Years ago I came across a story about an old man who claimed to be a member of a circle he called The Flaming Sword of the Lord Fellowship.
As I have always loved reading about “town characters,” and this fellow appeared to be one of those guys, I read the piece.
I don’t recall the precise wording, but what struck me then and what has stuck with me ever since, went something like this: “I am 87 years old, and I ain’t changed my opinions since I was five years old!”
Too bad. Because that man was an unreconstructed racist with a bias against, well, just about everyone who wasn’t himself or who didn’t share his skin color. Catholics, Black folk, Jews, you name it. He was an equal opportunity hater.
When I finished the article, a famous line from the 1953 film “The Wild One” popped into my head. It was the moment when a woman asks Marlon Brando’s rebellious character, Johnny:
Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whadda ya got?
Substitute the word “hating” for “rebelling,” make a few changes, and it could have been the old bigot speaking.
Over the years, I’ve come to regard that guy not only as a fool, but as the most block-headed sort of ignoramus this world can offer.
Why do I say that?
The answer may seem odd at first, but bear with me. Most of us, I believe, have read or heard about what we term near-death experiences. In many of them, the tellers describe meeting a “a being of light” who asks them what appears to be a simple question: “What did you learn?”
Now, I cannot say whether those stories are true because I haven’t had any such encounters to date. But, for the sake of argument, let us grant them the benefit of the doubt — that we must offer an account of ourselves to a being of light and reveal what we learned in this life.
I know that I would not have wanted to be that old man.
See, if learning is a part of why we are here in this life, I have a strong impression that taking pride in having learned nothing in 80-plus years of living except how to nurture and maintain our childish hatreds and prejudices, or despicably gloating over others’ miseries and raging at their happiness, just cannot be an acceptable answer to the question.
And if that is true, then that old man — who has no doubt passed on by now — got the whole thing wrong. That old fool managed to learn nothing at all. Okay, it’s too late for him. Yet while he learned nothing, I think he can teach us, the living, a great deal.
So let me consider the question from another angle: if part of why we are here in this life is to learn, and I believe it is, then just what sort of learning are we talking about? What sort of learning would our maker care about?
Book learning? No, unless it leads us to higher versions of ourselves and away from the twin snares of intellectual snobbery and contempt.
How to make ourselves filthy rich? Again, no, unless we share the mindset of Samuel Johnson — never a rich man — who once said, according to his biographer James Boswell: “Being wealthy puts it in a man’s hands to do a lot of good.”
(I would add that the wealthy folk should do more of their good with disinterested benevolence, regardless of whether there’s anything in it for them. Oh, and shut up about it. )
I think the sort of learning that matters is whatever teaches us to be better human beings by conquering our vices, like the old man’s hatred.
The sort that helps us overcome that “hobgoblin of little minds,” the “foolish consistency,” which convinces us against all reason and evidence that merely because we think something is right, by God, it must be right, and everyone else is a dolt, and can just go to hell.
My late father loved the poems of Rudyard Kipling. He was especially fond of quoting from one in particular, after he’d tangled with self-righteous, intolerant people in the arts. In that poem, the singer of a Neolithic-Age clan describes how, in “that dim red dawn of man,” he dealt with singers of other clans who had different ideas about how to compose “tribal lays.” But none too subtle — he killed them, as follows:
“Then I stripped them, scalp from skull, and my hunting-dogs fed full,
And their teeth I threaded neatly on a thong;
And I wiped my mouth and said, “It is well that they are dead,
For I know my work is right and theirs was wrong.”
But my Totem saw the shame; from his ridgepole-shrine he came,
And he told me in a vision of the night: —
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
“And every single one of them is right!”
After his revelation, the singer saw his self-righteousness for what it was, and changed his tune.
He learned — as I think every one of us should be open to doing as we advance through life.
Robert Whale can be reached at email@example.com.