Wednesday, May 21, 2014

2014 TBR Reading Challenge: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my brief comments on The Prophet by the Lebanese poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran.

The Prophet has been continuously in print since 1923. My copy is the 120th such printing. Having read it, I feel so blessed to have been born in a time period when something like this was written and available for me to read.

The book is a series of 26 prose poetry essays. The prophet, Almustafa, has lived in the city of Orphalese for 12 years, waiting for the ship to arrive that will return him to the home he has always longed for.

When his ship finally arrives and he's about to depart, the seeress, Almitra, requests him: "Now therefore disclose us to ourselves, and tell us all that has been shown you of that which is between birth and death." At this Almustafa wonders: "Shall the day of parting be the day of gathering? And shall it be said that my eve was in truth my dawn? [...] If this is my day of harvest, in what fields have I sowed the seed and in what unremembered seasons?" And then he proceeds to tell them in words what he knows they already know in their thoughts and in their souls.

He talks to them about: love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death.

I am certainly not qualified to analyze this work in its entirety—I don't even understand it all. So I'm going to offer you little sips of this boundless ocean of knowledge, the parts that reverberated with me and that I comprehended.

Of Good and Evil

We always worry about appearing weak instead of strong, of bad instead of good. We worry about the face we present to the public and of people's perception of us. He addresses that thusly: "You have been told that even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link. This is but half the truth. You also as strong as your strongest link. [...] That which seems most feeble and bewildered in you is the strongest and most determined. [...] You are good in countless ways, and you are not evil when you are not good." So Almustafa says don't value only what you perceive are the good things about you and discount what you perceive are the bad. Learn to appreciate both, because both are your strengths and both are your weaknesses.

"To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam." Isn't that gorgeous imagery? And then here's what I find completely beautiful and inifinitely encouraging: "And though in your winter you deny your spring, yet spring, reposing within you, smiles in her drowsiness and is not offended." This brings to mind something that Albert Camus wrote in his essay Retour à Tipasa (1952): "Au milieu de l'hiver, j'apprenais enfin qu'il y avait en moi un été invincible. (In the midst of winter, I learn finally that there is within me an invincible summer.)"

Of Children

With small children of my own, I was deeply interested in his thoughts on children. What he had to say is especially relevant in today's culture of helicopter parenting and tiger moms. "You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls. You may strive to like them, but seek not to make them like you."

Of Beauty

There's that tired phrase: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is how Almustafa puts it: "Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror." You are beautiful. In the absolute. Internalize it, own it.

Of Houses

Of houses he wrote that your place of dwelling should not be a place of comfort. That's shocking, isn't it? After all, home is synonymous with comfort for many of us. And yet, he says: "Have you only comfort [...] that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes [...] a master? Verily, the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul." When we surrender our souls to comfort, we become sluggish, dependent, unthinking, un-striving. We become less, rather than more. Instead, his vision of a house is thus: "[It] shall not be a glistening film that covers a wound, but an eyelid that guards the eye." A house should nurture the striving passion of the soul, not hide what you may perceive are your failures and hurts.

Of Marriage

What he has to say about marriage is not anything new or on the scale of an epiphany. And yet it has great impact in its concise sparseness. "Love one another, but make not a bond of love. Let there be spaces to your togetherness. [...] Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone." In other words, don't cleave to the other person. A marriage doesn't create a single unit, two halves of a whole. Rather, each person remains an individual and the joy is in the recognition of that and the sharing of that.

Of Giving

Don't we all wish for this?—"It is well to give when asked, but it better to give unasked, through understanding." Well, we wish to be in position of the givee, if you will, not necessarily seeing ourselves as the giver in that equation. Especially from our loved ones, we wish that they would give us our heart's desire or even the ordinary kindnesses without our having to ask for every one of them. But Almustafa turns that desire around. Why wouldn't you want to be in the position of being the giver of this largesse? For as he sees it: "All you have shall some day be given [away]; Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors'."

I am awed by this all. There's so much, much more in that work to mine for goodies, nuggets and tracts to treasure. I am sure I shall be reading it many more times, and each time, I shall come away having learned something new.