E7 – We hold these truths to be self-evident

On August 28, 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of the most powerful speeches of all time.

I know I cannot do this speech justice. But to be honest, I’m not doing any of these speeches justice.

I’m studying and I’m practicing.

I’m studying history, and what makes a great speech and I’m practicing my oratory. I’m doing so with the words of masters in my mouth, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to study these great words.

So please forgive me for butchering some of the most moving and eloquent words spoken…

Why this speech?

First and foremost because, as Dr. King stated, my destiny is tied up with their destiny and my freedom is inextricably bound to their freedom.

I hope that one day it will seem confounding that this speech needed to be said, because it’s message is obvious and should be obvious to everyone.

But sadly today, this speech still rings true today, and it needs to be read and reread, and listened to not for it’s stunning poetry, but for it’s message.

Ep6 – Owning Books

On April 8, 1933, the Main Office for Press and Propaganda of the German Student Union proclaimed a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit”, which was to climax in a literary purge or “cleansing” by fire.

On May 10, 1933, Nazi Germany staged an event unseen since the middle ages young German students from universities, which formerly had been regarded as among the finest in the world, gathered to burn over 25k books.

On April 6th, two days before the initial declaration, William Lyon Phelps of Yale University, who taught the first American University course on the Modern Novel shared the following thoughts on a public radio broadcast.

Why this speech?

Today, more than any other time, we are never alone. Between social media, music and video on demand services, email and cellphones, we are never alone.

Even so, what Phelps describes, about friends still holds true.

While we can still connect with most anyone, whenever we want, there still lacks a depth that we have in-person that we cannot have with digital-friends. That depth still holds with book-friends.

Movies are too short,  DMs can’t convey depth. Book-friends are there with you for hours, and open a window into their lives on a level and complexity that no one would dare share on Facebook.

We always put our best foot forward on our social platforms, with books we see the real issues people struggle with.

We are here to make a choice between the quick and the dead

ON June 14, 1946 The Baruch plan was proposed  during it’s first meeting of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission.

Less than a year after the US dropped fat man and little boy it was time to put in motion a plan to make sure that such destruction could be prevented from ever happening again.

Text to full speech.

Why this speech?

There are few things that effected the geopolitical landscape of today as greatly as World War II.

However, even knowing people who have lived through the war, and reading countless books, and lectures and courses about the war it is still something that is hard to fathom.

This speech is a powerful reminder of what had been at stake, what sacrifices had to be made, and what actions had to be taken to ensure victory.

But in the fabric of this speech, too, is an echo of the fears, and hopes following the War.

Blood Toil Tears And Sweat

On May 10th 1940 Germany invaded Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands; Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom upon the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. The United Kingdom invaded Iceland, and Belgium declared a state of emergency.

As the new prime minister, Churchill was called on to form a wartime coalition government. On May 13, 1940 Winston Churchill gave his First Speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons.

Why this speech?

World War II changed the face of the world. There were two possible paths ahead. One side represented division, discrimination and destruction in the name of making one nation “great” among the rest of the world. The other path, was fighting for it’s existence and against all the evils that their opponents stood for.

Churchill is one of the great orators of the 20th century and this speech captures so succinctly that moment in history… with parallels to today that are not lost on me.

We Choose To Go To The Moon

On September 12 1962 John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University where he declared his plan to send man to the moon within the decade.

I chose this as the first speech I would practice because it serves as a constant source of inspiration to me. This speech gives me chills each time I hear or read it, and it is the prime example, for me, of the power of speeches.

Why this speech?

Not only did President Kennedy cover so many of the important accomplishments of humanity, but he was able to put them into perspective.

50 years is hard enough to comprehend, but it is within a lifespan. He could have said “Less than 100 years ago we developed penicillin.” Instead, he said “less than a week ago.” A week in the context of 50 years is far more powerful than 100 years in context of 50,000 years. Most people can remember what they had for breakfast a week ago; while, I don’t know anyone who remembers first hand anything that happened 100 years ago.

Putting a man on the moon might have seemed impossible then, but when looking back over humanity’s accomplishments and seeing those accomplishments in the perspective of the exponential progression it took, it almost feels achievable.

That leads into the second piece I read from the speech, the why.

Reading this speech makes me want to be better, it plays chords on my soul reviving the sense of adventure I felt as a child when first discovering new things, new stories in books, hearing about new places and wanting to go there.

This speech speaks directly to the greater spirit of man, the transcendent urge to be, to conquer, and it channels that great desire towards one of the greatest achievements man could ever think of doing at that time. A challenge we haven’t achieved since.

And this speech has the power that it could do it. It could inspire man to reach that goal. and It did.

“For if Achillês is left alone to fight…” – Zeus Cloudgatherer

The literature of humanity that has stayed with us taps into the deepest part of how we perceive our existence. The stories that our ancestors have crafted and passed down to us resonated with them. The stories that made it down to us, made it through the filter of time because those stories said something important to each link the the chain from then until now.

Pondering this I recently read the Iliad for the first time, and then I read it again. One way that it resonated, surprised me.

Growing up I was never one of the athletic kids, but several of my close friends were, and thus I learned to play. There’s a unique excitement that engrosses you when you are participating in a game. I can still remember viscerally how deeply I wanted to win — especially during tournaments, and how it felt that all the powers of nature were conspiring for each event that happened during that game.

