Holding Things Lightly
In the February issue of Poetry magazine, there is a collection of essays by contemporary poets on the connections between poetry and faith. One of the most interesting is a piece by Jane Hirschfield, a poet who is a longtime student of Zen Buddhism. Many things appealed to me about this essay, but I confess to a difficulty with its title: “Think assailable thoughts, or be lonely.”
“Think assailable thoughts, or be lonely.” As I stared at that sentence, I tried to make sense of it. What could she possibly mean? What is an “assailable” thought? What is the connection between “unassailable” thoughts and loneliness? And what does any of this have to do with poetry, let alone God?
When I was in high school, I regularly took part in speech and debate tournaments. One of the ways we train people to think is to ask them to develop an argument and then to support it with examples or evidence that will be convincing. The aim of rhetoric is to persuade people to your point of view. We do that by marshalling evidence that supports our argument, refuting examples that would go against it.
One of the interesting things about debating, though, is that when you are on a debate team you have to prepare both sides of an argument. If you do it right, you learn the strengths and weaknesses of each position. Usually you will side personally with one of the points of view. But you will also, in your secret heart, know that your position is “assailable”. It has weaknesses. It is open to correction.
In our culture we tend to admire people who know what they think and who hold tenaciously to a position. But Jane Hirschfield’s Zen insight suggests another way for us to be. We might hold on to our positions more lightly. We might admit to ourselves that the truth we hold to is our truth, that all truth is provisional.
The poet Robert Frost said that we tell ourselves stories as “momentary stays against confusion”. What he meant was that as people we try to make sense of reality by making up a working hypothesis of how things are. But the key to spiritual health seems to be an ability to revise the story as things change. In his essay, “Circles”, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that one must prefer truth to our “past apprehension of truth”. People, like institutions, become ossified in what they hold on to. They build fortresses and monuments around a living reality. In other words, their thoughts become unassailable. And life inside a fortress may feel safe, but it is very lonely.
By saying this I do not mean to imply that we should not have any firm convictions. (I still remember the topic of the first impromptu speech I gave in high school: “If you become too open minded, your brains will fall out.”) Every faith community and every person has certain core affirmations around which they organize their lives. But if I prefer truth, in Emerson’s words, to my past apprehension of truth, I will be willing to adjust my understanding of how those core affirmations manifest themselves over time. As James Russell Lowell said in the great Abolitionist hymn, “New occasions teach new duties.”
“Think assailable thoughts, or be lonely.” The skills that we have all learned to articulate and support our arguments are the skills we use to help our point of view prevail. Even framing the practice that way suggests that life is some kind of contest, that what I want from our engagement with each other is victory rather than companionship. Living in community requires a different set of skills. As the philosopher Richard Rorty said, “Truth is made, not discovered.” Truth is something that emerges from our dialogue with and connection to each other. It is not a dead monument. It is a living stream.
As Lent approaches, I’m beginning to think about how I will organize my approach to it, and this year I’m thinking about how I learn to hold things more lightly. What I want is truth and community, not unassailable loneliness. To have the former, I’ll have to admit to much of what I affirm is a momentary stay against confusion, a provisional formation of how things look to me now. Seeing things this way I may win fewer arguments, but I hope I’ll have more companions along the way.