In The Imagination of Their Hearts

As I am writing this, it is Visitation Day in the Christian tradition – the day that pregnant Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth (who is herself pregnant with John the Baptist). Elizabeth acknowledges that Mary is carrying a very important baby. Mary responds with the Magnificat, which includes this line in the King James Version: He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts (Luke 1:51). I have long been puzzled as to what “the imagination of their hearts” might mean (surely nothing good from the context), but I found this alternative translation in the Good News Bible: “scattered the proud with all their plans.” This would certainly seem to be a lesson for our time. How many plans have been turned upside down by Covid-19? By the recent unrest in our cities? By life? As older people, we should have learned by now to expect the unexpected, and yet we look at each other over the breakfast table as life changes unexpectedly in yet another way and say, “Can you believe it?”

Of course, lately this blow to the way we anticipated life to be is collective. We are all suffering in some form of quarantine. My daughter recently gave birth to twins in a distant state, and we are pining that it is probably not quite safe to travel. I had to cut my own bangs and now I look pretty much the way I did in my second-grade pictures. Big things and little things.

But to realize that plans (and the way that we cling to plans) are just a trap – isn’t that one of the things we should have learned by now? We cling to our plans because we want them to come true. We cling to many beliefs that we would like to think are totally rational. Mostly this is a survival mechanism, but sometimes it is a threat to survival. Sometimes it is downright dangerous. Think about not preparing for a pandemic. Think about not responding to climate change.

There is a famous essay written in 1877 by an English mathematician named William Clifford. He starts by giving the example of a man who believes his ship is safe; it has problems, but he has convinced himself that it is plenty seaworthy. It sinks and passengers die. Clifford says that the man is guilty because he “had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, by stifling his doubts.” Stifling doubts is a comfortable way to live as long as there are no repercussions, no instant karma (more on karma next time). In addition to meaning that we plan inadequately for things like pandemics and climate change, it means that we panic when things don’t turn out as planned. And they almost never turn out as planned. My daughter did not intend to have twins; I did not intend to have to cut my own bangs. Accepting this means a couple of things, I think. It means that we would plan for more contingencies (from pandemics to cancelled flights), and we would be less upset when things don’t proceed as we anticipated.

Everyone likes to think their life is a story and they know how the story goes. In Finite and Infinite Games (highly recommended), James Carse says that “there is a risk of supposing that because we know our lives have the character of narrative, we also know what the narrative is,” but, he concludes, “true storytellers do not know their own story.” True individually and communally. Who would have guessed that Covid would have been overlaid by civil unrest, a time when people are so angry and frustrated they ignore the risks to their health and safety and take to the streets? Who can know how it will end? The ones who think they know are dangerous. The ones who think they can control it are even more dangerous.

One might remember Oliver Cromwell’s admonition: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” You may be right, but (unlike the Fonz) think that it is possible that you are mistaken, that you do not know.

The old have a reputation for being set in their ways. Maybe we are, but you would think it would be the opposite. We elders have had so much experience in having things deviate from our expectations, flexibility should be something we have learned well. But, sadly, that it is not the case with me or many others. However, this quarantine season has forced me to rethink many things, including my beliefs about how things are and (more importantly) how they will or ought to be. We cannot turn into total sceptics; it is reasonable to assume that the sun will rise tomorrow. But putting our faith in unexamined beliefs, mistaking beliefs or hopes for facts, can be deadly. I don’t like the results when other people do it, when my government does it, and I will redouble my efforts not to do it myself.

You might try reading my story “Back to the Garden” to be reminded of two things: 1) anything can happen, and 2) Joni Mitchell was right that we have to find our way back to the garden. When we marched in the 60’s, we thought we were on the path (in the “imagination of our hearts”), but we seem to have lost our way.

The Advice of the Old

I have written before about the difficulty of the young learning from the old (Teach Your Children Well), and whether we can teach the value of what we have experienced. It is an ancient problem – Gilgamesh and Odysseus are two who scorned the advice of their elders. And then there was Rehobo’am, the son and heir of Solomon:

Rehobo′am went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. 2 And when Jerobo′am the son of Nebat heard of it (for he was still in Egypt, whither he had fled from King Solomon), then Jerobo′am returned from[a] Egypt. 3 And they sent and called him; and Jerobo′am and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehobo′am, 4 “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke upon us, and we will serve you.” 5 He said to them, “Depart for three days, then come again to me.” So the people went away.
6 Then King Rehobo′am took counsel with the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” 7 And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants for ever.” 8 But he forsook the counsel which the old men gave him, and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him. 9 And he said to them, “What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the yoke that your father put upon us’?” 10 And the young men who had grown up with him said to him, “Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but do you lighten it for us’; thus shall you say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. 11 And now, whereas my father laid upon you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.’  1 Kings 12: 1-11

The old men counseled mercy, while the young men counseled the opposite – show them who is the boss. Rehobo′am took the advice of the young men, which caused the division of his father’s kingdom.

Now, old men do not always advise mercy. It is said that old men started WWI and were the ones who kept the Viet Nam War going while the young men paid the price. But I think in many ways, age brings mercy. Understanding. We have seen a lot, and we know that “things are seldom what they seem,” to quote Gilbert and Sullivan. We know that suffering goes on that we do not see for we have suffered and kept it to ourselves. And hopefully, we have realized that we are mistaken often enough not to assume the righteous position.

Maybe this is the most valuable teaching from our experience. When we cannot be sure, the quality of mercy is warranted. Plato tells us that the wisest thing about Socrates was that he knew what he did not know. In The Apology, Plato has Socrates expound on this: “Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.” It has been my experience that young people are looking for answers; old people have found only one answer: we cannot always know and if we think we know, we may be wrong. We want to cry with Oliver Cromwell, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

My story this time, “Sylvia the Saint,” is about a young woman who is mistaken. It is the kind of mistake that we all have made (and continue making) which teaches us that things are not always what they seem. So hopefully, in times and places of unknowing, we learn to withhold judgment and apply mercy.