have not shared in since Midnight Mass at Wellington Cathedral on Christmas Eve.

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The tradition of moving around the Stations to commemorate the Passion of Christ began with St. Francis of Assisi and extended throughout the Roman Catholic Church in the medieval period. It is also observed in Lutheranism and Anglo-Catholicism. It is most commonly done during Lent, especially on Good Friday (from Wikipedia: Stations of the Cross).

Wikimedia Commons includes a page with links to images of twelve of the fourteen Stations of the Cross by sculptor Jean-Bernard Duseigneur. (This page gives his name as Jean-Baptiste Du Seigneur, and he is elsewhere known as Jehan Duseigneur; eg, on Paris Sculptures.) Born in Paris in 1808, Duseigneur studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, and in 1831 achieved renown when he exhibited Roland Furieux, often regarded as the first romantic sculpture (now in the Louvre). Soon afterwards he turned almost exclusively to the production of religious works (adapted from a brief article in Wikipedia).

PS – Easter Day: The old black dog, Emma, was there again today; she, like the other “regulars”, was wearing her name-tag. 

 

Giving up the past

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

A little piece I wrote back in 2010 – Sanitation? … or sanitization? – has been receiving a bit of attention from blog-readers in recent times, so I took another look at it myself … and it seems quite an appropriate topic for the season of Lent (which began last Wednesday (05 March).

Responding to a comment on the original post, I explained that “The between-the-lines inferences and implications of my post [had] to do, on the one hand, with destroying incriminating evidence, hiding my inner life … and, on the other hand, with holding on to mementos and souvenirs, and maintaining a record of things I [wanted] to remember.”

A bit cryptic – to say the least.

In the original post, I quoted something from A. Whitney Brown: “The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down.” (A. Whitney Brown, in The Big Picture)

What I didn’t make clear, in that 2010 post, is that what happened in the past is still in the past – nothing of the event itself is actually happening now. In effect, all that’s happening now is that a voice in my head is reading aloud what got written down in the past, and maybe reminding me about the wrong I have done and the good I have not done … and maybe I’m cringing, feeling guilty.

An act of contrition is one thing; getting rid of the rubbish is another. But this is not a lenten sermon, so back to the crux of the matter: “Giving up the past”.

In my experience, the inclination to clutter is often the outcome of either of two impulses: at one extreme is the Proustian urge to document everything (see note 1 below); at the other end of the scale, I hang on to things I cannot find the inner resources to attend to, process, or deal with.

Of late, I’ve been managing pretty much all the day-to-day chores and commitments, but there is a persistent residue that is harder to shift. A high percentage of that stuff still clutters my living-space; the remainder clutters my mind and my heart. The physical clutter is the manifestation of inner states, and its persistence is invariably anchored in the past.

The prophet Isaiah – who, by the way, had some worthwhile things to say about fasting and repentance (see Note 2 below) – said: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” (Isaiah 43:18, NIV). Whilst digging around on the interweb, I found a nice paraphrase: “When your past calls, let it go to voice-mail. It has nothing new to say.”

So I have plenty of work to do – giving up my past, and putting out the psychological and emotional trash.
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NOTES:

1/ Proust, who claims to have no memory, keeps track of everything. His letters (there are several thousand) provide a running inventory of his bodily functions – letters to his mother providing an update of his respiratory condition, letters to his doctor listing the details of his menu, little notes handed to his housekeeper every morning reporting the number of times he coughed the night before. (Rebecca Comay, in Proust’s Remains)  

2/ The symbolism of the familiar Ash Wednesday ritual – a cross smeared on the forehead using the ashes of palms gathered up after the Palm Sunday procession – connects back to repentance practices in Old Testament times – see Isaiah 58, for example. 

This curious world

……………….“… to wake is to lift up
Again on one’s shoulders this curious world

Whose secret cannot be known by any of us
Until we enter Te Whiro’s kingdom.”

(from Autumn Testament by James K Baxter) 

Generally speaking, I’m a tolerant and compassionate person – it takes a lot to make me mad. But Thursday was an exception. My tolerance was decidedly out of order, and my compassion … who knows what happened to that?

