I ran across a CS Lewis quote the other day that has stayed in my head and rattled around a bit more this time. It captures a growing realization I have as I get older. It's a realization that in some subjects in certain situations with less receptive people, that I would do better to focus on listening, as my view has no place to lodge.
“The process of living seems to consist in coming to realize truths so ancient and simple that, if stated, they sound like barren platitudes. They cannot sound otherwise to those who have not had the relevant experience: that is why there is no real teaching of such truths possible and every generation starts from scratch.” -- CS Lewis
I ran across an example of this when listening to the commencement speech by David Foster Wallace in 2005*. I have read partial transcripts before, but have never listened to it. I'm linking to the actual speech audio, because some of the transcripts are adaptations of the speech and leave things out. This is perhaps the most read/listened to commencement speech of all time, though admittedly some are critical of it--some for reasons that the CS Lewis quote point out. In this speech, Wallace makes a statement at the 6:00 point that some things he is "certain of" are not true. He goes on to say that an example of this is his belief and experience that he is the center of the universe, and explains why he has believed this.
The graduates laugh.**
It is shocking for me to listen to, as this is a deeply profound and not funny point he is making. He is talking in down to earth gritty language about the realities of life, and those who are listening expose their lack of full understanding by laughter. Now granted, they understand part of what he is saying, and that is that it is ridiculous to see ourselves as the center of the universe. What makes this sobering is that we do see ourselves this way--and it is actually hard not to.
OK. This could seem like an "up with old wise people and down with young inexperienced people" blog. That is certainly not my intent. What I want to do is encourage us all to be honest and less presumptive about what we "know to be true", in order to listen with integrity.
I was having trouble keeping a charge on my laptop battery a couple weeks ago, and kept plugging it in sooner than it seemed I should need to. My first realization of why it had been charging erratically was when I saw that the first part of the cord was disconnected from the second part that went to the wall. During the erratic charging period, the cord "looked" connected, but really was not, as it worked it's way out of the connection. These types of situations help to concretely tutor me on the fragility of my assumed knowns. The older I get, the more I see how I am likely at times to make assumptions which are not true, because I keep on racking up examples.
Hmmm. Perhaps I should look more closely at those times when I laugh out loud when no one else does. Hmmmm.
* I feel I need to mention that Wallace committed suicide roughly 3 years after this speech--in some ways this makes the speech even more poignant.
**At 9:45 there is another place where the laughter seems inappropriate. Perhaps I am being too critical or people are laughing nervously, or they are older people chuckling at the truth.
My lovely wife recently pointed out the Tytler cycle to me, which I find very intriguing. It was conceived by the Scottish Historian Alexander Tytler, and posits that every democracy goes through the same cycle, which looks like this:
The first stage moves from bondage to spiritual faith.
The second from spiritual faith to great courage.
The third stage moves from great courage to liberty.
The fourth stage moves from liberty to abundance.
The fifth stage moves from abundance to selfishness.
The sixth stage moves from selfishness to complacency.
The seventh stage moves from complacency to apathy.
The eighth stage moves from apathy to moral decay.
The ninth stage moves from moral decay to dependence.
And the tenth and last stage moves from dependence to bondage.
This can be drawn in a circle as well, to depict the full cycle including from the bottom back up to the top.
Now clearly this has implications politically right now, but that is not what I have been thinking about quite as much. What I have been thinking about is the clear demarcation in stage 5, where the positive ascent resulting in abundance, gives way to selfishness and then the death spiral. Stage 5 is the tipping point. If an individual could climb the stages and stay in abundance without moving to selfishness, grand things could be accomplished. Abundance without selfishness. Abundance without selfishness.
In Proverbs 30, Agur says "give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say, 'who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God." Abundance without selfishness, without self importance, without pride in what I have or what I have done is next to impossible. It reminds me of Jesus saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Now, lest you feel you are off the hook for being rich, 1% of the worlds population makes $38,000 per year or more (the stats vary, so it may be slightly lower than that). That means that all of us in the US live in abundance, because even if we are not in the top 1% we are for sure in the top 5. I would also venture to say that we all deal with selfishness.
We watched a documentary last night called Living on One Dollar, which is about 4 college students that decide to take two months of their lives to see what it is like to live on a dollar a day in Guatemala, where that is a common income. The most impactful part of the movie for me was seeing how generous the Guatemalan people are, how willing to help and give of themselves, and in the end how generous the 4 students were as well. There is something very powerful about people who have very little being so willing to share.