20 September 2011

Means and Ends

A musician by the name of Chuck E. Costa once decided to put a handful of Rudyard Kipling’s poems to music. For this I am deeply grateful because I have now memorized three-quarters of Kipling’s poem “If” although I’d probably have to sing it instead of say it if asked to recite.

“If” is a poem about virtues and honor in general, but in particular it’s about swearing to your own hurt. It’s about the hard virtues. The ones that don’t feel good. The ones that go against our grain. The ones that are almost impossible to remember in the moment of anger, betrayal or frustration. Or hard to remember in moments of triumph and superiority.

I had intended to post a video containing the Chuck E. Costa song, which is a slightly trucated version of the original, because it is beautiful the way he sings it. But I was unable to find it on youtube, so I simply advise it to you if your interested (the album is called "Never Seen a Jaguar" and the song simply "If")

Anyhow, here is the original:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!
There is so much to talk about and delve into in this poem—not to mention one or two bits that might be points of contention for some—that I have chosen only two lines to expound upon—those highlighted in bold: dream and not make dreams your master; think and not make thoughts your aim.

Those two lines are more of a knife through the modern psyche than anything else. We would all most likely agree that it is wise to not become too proud, and noble to push yourself to spite laziness and fear, and virtuous to refrain from lying no matter that others are doing so about you. But in current thought processes dreams are a sort of master, and thoughts surely are the aim, are they not?

These lines hit me hardest because I do have the horrifying tendency to let dreams become my master—to drive my thoughts and feelings, thence to drive my anger and disappointment. The dreams are not wrong, but their preeminence is. If the loss or failure of them ruins someone—sunders them and puts them to the ground—then that someone held those dreams too high aloft. They gave them too much weight. They made them god and master.

A fairly predominate theme in so many inspirational movies these days is “chase your dreams.” And that’s not wholly bad. If someone is afraid of taking risks, afraid of stepping outside and making things happen, then they probably do need to be encouraged in that manner. But underneath that benign theme lies the potential to make dreams a master that rules you ruthlessly for your entire life. It’s strange how something so sunny on the surface can be shudder-inducing after the sheen’s rubbed off.

However, even more pertinent to face against post-modern thinking is the line “to think and not make thoughts your aim.” Such a subtle, elementary idea and yet it flies in the face of much of modern western academia and of youth culture. Sitting around in the coffee-shop and producing “thoughts” and things to “think about” and mulling over the “exchange of ideas” is often—rather than the means to an end—a goal in and of itself. It becomes a game of throwing thoughts out on the table like cards to see who has the best hand.

Thinking without purpose, thinking without aim—thinking without desiring or intending any true conclusion. Thinking, perhaps, without believing there can ever be any conclusion. That's post-modernism 'to a T'; it is more than happy to run on a treadmill, dutifully moving its legs, going nowhere—exercising the mind often without knowing how to use it in real contexts to reach real solutions…or find real answers.

It just so happened that while I had already decided to write about the “If” poem I happened upon this verse in Acts:
“All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas”

And a few of the Athenians actually listened, discussed and thought until they reached a conclusion but only a few, it seems. And we are a very Athenian culture these days—in ways both good and bad. It’s wonderful to be willing to hear, engage, argue and indeed “exchange ideas”—it’s deadly not to put all that to use in making concrete choices that follow from good thought.

Point being, I don’t want to be as some high-minded cook that will go on forever adding spices and ingredients without ever feeling a need to pause and taste what it is I have been concocting. That’s what thoughts being the aim is; cooking without tasting or eating; theory without application; experiment without viewing the results; or, simply, fear. Thought in and of itself is not going to sustain you when times get rough. Thoughts, however rich and good and enjoyable, are a means to an even better end.

I know I left the last post with a lengthy C.S. Lewis quote, but he keeps managing to have pertinent things to say, so here is a section from “The Great Divorce” in which a ghost from gray purgatory-like “hell” goes up to visit an old academic friend in Heaven and decide whether or not he might stay up there. One is referred to as the ghost (and occasionally the Episcopal ghost) and the heaven-living one is real or ‘the other one’.