Atlas sculpture on Collins Street, Melbourne

Atlas sculpture on Collins Street, Melbourne

Incipient civil war in Egypt, neurotoxins in Syria, anti-gay laws in Russia, gun-crazed killers in American schools, contaminated baby formula in China, beggars on our streets, cruelty to animals … a never-ending story of inhumanity and misery and fear. And the painkillers I’d taken seemed to be doing me no good.

“There is no mystery so great as misery,” Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince declares. And he’s pointing to a transcendent truth.

All the great religions attempt to tackle the problem of suffering – in a variety of ways. Humanists, rationalists, and atheists too, all find themselves facing the same sorts of questions – because, of course, we all live in the same world.

In the Buddha’s words: “Suffering I teach and the way out of suffering.” (See The Buddhist Society web-site)

In a blog calling itself Wild Mind, Sunada Takagi explains that “The Buddha’s teaching on suffering is that we need to accept the things we can’t control, such as loss, sickness, aging, and death. But for things we can affect, he advised that we change our conditions so that they’re more conducive to our happiness and spiritual growth.”

Islam exhorts the faithful to endure suffering with hope and faith. They are not expected to resist it, or to ask why. Instead, they are taught to accept it as God’s will and live through it with faith that God never asks more of them than they can endure. However, Islam also teaches the faithful to work actively to alleviate the suffering of others. Recognizing that they are the cause of their own suffering, individuals work to bring suffering to an end. (Patheos Library, adapted)

Jesus, according to St John, said: “I have spoken these things to you so that you shall have peace in me. You shall have suffering in the world, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33; Aramaic Bible in Plain English)

Baxter’s reference to “this curious world” calls to mind the words of Henry David Thoreau: “This curious world we inhabit is more wonderful than convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used.” And, like Thoreau, Baxter draws his reader’s attention to the inevitable and inescapable burden of human responsibility, human caring, human accountability: “to wake is to lift up / Again on one’s shoulders this curious world …”

I didn’t get swamped by my grumpiness. Neither did I grant it permission to assault anyone else. In the end, I simply had to lighten up and get over myself.

And (remember) when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am creating a mortal out of potter’s clay of black mud altered, (Qur’an 15:28, translated by M M Pickthall)

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NOTES:

1/ Baxter, James Keir; Millar, Paul (editor). 2001. James K Baxter : New Selected Poems. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press.
…….
— The passage from poem 7 in Autumn Testament is on page 141. 

2/ “Te Whiro’s kingdom” – According to Te Ara / The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Māori saw themselves as guardians of the earth, and the focus of their existence was to remain at one with the natural (and supernatural) world. Rather than a medical problem, sickness was often viewed as a symptom of disharmony with nature.” In a section dealing with the medicinal use of plants, Te Ara describes the god Whiro as  “a personified form of sickness, disease and death. Māori believed that sickness and disease often had spiritual roots.” 

3/ In Greek mythology, Atlas was the primordial Titan who held up the celestial sphere. He is also the titan of astronomy and navigation. (Wikipedia, adapted)

4/ The first publisher to associate the Titan Atlas with a group of maps was the print-seller Antonio Lafreri, on the engraved title-page he applied to his ad hoc assemblages of maps, Tavole Moderne Di Geografia De La Maggior Parte Del Mondo Di Diversi Autori (1572). (Wikipedia, adapted) 

5/ It has been suggested that Jesus was a Buddhist: see thezensite. But “Buddhism and Christianity have inherent and fundamental differences at the deepest levels.” (Wikipedia)

Culture of encounter – the foundation of peace

Pope Francis with dove

Pope Francis

“Doing good” is a principle that unites all humanity, beyond the diversity of ideologies and religions, and creates the “culture of encounter” that is the foundation of peace: this is what Pope Francis said at Mass this morning at the Domus Santae Martae …” (Vatican Radio, 22 May 2013)

“In a message delivered Wednesday via Vatican Radio, the new pontiff distinguished himself with a call for tolerance and a message of support – and even admiration – toward nonbelievers.” (Salon, 24 May 2013)

The pope spoke of the need to meet each other somewhere on our on common ground. “Pope Francis … stated that it doesn’t matter if people are non-believers as long as ‘we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good.'” (Free Your Mind and Think (24 May 2013))

But doing good, according to Francis, is not a matter of faith. On 16 March this year, the new pontiff told journalists he was “inspired to take the 11th-century saint’s name because he was ‘the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,’ the same created world ‘with which we don’t have such a good relationship.'” (Catholic News Service) For Francis, doing good clearly means tackling the world’s problems.

