Mondays with Martin: I Write; therefore, I Am

This David Martin essay dates back to 1993.  The advice is as sound as ever.

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By David Martin
By David Martin

A person with a good education is able to use the past to prepare visions of beauty for the future. When Picasso sat in front of a blank canvas, he did what all writers must do when they face the blank page. They must make something from nothing.
Writers must see the world with the eyes of a child, the newness, the freshness, the miraculous, to improve the way we see life and ourselves, to make a poem out of each day, carpe diem.

“Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old” (Franz Kafka).

“Cogito, Ergo Sum” (Descartes).

“I feel; therefore, I exist” (Thomas Jefferson).

“I rebel; therefore, I am” (Albert Camus).

“I ought; therefore, I can” (Kant).

“I want; therefore, I am” (Tolstoy).

“Sometimes I think, and sometimes I am” (Valery).

“I doubt; therefore, I believe” (Fishwick).

“I labor; therefore, I am a man” (Stimer).

“It was woman who taught me to say I am; therefore, I think” (Shaw).

“I party; therefore, I am” (Greg Gruber).

With my apologies to Descartes and others, we probably identify our personal search for beauty in life more closely with one of the above thoughts, but we come together as fellow Dragon Slayers to affirm the validity of the interpretation of these attempts to find the meaning of our earthly existence. We, as a group, acknowledge in one another our own struggles with questions about what it means to be alive.

A profound teacher of mine liked to say we all seek one person in life who we trust and one who will say, “I see you as you are. I hear you clearly, and I want to help you.” When we find that mentor, confidant, or lover, only then we will learn who we really are. Only when we change our life perspective from “I” to “We” will we put into action what it means to be who we really are.

Sometimes, one must travel far to discover what is near. This lesson is taught in the wonderful children’s book The Treasure by Uri Schulevitz. In this old folktale, the main character, Isaac, has three dreams (prayers) where he goes from his little village to the capital city to see the King in search of his personal fortune. Finally, he begins his journey on foot because he is so poor. When he gets to the palace, the King is on vacation and won’t return for many days.

The Captain of the King’s Guards watches Isaac deal with his frustration and despair. When the old man proves he is not a troublemaker, the Captain mentions something very suprising. The Captain tells of a dream he had the previous night about an old man who had an unknown treasure under the floor behind his stove at home. Isaac goes home to find the treasure he saught in his own home.

This story illustrates a basic truth few of us realize about our lives. The beauty in life, our treasure, is not in great places, in great adventures, or in great things. Our wealth is found in our ordinary lives, where we live each day. How we spend that treasure is the next question.

Education is putting reason to work. Using our intellect to make the choices we are called upon to make is the “stuff” of life. We must make these choices flower. To not make them produce is to ignore our creativity. We must go with our best intentions and not look back.

“All the problems of the world could be settled easily if (people) were only willing to think. The trouble is that (people) very often resort to all sorts of devices in order not to think, because thinking is such hard work” (Nicholas Murray Butler, American educator, 1862-1947).

“There are few earthly things more beautiful than a University. It is a place where those who have ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, band together in the search for knowledge, will honor thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will up hold every the dignity of thought and learning and will exact standards in these things: (escerpt from a speech delivered By John Masefield at the University of Sheffield, England, 6/25/1946).

A well functioning university or any good school is beautiful because a true education emancipates the student. Barriers collapse around the educated. Writing and the crafting of words liberate the heart and soul of the knowing. Education answers the question: Why should I care? Why should I be concerned? Enlightened people feel compassion, suffering, and engagement for those areas they understand.

Mankind craved drink long before he wanted to read books. Gutenberg’s first printing press was a converted winepress. Our basic, more primitive needs must be satisfied first, but the miraculous in education is to take the common, the primitive, and rise to a higher ground. Our use of words will accomplish this as much as a Picasso panting or pressed grapes.

Educated people must say what they mean and do what they say. Words are important and demolish existential barriers. Uneducated people are trapped by mores, become prisoners of their age, and are hobbled by societal norms. Educated people live simply and pride themselves on their self-reliance. They press out excesses in daily life and allow the creative juices to flow without fear of being dammed.

For what do people want an education in the first place: money, fame, security, prestige, power, or because they want to understand? A rich man whose pockets are lined with gold is not my primary example to follow in life. The person who dies with the most toys does not win the race I am running. Money is just another wall. Nothing changes for the rich. They live to themselves, and they believe their lives are better, simply because their bank account is fatter.

In the world of nutrition, we now know fat is the number one cause of physical illness in this country. Writers and artists who do not struggle to find the source of truth in their craft, those who sacrifice their art for an easy way out (more money, a softer position), those who yearn to be comfortable before producing, will live a shorter artistic life just as the person who wallows in doughnuts and fried foods will live a shorter natural life. A prison by any other name is still a prison.