Poetry, the Cab Driver, the Moon and a Life Well-lived

As one grows older, hopefully the wisdom one possesses reaches an equivalency to the extent of gray in one’s hair, or the depth of wrinkles; and perhaps that wisdom is expanded in direct correlation to the differing breadth of perspectives and stories which one has encountered and collected throughout the years.  By ‘stories’, I don’t mean fictional make-believes; rather, everyone has a story to tell, and that story of one’s life is a collected stream of events, encounters, vignettes of joyful explosions, puddles of grief, streams of memories with pock-marks of tragedies, comic situations, and in the end, a determination as to the life well-lived, or?

Read Anton Chekhov’s brilliant short story, Grief, in which the death of a cab-driver’s son leads to a multiple series of attempts to speak to passengers about his tragedy, and the utter lack of compassion between the strangers who wish to go about their lives; the clash of the humanity of the driver with the perspective which we all have — that the person we pay to transport us to a destination is not treated as a subject, but rather an object.  That relationship is one of a contractual obligation — he is being paid to provide a service of transporting me to a specific destination, and of course we do not have time to listen to his subjective life — of personal grief or tragedy.

A ‘life well-lived’ — that is a difficult concept to embrace. Like grasping a fistful of sand and watching your palm become a swift and unforgiving hourglass the harder you close your fist.

Once, a Japanese woman commented to me that we Americans destroyed all poetry by landing upon the moon, and showing the world needlessly that the moon was nothing but a composite of rocks, craters and lifeless soil; that the poetry which once filled the night air with its grandeur and beauty was forever relegated to a memory, now nothing more than a round tundra of cold, sallow realities.

Poetry died with the landing of man on the moon; romance was murdered; beauty became defined in systematic, scientific terms; and metaphor melted away with an avalanche of pragmatism, forever banished to the dusty bookshelves somewhere in the darkness of forgotten works, with Homer, Shakespeare, Blake; for who reads poetry?  Who needs poetry?

Science has taken the helm of hero-worship; we look only for what works, and what is profitable to man. But at the end of it all, one still has a need to ask: What is a life well-lived?  And to answer that question, we need to look not only at the moon to see the poetry within the lifeless rocks and craters of shivering darkness; we have to look at the cab-driver and hope that he does not have to tell his story of grief to the horse at the end of the day.

Story for the day

We are sitting in front of a fire; outside, ice covers the trees; snow has fallen.

In days past, white was the color of purity; but then minds greater than poetry analyzed such metaphors and determined that white was not a color at all, but the absence of color; that black was the collection of all color; and so white lost its stature and meaning; purity was lost; angels fell from their pedestals, and no one could speak of snow, purity, covered trees or angels flying through the air from clouds casting dark shadows and snowflakes with designs carved from the mind of God.

No, poetry was never to encounter the rational; mathematics was poetry for those who sought certainty in a world of certitudes lost in the beauty of words; but then the fallen nature of man came to mold beauty in the mirror of himself, and from the fallen nature came the hunger for power; and from that hunger for power, beauty was lost forever. White lost its color of purity. Snow no longer fell.

Instead, the birth of a juggernaut came to be: science, analytical philosophy, Darwinism, the rise of man, and the loss of poetry. Nietzsche declared, Ecce Homo. Years later, when men lamented the loss of youth, the casting away of innocence, a young boy looked out through a frost-covered window pane and dared to ask, “Is one snowflake different from another?” From that question, poetry was born anew, and angels began to fly with renewed vigor, and God picked up his carving knife and began working again.


Thought for the day

Have you considered the conceptual/philosophical distinction between acting and living, the difference between a stage and the reality of the life we live, other than the superficial considerations of a scene prepared for a specific purpose as opposed to a world as a “given”? For an actor can never act, nor a life be lived, before first understanding the underlying conceptual distinction between the two. For, consider the following: An actor, to be a truly ‘great’ actor, must assume the character of the one he acts, and in the very act of assuming that character, he lives, breathes, and assumes such a character. The fact that such a life is lived only for a specified span, at a given time, within the confines of a given area, does not distinguish that scene or act as any different from a life lived within a specified span, at a given historical time, within the confines of a greater geographical area.

Is this what Shakespeare meant when he wrote “As You Like It,” with Jaques stating, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven stages,” and he goes on to describe each such stage. But it is a play which clearly distinguishes between reality and the stage; for Shakespeare is brilliant in at once clouding the distinction while separating it starkly — for in this great play there is no incest, no deaths, and the only blood spilled has a distanced, fairy-tale quality; it is a play which stresses words above action and matter above words; with a character (Rosalind) who must stop play-acting at some point and reveal herself to Orlando in her own person; and Jaques ends his brilliant speech with the stark reality of old age: “Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness, and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.” The reality of sickness, old age, disease, and loss of physical health — all point to the distinction between the stage of acting and the stage of life. Truly, actors must always read Shakespeare, because he epitomizes the combining of life upon a stage — the tragedies, the comedies, the conversations both common and philosophical; with the stage which reflects the philosophical underpinnings of the world around us.

The reason why we have “mere actors” today — in movies, on T.V., and in most plays (exempting, of course, Mr. Stoppard) — is because few read Shakespeare anymore; and fewer still read him with the passionate love that is demanded. Shakespeare brings reality — beyond the mere commonplace — to the stage; projecting the ideas, the historical significance, the unchanging concerns of human tragedies and comedies, upon a world which either ignores or no longer understands such greatness upon the stage. Shakespeare embodies all that Western Civilization has to offer in the embracing of ideas, words, human stories, and historical events. Why did this happen? Because Truth is no longer revered; Shakespeare revered Truth, because he revered language which expressed such Truth.

