Monday, July 18, 2011


Hey there, NIP…

            Life has been flowering lately. Or at least it seems that way to me. Erin and I just returned from several days in the mountains of northern Georgia. We went hiking, did our yoga practice on the back deck looking out into the trees, spent time with family and tried to rejuvenate ourselves as much as possible. On the whole this summer has been incredible. Much has been accomplished in the first few weeks, especially for this upcoming year’s Philosophy Honors and World Religions classes. The time off has given me ample time for reflection, both on my teaching in general and on grand ideas in particular. Though the philosophy textbook is an introductory one, it has had a powerful effect on my thinking. Metaphorically speaking, it would be akin to the feeling one gets when coming home after a vacation or some other prolonged absence, or perhaps visiting with old friends with whom you haven’t seen face to face in years. And while Heraclitus, Aristotle, Diogenes and friends have been enlightening in their own ways, they have been the prelude to the sagacious spirit of one thinker in particular.

            Mr. Howard Thurman. Howard Thurman is my favorite Christian theologian, but I use that label hesitantly. Mystic is probably a much more accurate description of Thurman. His ability to transcend any barrier and deeply touch upon the human condition is the hallmark of his philosophy. Regardless of labels, Thurman’s genius was forgotten or overlooked by history. Among many notable accomplishments, he went to seminary with Martin Luther King Sr. and later mentored MLK Jr., who went on to carry a copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited in his briefcase at all times for spiritual nourishment. Thurman also began the first church for all faiths in San Francisco in the 1940’s, was the first black dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, a distinguished professor, and penned many tomes. While I haven’t read all of his books, I’m more than half way through and own most because I purchased them with the intent to finish his entire list of works. Before we left for Georgia, I ran upstairs to grab a book on an intuitive urge to read some Thurman. As I glanced at the unread titles, Deep Is the Hunger immediately caught my eye. Not because I was familiar with its subject matter, but because I loved the title. It resonated within me because of my voracious appetite for knowledge and wisdom. Little did I know, however, that the book was not a standard Thurman opus; instead I discovered a collection of short essays he wrote to be read aloud and meditated upon, something he would do before his regular Sunday services wherever he was pastor at the time. There are hardly any pages I haven’t underlined passages in, scribbled marginalia in the spaces between essays, and contemplated deeply. So much of Thurman’s wisdom has been a foundation for how I try to conduct my life. For who or what I am capable of becoming. A better person, a better human being. It’s also what I hope (perhaps foolishly?) all people are striving to do.

            In order to become a better person, I’ve been trying each day to embrace life more and more. Some days are more difficult than others, as we all have moments when we fall short of our best. At least now I’m consciously aware of them and do my best to make amends. But as these last few years have proven, my life has become better and better—if only incrementally—because I have chosen to wholly embrace life. The more I seriously ponder life, the more I feel grateful, blessed, and humbled. Out of this has arisen meaning. A meaning that I didn’t have before in my life. My life really began to have new meaning when I met Erin, even more so when we wed. These last two years or so, however, have been something else. Erin has undoubtedly been the foundation for this growth, but I feel it fanning outward. Thurman calls this experience “the growing edge,” as if it somehow extends its own diameter from the center of our experience, encompassing and affirming more and more of life. I can’t really express what I feel the way that Thurman’s words can, so I will leave you with one of his short meditative essays from Deep Is the Hunger, NIP. I hope you enjoy these words and perhaps they will stir something in your heart as well.

            Is this a world with moral meaning at the center? This is the primary question. It must be answered before other questions can even be asked. True, it can never be answered with proof and finality, but some answer must be given on the level of faith. In history, men have often tried to side-step facing the question by saying “We can never know”; but it cannot be side-stepped. To decide not to decide is to decide against. The negation of inactivity is just as potent as the emphatic vocal “No!” Only when one has said “Yes,” or has said “No,” or has given what amounts to “No” by saying nothing—only then can one face the other basic problems: since there is meaning, what is the nature of that meaning? Or since there is no meaning, how shall we act in accordance with this terrible negative? Life affirmation is not possible unless we summon enough courage to make the first basic act of faith: “I believe there is moral meaning at the center of life!” Unfortunately, it is easily possible—much too easily possible—to make this affirmation with gusto and enthusiasm without really meaning it. Not that it is easy to be insincere, but that it is difficult to really mean it. This is simply because there is evidence on either side. We see the sordid and tragic in life; we see the pain and suffering. This is evidence, we may say, against there being meaning at the center. Then we see beauty, truth, love and fulfillment, and we say, “This is evidence on behalf of meaning.” And the evidence is always straining within us. In consequence, we may decide intellectually in favor of meaning, only to find our subconscious casting a dissenting ballot. Douglas Steere says most of us are not integrated selves but each of us is a whole committee of selves and decisions are made by a majority vote. The result is a vocal life affirmation, and active life negation. We are committed to meaning only in an equivocal way. Therefore, the great labor of life, after we have made the initial life affirmation, is to validate the decision in practice. After all, how can one believe that life has meaning, if his own life does not have meaning. No words, no matter how eloquently and enthusiastically uttered, can replace the expressiveness of action. Indeed, words become true when they are lived, and they become untrue when the living of them is neglected. We shall always be ambivalent, and our “Yes” will never have the total assent of our total wills. Our great labor is simply to bring active affirmation as close to possible to vocal affirmation. All else is subsidiary.

Keep affirming life, NIP.

- Ryan    

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