Ruins are a catalyst to imagination. When we see the remains of an old building or civilization we can imagine what once stood in that place. Should you travel this summer, notice the inspiration of lost splendor. Gaps and flaws and remnants are the spur to vision.
Recent studies on college roommates suggest that our cognitive styles — whether we face adversity with optimism or despair — are not fixed. After only three months roommates influence each other: the resilient ones change the approach of the pessimists, and vice versa. Once more the ancient wisdom is reaffirmed: we are not only known, but shaped, by the company we keep.
In high school we read “Black Like Me,” an account of how John Howard Griffin, a reporter, had his skin artificially darkened so he might better understand the predicament of blacks in the South in the late 1950s. Can we understand another if we have not been in his position? Does a member of a ruling caste understand the humiliations of the oppressed, or does someone who has lived in difficulties understand the seductions and possibilities of wealth or power?
There is no achievement without obstacles and no triumph without reversals. Failure, said Churchill, is not fatal. He would know: Although we reckon Churchill an astounding success, he was voted out of office and despondent in the years before becoming prime minister of England. Reflecting on the fact that he lost his place in Parliament while he was in the hospital, he wrote: “In the twinkling of an eye, I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix.”
In his jealous madness, King Saul has many Priests killed and is stripped of the kingship. King David commits adultery and though punished, retains the kingship. The spies who distrust God and bring bad reports of the land of Israel perish in a plague, but more dramatically and severely, Korach and his band are swallowed up by the earth. Why the difference?
Love is not solely a feeling, but an enacted emotion. We have to act out our love for it to be real, and yet we rarely ascribe our actions to good feelings. “I hit him because I was hurt,” is a commonplace; or, “I lied because I was scared.” But how often do we say, “I gave because I was grateful” or, “I helped out because I felt joyous?”
We were a wandering people but with a direction — headed toward a place. In his brilliant book, “Sinai and Zion,” biblical scholar Jon Levenson contrasts the legacy of the two mountains. Sinai is the peak of the wilderness, the time of desert wandering. It was a miraculous time — plagues and revelations, splitting seas and early discoveries of God.
There is a poignant story of a rabbi who learned the meaning of life from children building sand castles. As he watched the intensity with which they built, he could not help but realize that in a few hours, everything they created would be washed away. Yet it did not diminish their focus or joy.
A symbolon was a means of identification in the ancient world. If I send someone I know off to another city to meet up with another person I know, I give each of them half of a plate or bowl or stone. When they meet each can identify the other by fitting the pieces together.