I've a particular weakness for books of aphorisms. I'm never quite sure that holy ideas can be expressed in more than a witty line or two, so I prefer to cut straight to the pithy chase. The alternative approach rather daunts me. Last night, in an airport motel, I began to read the Gideon Bible placed in the little pull out night-stand drawer. As I began to close the volume, I noticed in the back cover that someone wrote a question in cursive ink. The question read "Jesus died for your sins, can't you just live for Him?". Apparently, the author felt that having 63 books of scripture, spanning topics ranging from personal salvation to the number of cubits for which the great temple should be built, was inadequate instructional material. Instead, the aphorist "cut to the chase" with a Madison Avenue worthy phrase. This is the problem, of course, with holy writ--it's just so tempting to provide additional commentary.
The "Dale Carnegie's Scrapbook" aphorism book I bought at a rummage sale for fifty cents contains a dedication from a Dale Carnegie class (who all signed in 1977 in ink, which, unlike blood, tends to weather the years) in honor of the donee's talk in a class. The many sayings in the book are inspirational, and no doubt will serve as quotables for me for some time to come. Because Mr. Carnegie was a "new thought" kind of guy, positive thinking and happiness and living in the moment loom large among the quotes. A lot of these quotes tend to revolve around the theme of being happy with what one has got.
I wonder about this happiness/contentment thing. I'm one of those people who tends to be "hard-wired" for day to day contentment. I'm not saying I'm always happy--Heaven knows that I suffer the deep depression from time to time. In general, though, I'm blessed with an equilibrium of mood. I also find that I tend to accept the situation I'm in, even to the extent that it fails to match my fondest dreams. In part, this is because I try to refuse to fall into the paralysis that I'm stuck and nothing can change. But in part, I think that I defer dreams and accept lesser portions with the best of them.
I think that reading an endless array of quotes about learning to find happiness within onself made me wonder how much I accept less of myself in pursuit of "happiness". I have had a very lucky existence, overall. Still, I suppose, if I recounted here all my hardships, past and present, I suspect I have had my share, take it all around. But I think that it's a fine line--the difference between noble self-acceptance and merely settling for less.
I will graze the problem of "what is less?". Is less money "less"? Is less notice or adulation "less"? I remember the poem/aphorism in which the narrator prays for the strength to be unheard. So many of the goals in life can be seen as sham, if one is self-denigratory enough.
I think that most folks know "you can't have it all", but a lot of folks feel that "well, fine, but couldn't I have at least some of it?". But it's so tempting to aim so high. I'm thinking of a young teen I met who aims for a full scholarship to NYU even at this tender age. I think it's wonderful to aim high, and look ahead. But I also meet kids who feel cheated in life if they "only" got into a top institution and not a top of the top institution. I remember in high school, kids with high grades but low SATs who felt "cheated" because they merely got four year scholarships to very good places instead of to top places. In more recent times, I read kids unsure what a tort is lamenting that they "only" got into one of the nation's top 20 law schools instead of one of the top 5.
I similarly know of kids who got that top 10 law degree, that 120,000 dollar job, and followed the form book to the last page, only to find that (surprise, surprise), when people want to pay one huge sums of money, they wish to recoup those sums, and they don't worry much about working one to a frazzle to do so.
I remember that curious movie "The Big Chill" (Heaven knows I should, as I somewhat inexplicably saw it in the theater some 7 times when it came out), in which a minister gives a funeral sermon about lost hope and implores the mourners with words to the effect of 'when did it stop being enough to just live a good life'. In the movie, one theme explored was the striving of the late 60s/early 70s counterculture boomers (writ big-studio large, but that's another topic) to break out of the molds, and the way in which the mold proved stronger than their convictions. But I think that the question of "right living" still comes in here someplace.
It's almost trite to say "my late grandfather meant so much to me about what was good and true in life", but, in fact, my late grandfather did mean so much to me about what was good and true in life. He dropped out of school at 17 when his father died of tuberculosis, foregoing his top standing in his high school class to work to support his family. He never made any real money, as he rose through the ranks to become a railroad cross-tie purchaser, but he saved the bit he did make and bought timber with it. He ran for political office once, for small town city council, and was defeated so soundly it made me wonder why he ran at all. He was an active Methodist, who sometimes travelled to remote rural churches as a "fill-in" lay minister. I once heard him preach a sermon in the middle of nowhere, where he took as his "theme" the old time hymn "give me that old time religion, it's good enough for me". But in general, he was no more apt to discuss religion or his personal sanctity than to discuss hidden nebulae. He had a kind word for most everyone, and tended to have that gift of gab I entirely lack, without being nearly as chatty as I am at my nervous worst.
For my grandfather, being a "good man" was enough. He remained devoted to his wife and kids, a good man of business, a good churchman, and a life-long Rotarian. My grandfather never got a college degree, or wrote a novel, or made a great discovery, or accomplished anything for which he will be remembered by anyone other than his family.
I'm sometimes torn by the conflicting ideas. On the one hand, "settling for less" is a bad thing. On the other hand,
"striving for glory" has its egotistical side. Maybe "greed is good", as the movie character Gordon Gekko suggested. But I don't know. I certainly love to see people act on their daydreams. But I also feel so much for people who feel that paralysis when their daydreams seem unachievable, and all the things they have accomplished in life seem like dross. But, really, what can one ever accoplish that matters other than a little love and perhaps a bit of insight? I'm not sure--I have not been able to get these knots untied.
I think that there's some Tao of the life well compromised. I don't know how to define it, which is appropriate, I suppose, to a Tao. On the one hand, I love that Michael McClure bit about how all forms of life half-lived are "suicide". On the other hand, I'm convinced that happiness lies entirely within, and that while externals can help with comfort, they do not really make for happiness. With my third (of six Shiva hands) hand, I wonder if
it's not all a balancing act--and that balance is more precious than anything.