Tuesday, January 20, 2009

You are Dangerous

"[Fangorn] often comes here, especially when his mind is uneasy, and rumours of the world outside trouble him. I saw him four days ago striding among the trees, and I think he saw me, for he paused; but I did not speak...and he did not speak either, nor call my name."
"Perhaps he also thought that you were Saruman," said Gimli. "But you speak of him as if he was a friend. I thought Fangorn was dangerous."
"Dangerous!" cried Gandalf. "And so am I, very dangerous...And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Gloin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion."—J.R.R. Tolkien

People who carry wands and battle-axes are not to be messed with. It's also a good idea not to mess with politicians, tycoons and football players. But we are beset with more dangers than that, for ordinary people are dangerous, in their own fashion. Even children have an ability to hurt or heal; the antics of a carefree child can do wonders for a parent consumed by anxiety about the future. In C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, the repercussions of Orual's actions reverberate among both men and the gods—before she has any political power. She is puissant because her life is intertwined with the lives of other people, especially with the lives of her sisters.

When two people interact, their souls brush together and, many times, begin to interlock. Relating involves submission to an outside influence, even if a weak one; it involves a making bare or vulnerable some part of the being of both parties. This gives humans many kinds of power over each other. All humans can love or hate. Even small demonstrations of affection—a smile, a wave, an arm around the shoulder, a few simple kind words—can have great impact. I once heard one of my sisters crying bitterly in her room. I went in; she was lying face down, weeping into her pillow. I laid my hand on her back, trying vainly to think of some appropriate words. Presently, her sobbing subsided. My hand was a conduit of my love to her, a love which had a power I had not guessed at.

Many other types of power are inherent to humanness. We can shock, as films often do; we can advice and persuade: "But Brutus is an honorable man!" We can manipulate the emotions of others, as with the popular boy who flirts with girls he cares nothing for. We can teach by example—the most effective of didactic methods. In a very few words, we can change someone's opinion of his friend. An enthusiastic, "I love Chris," can drastically shape someone's opinion of Chris, as can "Did you know he eats his boogers?" We can give a girl flowers, or vandalize her car. Sex can be the sealing act of love—when used as God would have it—or cause immense destruction in the lives of those involved, and in the lives of their families and friends. Those with a talent in art or music can make us gawk, or dance, or cry—even without the talent of Dürer or Mendelssohn. Perhaps the greatest of human powers is prayer, a petition for intervention by the greatest of powers. Power is available even to the weak.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his early philosophy as expressed in Being and Nothingness, held that love was self-contradictory. I object to Sartre's view of love, but the love of a fallen being does have an inherent inconsistency. For love involves the desire to draw close to, and once a fallen being has drawn close to its beloved, it will inevitably damage it; but surely to love is to wish the best for the beloved! We must be struck with a terror of damaging that which we love, for even without prowess, we have power. And we must be even more afraid of damaging that which we do not love, for it is that which we do not love that we are most likely to destroy without conscious intention.

We must also be struck with our potential for good—a potential we underestimate. Your smiles, your patience with the obnoxiousness of another, and underlying it all, your love are of much greater value than you suppose. Remember that a greater return is demanded of him who is given five talents than of him who is given two. A young man once had a long talk with his teacher after class. As he walked home, he cried, though his teacher had given him high compliments. He cried because he saw his own wasted potential. He saw that he had spent his strength in frivolity and sin and cried because he feared the responsibility that came with the blessings given to him.

On my first day of "Invitation to the Humanities," Dr. Eric M— gave a challenge to the class. He told us, "You are weapons of either good or evil. There is no neutral position. Which will you be?"

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Sweetness of Humility

"What kind of tree is that?" I asked my Chinese friend Jerry. The name he used had a familiar sound, but I couldn't remember what it meant. "Is the fruit edible?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, "But don't eat it; it isn't ripe."

"I'm going to eat some," I said, "Just to figure out what it is."


"Why not? Is it poisonous?"

"No, but it is incredibly bitter."

I plucked one of the hard green fruits and bit into it anyway—and immediately spewed it out in disgust. It was more bitter than anything I had ever eaten. It was a long time before I forgot the Chinese word for walnut.

Pride is as acrid as a green walnut. I have heard from a young age that I should forsake pride, but my sinfulness is such that I do not begin to relinquish a sin until I repulsed by it. Over the past several months I have tasted pride's acerbic flavor, and now I hate it—and as I result, I also love humility and its sweetness.

Indeed, humility is sweet. A scene from C.S. Lewis' Perelandra makes a profound comment on the nature of humility by picturing the innocence of the Green Lady:

[The Green Lady] stared for quite an appreciable time [into the mirror] without apparently making anything of it. Then she started back with a cry and covered her face...

"Oh—oh," she cried. "What is it? I saw a face."

"Only your own face, beautiful one," said the Un-man.

"I know," said the Lady, still averting her eyes from the mirror. "My face—out there—looking at me. Am I growing older or is it something else? I feel...I feel...my heart is beating too hard. I am not warm." (116)

"That thing" (she pointed at the mirror) "is me and not me."

"But if you do not look you will never know how beautiful you are."

"It comes into my mind, Stranger," she answered, "that a fruit does not eat itself, and a man cannot be together with himself." (117)

The Green Lady's beauty was not for herself: it was for the King. While she must have always been conscious of her own beauty in a vague way, she did not even know what she looked like. We speak of someone being "stuck on himself"; the Green Lady was stuck on someone else. Here is humility, not as a dry "spiritual" attribute, but as a charming addition to the Lady's physical beauty. The Apostle Peter understood this well.

Don't be concerned about the outward beauty that depends on fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should be known for the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. (1 Peter 3:3-4)

Humility is also becoming to men. Once an unusually intelligent linguist was explaining some of the peculiarities of the Thai counting system to my father, my brother and me. He mentioned some of the speculations that certain linguists had relating to the subject, and then added, "But that doesn't really matter to us, does it." His apparent lack of interest in the details of the linguistic speculations demonstrated that he had told us this for our own interest and not to flaunt his superior knowledge, while his warm smile and use of the word "us" created an aura of camaraderie. He regularly spoke in this manner, and I loved him for it and respected him far more than if he had used his knowledge to diminish me.

Another example of sweet humility is to be found in Proverbs 30, where Agur son of Jakeh writes:

I am weary, O God; I am weary and worn out, O God. I am too ignorant to be human, and I lack common sense. I have not mastered human wisdom, nor do I know the Holy One.

Who but God goes up to heaven and comes back down? Who holds the wind in his fists? Who wraps up the oceans in his cloak? Who has created the whole wide world? What is his name—and his son's name? Tell me if you know! (1-4)

Here is profound humility. Not only does Agur not claim to understand the wisdom of God, he cries out that he has not even mastered common sense and human wisdom! As his oracle continues, it becomes apparent that he does have some wisdom to share. But even his wisdom is sometimes expressed in terms of things he does not understand (see verse 18).

One of the sweetest things about humility is its accompanying confidence. In an ironic paradox, pride, which presents itself as strong and confident, has a close relationship to insecurity, while humility, which overlooks itself, can be built only on an inner confidence. Insecurity tells a person his current size is unsatisfactory and that he has to inflate himself, whereas a person who is confident—that is, someone who trusts in God, for trust in anything else is false confidence—is able to honestly and sorrowfully admit his own faults. A humble person feels no need to respond in kind to deflating remarks because he has no pockets of hot air puffing him beyond his real size.

If pride is a green walnut, the bitterest taste ever to touch my tongue, humility is a honeycomb, the sweetest of all flavors.