Real Gifts: Part 1
by Thomas Martin
According to cultural myth and personal recollections, many of us over a certain age remember where we were and what we were doing the day President Kennedy was assassinated. I likewise am of an age to remember
that tragedy, but I also remember the where and when of a much more positive event.
And it concerns hearing a mere song for the first time.
I first heard the old Quaker song, "Tis a Gift to Be Simple," at a wedding that I attended on June 21, 1981 in Durham, North Carolina; actually, a ceremony where a mature couple with whom I am friends renewed their marriage vows.
Here are the verses:
'Tis a gift to be simple; 'tis a gift to be free;
'Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed;
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning, we come 'round right.
In the years since that event, it seems that many life lessons have concerned learning--perhaps the correct word here is "re-learning"-- the art and science of simplicity. After all as a small child I certainly lived simply and as freely as parental safeguards would permit. I am
sure that I did not burden myself with what I will call for the purposes of this essay, personal and cultural artifacts.
For example, as a child I climbed trees, splashed through puddles, and sometimes rolled in the mud for the pure, simple enjoyment of it. Rather like a hawk or deer or bear or flower, I did not burden myself (read worry) with such baggage as climbing corporate or academic
ladders. For a while I did not worry whether people liked me or what was right or wrong; I was a priest unto myself. As much as I can remember, I more or less just lived, and inevitably (and necessarily, I suppose) learned to judge people and value certain objects and concepts
Some mystical traditions speak of "de-learning" much of the arithmetic and conceptual knowledge of the past as a necessary stage on the road to enlightenment. In this they are emphasizing that true spirituality is beyond the intellect. Maybe more simply put, it's just another passage into maturity. As life becomes more and more complicated with its jobs and progress and toothaches and relationships and the inevitable trips to the doctor, the therapist or the priest, we finally become
disillusioned. Fumbling in the dark for the light switch of our lives, we suddenly see that what really matters is that we draw breath and love. The rest is really so much rot.
Simplicity is really about finding out what is truly valuable in life and then living that life.
Therefore, as I grow older, I have come to realize the importance of the sentiments of an old hymn from a less technological, though still burdened, age. Turning and turning on the lathe of life, baseless intellectual edifices and irrelevant possessions must necessarily drop
away because we cannot really fly spiritually with all those attachments to thoughts and things and people weighing us down.
Make no mistake about it: In my view this turn toward less complicated living is one of life's required course corrections. It happens during our lives whether we like it or not, for every spirit wants to be free. Whether it happens through the Grace of a Christian God, the Compassion of the Buddha, the irresistible piping of Krishna's Flute or just a simple need to be at peace with self and others, we are drawn to put down our burdens.
Then, I suggest, we become truly supple spiritually. Is not flexibility of body, mind and spirit one of the goals of the profound physiological and spiritual traditions of Yoga and Tai Chi? Thus transformed, we can actually bow and bend in reverence of our real selves. In coming to value and live the truths of a simple life, we discover that we have been bestowed the other gift spoken of in the song, the gift of freedom.