“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a family where verbal adages and maxims carried a whole lot more weight and meaning than what the words themselves might indicate. And I doubt that I’m alone in that.
As radical as it sounds, families are closed systems. Oh sure, families DO relate to other systems and in that sense they are open – but they are often treated as “closed” by virtue of their membership. The bond of blood creates a dividing line which culturally is hard to overcome. Not everyone can join.
And, to some degree, that’s exactly why the “cultural” habits which flourish when we are young carry so much significance. Of course, it’s not just the symbolism of a closed system at work here. Families are “tight” because the bonds themselves are deep and long-lasting. The first intimacies we share are tied to the people who love us most AND for whom there is a tug of obligation — a need to reciprocate the honor, love and attention they did — or didn’t — give us.
The obligation which that reciprocation creates is the activating agent — the springboard — for how we learn accept ourselves — or not. Anyone who shows me love, honor, and attention teaches me that I possess and contain worth. And, when we are at our most vulnerable, we cannot give that lesson to ourselves. No matter how much we might try.
What’s discovered in that vulnerability is an unfolding essence, one that both meets and uses “the other” – just to understand itself. The lasting bond which honor, love, and attention creates always has reciprocal dimensions. The essence that both meets and uses “the other” is completely innocent and completely loving – although it might not be able to see itself in that way. The vulnerability that we feel in our unfolding feeds back upon itself, holding the individual to account for the impact which it experiences and which others experience. Creative Imagination then works with that imagery of impact giving it importance, meaning and value as the one way for that unfolding essence to understand itself.
That’s why any discussion of conscience must start with the intimacy of family. The mirroring image which conscience uses to understand itself begins with the intimacy of one’s family and how it honors, loves, and attends to its various members.
The mythic phrase which I grew up with was — “He can who thinks he can” — a Horatio Alger expression that emphasized the importance of “wear-it-on-your sleeve” virtue and the need for “ever-ready-in-a-pinch” self-creation. And, like all Horatio Alger myths, this mythic phrase became for me a repository for duty and obligation — an end in itself, a self-containing mandate to self-create and offer up achievement — just to be worthy of honor, love and attention.
AND because conscience holds one to account for one’s place within a larger context, this type of mandate also becomes a bludgeon with which to tear down and judge. “He can who thinks he can” makes no admission (or even passing attribution) to one’s outside context. Achievement is entirely an “inside job” unlike the public recognition of how achievement is both earned and awarded socially. Many expressions of conscience suffer from this type of “closed” system of evaluation — “an inside job” with outward manifestations – manifestations which are not always within one’s control.
And so, for what it’s worth, creative imagination is like magic. It transports us to places where we are both fuller and more alive even when we feel trapped. But even the very best of magic must be grounded. The magic we find in creative imagination — like love that wells up within us — must find its place in the reality of the here and now and in the world of time and space.
So for better or worse, we reciprocate our feelings of “true love” by making more of ourselves and more of the world call our “home.” Conscience is the grounding agent for the magic we embody with imagination. It’s the only way we come to know – really know — deeply and viscerally — how we add some small piece of “who we are” to the larger tapestry wherein we find ourselves and to give honor, love and attention to our own lives.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” Through the twin endowments of creative imagination and conscience – who we are — is so much more richer and deeper than our past — or even our future.
Thanks for listening!