15 December 2010

The Lonely Endeavor

from Proverbs Nineteen
Solitary Tree, Milton Avery, 1956.
"He that getteth his own wisdom loveth his own soul; he that keepeth understanding shall find good."

It can be a lonely endeavor to improve yourself; tiring and terrifying to spend so much time alone, which is what one form of learning requires.  Social settings where learning is offered affords convenient distraction--a laugh, a glance, moving on to something else.  But sitting with no one else, under a lamp at a desk, in a chair, or beside a tree, we encounter radical individuality and the solitariness of our own minds and souls.  We discover what we can and cannot grasp; questions become amplified in our own efforts to take note, we scribble more questions in the margins, on a card, in a book, with the promise of attaining answers.

I remember spending one summer alone in Brooklyn and for the first few days being terrified.  I filled my time with ballgames and nights out for beer with friends.  And each night as I walked into the door of our empty apartment, my books, like lonely orphans, called.  One evening particular I entered late; a glow from the neighbor's backyard porch brought my shelves aglow.  And I was convinced my books whispered, nudged, and winked me back to attention.  I turned on the desk lamp, sat in the chair, and engaged.  The desk where I sat was an old maple antique that my mother and grandmother had refinished as a gift for starting college and its warmth was like the sun-baked desert floor beneath my feet.

The Sages say that 600,000 of us stood at Sinai to receive Torah.  Without question there are times when our experience of gaining wisdom is a shared one.  But there are times when it is equally necessary to go it alone--to love yourself enough to tolerate the solitariness of the acquiring of knowledge.

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