In my last post on my other blog (which discusses elements in fantasy literature), I proposed that one of the reason that combat/war motifs are so popular is that man have an innate desire to see good triumph over evil, as well as a drive to participate in that personally. However, in our modern civilized world, most people occupy positions that have little need for physical combat, and so many men feel a little alienated from this aspect of their psyches. And being placed at a distance from physical conflict, we are also distanced from some opportunities to cultivate courage. Now we may still learn how to be courageous; but it is not one of top priorities among our life lessons, which may be focused more upon such things as how to please the popular and how to be recognized by your peers. So many a school boy may have a somewhat vaguer notion of courage—what does it look like? and where does it come from?
He stands beside me on the battle-line
And scans the ranks of men opposing us,
His mind and body tense and ready. Mine
Are shaking, and I wonder if we must
Go forth to fight—perhaps the foe will yield,
Or send a representative to duel.
But no: they have no champion to field—
Only greater numbers. Fear would rule
Me save for him beside me, sword and shield
In hand and set to challenge any who’ll
Approach. Together, he has promised me,
We’ll go to battle ‘gainst the Philistines,
Together we will fight; together we
Intend to leave the battle-scene.
He stands above me never giving ground,
Engaging all who dare to challenge us,
His body hot and tiring. Mine was downed
With injury and plunged into the dust,
Just moments after we’d begun to fight.
I am not dead; for hope I may be healed
I’m faithfully defended by this Mighty
Man. But now the sword of bronze he wields
Against the foe begins to dull—he might
Do better here if only I could steel
Myself to move and hand him mine. But fear
Restrains my arm, and I remain upon
The earth while he endures, remaining near
Me as the battle rages on.
He stands beneath me on the bloody plain,
With me upon his shoulders. Both of us
Have lived, the consequence of all the pain
He has endured to satisfy my trust:
Together we will fight; together we’ll
Depart. Pity such a Mighty Man
Of Valor had no partner for his zeal,
Instead of fighting next to me. I can
Not understand what peace resides concealed
Within his breast, that he could calmly stand
Immune to fear of pain and dread of death.
I cannot understand how he retains
The strength to bear my injured form, when left
On him are twice my bloody stains.
I had a few different kinds of jobs in my life so far, including teaching (once working as a private tutor, another working as an elementary school teacher, and another as an English teach in Korea for one year), working at Starbucks (starting as a barista, and rising to become a store manager), and doing freelance writing. Presently I work for the county I live in, processing applications for Medi-Cal. In all my other jobs, I maintained some level of mental creativity, and would, from time to time, write poetry. I was particularly productive while working in Korea; and while working at Starbucks, I not only wrote poetry, but also completed a novel. But since I began working for the county, I haven’t felt at all creative, and have written nothing new in more than 2 years. The last thing I did write was a series of short verses contrasting the life of modern men with those of the ancients, and included this bit:
My stiffened limbs are slow to move,
My Carpal Tunnel’s not improved,
My eyes are strained, my neck is sore,
I’ve thrown my back out bending o’er…
Our ancient sires ran the plains
To hunt their food without such pains;
But men today have lost that art:
We sit in chairs and fall apart.
I wrote this reflection on the decay of the body due to inactivity; but today I think more upon the same results upon the mind. For just as lack of physical exercise causes the muscles to atrophy, so does lack of mental exercise cause the mind to contract. For want of mental engagement, challenging discourse with others, and time spent reading, the mind loses some of its former facility, becoming less capable of processing complicated concepts, and less creative also. And that is where I find myself today.
I suspect that I am not alone in this: the very structure of our workaday lives tends more to the routine and the mundane than it does to the creative. And certainly greater responsibilities and greater demands upon our time easily crowd out of our schedule time previously spent upon reading and writing. Long gone are those college days when it was actually my responsibility to read and write, where a cafeteria meant not having to spend time and energy on grocery shopping and preparing meals, and where I had many other people to regularly engage in creative discourse.
Meanwhile my current working environment puts me into very different contact with people than I have enjoyed in previous occupations. At Starbucks, for example, I enjoyed a variety of different kinds of people and relationships with both co-workers and customers. But when processing Medi-Cal applications (for those of you in other states, Medicaid), it is a rule that we do not have relationships with the applicants; and among my co-workers, poetry is not a topic of much interest.
Meanwhile it has become less of an interest to myself, too. For when I was writing poetry, one of my goals was to encourage others to love and good deeds, but in order to encourage people, you need to have, well, people. A third of my book is devoted to encouraging a better idea of manhood; but if the men who need such encouragement don’t read poetry, then perhaps I need to focus on other means.
Anyway, this entry is not meant to be a dirge; so let me try to bring it back around to a proper encouragement: for all you poets out there, and for all you readers of poetry as well: mind your habits, to protect your mind and spirit: keep reading, make time for conversation, and cultivate those relationships that challenge you to grow. For when our minds are not growing, they easily contract.