In the copy of Rumi I have (trans. Barks), a chapter called, "How the Unseen World Works" tells a South Indian story about soap. "Soap is the dirt we buy. We introduce it to the dirt we have, and the two dirts are so glad to see each other they come out and mix! They swim together... and at just the right moment, the washer lifts the cloth of our true being free of both soap and dirt. Mystical poetry and other practices may function this way, as soap that dances with what disturbs our clarity. Then at some moment they drop away and leave us clean..."
I find that many experiences I have function in the same way. Society has taught me to be mindful of appearance, fretting about "the forms of greeting people... and what we should be doing". But I often find that by sacrificing what looks successful, which we are taught to do, we are brought to beyond those boxes, and discover a wealth of lessons awaiting the person with the larger net.
I admit that I have been reading a lot these days. I started Douglas' Goodbye to Western Culture, but after an interesting conversation with a colleague yesterday about William Cobbett, found G.K. Chesterton's book on the same. I have long admired Chesterton's wise turns-of-phrase. Chesterton displaces Douglas, if temporarily, because some writers are just so good at putting things in their places.
After the dance of disturbing clarity, how beautiful it is to come to a writer who puts things in their places. Behold this statement about Cobbett: "He might have been a self-made man; but he died unfinished, trying to make something better than himself."
Surely that sentence needs dwelling on. What a noble attempt! Who can fail to like Cobbett after reading of his hunt for ideals: "It was the self-respect of the poor, which all modern industrial society has been slowly crushing to death. To find it anywhere uncrushed and uncowed was to Cobbett like the noise of a great victory in the war of the world."
It takes Chesterton to rescue Cobbett's vision from the petty squabbles of his critics. Thence the image of muddied waters: some people must turn to sufi poems for momentary disturbance. But others experience it every day, by default of where they live, or what their ideals are. That said, the lesson is not in the dance of water and soap, but in the returning things to their places afterwards: hands, soap, water.
Some people's lives may remain in the flux of washing, but if they had been washing with particular vigour and with strength of character, visionaries like Chesterton can come along and separate them out for us, so we can better see into the value of their lives. For if there's one thing I am learning, it's how enslaved one can be to expecting what is good to look a certain way. For example, a child arguing with a grandparent may not be a disrespectful child, but the only family member to cultivate relations with the angry soul. There's even a cliche on this theme: a woman falls in love with the enemy soldier.
Very few people have the clarity of vision to sort things out to where they really belong. Chesterton has never let me down. Behold the discernment in this sentence about Cobbett: "He had not the fine instinct which makes the really successful secretary-bird distinguish between the earth worms of the underworld and the silk worms of the smart set." It is on this note that I sign off. I need to soak up those words. How brilliant. And by the way, there was a link to Douglas in terms of this discernment, but to write about that would take another post.