(the real one)
“I have nothing to do with generality. Nor with any man but you and me. Oh, as you love your own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude Salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes”
(The conversation regarding this carries on, with the ghost saying things like “ah yes, that is a point of view. Certainly it’s a point of view,” until the real person invites the ghost into heaven)
“Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?”
(and the ghost says)
“’Well, that is a plan. I am perfectly ready to consider it. Of course I should require some assurances…I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness—and scope for the talents God has given me—and an atmosphere of free inquiry—in short, all that one means by civilization and—er—the spiritual life’
‘No,’ said the other. ‘I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.’
(the ghost): ‘Ah but we must interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things”…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’
(the real one): ‘If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.’
(the ghost): ‘But you must feel yourself that there is something stifling about the idea of finality? Stagnation, my dear boy, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation?’
(the real one): ‘You think that,  because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.’
(and finally, later, the heaven-living one says): ‘Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now…Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth”

‘Think and not make thoughts your aim,’ lest we grow afraid of finding answers. When the ghost fears stagnation, what he does not realize is that inquiry for the sake of inquiry is the stagnant and cyclical thing, NOT the finding of answers and the standing on solid ground. The first is the house on sand, the latter the house on rock. One washes in and out with the tides, the other holds strong and provides shelter. Our thirst will be quenched.


  1. This is easily my favorite post of yours!! Such a beautiful poem to draw knowledge from and of course -CS LEWIS-!!! Enough said! I think it is very good for you to have recognized the dreams issue that you struggle with. I also think that in a way it can be applied to your current worries. You are such a different creature in that your "dreams" that you sometimes let be your master are your "end" or your "answer". When "the other one" was admonishing the "ghost" for being obsessed with the "journey" and not the result, you need to be admonished for the opposite. You need to learn to appreciate the journey a bit more and come to terms with the "steps" of the stairs not just what's at the top. And don't worry when you come to a landing either, those are good too!!!!!!!!! :)

  2. It seems to be a trend that I write these things thinking "ah this is good, this is poignant...maybe somebody will get something out of it" only to find that the person who needs to hear it most is me.

  3. Amen to what Brandi said!And I particularly like the cooking analogy. Wonderful!

  4. jaime,i hear in this post (and identify strongly with) the sentiment, "i'm gonna stick with so-called higher education, even though i see the problems with the system and everything in me wants to buck it and i hate that this is the vehicle by which i may accomplish some of my dreams...". maybe i'm way off, and that wasn't your intent, but either way, it was a great reminder to keep on keeping on!

  5. Well, that was one of many intents, I suppose! More explicitly, it's the notion that dreams and thoughts can become outright slave-masters, and that's something I find myself having to deal with a whole lot, because I get attached to my dreams and my mind is a positive hurricane of thoughts most the time. As for the other, I do often feel that the academic world suffers most severely from cyclical thought for thought's sake, while fancying itself fresh and new. I've been so surprised at how stagnant much of it is: repeating the lastest, trendiest rhetoric--the most unabashed post-modernist cliches.

    That's, of course, not the whole and maybe even not the majority (at least I hope not!) I've learned a lot and I am grateful for the opportunity, but I look at some of these kids coming in young and swallowing everything almost whole and it saddens me.

    And as often outside the academic sphere, I see people so intent on asking that they haven't the courage--or perhaps even the desire?--to step out and stand on an answer. So, many different angles came into this one, it seems.

    Anyhow, it brightened my day to see you comment! Thank you.

  6. Hey!! I loved this one. As you know I have been processing a lot of the things you mention in this post. The dreams thing as I wrote to you and the family is something that I am looking at critically right now. And I LOVED that poem, I will now go and purchase the song so that I may begin to memorize it. This past weekend was an exercise in many of the difficulties mentioned in the poem, so it is particularly applicable to me right now.
    I love you and miss you a whole lot.

  7. I hope that even so it was a wonderful Birthday weekend! Brandi mentioned some of the ways in which it was difficult for you, but hopefully we can talk soon about our respective weeks. It's definitely been one of taking all these struggles to God again and again, among other things. I love you and miss you too.

  8. I totally agree, Jaime. At my school, I see so little critical thinking and so much scrambling to "sound" intelligent.

  9. It must be very prevalent then, Meg, if you've also found that to be the case at your school. There's definitely a lot of "just getting by" and using ready-made arguments. However, the real crux of the thing isn't about academia's flaws. They can't but reflect the society and the culture, if in their own certain way. And, actually, a lack of critical thinking is much less the trouble I see than the belief that thought without objective, question without answer, is somehow virtuous or desirable. The trouble is becoming mired in thought (even good, clever, critical thought) to the point that one circles back in on themselves and doesn't stop to take stock of the purpose of any of it.

    That's why I think the C.S. Lewis quote really hits the spot. Thirst will be quenched, and the thirst is for something far greater than anything I can produce by rattling around in the cage of my thoughts and ideas, even if they're somehow intelligent. All that might do is stave off my realization that they are insufficient and, without God, as stagnant as shallow standing water with no rain.