“You should pray to the everlasting gods yourself. You are no mere man.” Apollo to Aineias

– Iliad, book XX

Feeling this — while playing an intense game — it is 100% natural to pray to god, to request a favorable outcome to your game. Looking back 20 years later, or even a single month, most of those circumstances seem a silly catalyst for requesting divine intervention. But when you’re in the moment, heaven and earth should move for you to get that touchdown, or home run.

This affects spectating participants as it does the players. As a Red Sox fan (since before 2004) it’s clear to me that divine intervention is involved in these great games…

Achillês now cast his spear, and struck on the outermost ring, where the metal was thinnest and the hide thinnest behind. The Pelian lancewood ran through with a ringing sound. Aineias had crouched down holding up the shield; so the shaft passed over his back and stuck in the ground, still fast in the shield with the two layers torn apart. But he had escaped: he stood up dizzy and shaken when he saw that shaft sticking at his elbow. Achillês then drew sword and leaped at him with a shout. Aineias lifted a great big stone in his hand such as two men could not carry, as men go now, but he managed it easily alone. And now Aineias would have crashed down that stone on his helmet, or on that shield which had saved him before, and Peleidês would have chased and killed him with that sword; but Poseidon Earthshaker thought his time was come…

So Poseidon left them, and passed through the battle to the place where Aineias and Achillês were face to face. He drew a mist over the eyes of Achillês; he pulled out the spear from the shield of Aineias and laid it before the other’s feet, whisked up Aineias off the ground and hurled him through the air. Over the ranks of fighting men Aineias flew from the god’s hand, over the lines of horses, and alighted on the outskirts of battle where the Cauconians were getting ready for action.

– Iliad, book XX

This is exactly how I felt while engrossed in my games, praying for me or my team to win.

When you’re watching a Super Bowl and a long toss is sent, you can feel the entire stadium willing that ball to do one thing or another. There is little doubt in my mind that people are hoping for Great Earthshaker Poseidon, or whichever surrogate they pray to, to whisk the ball through the air into the hands of the right mythical hero to make that touchdown.

I got chills reading this next piece; having studied religious liturgy for a good part of my life, I hear clear echoes of my prayers from the Days of Awe.

But when the fourth time they drew near the two fountains, see now, the Father laid out his golden scales and placed in them two fates of death, one for Achillês and one for Hector. He grasped the balance and lifted it: Hector’s doom sank down, sank down to Hadês, and Apollo left him.

At that moment Athena was by the side of Achillês, and she said in plain words:

“Now you and I will win, my splendid Achillês! Now I hope we shall bring great glory to our camp before the Achaian nation, by destroying Hector, for all his insatiable courage. Now there is no chance that he can escape, not if Apollo Shootafar should fume and fret and roll over and over on the ground before Zeus Almighty! Rest and take breath, and I will go and persuade the man to stand up to you.”

– Iliad, book XXII

The imagery of scales is universal. This expression of scales balancing the fate of the two heroes of the Iliad echoes through every confrontation I witnessed, and every request I have ever made in any prayer.

When reading through the Iliad there were points where I could not fathom why this piece was so important, especially when lineage went on for pages. After finishing reading the work I understand more why we must study and cherish the great treasures passed down to us from ages past.

Image credit: Pietro da Cortona

Why we need to avoid taboos

“At the great religious metropolis of Hierapolis on the Euphrates pigs were neither sacrificed nor eaten, and if a man touched a pig he was unclean for the rest of the day. Some people said this was because the pigs were unclean; others said it was because the pigs were sacred. This difference of opinion points to a hazy state of religious thought in which the ideas of sanctity and uncleanness are not yet sharply distinguished, both being blent in a sort of vaporous solution to which we give the name of taboo.”

– Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough

Frazer posits that the source of pig being forbidden in the Middle East in ancient times was due to its sanctity, via the worship of Attis and Adonis, rather than its uncleanliness. Throughout The Golden Bough Frazer brings numerous examples of how an animal, or object, or place went from being sacred to being profane due to its taboo status.

Whether you accept the thesis of the pig, this idea is found elsewhere. From one generation to the next, once something became forbidden, the reason for its being forbidden became lost.

I grew up with a story about a woman who wanted to get the recipe for her mother-in-law’s pot roast. One thing that puzzled her was that she was instructed to cut off the ends of the pot roast, or else it would not be kosher. The woman then asked her mother-in-law’s mother and discovered that the pan that she used to roast in was too small. But because her mother-in-law hadn’t asked why, she had thought that it was law.

I was taught this story as an example of the importance of questioning things that don’t make sense to you. When people avoid something, and it becomes taboo, the reason they avoid it gets lost, because they don’t transfer that knowledge.

I’m concerned about how it’s no longer acceptable to discuss things that make people uncomfortable. I’m afraid that if we cannot talk about these things,  we are giving up our power to work through them and find real solutions. Whether it’s religion, race, or body image, it’s toxic to make discussion itself taboo. If we cannot talk about something, it means that we will lose the very reason why the issue is important.

Case in point: how many people, who so adamantly support the confederate flag, know that the flag as we know it today only came to popularity the 50s and 60s in direct reaction to integration?

When we don’t talk about things, their knowledge gets lost.