— Michel de Montaigne
Sure looks that way to me, and yet we all go on and on about ourselves. Self-improvement. Self esteem. As if the self were crucial. “I,” I say, “I, I, I, I.” As if “I” were were the center of the universe. As if “I” were a constant.
And here I’ll beg your indulgence and print one of my own quotations. My file runs 300 pages, and only three or four of the passages are my own. They’re probably only there because I know the author.
But this one is pertinent to what Montaigne had to say: “I feel quite strongly that the pain of life grows out of the concept of a fixed personality and the tendency to then set the rest of experience around that identity like the planets around Ptolmey’s earth.”
This line was especially precious to me when I worked at The Reader’s Digest.
—The Serenity Prayer
This section is commonly left out of the Serenity Prayer.
Growing up in a wash of humanism, I was annoyed by the two Commandments as Jesus presented them. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul and with all thy heart and with all thy mind and with all thy strength, and thy neighbor as thyself.
I completely got it about loving thy neighbor as thyself. This seemed a worthy chore, although it was tacked on at the end, almost as an afterthought. As for the first rule, this sounded, well it sounded parochial. I imagined an old coot in a beard, and he was insisting that before making the coffee, before anything else—I must love Him, join the club, tithe and be counted. It sounded like He was thinking of Himself first.
Now I think it wasn’t about Him, but about the world as we find it. And that we were being enjoined to love life, and to love it with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The older I get the more that seems a good idea.
Which is why I so like these lines often left out of the Serenity Prayer.
The Serenity Prayer is commonly published and recited in the short form. There are variations, but it often goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Certainly it’s profound. It’s important to be courageous and dispassionate and wise. But then the wrong decision I make most, is to look away. Correction: I don’t just look away from life, I snub it. As if I were a snob, and life should known better than to have wars, and disease and ambiguity.
Martin Amis writes about his father, Kingsley Amis: “Perhaps the most revealing thing my father ever said was in response to Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s question ‘You atheist?’ He answered: ‘Well yes, but it’s more that I hate him.’”
This, I think, is not a healthy attitude, although hatred is almost certainly preferable to my attempt to remain disengaged.
David Evanier expresses my tragedy, in his book The Great Kisser: “No doubt about it, I’ve missed my life. It wasn’t the one I wanted. And so I waited for the new one to begin.”
I know, I know: We’re all in a hurry. And not all of us are Christians. But just for kicks, why not try out the prayer in its long version.
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage, to change the things I can;
And the wisdom, to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.
I was 11 years old and hanging around with my older sister and some of her friends, and one of our neighbors, Annie Scoales to be exact, said that somebody we all knew was suffering from “raised expectations.”
This would have been 1960 and Annie used the phrase as if it was already a cliché. And maybe it was, but that was the first time I’d heard the statement and it had the ring of truth.
Even my weak grasp of history indicates strongly that there have been worse times than these, there have been worse troubles than my own. Think famine. Think polio. But when the basement floods, I still feel cheated. As if a dry basement were one of the rights guaranteed to Benjamin Cheever by the U.S. Constitution. No matter how fine life is, I often find that I was expecting more.
On weekends, when the boys were small, my wife often had to work, and I had to take them out in the car. I’d feel victimized. Here I was going out to look for shelving for the garage. I should have been at home and writing a great book.
“That one talent which is death to hide.” I loved that line. That one talent which is death to hide was lodged with me useless. Me and John Milton. Two peas in a pod. No wonder I felt crappy.
Here’s the whole poem by Milton:
On His Blindness
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
‘Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?’
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: ‘God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.’
Art now is considered an elective, an add-on, a luxury. It’s easy to forget that this has not always been the case. In the U.S.S.R. during the worst of the dictatorship “of the people” it was art that mattered. I forget that people were painting and sculpting and writing sonnets before they had central heating, or anesthesia, or any easy way to kill those fleas. Whereas, in the event of a cataclysm, I fear that our nation might work its way back through the discovery of electricity, the installation of shopping malls, and drive deep into a second obesity epidemic, before anybody paid three-pence for a sonnet.
Entertainment, we value. Entertainment is sometimes art. But we expect entertainment to pay its own way. And I’m not referring here to that tiresome polarizing and repetitive argument about government funding. Government has funded great art and also horrors. There are many ways to pay for art. But you need to pay. For centuries men and women have paid for their artistic choices by living in poverty and shame. Many artists have paid with their lives.
I came upon this in the Thursday, December 28th, 1995 issue of The New York Times. The context itself presented an ethical mare’s nest. Charles W. Colson (compromised) was quoting Solzhenitsyn (wise but haughty) in his (Colson’s) attack on a movie by Oliver Stone (mixed bag) about Nixon (tragically flawed). Here’s the quotation again: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between parties either —but right through the human heart.”
Kicks like a mule, doesn’t it? Imagine a gathering of union workmen, maybe drinking beer and muttering darkly about how becoming extremely rich is a demonstration of the lack of scruples, a marker for evil. Or consider a rich man (self-made) who thinks poverty a demonstration of weak character, perhaps even a marker for evil.
Picture your own heart for a moment. Aren’t hearts a sort of catchers’-mitt brown now with flashes of crimson arterial blood? See it? Now draw the line. Make it blue. Now watch it move.