Shakespeare’s Friar Lawrence (on wisdom in love)

Everyone knows the play, Romeo and Juliet, but fewer have read carefully enough to note that it is not the story of a “perfect love”, but the story of impulsive, even mad behaviour by the lovers, by Juliet’s distant and self-absorbed parents, and by Romeo’s friends, to say nothing of a city poisoned by the “ancient grudge” between the Montagues and the Capulets. Friar Lawrence, though a coward in the end, tries to heal fractured Verona and be a loving father confessor for Romeo. When Romeo “stand[s] on sudden haste” in marrying Juliet, Lawrence chides him (Act 2 Scene 3):

“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.”

Later, though he is daunted by the desperation of the young lovers (Juliet has already threatened suicide), he again speaks of wisdom and the true nature of love. Nobody listens, even 400 years after Shakespeare wrote the lines:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite:
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow. (Act 2 Scene 6)

We still prefer the Balcony Scene, and yes, Billy did some pretty great writing there, too.

W.L. Garrison (on the need for immoderation)

Intellectually, I believe in moderation, and I have proved for myself that “moderation in all things” — at least for many of the things life has brought to me — is among the most valuable of principles and a guide to right living. But I enjoy blizzards and heat waves, and some tunes just have to be played loud. And my goodness, I love and wish to echo the passion for justice in Garrison’s defiant eloquence. Listen:

“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.”


William Lloyd Garrison (December 13, 1805 – May 24, 1879) was a prominent American journalist, and social reformer. He edited the radical abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, and in the first edition — published in 1831, when Garrison was only 26! — he wrote the above challenge/threat/promise/vow. He was one of America’s greatest voices for justice, not only a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society but also a campaigner for women’s suffrage.

Save the Thinking for Later

I ran this morning, and it was surprisingly good. After a November that was sickly and often rather blue, I’ve begun to re-establish a (physical) fitness routine, which includes a half-hour run every other day. It’s been going fairly well, considering the draggy condition of my posterior during that sorry excuse for a month, but today I didn’t feel at all like running – until I was five minutes in.

Prayer is like that. The disciplines of prayer and meditation have rarely felt easy or natural for me. Although I grew up in a faithful, churchgoing family, I didn’t learn to pray, and certainly not with any system to it; there were only the odd rapid-fire mutterings of grace before a special meal. Though a Baha’i seeks moderation, this one has always been fond of extremes in temperature, immoderate efforts in sport and elsewhere, and those edges of life that “proved”, however uselessly or painfully, that I was no average Jay. Throw in a little melancholy perfectionism, and I found the pathway to prayer free and open only when I felt especially good (read “worthy to approach the sacred threshold”) or remarkably bad (read “emotional free-fall”, “worthy to approach the rocky bottom”). Spirit feast or soul famine. Yet I’ve discovered – and it has felt lovely and fresh every uncountable time – that, mainly, I only really feel like praying once I’m praying. I found that out this morning. (Again!)

In the four months I’ve been heading toward or living in China, the walls to writing have seemed similarly high. For awhile, though I had a very fuzzy imagination of myself being set free to make new word-things here, I was paying attention to the thousand things that a newbie  needs and wants to do. How do we enrol our son in school? Buy groceries? Find this? Understand that? And then I started to think about writing, about creating the psychological and physical space in our modest apartment, about how hard it is here, about the books/time/energy/order I wish I had, and the disappointment of being so far behind writerly young men that I once tutored in the art.

And then I started to write, hesitantly. And it’s early days, yet, but I think I’m remembering that the way in to writing is to write. (As if I hadn’t taught that, not least to myself, for centuries.) It’s such an old and stubborn error: we imagine an existential order in which we have values, and then realize them outwardly; in which we have a recognizable emotion or intellectual impulse and then act upon it. But all the artists who have “gone pro” (as one hard-bitten writing coach put it), all the great Sages, and all the top jock gurus know that it’s often the other way ‘round.

Inspiration comes to those who show up at their workbench, expecting it.

Certitude comes to those who practise, though uncertain.

Guys who can run can run ‘cause they run, so run!

When All Else Fails…

If all else fails, lower your expectations!

For a long time, I hated this advice. It came directly from the dark, satanic mills of despair and cynicism. It was an excuse for uselessness. But no more!

In somewhat the same way as some black Americans have re-appropriated the n-word (but without the lingering odour of disgust), or that some gays have embraced their “queer” status (but without the perverse acceptance of marginalization, be it ever so giddy), I am reclaiming this phrase as a healing medicine. Where once it signified the jaded “whatever” of the terminally disappointed, for me it now means something like “do your best to make the world better, but don’t break yourself against the walls”.

The “if all else fails” part is key. To start by giving ourselves only basement-level hopes is crippling and just plain sad. On the other hand, for those of us who chronically expect the near-impossible of others and especially ourselves – not only being all things to all people but trying to be everything we might ever be all at one time – lowering expectations is a balm and a consolation. It doesn’t mean failure and it’s not about giving up on growth. It’s more a case of putting into regular, sustainable practice a less feverish intensity. (Oh, my goodness: it’s about moderation. What a concept!)

And it only took me a couple of decades to figure it out. I’m not very good at it yet, but I fully expect to master it immediately. (Or maybe next week, latest.)