William Edelen: Reflections at age 90…

Toward the Mystery

On Tuesday, July 17th, I reach 90 years of age. As I reflect back on these years, it is fairly easy for me to find the thought, or thoughts, that have shaped my life, my outlook and attitudes, and guided my path regardless of criticism or attacks by those living in the boxes and cages they have chosen for their own confinement.

I realized that the key and path to MEDIOCRITY could be found in worry about the foolishness of public opinion, in “moderation,” in “convention” and “conformity.” Two giant thinkers helped and encouraged me on this path. KRISHNAMURTI, of whom Deepak Chopra said, “He made it possible for me to break through the confines of my own self-imposed restrictions to my freedom”; and a brilliant Aldous Huxley using almost exactly the same language.

And the other giant thinker was the Federal Judge LEARNED HAND, who in his career never had one word of an opinion changed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

My own thoughts were these before being encouraged by the writings of the two men mentioned. A most meaningless cliché is “moderation in all things.” Moderation is the key to mediocrity. Moderation is defined as: “staying within accepted limits.” Creative and uncommon people who are memorable and who use their time on this Earth to the fullest are usually most immoderate and never stay within the accepted limits.

The Sadducees and the Pharisees stayed within the accepted limits of Hebrew law. Jesus did neither. He immoderately loved those whom the Pharisees despised, and he immoderately shattered a great many of their rules and traditions. The most creative giants of civilization, in all disciplines, have forgotten themselves into immortality by vast immoderate creativity and contributions and by never “staying within accepted limits.”

Our obsession with outside “authority,” whether in institutions or individuals, ensures that we remain emotionally and spiritually dwarfed as children. Human beings, in the mass, sink unconsciously to an inferior moral and intellectual level. Human beings, in the mass, like sheep, obeying and following the “accepted limits” of outside authorities end up as zeros as individuals who never listen to their inner voice, their inner intuition, their own reason. The tragedy of this for society is that a million zeros joined together add up to ZERO, and not even to one.

I turned from my thinking to Krishnamurti who wrote: “CONVENTION leads to MEDIOCRITY. Conventional education makes independent thinking extremely difficult. We are turning out, as if through a mold, a type of human being whose primary interest is to find security, to become important, or to have a good time with as little thought as possible. Conventional education puts an end to spontaneity and breeds fear. It is this fear that kills the spirit. Our entire upbringing and education have made us afraid to be different from our neighbor, and to think contrary to the established pattern of society, falsely respectful of authority and tradition. Highly awakened intelligence is INTUITION, which is the only true guide in life.”

I can tell you, in all truth, that years ago, 50 to be exact, it was the brilliant essays of Federal Judge LEARNED HAND that encouraged me to choose the path of independent thinking. This awesome thinker had no superior in the jurisprudence of the English-speaking world. I discovered his book The Spirit of Liberty, The Addresses of Learned Hand, Alfred A. Knopf, 1960. And in those essays I found my north star, my directions for my life’s path. I find these words brilliant, eloquent and profound, “We pour our libations to our traditions, long after they have ceased to mean what they once did.”

“My thesis is that any organization of society which depresses doubting and controversy, along with free and spontaneous meddling is on the decline. Liberty is gone, little as its members may know it. Once you get people believing that there is an authoritative well of wisdom to which they can turn for absolutes, you have dried up the springs. As soon as we cease to pry about, to doubt, question and challenge, we shall come to rely upon accredited bodies of authoritative dogma; and as soon as we come to rely upon accredited bodies of authoritative dogma, not only are the days of our Liberty over, but we have lost the password of freedom and truth that has hitherto opened to us the gates of freedom.

If you accept this it will cast you in the role of Prometheus, whose role was defying the Powers of the World. Your audience may be very small; indeed, it is possible that there will be none at all. But the lead is a man’s part, and perhaps some of us can fill it….”

These thoughts, among others, are the true heart of my reflections as I look back over my 90 years, and the “true path” (as the Lakota say) of my life. I would do nothing differently. From Marine Corps pilot flying, to University teaching, to reflective groups of Symposium thinkers, it has been a good, productive and creative trip. And my doctor told me last week that I have at least another good ten to go and he would bet that I easily will hit 100. At that age, I will write you again, about “reflections at 100.” Stay tuned.

One Comment

I’ve always believed in excess in moderation. It’s worked for me. The only thing I have become more sure of as I age is we know nothing of what’s really going on, or what to do about it. But we like to pretend we do. It keeps us “sane.”