Icarus flies too close to the sun.
This post marks the eighth anniversary of beginning this blog. Thanks for reading!
This year she gave me Thoughts on Virtue: Thoughts and Reflections from History’s Great Thinkers, Philip Larkin Collected Poems, Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable (whose cover boasts a handsome, hunky Icarus in midair), and the Dalai Lama’s An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life. The latter’s only wound seems to have been water damage that made the book’s jacket stick to the first pages.
The Dalai Lama is a favorite of mine, so that’s the book I’ve been reading. As is his wont, his teachings begin almost too simply before delving deep into the murky waters of human nature, though he might argue with such a phrase suggesting essence or identity that is unchanging.
Soon I came across a description of contemplation that answers many of its critics:
We must know how to pace ourselves down to the snail’s pace of profound contemplation while also ensuring that we do not forget our neighbor’s problem or that of the fish swimming in polluted oceans many thousands of miles away. [p54]
In this simple way, he reminds us that, though focus is a gift of a meditative way of life, it is always held in context with the bigger picture of a neighbor’s need or our environment’s plight. His “snail’s pace” made me think of a snail I wrote of in the introduction to the third section of my book of prayers, Coming Out to God:
A snail stretched its full length in a strenuous assault, climbing the tall picture window. Inside, those of us on retreat discussed our vision of the future church. A sadness had slipped into some hearts, as often happens the final day of a retreat. The common purpose, camaraderie, and caring intimacy that are experienced at such gatherings inevitably lead one to wonder, Why can’t it always be like this? Our visions of hope for the church painfully reminded us of our place—or lack thereof—in the present church, intensifying our letdown. Yes, we were on the downhill side of our mountaintop experience. Yet the slowly ascending snail, apparently unintimidated by the long vertical climb, offered hope for progress. [p119]
When reading a sacred text, many of us know that meditating on a line or phrase or thought that disturbs us may be as helpful as reflecting on one that is pleasing. And so I soon found my “disturbing” text in the Dalai Lama’s elaboration of compassion:
It is not difficult for us to develop sympathy for a child in the hospital or an acquaintance mourning the death of a spouse. We must start to consider how to keep our hearts open toward those we would normally envy, those who enjoy fine lifestyles and wealth. [p105]
For me, that’s a tough one! The Psalmist had no qualms complaining to God:
For I was envious of the arrogant;
I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain;
their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not plagued like other people. …
Therefore the people turn and praise them,
and find no fault in them. …
Such are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain I have kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
[Psalm 73:3-5, 10, 12-13 NRSV]
Anyone who knows me knows also that I can’t exactly claim that I have always “kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” But still, without impugning them as “evil,” why do professional athletes and performers, celebrities and CEOs live so well, while “do-gooders” scrape by?
Funny thing is, when I started writing this post, parenthetically referring to the depiction of a beautiful and handsome Icarus in the sky on the cover of Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable, I hadn’t yet thought that this could be an illustration of keeping “our hearts open toward those we would normally envy.” The myth of Icarus is that he flew too close to the sun, melting the wax on the wings that held him in flight. Many of those we envy “fly too close to the sun.”
“How the mighty have fallen,” cried David in a psalm of lament at the opening of 2 Samuel upon hearing of the killings of Saul and his son Jonathan. David had earlier resisted killing Saul when he found him sleeping, despite the humiliation, threats and attacks he had endured from him. The “ideal” king showed compassion.
Even for those who don’t suffer such a comeuppance as Icarus or Saul, the Dalai Lama believes we must hold open our compassion for all who share the human condition:
There is a certain irrationality in responding to injustice or harm with hostility. Our hatred has no physical effect on our enemies; it does not harm them. Rather, it is we who suffer the ill consequences of such overwhelming bitterness. [p111]
Remembering both the mighty and meek suffer may hold our hearts open for our sake if not for theirs.
Related Post: Praying for “Enemies”
Thanks to Toby Schmidt, cover designer of Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable, which features the image of Icarus used above.
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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.