Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I came across the following quote from the poem, Festus, by the English poet, Philip James Bailey (1816-1902), in the preface ("Initial Considerations") to The Magic Staff, an autobiography of the 19th century Spiritualist, Andrew Jackson Davis. In her introduction to the work, Davis' wife, Mary Fein Davis, referenced these words as an a rationale for the appearance of her husband's work at such a young age (he was only 31 at the time, and Bailey was only 29 when he published Festus).

"We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best."

In his poem, Bailey's words continue,

"And he whose heart beats quickest lives the longest:
Lives in one hour more than in years do some
Whose fat blood sleeps as it slips along their veins.
Life’s but a means unto an end; that end,
Beginning, mean, and end to all things—God.
The dead have all the glory of the world."

Bailey's poem was a testament to his faith concerning the relationship between the Divine and humankind, the immortality of the soul, and the relationship between faith and reason. Which is why, perhaps, Unitarian Minot Savage, in his Our Unitarian Gospel (1900), also looked to Bailey's prose as a reflection of his own theological understanding of the purpose and meaning of life.

"What is human life, then ? What is it for ? The object of life is living. But what does living mean ? Most people cannot answer that question, because they have never more than half lived, and consequently have never appreciated its depth and significance. As I have had occasion over and over and over again, to say to business men,— and I like to say it on every opportunity,— it seems to me, as I look over the face of society, that most people live only in some little fragmentary way, some corner of their being. Most men spend their lives in the attempt to accumulate the means to live, and forget to begin to live at all. Sometimes, as you are riding through the country on a winter evening, you come to a silent farm-house, and you see one window lighted; and, if you should go and knock at the door, you would probably find out that the light is shining from the kitchen, where the family is gathered in the evening, perhaps as a matter of economy to save fire, perhaps to save trouble. And, if you examine the lives of these people, you would find that they live chiefly in the kitchen. They may have a sitting-room where they spend a few leisure hours; perhaps they have the beginning of a library; but they do not spend much time in that. They have little opportunity for the life of the parlor, representing the expansive, social human life which comes into contact with other lives. And so you will find that this, which is a figure, represents that which is true of most of us. We have only begun to live ; and we live in the lower ranges of our nature, or perhaps we have touched life on a higher level in some tentative sort of way. But the most of us are only partly alive, have only developed a little of what is possible in us, have only come in contact with some fragments of this wonderful universe that is all around us on every hand."

I've been reflecting a great deal lately on the shooting rampage in Arizona last week. This tragedy, like all such tragedies, has been a moment for reflection for many. My own work with those who have been traumatized by violence suggests that the quest for blame is first and foremost a complex act of bargaining with the past. It is normal to strive to answer "why" questions. Our attempt to fix blame quickly, though, is also an attempt at control, and a futile one, ultimately. Somehow, if we know why this or that happened, we gain a sense of psychic control over the event, which ultimately quells our anxiety in the moment. But what of lasting change and transformation? 

It's not that the quest for answers isn't ultimately important, or that reducing anxiety isn't ultimately healthful. My concern is that the pace at which we jump to answers suggest that we are not dealing with the ultimate questions which arise in the wake of such tragedy. The loss of life, especially young life, is often the hardest thing we face as human beings. Such experiences often lead to deep questions. To quote the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book,

"In this solemn hour consecrated to our beloved dead, we ponder over the flight of time, the frailty and uncertainty of human life. We ask ourselves: What are we? What is our life? To what purpose our wisdom and knowledge? Wherein is our strength, our power, our fame? Alas [we seem] born to trouble, and [our] years are few and full of travail. But our great teachers have taught us to penetrate beneath appearances and see the higher worth, the deeper meaning, and the abiding glory of human life."

It is the quest for dealing with these deeper questions that Minot Savage points to in his reflection on the poet Bailey's words. And the poet himself, also points to this journey

"And he whose heart beats quickest lives the longest:
Lives in one hour more than in years do some
Whose fat blood sleeps as it slips along their veins."

To pay tribute to the lives lost in tragedy is to reflect on the ways and means by which we will live more deeply, intentionally, faithfully, and peacefully in a world which, while often bruised and hurting, deserves the service of our deepest selves. Fixing blame only reduces anxiety in the moment, faithful commitment to life and love, serves a life much larger than anyone of us can live in one life-time.