January 5, 2010

Dear Colleague:  

A young friend spent his Christmas and New Year holidays with his family in Duluth, Minnesota. While taking a walk with a young woman in the woods, he popped the question, “Will you marry me?” She said yes, and so begins a deep and most promising relationship. My friend was pleasantly surprised that he asked, for, like so many of us, he tended to hesitate and so let opportunities slip by. I am very happy for him. I commend him for acting, and can’t help citing a famous incident in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to demonstrate the folly of hesitation.

Koznyshev felt that he had to make their position clear. Everything about Varenka–her look, her blush, her lowered eyes–showed that she was in a state of painful suspense. He felt that he had to say something and so went over in his mind all the arguments in favor of his decision. He repeated to himself the words in which he had intended to propose to her. But instead of those words, by some sort of unaccountable idea that came into his mind, he suddenly asked:

“What’s the difference between a white and a birch mushroom?”

Varenka’s lips trembled with agitation when she replied: “There is hardly any difference in the cap. It’s the stalks that are different.”

And the moment those words were uttered, both he and she understood that it was all over, that what should have been said would never be said (Book 6, chapter 5).

Life is full of missed opportunities, be it as small as asking a simple question. In the legend of Parsifal, Amfortas, the wounded king, had the Bleeding Lance and the Holy Grail brought into the room. Parsifal did not ask the king what ailed him, or what all this meant. His teacher had told him that a courteous man does not ask too many questions, and he obeyed. But because of his silence the wasteland remained sterile, and the wound of Amfortas was not healed. Eventually Parzifal, that brave man slowly wise, came back to the castle and asked Amfortas the redemptive question, “Uncle, what’s wrong with you?” Only then was Amfortas healed, and only then did his land turn fertile (Philip P. Hallie).

So, dear colleague, ask. Silence is sterile and can even kill. Don’t hesitate too long, though, whether in words and in deeds for, as Hobbes observed, “Hell is truth seen too late.” It is a poor spirit who does not sense the chagrin of the tardy Crillon, who arriving when the battle is over is greeted by Henry IV with the words, “Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there.” Were you there when the University Senate fought over the merits and demerits of affirmative action? Or did you remain silent?

“In art, as in morality, great things go by the board because at the crucial moment we blink our eyes. When is the crucial moment? Greatness is to recognize it and be able to hold it and extend it. But for most of us the space between ‘dreaming on things to come’ and ‘it is too late, it is all over’ is too tiny to enter. And so we let each thing go, thinking vaguely that it will always be given to us to try again. Thus works of art, and thus whole lives of men, are spoilt by blinking and moving quickly on” (Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince).

Happy New Year!



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