How to Read the Eternities: The End of a Series

I learned about “forest bathing” while hiking the other day. Since it was 37 degrees F. with a sharp wind, I can assure you that it did not involve removing my clothes.

Jacquie used the term as we hiked in the North Chagrin Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks. There is growing scientific evidence that walking through natural areas — especially a forest — is good for you.

Well, duh!

Henry David Thoreau could have told us that in the 1840’s. He may not have been able to compare blood pressure readings or count white cells, but for two years he lived by himself in the woods near Walden Pond in order to face life.

In his essay, “A Life Without Principle”, Thoreau described how to live in the “Post-Truth” era. He told us that to find the truth in such times we need to

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.

This is not an easy thing to do in an age when the Times, or the Post, or the Plain Dealer feel like Medieval texts compared to Twitter or the news crawl at the bottom of the 24-hour news channel screen. To get at the truth these days we need to learn to slow down the newsfeed, take time to listen to ourselves, and seek the wisdom of the ages in the holy writings, like the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita.

To read the Eternities themselves, we need to turn to what some Christian theologians call “The First Testament” — Creation.

The Bible tells us that Creation points to God:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies announce what God’s hands have made.
Day after day they tell the story; night after night they tell it again.
They have no speech or words; they have no voice to be heard.
But their message goes out through all the world; their words go everywhere on earth.
Psalm 19:1-4

Looking at a starry sky or a mountain or an ocean helps us get a better perspective on ourselves, our successes and our failures.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place— what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Psalm 8:3-4

This is what Thoreau did. He looked at the sky, listened to the wind, followed rivers, and took note of birds and insects. He heard the Truth in the wind and the bird songs. He saw the sun rise and set. He felt the change in the seasons.

Here are some of the things he learned:

The universe is wider than our views of it.

Things do not change. We change.

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

What has the Creation taught you that is the opposite of what the Tweets, the Times and human “wisdom” tries to sell you?

Read Your Life: Part 2 of Read the Eternities

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus of Nazareth, “What is truth”.

As far as Pilate was concerned, “truth” was just the “alternate fact” he needed to justify executing a carpenter to please the crowd.

Pilate would feel right at home in a place where  last night’s tweets will be explained away in this afternoon’s press briefing

“What is truth?”  How do we find it?

150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau was writing things that remain true even to this day. How did he do that?

His advice:

“Read not the Times. Read the Eternities”

How do we do that?

Step one, as I said last week, is to step back from the 24-hour news stream and read reports of events from a longer and deeper perspective. Don’t read the Tweets, read the Times, and newsmagazines and books. That will help you separate the true from the trivial — the signal from the noise.

However, I no longer think that reading what others have written about anything is as important as I once did. Now, it’s more important to read my own life.

My mother-in-law used to preface some of her sentences with the words, “Now this I know is true”.

How do YOU know what is true?

In his essay, “A Life Without Principle“, Thoreau was addressing people who were suffering, as we do, from information overload. Cheaper methods of printing created more newspapers — and a hunger for news — even fake news.  An efficient postal service brought deliveries of mail twice a day in many places. America was polarized around issues of slavery and race, the dangers of allowing Catholic German and Irish immigrants into the U.S., and trade policies. They were also distracted by the promise of gold.

Thoreau suggests that instead of rushing off to California to dig a shaft straight down into the ground, people should dig down in their own lives. We can pan for the gold in our life experiences. The miner washes away gravel to find flecks of gold in the bottom of his pan because gold is heavier than gravel. It has more weight.

How do you dig a shaft and pan for the gold in your own life? How do you find the stuff that has weight in your life?

One way to do this is to keep a diary of your life’s experiences.

Thoreau wrote in his journal the first drafts of truths that became gold nuggets about the desperation with which most people pursue their lives;   the importance of simplicity and what it means to disobey unjust laws.

I admit that I’ve tried to journal off and on through my life and until recently it hasn’t done much good because I didn’t go back and read what I had written to see that I was saying and doing the same things over and over again.  I couldn’t read my own handwriting. Using a word processor meant I would lose files when I upgraded. 

I’ve been more successful recently using an app called Day One that allows me to tag entries so that I can go back and look at recurring themes.

As John Dewey said:

“We don’t learn from experience, but from reflecting on experience.

My mother-in-law didn’t keep a diary. She just got up before dawn, sat on her couch with a cup of coffee and a cigarette and thought about life.

I am not privy to her thoughts, and I’m pretty sure that the hour, the coffee and the cigarette are optional, but I do know that she must have reviewed her life in those hours and it enabled her to say about a few things, “This I know is true.”

It takes time to dig into your life and sift the gold out of the gravel of your life experiences. It means you will miss some tweets. You will miss some news bulletins. You will miss some photos of what your “friends” had for dinner and a cat video or two. If that’s more important, so be it, but remember these words from Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle”:

You may depend on it, that the poor fellow

who walks away [from the Post Office]

with the greatest number of letters,

proud of his extensive correspondence,

has not heard from himself this long while.

