Don't know much about history

Thursday, June 9, 2011

June 9, 2011

Dear Leslie,

I didn't pay much attention in American history class either. The going could be dry, especially in the days before PowerPoint presentations. Lots of dates to memorize, less context to make the dates meaningful. In one history class I painted old-fashioned two-legged wooden clothespins to look like Redcoats and mounted them on a papier-mache hill. That is what I know about the Battle of Bunker Hill.

No doubt Sarah Palin was more interested in passing notes to Frankie Jensen the day her teacher talked about Paul Revere. In her version, the silversmith sounds like a founding father of the NRA daring the British to try bushwhacking the Second Amendment rights we didn't yet have.

Lots of people mangle American history. That's because we like to create myths. Longfellow's poem mythologized Revere nearly a century after the ride, and it's the romantic version of the facts most people know. Poets are not journalists, but poets often are better at telling the truth.

Some of what we think we know about Washington and Reagan and Obama is myth. Much of what we think we know about ourselves is myth, too, stories of glory and of pain inflicted by others and by living.

Which of us hasn't misheard song lyrics to our own liking? A girl I knew thought John Denver sang "You build up by fences" instead of "You fill up my senses." Some difference.

We rewrite songs and history -- especially our own -- to fill out our myths about ourselves. Our egos build up their fences, protect us from the battering that living can bring. But they're just stories about ourselves and about other people.

The more egoic our view of ourselves, the more we react to the "faults" and lack of consciousness in others, the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says. "What you perceive as their faults become to you their identity." But the extent to which Palin's ignorance bothers us is the extent to which our own ignorance does.

We don't have to be that way. We are not our egos. A depth exists beneath our egos we are at least subconsciously aware of. The Upanishads say: "What cannot be thought with the mind, but whereby the mind can think: know that alone to be Brahman the Spirit and not what people here adore."

The Hindus' Brahman is Absolute Reality, the ground of being from which all we know of life springs. No one has a better word for that than love.

"Don't know much about history" Sam Cooke's song "Wonderful World" begins. He admits an ignorance of biology and French as well. But love is more important than knowledge, the song proclaims. If I know I love you and if you love me, "What a wonderful world this would be."

That would be a poet speaking the truth.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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