Folk Wisdom for the Modern Era

At meeting this past Sunday a Friend’s message asked for help. Specifically she described a particular situation that was troubling her, namely the latest development of our militaristic society, the way that technology-based warfare can create atrocities just as easily as human hands. In so doing, she asked for specific prayers from those gathered for worship. I believe she was lamenting, in part, how human achievement can be so useful and so destructive at the same time. Many Friends rose to fulfill her request. They were so numerous, honestly, that I now have trouble now recalling all of them. One woman recited aloud the Lord’s Prayer, which I memorized at a young age, as many do. Others provided words of comfort that were utterly foreign to me, but no less intriguing.

I myself would have gladly contributed, had a message arrived clearly that compelled me to speak. Sometimes in worship I get a fragment or two and no more. That was the case here. Sharing those out of context might seem a tad odd. In particular, what I received was a few lines from Rudyard Kipling’s immortal poem, “If–”

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn out tools.

Much of what we create with good intentions can be manipulated for sordid ends. But, as an earlier line in the work reminds us, Triumph and Disaster are impostors. They are mere wind, hyperbole in place as a means to some end. This is not that our concerns are meaningless or invalid, but that it is easy to become believers in two polar extremes. As I monitor the news, I sometimes laugh to see how frequently the coverage shifts from thrilling victory to devastating defeat and back. With the upcoming midterm elections a few days away, we are about to enter a hyperbolic period where the winner and losers of a contest may switch places until the final votes are counted, with or without an automatic recount. The media will drive our perceptions and frame the debate for us, as always.

The Truth we speak will always be twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools. It’s true for ordinary citizens and especially true for those seeking positions of great power and authority. This is not to seem dismissive of our individual concerns, but only to assert that so long as there is the promise of material gain, people will do anything that they can to achieve it. Sometimes the most absolutely imbecilic political ads I have ever seen prove to be the most effective of all. Sometimes not. Part of Politics 101 is the notion that well-run campaigns have us relate directly to whomever is running for office. The instant an otherwise complete stranger becomes equated with each of us individually and that, moreover, our future seems invested with theirs, then a campaign’s electioneering is an unqualified success.

The human condition, as I understand it, is packed full of evidence and proof of struggle. Life itself could be defined as a person’s struggle with adversity and his or her victory over it. We never escape hard times, conflicts, or realizations that cause us pain. Quantity and proportion are not terribly relevant in the end.

One of my most favorite poems of all time is Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.”


Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

   It’s had tacks in it,

   And splinters,

   And boards torn up,

   And places with no carpet on the floor-


   But all the time

   I’se been a-climbin’ on,

   And reachin’ landin’s,

   And turnin’ corners,

   And sometimes goin’ in the dark

   Where there ain’t been no light.

   So, boy, don’t you turn back.

   Don’t you set down on the steps.

   ‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

   Don’t you fall now-

   For I’se still goin’, honey,

   I’se still climbin’,

   And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

From the perspective of someone whose life has never been easy, I implore us all to keep on making their way up that hazardous staircase. Win or lose, rich or poor, we’re all climbing. If we had a few words of wisdom to share with our fellow beings in times of strife, we would be all the better for it. What stories of ours will survive us to future generations? What advice can we provide to those who carry on after us?


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