Archive for June, 2011

The Danger of Simple Advice in a Complex World

“You think too much,” a casual acquaintance once told me.  “You don’t think enough,” seethed the self-righteous voice inside my head, begging for a public airing.  How patronizing!  And what a cliché.  Don’t worry your pretty little head, he might as well have said, tossing out a chunk of banal dialogue cut from a bad Western. 

A lot of catch phrases floating around out there are cliché and trite, and when examined, not that helpful.  So here I go, thinking too much perhaps about a few seemingly benign snippets, like an 80’s phrase which I originally liked for its reassuring cheekiness.  It’s attributed to one Robert Eliot and falls under the heading Rules for Living Life:  “Rule number one is, don’t sweat the small stuff.  Rule number two is, it’s all small stuff.” 

The heck, you say.  In my experience, life is full of monumentally huge stuff, stuff that needs to be confronted with adult courage, not sloughed off with flippancy.  Friends battling cancer; children growing up in an amoral society; parents dealing with the challenges of advanced age.  These things can be faced with grace and confidence and faith, but they hardly constitute “small stuff.”  And they call for action, not disregard. 

Then there is the simple, upbeat adage falsely attributed to Irish lore, which admonishes us to “Live well, love much, laugh often.” While encouraging on the surface, as a directive it fits the topic at hand.  At its origin in the late 1800s, such a lilting sentiment may have salved weary spirits coping with unmanageable epidemics and iffy food supplies.  But stenciled onto contemporary T-shirts, and fully embraced as a philosophy of life by some of the more shallow among us, it seems a bit less innocuous.  

What does living well mean, anyway?  Seeking material comforts?  Wringing all the pleasure out of life that you can?  Grabbing for the gusto and avoiding gritty responsibilities?  After all, we are told daily that we are so worth every imaginable indulgence. 

“Life’s a banquet, Auntie Mame says in the Broadway play, “and most poor suckers are starving to death.”  Not in the society I see.  We are becoming a nation of complacent seekers of security and pleasure, willingly exploited by ambitious Big Brother politicos.  With one-sixth of the population on food stamps and 20 per cent of able males between the ages of 24 and 50 not getting up and going to work every day, the free-lunch feast is doomed to run out of provisions sooner rather than later.  These are problems not addressable with a bumper-sticker. 

What about loving much?  Does that imply a thoughtless heaving of oneself into fawning affection toward select others, or worse yet, allowing passion to supplant unselfish concern?  Spiritual love is what is required of us – and that’s not a Hollywood-style emotive reaction to attractive, sympathetic types, but a duty to open our hearts to the less-lovable, and treat them with respect and kindness.  No celebrity taping a public service announcement from the living room of their fully-staffed multimillion-dollar penthouse can undo the sleazy messages the entertainment industry beats into young skulls 24/7, but perhaps a counter-campaign in the form of a grass-roots uprising might. 

And for heaven’s sake, do laugh as often as you can, don’t get me wrong; it’s good for the body and the mind and the spirit.  Human and animal antics provide much fodder for gaiety, so that therapeutic outlet is at our fingertips daily; we can accept with gratitude every opportunity to boost our immune systems, release tension, increase blood flow, and share joy with others.  But let’s not ever forget the sober side of life that requires our ability to muster a substantial response when necessary.  

I worry about people who make a habit of looking the other way.  The guy who consistently faces daunting topics with a shrug and a chuckle, as if he were merely a member of the audience rather than an actor; the woman who is too busy dealing with daily demands to inform herself as a voter and chooses to follow her heart and her gut instead; or the person who can’t be part of a serious discussion, but is compelled always to distract with a joke.  When people turn away from heavy issues (think political corruption, spiritual hunger, and teenage pregnancy) because they can be distressing, we lose important brain power in the struggle to make things better.  An unexamined culture becomes a cesspool, as we can see and smell all around us.  Clean-up requires arduous effort – no droll matter, to be sure. 

I remember a poster I proudly displayed on my bedroom wall when I was smack dab in the middle of floundering through my early adult years.  It was a quote from the German philosopher, Goethe:  “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”  I thought it was pure brilliance.  Of course I had no idea how to go about learning to trust myself, nor did Herr Goethe offer any clues to this mystery. 

Seems to me that a girl has to know herself first, and knowing ourselves, how can we ever place trust in the utterly fallible natures we have discovered within us?  What does it even mean to trust one’s self, when passing up a chocolate éclair is nearly impossible and the urge to pocket the extra twenty the cashier mistakenly counted out, tempting.  Rationalizing truly is a skill perfected by the homo sapien psyche.  

Today the quote strikes me more as pure bunk than pure brilliance.  Trust yourself?  How about, trust your Creator?  Humankind without the laws of God, inscribed on hearts and prescribed through Scripture, is enslaved to selfish impulses and moral confusion.  That’s why civilized societies impose a system of laws and punishments to deter bad behavior. 

I wonder if I thought taking in Goethe’s words every night before I fell asleep would somehow bring  direction and understanding, and point me aright.  In reality, that poster did more to make me stumble  than to plant my feet on the straight and narrow path.  Thanks a lot, Johann Wolfgang. 

Then there is good old Dr. Seuss.  Who knew what a radical he really was, as we read his delightfully quirky rhythmic stanzas to little ones over the years?  “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind,” the rhyme-master is quoted as saying.     

Oh, did I live by that one, decade after decade of giving vent to petty impulses of thought, word and deed.  But what if, at a given moment, “who we are” is not our best self, not the person God meant for us to be?  Or, what if “what we feel” is tainted by disturbing life experiences, the effects of which we need to cleanse ourselves of, not spew out onto innocent bystanders?  And most strikingly, how do we correct our own errors in thinking if anyone who counters us “doesn’t matter”?  Growing up, for many of us, means holding our tongues, not unleashing them. 

Lighten up, I can hear that short-term visitor to my past life saying.  I am still, after all these years, ultra inquisitive and questioning and analytical.  We balance each other out, I suppose, those of us who are too much bent in my direction and those who blithely skip through a privileged existence ignoring issues of substance (can you say, “Paris Hilton”), freeing themselves up to focus on the fluff – do these pink stilettos match my Gucci bag?  Maybe that makes we extremists tolerable to the masses who fall into the “happy medium” category. 

But I tell myself that continuing to process – and over-process – everything I see and hear is palliative to the occasional  mental constipation that comes with both aging and an over abundance of information input.  Would it have been easier to be blithe in a pre-media-blitz era, when news of every tragedy,  every travesty against humanity, didn’t reach our ears and eyes within minutes of its occurrence?  I suspect citizens of bygone days simply agonized over injustices closer to home. 

I also suspect that I’ll continue to over-think things and grind issues down to their pulp as long as my mind holds out, and as a result I may be less Susie Sunshine than Thelma Thunderstorm in some people’s eyes.  But if we leave the Big Stuff to someone else to resolve, you never know just who might end up doing our thinking for us.

I like William Henry Channing’s take on things, with its emphasis on the substantial over the trivial.  Maybe I should post this one on my bedroom wall: 

To live content with small means;
To seek elegance rather than luxury,
To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich;
To study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly;
To listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with an open heart;
To bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never.
In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious,
grow up through the commonplace.
This to be my symphony

June 15, 2011 at 9:30 pm Leave a comment

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