“Take What You Want….And Pay For It”
Several weeks ago, in The Congregationalist , I read an essay by Harry Butman who at 90 is still an eloquent speaker and writer in behalf of our Congregational way of church life. Harry’s arthritic fingers no longer permit him to type, but even if they did he says he would be afraid to move on to the brave new world of computers, in which, he confesses, “I am an old and lonely alien.” Since I have only recently entered computer-land myself, when the title of his article hinted that he had a warning I wanted to know why.
As it turned out, he was simply pointing out that progress always has a price, paid soon or late, in one way or another. Primitive man discovered that if he made a fist he could do more damage to his enemy’ nose, but it wasn’t long before the enemy learned the same trick. In sequence came a stone axe and a gun and a bomb, and each time, with the blessing, came a price. Microscopes and telescopes extended our eyesight, , cars and planes gave us more powerful legs, radio and telephone increaed the range of our ears — all those inventions vastly expanded the physical powers of the body. But the dice of God are always loaded. Nothing comes without a price — or, to quote God from an old, old proverb: “Take what you want….and pay for it.”
The gun really was a stronger fist for the protection of self and family and country, but it also increased crime on the streets and the drive-by killing of bystanders and babies. The automobile gave us incredible new mobility, but with it came gridlock, smog, and highway carnage. Movies and television blessed us with entertainment and instant knowledge of what goes on in the world, but they also made rudeness and vulgarity popular for our kids almost before they learn to walk.
If it’s true, as we are told, that our greatest unsolved moral problem is the ethical use of power, Mr. Butman wonders what lies ahead for us now that computers have so augmented the power of the mind? Instant access to knowledge is now available as never before, and knowledge is power. It is already hard to imagine a world without the blessings brought by computers. But the caution of our elder statesman is right: nothing comes without a price, and we are paying it already as our new gift falls into evil or careless hands and is misused. If we are vigilant we can probably make the price less painful, but as my friend Mr. Butman puts it at the close of his essay, “There is no free lunch.” Or, to quote the proverb once more, “Take what you want,” God says, “and pay for it.”
Now, as I hope you have guessed, my deeper interest this morning is not in computers but in the principle that things have a way of evening out, that each victory exacts some price, and each defeat can hold a hidden blessing for those who look. When I read Mr. Butman’s essay I thought immediately of a much older one by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “Compensation.” It is so demanding that I’m not sure I would have ever gotten around to it except that it was required in a graduate course in Emerson and Thoreau which I’ve ever since been glad I could not escape. I had dabbled in Emerson’s essays on “Self-Reliance” and “The Over-Soul” and “The American Scholar,” but I had never entered that dense thicket of thought called “Compensation” until I looked at a course assignment one summer night and saw that I had to read it. I’m not sure one can ever explain clearly why a book or an essay or a conversation changed his life, but I do know that that essay had a profound effect on the way I would look at things for the rest of my days.
Part of its wisdom is summed up in what is at once the most comforting and the most terrifying verse in the Bible: “Whatever you sow, that shall you also reap.” It’s a philosophy born of age and long experience, I think, because young people find it hard to respond to long-range predictions. Study hard, build a reputation for courtesy and kindness, we tell them, and one day it will reward you handsomely, but “one day” competes at a huge disadvantage against the present moment. Or, Abuse your body, we tell them, and a day will come when you will have to pay for it, but concerns for some distant tomorrow are crowded out by the compelling present. Having walked so many times through the lung cancer and emphysema wards in huge city hospitals, it always seems incredible to me that teenagers begin so casually to smoke and to joke about the warnings they get, but then, I tell myself, they didn’t see those awful sights with me — and even if they had, they would have said, “I know it happens to some people, but it won’t to me.” We love exceptions when they keep us from concern about consequences.
There is nothing wrong about hoping children will not begin too early to ruin their health, but I have more in mind than that this morning. On a higher level I want to apply the law of compensation to character — to say that we cannot do wrong without in some way paying for it. The philosopher will tell you that what the preacher calls “sin” has a way of punishing itself. The more a thief steals from others, the more certain he becomes that everybody is stealing from him, and that makes him miserable. In a Muslim country he may have his hand cut off, but in a worse form of self-punishment he has already cut the priceless thing called trust out of his own heart. Lie to people, and the payback is that you are always suspicious that they may lie to you. Betray your friends to get ahead, and you will constantly fear betrayal by others. The man of unbridled lust, knowing his own secret heart, believes other hearts are as soiled as his own, takes any pleasant smile for an illicit opportunity, and pays the price of a ruined reputation. The self-centered woman, orbiting her own ego, becomes more and more isolated until at last there is no friend she really cares about, and none who care about her. Pulpits like to talk about a Day of Judgment at the end of time, but the truth is that judgment comes in this life, inexorably: we really do reap what we sow.
