In the domain of action, an essential first step is doing nothing, when that is the best we can do.
- If anyone who has been once or twice warned remains obdurate, do not argue with him . . . [Thomas à Kempis , The Imitation of Christ (ca. 1450).]
- During the next half-century and more, my race must continue passing through the severe American crucible. We are to be tested in our patience, our forbearance, our perseverance, our power to endure wrong, to withstand temptations, to economize, to acquire and use skill; in our ability to compete, to succeed in commerce, to disregard the superficial for the real, the appearance for the substance, to be great and yet small, learned and yet simple, high and yet the servant of all. [Booker T. Washington, The Future of the American Negro: “Solution of Cheap Cotton“]
- For men whose ambition neither seas nor mountains, nor unpeopled deserts can limit, nor the bounds dividing Europe from Asia confine their vast desires, it would be hard to expect to forbear from injuring one another when they touch, and are close together. These are ever naturally at war, envying and seeking advantages of one another, and merely make use of those two words, peace and war, like current coin, to serve their occasions, not as justice but as expediency suggests, and are really better men when they openly enter on a war, than when they give to the mere forbearance from doing wrong, for want of opportunity, the sacred names of justice and friendship. [Plutarch, Lives: Pyrrhus]
- Formed to live with such an imperfect being as man they ought to learn from the exercise of their faculties the necessity of forbearance: but all the sacred rights of humanity are violated by insisting on blind obedience; or, the most sacred rights belong only to man. The being who patiently endures injustice, and silently bears insults, will soon become unjust, or unable to discern right from wrong . . . [Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Chapter 5.]
Before we even begin to work on affirmative virtues like generosity or responsibility, we will devote this week and the next to establishing a framework for what we will not do. No doubt I could look back on my own childhood as a guidepost, if I could see it objectively enough to evaluate it along these lines. My children will be delighted to know that I remember their childhoods better than my own, and so I will use one or both of those as a framework for this discussion – no mentioning of names but you know who you are. I noticed that the first order of business in the moral training of children is to get the little critters’ attention. With some children – again, no names will be mentioned – this can be a prolonged and difficult undertaking. The object is to conform the child to certain standards of behavior, such as not throwing a tantrum when one does not have one’s way. This is known as forbearance, an art the parent is practicing while waiting for the child to learn it. Done successfully, it sets the framework for many years during which the once-child lives a productive and responsible life.
Forbearance is the action component of humility. It is a purposeful absence of action, the taming of desire, sometimes humorously expressed as “the basic confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s desire to choke the living daylights out of some jerk who desperately deserves it.”
We are at a very early point in spiritual development. In fact, we have not even reached the commandment stage, as in “thou shalt not kill.” There is no content in the deferential virtue of forbearance; we are simply mastering the skills of overriding our reptilian inclinations. In that, a little humor may be useful. Sometimes it even works out pretty well.
Film and Stage
- Before the Rain, making the point that “there can be no innocent bystanders in an explosive, hair-trigger world”
- The Odd Couple: can two divorced men, one a slob and the other obsessively neat, share an apartment without killing each other?
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Vincenzo Bellini, La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker) (1831) (approx. 128=145’), is about withholding judgment and rash action. It is “a story of a simple serving maid whose virtue is questioned and then re-established when it is revealed she is a sleepwalker.” “Why was the young lady dozing in the wrong man's room? She'd been sleepwalking -- it could happen to anybody!” “. . . there is a profound political lesson in this simple pastoral story . . . ‘La Sonnambula’ celebrates reason over superstition, true love over spoken words of love, and it wages an effective attack against the senses being the unique arbiter of truth.” Video-recorded performances are conducted by Badea in 1979, Arena in 1996, and Chaslin. Top audio-only recorded performances are by Callas & Valetti & in 1955, Callas & Monti in 1957, Sutherland & Pavarotti in 1982, and Bartoli & Flórez in 2008.
In South Africa during apartheid, the perpetrators were guilty. The townships were segregated areas populated by poor black South Africans, living near wealthy white residents. Township music arose out of this environment. The work of several leading performers displays an optimistic spirit, resisting the temptation to lash out musically against the injustice that engulfed them. They include:
- The Movers was active in the 1960s and 1970s, and was “one of the South African soul scene’s foremost bands with a legacy of over a dozen albums and numerous hit singles . . .”
- The Boyoyo Boys “are a four-piece band from Soweto, South Africa. Formed in 1969, they are among the founders of mbaqanga or township jive, the music of shebeens (illegal drinking halls) in the country's impoverished townships.”. The group played an important role in Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album.
- Amaswazi Emvelo: “Formed in the early 1970s they came to Western attention on the compilation LP "The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto" with the song Thul'ulalele.”
- Moses Mchunu “was one of the leading vocalists in the raucous Zulu ‘jive’ style, which gave way to mbaqanga. Mchunu’s band typified its appeal, featuring driving rhythms and instruments such as guitar, violin and concertinas, together with powerful blues-based vocals.”
- Dorothy Masuka. “Two of her . . . songs . . . so infuriated the South African police’s notorious Special Branch that they seized and destroyed the master tapes.”
- Johnny Clegg, a white South African, has continued and riffed on this musical tradition.
- Amos Oz, Judas: A Novel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016): “The novel grapples with the humanity of Jesus; the basis of anti-Semitism in particular and prejudice in general; the hope for eventual peace in the state of Israel; love. Oz pitches the book’s heartbreak and humanism perfectly from first page to last, as befits a writer who understands how vital a political role a novelist can play.”