Further, a person can truly act only if he understands how the world is a stage, and how the stage is a reflection of the world — while at the same time understanding the profound difference between the two.

When once the question, “why”?

Praditha was a slight boy of ten years; his dark skin betrayed the life he lived; and the hands which reached out to add to the fire revealed hands misshapen from toil and hard work. “Grandfather, when will it rain?” Such a question received a warmth from the old man he so loved; whose long white beard reached just below mid-chest; with a face cut with deep ravines of wisdom; and pock-marks from a childhood ravaged by disease; and yet a youthful glint in his eyes. “Why do you ask?” grunted the old man.

The boy did not expect such a question to his question, for his answer would reveal a motive and intention he did not wish to reveal. But he had learned long ago that no amount of careful consideration would sidestep the wisdom of his Grandfather; nay, it was beyond wisdom; it was an uncanny knowledge that pierced the very soul of his young mind. “I ask to…” but he paused, looking down at the fire, wanting to embrace its warmth, yet to avoid the steady gaze of the man on the other side.

“If it rains, then of course you cannot be expected to work in the fields. You must then go out into the woods to explore, to do what you have been doing on other rainy days.” Praditha continued to look down at the red glow; a sudden spark broke the silence, and tiny pebbles of hot balls crackled and shot towards the boy, who jolted backward. And in that instant when he jerked his head back from the fire, he saw the sly and playful smile of his Grandfather.

For he knew; they both knew. In the world in which they were born, lived, survived, toiled, and finally died, there was little time for play; there was time for a smile; for a thought; for reflection upon rest; but play was a time of waste, except on a day wasted by rain.

The boy had heard of villages where play was commonplace; larger villages where the old ways were lost and children played every day; where such questions of “when” changed to “why”, as in, “Grandfather, why does it rain”? But in his village, such questions were without meaning; the why would come only when games would be played on days even when the rains did not come. But with the emergence of the why came the destruction of a way of life; of daily toil, where son, father and grandfather would awaken with the sun; where the sun would be the gauge of work; where being and the world within which, were never separated, because the questions of why would never emerge to separate the two.

The why of the world, as with the emergence of all such entities, always comes at a cost. “And,” Grandfather added, “when it stops, then we shall work all the harder the next day.” Beyond the fire, the glow of warmth enveloped Praditha. For it was Grandfather who had worked for some seventy years; yet his smile gave off the warmth, as the embers slowly died, and darkness revealed the time of sleep.

OPM Disability Retirement Attorney: Some Initial Thoughts

A “blog” is an inherently dangerous forum for an attorney; for it is a blank slate that welcomes the fool to fill with vacuous thoughts. Let me first provide a bit of background and introduction, to provide a context: my first love has always been Philosophy. That is why I went to college to study – it was not to get a degree; it was not to go to law school (at least, not initially); it was to read and understand the great philosophers, from the Pre-Socratics to modern day Deconstructionists, Postmodern philosophers, etc. It was a discipline – a complex system of thought by brilliant minds beyond the reach of a young man who was mesmerized by the brilliance of such conceptual systems and fabrics of thought. I ended up majoring in Philosophy; then going on to Graduate School at the University of Virginia.

After completing my Master’s coursework and beginning to write my thesis on Berkeley’s philosophy, I realized that my love of Philosophy had waned; perhaps I realized that I would never reach the heights of such brilliant minds as Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, etc.; I desired to do other things. I went to law school; it was a natural step, because law allows for one foot to remain in the world of conceptual systems of logic and argumentation, while placing the other foot into the world of practical application and concretely helping clients. Still, after almost twenty years of being a lawyer, my first love is still Philosophy – and I have, in my spare time, while happily married to my wife of 25 years, and bringing up 3 beautiful kids, been able to enjoy reading a wide range of philosophers, and am thankful that I learned the “discipline and methodology” of philosophy, and that the works of such great minds have become less intimidating to me over the years. For “Philosophy” at its core and simple definition, is merely the “love of wisdom” (as all young Philosophy students learn in Introduction to Philosophy 101); but wisdom comes with age; and, hopefully, the fact that I am older has granted some semblance of wisdom.

That provides a short background; it is about the extent of my comfort level in being “personal” on an OPM Disability Retirement blog.

Now, my thoughts for the day: The tools of an attorney are words; the method of delivery rhetoric and argumentation; the conceptual framework, logic; the foundation of justification – a Court’s opinion. In a recent local case that I was involved in, I pointed out that lawyers are often criticized – albeit justifiably – for thinking that by the sheer power of words, we are able to shape reality. We think that, because our tools are words; because we have learned from law school and honed in trial practice the method of argumentation; and further, because we see the practical impact of our words, we come to believe that words themselves can shape the reality around us. I pointed out, however, that it is facts which shape reality; not words. Upon reflection, of course, such an argument is a rather conceptually muddled argument; for facts are certainly framed by words, and so to argue for a bifurcation of “facts” from “words” is in itself confusing. But beyond such confusion, the primary point I wanted to make was that it is vitally important for the integrity of the “profession” of a Federal attorney, that we use the “tool of words” carefully, such that our tools are constrained by Truth, and not mere expediency to win a case.

I believe that our world – the profession of Law – has been diminished in recent years by too many people abusing and mis-using the tool of words to merely win; at the expense of Truth.

I have attempted to represent my clients to obtain OPM disability retirement, in the best way possible, by utilizing the tool of words; while attempting to maintain the integrity of Truth, and thereby the “profession of Law”. In many ways, my job has been easy – my clients are people with medical conditions which seriously impact their lives; it is merely my job to use “words” to accurately describe the “facts” of how their medical conditions impact their ability to perform the essential functions of their jobs.



Robert R. McGill

Attorney at Law – OPM Disability Retirement Law