But I had caught on to some of that truth before I read Emerson’s essay, and it was another idea he developed that made me look at decisions I made and things that happened to me in ways I had not thought much about before. When I took my old college textbook off the shelf last week and re-read that “Compensation” essay after so many years , there before my eyes again was the key sentence I had underlined heavily in black ink. Like so many profound things, it will sound — I’m afraid — absurdly simple: “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something.”
In practical terms, it means this: that you stop moaning about what you have missed, and you look for some good that came in its place, and you stop boasting of what you have gotten, because in getting it you also lost something. Things tend, rather remarkably, to balance out. We imagine how dear power and place are, but Presidents can tell us how dearly they pay for the White House: how much peace is forfeited, how much integrity is compromised to accomplish some good. A homely girl sighs for extraordinary beauty with no thought of possible downsides. Margaux Hemingway could have listed some in the moments before she took her own life a few days ago.
I am much given to making scenarios of lives far different from the one I actually lead, so on occasion I have played — haven’t you? — the one called, “What if I were to win the lottery?” I think how pleasant it would be to set up trust funds for the children and the grandchildren, and guarantee that all of them could do things denied to them now, and I play out delightful little dramas in which I meet some total stranger who yearns to go to college, or to have surgery for some embarrassing deformity, but has no money, and I write a check to the college or the hospital and go on my way feeling wonderfully happy about what a fine, generous person I am. And then that old Emerson essay comes unbidden into my head to remind me that the dice of God are always loaded, that for every gain there is some loss, and when I reflect how my great generosity might actually ruin my children’s lives and set them at each other’s throats in rivalries, and how the actual possession of so much wealth might make me even more selfish than I am right now, I look with greater happiness on my life as it is…..and go back to sleep!
The law of compensation works, Emerson argues, both for our strengths and our weaknesses. What we are proudest of may become the means of our undoing; what we complain about may actually hold a hidden blessing. He recalls the stag in the fable who admired his horns and hated his feet, but when the hunter came along, his despised feet saved him….and afterwards, when he was caught in a thicket, his beloved horns destroyed him. We are never completely sure about what is best for us. It is human nature to want everything we can get, but those who sit on fat cushions of advantage often fall into a deeply selfish sleep. On the other hand, pushed off that cushion in some humiliating fate, they are cured of complacencyand have a chance to learn something. The law of compensation is forever at work. What else did Jesus mean in the Beatitudes when he said those things so terribly difficult to understand or believe: that poverty may have a compensatory blessing, that the hearts of those who mourn are somehow hollowed out to hold greater happiness than the hearts of those who have never lost anything. Crazy stuff, we tell ourselves……but, maybe not!
One of the most misunderstood of favorite American poems is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” The speaker comes to a fork in the road and stands for a while wishing he could travel both of them. Despite a popular interpretation, those two roads do not represent a choice between a good way of life and an evil one. The fact is that they are essentially identical, a point the speaker makes two or three times. He picks one over the other because he has to make a decision, consoling himself with the thought that he may get to return and travel the other some day but admitting quickly how unlikely that is because “way leads on to way.” But since I’ve brought it up, why should we miss the chance to hear it again? Listen:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
But what kind of difference? Moralists love to read that last stanza to mean that the poet regrets the choice he made, but there is no hint that that’s true. His sigh is simply one of regret that both choices are not possible. He would have liked to explore both roads….just as I would have liked also to be a doctor or a journalist….but one is limited when it comes to exploring life’s possibilities. There isn’t time for every tempting path. No tragedy is suggested by the poem because the speaker chose one road instead of the other. There is simply quiet regret that he had to miss so many other experiences when he made his choice between two equally promising paths. What has really “made all the difference” is the simple fact that life propels us forward, that way leads on to way, that we diverge farther and farther from that other good choice….and that time has a way of running out. Frost is a realist. He is not saying that things would have been better or worse on the other road, but only different. He will have gained some things on one path that he would have missed on the other….but then the same would have been true had he chosen differently.
So what does all this have to do with your life and mine? With how to be happy? This, I think: count the blessings you have….and spend precious little time fretting over what you may have lost long ago by not buying the other house, not marrying the other guy, not taking the other job. Look for compensations for what you may have lost, and rejoice in them! Most regrets are futile. And if that is not sufficient comfort, you may prefer to believe with Hamlet in “a divinity that shapes our ends,/ Rough-hew them how we will.” It does not always seem true, but we would like it to be true. We would like to believe that some of our journeys, begun in ignorance, will turn out to have brought us closer to the kingdom of God. May it be so for each of us. Amen.
Help us, gracious God to see the blessings we overlook….and to waste no precious time in vain regrets about what we cannot change. Amen.