Elegance and the Questions of Your Life
I lack elegance.
In particular, I have a bad habit of getting stuck on something that I’ve heard or seen someone I know do, or not do – a small slight, of omission perhaps, or, well, a larger slight, a more deliberate act. Some time ago, a friend began rather deliberately slighting another very good friend of mine. It was almost funny because it was so childish, but also quite unforgiveable. In his poem titled, “Elegance,” Hafiz says, “It is not easy to stop thinking ill of others.” Then goes on to describe a type of elegance, that comes from hanging out with someone who has learned to not think ill of others, and having them "rub off on you." That, he says, is "true elegance."
Thinking ill of others really just takes up too much mental space, and while I strive to be a compassionate person, and I want to spend less time with those sorts of thoughts, I also think that it’s reasonable and even healthy to think poorly of some people. (I suppose I’ll never quite attain the elegance of soul that I would wish).
Years ago after receiving one of those surprising and tawdry flaming emails many I know seem to have been the recipient of at one time or another, I remember feeling relieved when coming across something Joseph Campbell wrote about universal compassion, universal love. He says, “I personally don’t even think that unconditional love is an ideal. I think you’ve got to have a discriminating faculty and let bastards be bastards and let those that ought to be hit in the jaw get it.” The truth is that the bastards hardly ever get hit in the jaw, metaphorically or otherwise, and this is why it’s easy to get stuck on these actions of others that can be dumbfounding in their meanness and smallness. And the trouble with getting stuck like this is it takes you away from the questions of your own life, the elegance of asking those questions.
Mary Rose O’Reilley says in her book, The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd: “Whatever your eye falls on - for it will fall on what you love - will lead you to the questions of your life, the questions that are incumbent upon you to answer, because that is how the mind works in concert with the eye. The things of this world draw us where we need to go.” So here – another kind of elegance – letting your eye fall on what you love, for what could be more elegant than a loving gaze?
And yet another kind of elegance, from Rumi:
What are the questions of your life? What are you here for? What do you love? How to live elegantly? How to be generous? These are the questions I walk with, out in the snow with the dog under a gray sky.
As I walk I’m reminded of a poem by D.H. Laurence, which I look up when I get back home:
We are transmitters of life
D. H. Laurence
As we live, we are transmitters of life.
And when we fail to transmit life,
life fails to flow through us ...
And if, as we work, we can transmit
life into our work,
life, still more life, rushes into us
to compensate, to be ready
and we ripple with life through the days.
Give, and it shall be given unto you
is still the truth about life ...
It means kindling the life-quality
where it was not,
Even if it's only in the whiteness
of a washed pocket-handkerchief.
This is a thought that has followed me through my adult life: the more you give the more you shall receive. But Laurence draws that out, and rather eloquently. It is too easy to be stingy, to be reticent, or even quietly negative. The image of the life force being kindled in one’s every day tasks, in doing the laundry, or taking care of small children, or in mundane and repetitive office work, is a powerful one for me. When you bring this to the encounters you have with people every day too, when you put it into play, I swear you will feel the flow of life, you will feel more fully alive.
By bringing one’s careful and caring attention, one’s very life force to the small everyday things we do, our life becomes richer, it swells, and it flows. When we are aware of and bring the questions of our life to bear upon mundane encounters, we live more elegantly.
This is one of the reasons I’m so enamored with my camera, with the practice of trying to take a photograph (or more) each day. It reminds me to take care of something small.
The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.” I have this hope, too, that in recording a daily glimpse into a life, through this sort of accumulation, a leitmotiv may be revealed, that one’s eyes have habitually found and photographed something of what was loved, and that life will be found, enkindled in a few of those moments. Regardless, those smallest things, those things you can’t always even see – the potential for the contemplative in the presentation of a simple, everyday object, something that everyone sees daily also – this is what I keep coming back to, keep seeking. That moment, or just a split second, when light strikes something ordinary, and we all see that it’s nothing like ordinary. That revelation.