Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Crooked Timber of Humanity

"Beautiful Imperfection"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

In my daily blog articles I often talk about the stunning beauty of the desert where we live, usually posting a picture of the wilderness outside our home. The other day, referring to one of my pictures, someone asked me, "Why do you think the desert is so beautiful when it's just a pile of endless rocks, sand and stoney mountains? 

I've been thinking a good deal about that very "loaded"question. My guess is that the desert probably doesn't meet popular or acceptable standards for beauty. Lush green forests, a fawn standing by a gently flowing mountain stream, or perhaps ocean waves lapping against a white sand beach as a sailboat passes by at sunset - now that's a "perfect picture of beauty."

 But this is exactly why I think of the desert as being so stunning - the desert is beautiful because it isn't "picture perfect." It is dry and rocky, mountains so steep that some are impossible to climb, unbearable heat on a summer's day, and yet it is also excitingly wild and utterly expansive - the spanning vistas riddled with cacti and smelling like lavender. It is beautifully imperfect - a daily reminder to me of what it means to be a human being. 

An op-ed article in today's New York Times made me think about the lesson that my "less-than-perfect" beautiful desert teaches me. The article referred to the myriad of self-help advice books on the market in today's popular culture:

Most advice, whether on love or business or politics, is based on the premise that we can just will ourselves into being rational and good and that the correct path to happiness is a straight turn yourself into a superstar by discipline and then everything will be swell.

The article goes on to suggest that this is not how human beings work. There is no path of any human being that follows a "perfectly" straight line achieved through discipline or by following the recipe of some magic formula for success: 

Human beings are 'crooked timber.' We are to varying degrees foolish, weak and often just plain inexplicable and always will be. As Kant put it: 'Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.'

As I see it we can never really be truly happy if we think the path to happiness flows in a straight line. We can never find deeper peace by defining of our humanity in "either-or" terms: Either we are good or we are bad, beautiful or ugly, smart or dumb, strong or weak.  

Every human being is all of the above. We are not "either-or," we are "both-and." We are a mixture of light and shadows, and that wonderful, messy mix is exactly what makes the "picture" of our human condition so stunningly beautiful - so beautifully imperfect. 

Sometimes people turn to religion or walk on a spiritual path in order to achieve perfection in life. They think that their religious beliefs and spiritual practice will provide disciplined formulae that lead to the living of perfect flawless lives. As I see it, people who look for that straight-line path of perfection will ultimately wind up in a dead end. 

It is only when we are able to acknowledge our "crooked timber nature" that we can be vulnerable enough to accept and forgive our mistakes, sometimes even find amusement in our foibles, and enjoy the ride that takes us every which way without ever going in a straight line.  

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