Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Ben Franklin, Socrates, and Me
"The greatest way to live with honor is to be what we pretend to be." - Socrates
Not an easy sell, ethics. Google "Ethical Values" and see what you come up with. I did, and what I came up with led me on a long and winding internet road.
I've been thinking a lot lately about "long and winding roads." A 79-year-old friend in Virginia called to give me an update on her life at the moment. Her unwinding story included details of detours, how she had felt so cooped up really, with her even older sister going into a nursing home, not having a good place to walk, to be out in the beautiful spring-into-summer – until her niece’s family in Florida had invited her to visit and she had finally gone. Her niece took an airplane ride to Virginia, then they drove together in my friend’s almost new comfortable car back to Florida, where her two-week stay turned into two months. She reveled in being there, walking in their garden – I haven’t been treated that well since 1953! She exclaimed. In her voice was the pleasure of unwinding all of those cooped-up feelings, being needed but more in ways of having to take care of everything because there was no one else. She was ready for another kind of life, at least expanding the old into more roses, appreciation, fresh air, walking in it.
Part of her urge to tell her tale was to tell me why it had taken her time to get to reading my book, which she had bought months ago. She had to have quiet, she said, and when she at last did, I took a profound journey along the roads in your mind! She exclaimed. We laughed – so did I! I said. Sometimes there were too many roads for me to follow, she said, so I had to let it sink in, and then go on. I thought about this phrase, “too many roads.” She spoke about her niece’s English husband, and how they are trading books, both being avid readers. They recently watched the television series on John Adams, and he had borrowed her copy of Adams’ most recently biography. John Adams had too many roads, too, she said. He is easier to read than Ben Franklin, though Franklin talks a lot about Socrates, she said. I love to read them.
She told me about asking her niece if they could drive her big, almost-new, comfortable car rather than riding in her smaller sportier car, which wasn’t easy for her to bend into and get out of. My friend is very tall and lanky, and a cane helps her keep her balance. She had not had the car long, it only had a handful of miles on it when she got it, and oh, she said, when I got on the highway, I could hardly keep from going 80 miles an hour! It was wonderful – I heard the exhilaration in her voice.
I keep thinking about her phrase, “too many roads,” and the exhilaration she felt as she drove her big comfortable car. As I hear the newscasters and others at the pump talk about gas prices, and as I fill my car between commutes,now I think about “too many roads” in new ways. I have another friend who is passionate about keeping things simple. I say I am too. Yet as I listen to the candidates speak about how to solve the issues facing us, our country, the “American people,” and I sit in the quiet of my own space and ask, What did they really say, often I don’t have the answer. Each enumerates physical details about what to do with which program – offer a tax rebate, tax relief offset by someone else paying it, lower prices and get the money from another source – sometimes I say to myself, too many roads to follow!
How accustomed we have grown to thinking only along the lines of the same maps that have already been drawn for us. Most of us no longer have the same urge to explore the way our pioneering ancestors did, those who ventured into the jungles, into the seas, to make maps for us, guessing at the locale of sea creatures, mountain ranges, riches. We have expanded into pioneering in many fields of learning, beyond just the physical jungles, roads, and waterways. Work goes on in labs around the world, including our ecosystems. A photographer I've met recently published a book in which he explored new techniques of dynamic imaging with digital tools, and new ways of using older tools that are very exciting for many in his field and image-lovers everywhere. Every day artists explore new media, or new ways to use old media, to capture their visions. Our internal biological, atomic pioneering, mapping our DNA genomes still seems mostly about planting the flags and noting the territory markers and what they mean.
What does it mean to us to explore our Ethical Values as human beings – what energy motivates us to create and why? What would Ben Franklin say? What would Socrates say? Lifehacker has an “oldie but goodie” on Franklin and his life plan which consisted of 13 guidelines. Franklin made the list when he was 20 and used it all his life to chart his daily progress. Beside humility he wrote “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” I’ve been thinking about what it means to “make new use of old things.” I’m getting better at clarifying my goals, what I want, and updating them as I go. When I use Spiritual Philosophy’s list of Ethical Values beside my goals, I’m making a map for myself that I can follow. These are my kind of rules - now
Yesterday I was overcome with sadness – which had built up to overflowing. Tears seeped out all day long. I was sad because my mother and father felt less energy than they want to, though thrilled still about Life; sad because other friends’ mourn the loss of a young husband, brother, brother- and son-in-law, son, colleague, friend; sad for many losses. I was also encouraged by the energy I felt returning to me as I let the sadness live its day. The day was beautiful – crystal blue sky, white cotton clouds, colors and moods bright, but not mine. I felt the compassion of love as I cried, as a friend listened and just “let me be.” This brought back to me another day long ago, when I really felt the gift love is, though not as I do now. Now I appreciate Ben Franklin’s pragmatism in new ways, and his dictum, “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” I’m making my goals of life, and what it means to me to live. Loss gives way to love, always. Simple.