“This commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace,” Francis explains. The story in Salon calls the pope’s words “a deeper affirmation of his comments back in March, when he declared that the faithful and atheists can be ‘precious allies … to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation.'” (Salon, 24 May 2013)

The words of the Dalai Lama come to mind here: “Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.”

Predictably, Pope Francis’ call to “do good” has met with a wide range of responses. One comment on Facebook was quick to remind us that “he still condemns same-sex marriage, last I heard.” Other comments accuse the Roman Catholic Church of “protecting pedophile priests”.

On and on it goes.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. (Rūmī)

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. (Rūmī)

Michael Schultheiß / Schultze / Praetorius

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Born on 15 February 1571, Creuzburg an der Werra, Michael Praetorius died in Wolfenbüttel on his 50th birthday, 15 February 1621.

According to Wikipedia, he was born Michael Schultze, the youngest son of a Lutheran pastor, in Creuzburg, in present-day Thuringia. The CyberHymnal says his real name was Michael Schultheiß (German for ‘mayor’, which in La­tin is ‘Praetorius’).

Wikipedia adds: “His family name in German appears in various forms including Schultze, Schulte, Schultheiss, Schulz and Schulteis. Praetorius was the conventional Latinized form of this family name.”

The Dances from Terpsichore, a compendium of over 300 instrumental dances, is his most widely-known work – and, regrettably, his sole surviving secular work. His harmonization of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming) – written by Praetorius in 1609 – is a particular favourite.

From your Valentine

Antique Valentine (1909)

Antique Valentine (1909)

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I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street.

(WH Auden, in As I Walked Out One Evening, 1935)

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Saint Valentine’s Day – also known as the Feast of Saint Valentine – is an official feast day in the Anglican Communion, as well as in the Lutheran Church.

At last count, there were as many as three saints named Valentinus associated with 14 February, and up to eleven commemorated by the Roman Catholic Church on various days. But in the 1969 revision of the Calendar of Saints, the feast day of Saint Valentine was removed from the General Roman Calendar and relegated to local and regional calendars. (adapted from Wikipedia)

The Wikipedia article also explains that “The day was first associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished. By the 15th century, it had evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards (known as valentines).”

With Lent falling so early this year (Ash Wednesday yesterday), roses and chocolate might seem frivolously at odds with spiritual practice – but the florists and confectioners are counting on the commercialisation of courtly love.

In spiritual practice all religions are connected


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If you examine the great religions of the world, you can discern philosophical and metaphysical views, on the one hand, and daily spiritual practice, on the other. Although the philosophical views differ and sometimes contradict each other, in spiritual practice all religions are connected. They all recommend inner transformation of our stream of consciousness, which will make us better, more devout people. (His Holiness The Dalai Lama)

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree

Christmas tree (21 Dec 2012)

Christmas tree (21 Dec 2012)

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Not quite the tannenbaum of the German carol, my bamboo Christmas tree (made in the Philippines) is decorated with plaster cherubs, European cut glass baubles, a wooden ball from an Armenian friend, a glittering dragonfly … and plastic fronds of silver fern.

Oh! and the flashing lights came from a little Chinese shop that also offered shoulder massage and a bewildering assortment of novelty telephones.

I admit that, technically, the image is not quite up to scratch, but the mood is right, so I’m posting it anyway.

You might have worked out that I’ve cheated with the time-stamp on this post; I had intended posting on Christmas Day but had little opportunity to write.

Christmas gift suggestions: To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect. (Oren Arnold

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O Tannenbaum (“O Fir Tree”) is a German song. Based on a traditional folk song, it became associated with the Christmas tree by the early 20th century and sung as a Christmas carol. It is known in English as “O Christmas Tree”. (Wikipedia)

Summer ends now

… up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

(Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hurrahing in Harvest (Vale of Clwyd, Sept. 1, 1877)

The first day of March. The Hopkins quote seems inescapably apt. “Summer ends now,” it begins.

No photograph today. The images in the sonnet are vivid enough.

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“The Hurrahing sonnet,” noted Hopkins in a letter, “was the outcome of half an hour of extreme enthusiasm as I walked home alone one day from fishing in the Elwy.”