I recently ran across a poignant and beautiful poem by John Vance Cheney (1848-1922) during one of my frequent poetry deep-dives.
Not only did Mr. Cheney have an epic and wondrous beard-mustache combo platter, he also had a wide-ranging and meandering career path — starting with practicing law in New York, then moving to California to teach music, then to postal work, and finally to the library sciences where he seemed to have found some solidarity. Along the way, he wrote extensively. He composed essays for major magazines of the time as well as poetry, which was later compiled and published in 1906. Several of his poems were found to be of substantial quality and included in collected volumes, such as 1904’s “The World’s Best Poetry,” edited by Bliss Carmen. (which is where I stumbled across it)
— The Happiest Heart
Who drives the horses of the sun
Shall lord it but a day;
Better the lowly deed were done,
And kept the humble way.
The rust will find the sword of fame,
The dust will hide the crown;
Ay, none shall nail so high his name
Time will not tear it down.
The happiest heart that ever beat
Was in some quiet breast
That found the common daylight sweet,
And left to Heaven the rest.
A relatively common notion is illuminated here, perhaps described more luxuriously by Shelley in his famous work “Ozymandias” first published in 1818.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
These poems describe how time is the great equalizer of men. No tower built by men will stand. No name so great it will be remembered, except for whispers,misconceptions, and most probably misrepresentations. I don’t think this idea is particularly groundbreaking. Even Woody Allen used the term “Ozymandias meloncholia,” which he defined as “the realisation that your works of art will not save you and will mean nothing down the line.” There is no confusion or lack of understanding in what this cosmic idea is relaying. Right?
Why then are we doing what we are doing? If we knew that all self-elevations or self-aggrandizements were futile, why are we incessantly and aggressively advocating for them (perhaps more than ever before in history)? Why are we worried about how we are seen or what accolades we receive? Self, self worth, self image, selfie, me, my, I, mine… perhaps it is has been this way for a long time (or forever), but with the further implementation of social media on our broken culture, is it safe to say most things are now particularly ‘self’ driven?
In my field of choral conducting and choral composition it is certainly obvious. An easy example is now instead of pictures of the choir one is working with, we see pictures of a large “me” face in front of the choir, selfie style. I understand the unsavory nature and pressure of self-promotion in this field, maybe more than most, but adding oneself to a picture in that circumstance is elevating self and grasping more for celebrity than service, isn’t it? Are we concerned people wouldn’t recognize the fact that we were there? There are a plethora of other types of “look at me” posts, that slyly mimic “I’m just keeping my close friends and family up-to-date” posts, but aren’t. Lets get real.
I think many of us live these secret lives of thumbs-up watchmen and women. Are we getting the proper due we think we deserve? Disappointment looms when we get 25 thumb responses on Facebook, while someone else gets 250, …or 1000! Someone has enough followers on Twitter to be ‘verified’ and we don’t. Someone got published by so-and-so and I didn’t. Who are they and how did this happen? I’d do anything to get that! They are obviously more important than I am… but look at who I just worked with! Everyone looked as happy as possible to work with me in my selfie (that doubled as a photo of the choir) where 1/4 of it is my face!
….and we are left disappointed.
I speak to this, because I know this feeling. I know it very well unfortunately, and wish I didn’t. I know it and have participated in it. I wish I fully embraced the poem above (and will continue to try). I find that I have been, for nearly two decades, sucked into a ‘self-importance arms race,’ which happens to be a lie. How many pieces do I have published? Which publishing house am I with? Do I have important friends? Do I have a CD? How many copies did the CD sell? How many make believe Facebook friends do I have? Did I conduct here or there, and for this group or that? Did I get this award or that? Why are people lined up for another Eric’s autograph and not mine? Did I get selected for this award or that? How many people are telling me they love me or my stuff?
…I’m tired of me and I. I get tired of thinking about myself, or being prodded by our society to relate everything to myself. I have been for a long time. Aren’t you?
I’m finding more evidently, with each passing year, that it will never be enough. This “it” can be any earthly thing, and it will never be enough. I hope you see this truth in your own life and career. No matter how high we nail our name, time will tear it down. Its so fast paced today, that people will see your name on high, laud you, and then forget about it immediately because they are worried how high their name is nailed. So if self and seeking self goes, what can take its place?…. how about: Other(s).
What if I stopped wondering if people were taking notice of me simply because I didn’t have the time to care? I was too busy doing something for someone else. What if when I worked with a choir, I didn’t take a picture of myself with them, because I cared about… well… them. Maybe I’d kindly and graciously take pictures with individuals if they asked or I’d simply reach out and speak encouragements to them.
Maybe I wouldn’t even take a picture…
Image Sean Penn, instead of doing what he did here, awkwardly getting in front of his camera to take a picture of himself in front of the snow leopard… Though a bit exaggerated and little non-sequitur, it captures my point a bit. (and from perhaps my very favorite movie!) One of my favorite lines of the movie is “Right here.” When we are worried about self promotion and what accolades we are receiving, the last thing we are concerned about is ‘right here.’ We are, in that case, concerned with the eternal ‘somewhere else’ that always seems better than ‘right here.’
Again, what if we stopped wondering if people were taking notice of us simply because we didn’t have the time to care? What if we were just too busy serving those in front of us, and left to Heaven the rest?
I need to retire my crown and sword of fame, put them in the attic, to be lost and forgotten.