How do you read your life?

What truths are you finding?

Christmas Dinner with People I Don’t Know – The Abrahamic Version

Our sons and their families are not strange. But they are far away — and one family is Jewish, so we don’t do Christmas with them. That’s been OK in previous years, because Christmas Day was the day I collapsed after all the Advent activities, two or three services on Christmas Eve and, if Christmas fell on a Sunday, on Christmas morning, as well.

This year, free of that activity, we learned about some other folks who were going to be alone at Christmas. We contacted them, pooled our resources and everyone gathered around the table at our house on Christmas Day. About half of us were Christian. The other half Jewish.

When the meal began, I knew everyone from a little bit to not at all. Then, we shared stories of where we came from, people we missed at this time of the year, and kindnesses we have received in the past year. After the sharing of stories, I understood at a deeper level my wife, Jacquie’s, observation: “To know someone’s story is the love them.”

The coincidence of the gathering of relative strangers on Christmas Day has made me ponder the theme of hospitality that runs through all three Abrahamic religions.

For example, I have heard stories coming out of Iraq of American soldiers breaking down the doors of houses in search of insurgents, only to be offered tea by the Muslim family whose home they invaded, so strong is the teaching that those who “believe in God and the Last Day” will offer hospitality even to those who come unannounced.

Christians and Jews remember Abraham’s hospitality to strangers who came with the promise of an impossible child. Thus, a Jewish Christian wrote in the first century, those who welcome strangers may “entertain angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

At Passover, a place at the table is set for Elijah.

At Christmas, our manger scenes testify that Jesus came into a world that believes it has no room for strangers, and those who find the real meaning of Christmas seek to reverse that.

Henri Nouwen defined “hospitality” as making room for other people to be themselves. What I did not realize is that the ostensible host gets to be himself or herself, too.

Often, when we gather with relatives — or even with old friends — we think we know everyone and everyone thinks they know us. Recall a family gathering in which you were treated as if you were the 10-year-old you used to be. Family gatherings are great blessings, but they can hamstring us into old roles that we have outgrown — or want to outgrow.

Dinner with strangers, on the other hand, can reveal something new and delightful — maybe something that you thought was impossible, if you give each other room to be yourselves.

Unlearning instead of Learning: Old School and New School

First half of life = learning

Second half of life = unlearning.

Funniest comment about that last week: “We don’t have to unlearn anything in the second half of life. We just forget”.

If only it were that easy.

Recently, Jacquie and I took a tour of the school we attended from Kindergarten through high school graduation. We were there for our 50th high school class reunion. The building had been remodeled and added onto many times since we left in our caps and gowns.

  • Hallways, that we once could have walked with our eyes closed, now have walls and branches that they did not have before.
  • The old study hall is the new technology lab.
  • The old big gym is now the little gym and the old little gym has been remodeled so that its upper reaches are new classrooms and its floor, the floor I stood on as my mother registered me for my first day of school, is now a storage room used only by custodians.

As we walked around bewildered by the new layout, we agreed that we would have a harder time learning to find our way around this building than someone who had never been in it before because we would have to unlearn the building that we remembered in order to learn the building that now is.

This feels like a metaphor for my life these days. I went to the old school to learn. My teachers poured knowledge into my empty head.

And that is precisely what I gained, knowledge. I not only learned that 2+2 makes 4, but I also learned how to find the square root of 224. I not only learned that George Washington was our first President, but how to use an encyclopedia and a library to learn more facts like these. I not only learned that I need both a subject and a predicate before I have a complete sentence, I also learned how to use a dictionary in order to find the nouns and verbs that I could use in that sentence.

In the New School of the Second Half of Life, unlearning is teaching me wisdom.

In the Old School, if the numbers didn’t add up, I checked my work to find the error. In the New School, I have to unlearn that in order to gain the wisdom I need when things don’t add up – and never will.

In the Old School, I learned facts and repeated them on the test. In the New School, I have to unlearn my “facts” in order to see  through different lenses.

By coincidence, after the 50 year reunion, we attended the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, less than 80 miles as the crow flies, from our hometown. I stopped in front of a historical marker honoring Butler’s Rangers, an irregular Loyalist militia that raided frontier communities in Western New York and Pennsylvania during the War of 1812.

“Wait a minute”, I thought, “these guys were terrorists”.

That was what the Old School had taught me. They had burned settlements and tortured and killed American patriots in order to stop American heroes like General Sullivan, who was marching through the same area burning settlements (including Niagara-on-the-Lake) and torturing and killing people loyal to George III.

Perhaps, I will approach the word “terrorist” and the word “patriot” with more wisdom from now on.

What are you unlearning these days?