Saturday, January 4, 2014

uncompromising applause

Among the Internet dictionary definitions of the verb "compromise" are these:
-- to solve a problem or end an argument by accepting that you cannot have everything that you want
--to risk harming or losing something important
Whether personally or socially, no one has to look very far to see that compromise can be a wise and peaceful activity without which there are sometimes chaotic and sometimes brutal results. From politics to marriage to ecumenism to baseball, if participants run around proclaiming that only their individual philosophy or belief will do ... well, not only is there less chance of a wider accomplishment, but also there is a lot of anguish. From this vantage point, compromise comes in for a lot of well-deserved praise. Look how much we can do together, in concert, in harmony ... or anyway something like harmony!

But then there is the other edge of the sword called "compromise" --  the risk posed by going-along-to-get-along. If every situation means accepting that you cannot have everything you want, at what point do you get what you may want very badly ... something you will not compromise because that poses an unacceptable risk of harming or losing what is important?

If everyone always agrees, it may produce an outward serenity. It may also produce an insufferable mediocrity in which no (wo)man is ever really called on to do his or her best from his or her point of view. Somehow, to compromise may be wonderful and productive and it may be bland and demeaning.

Beethoven did not create a symphony by committee. The greatness of Tolstoy can hardly be imagined as arising out of some earnest round-table discussion. No more is it easy to imagine that Gautama or Jesus or Mohammad were willing to "risk harming or losing something important."

Jesuitical thinkers and hug fanatics may argue that to compromise without compromising is the way to go, or that circumstances dictate where to "hold 'em" and where to "fold 'em," but for the individual I imagine  verbal legerdemain lacks much savor. 
On the one hand, no one can do whatever s/he wants without repercussions, but, on the other, not-doing-whatever-s/he-wants can feel sluggish, second-hand, and cowardly... and as if something important has been harmed or lost.

This sketchy appreciation can go on and on, but what crosses my mental bow at the moment is the extent to which anyone's spiritual life may be a compromise of socially-agreeable comfort and to what extent it refuses to "risk harming or losing something important."

In order to "risk harming or losing something important" in spiritual life, it seems to me that the individual would have to know precisely what it is that is "important." Knowing this from the get-go is unlikely: If someone knew precisely what was important, there would be no need to embark on a spiritual adventure in the first place.

Perhaps, then, there is just a bit of hope, a bit of belief and a hunch to begin with. And it is in the world of compromise, of going along and getting along, of curtailing personal leanings in favor of some peaceable spiritual kingdom, that the adventure can begin ... a realm that has a history and has expositors and has costumes and has buildings and has various sorts of magic and practices. And when someone of stature says, "This is the right way," the initiate answers, "Amen!" This is a sanctified union of hearts and voices and it is capable of generating its own warming and generous praise.

When I was younger, I went to several folk-music concerts given by Pete Seeger, the old socialist rabble-rouser who was both pointed and a lot of fun. And at each concert, Seeger would play some song that the audience was invited to join. Since the audiences were often large, the sound was enormous. It was enthralling. It was delicious ... and when the song was done, the audience would applaud Seeger loudly ... a swoon of cheers. It was delicious in the way that a post-orgasmic rest period can be delicious ... emptied out, warm, together ... Jeeeeesus! What a magician Seeger was ....
as magical, perhaps, as a spiritual congregation.

And then, of course, the thought will not be denied: Was the audience applauding Seeger or were they applauding themselves? Their voices filled the auditorium just like their applause. Whether led or not led, this individual voice was just that -- individual ... individual and uncompromising and uncompromised. This observation is not to denigrate the current magician or circumstance of life -- Seeger or any other individual or setting. It is just to notice.
 This voice, whether in field or mountains or auditorium, is utterly itself. It does not compare or contrast or elevate or denigrate ... it just is ... uncompromised and uncompromising. It is inescapable. It requires no assent or debate. It is not better because it rises in harmony and not worse if dissonance is what it can muster.

It cannot be lost and it cannot be harmed, but knowing its importance strikes me as worth knowing in a world of compromise.

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