Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Water Glasses

They were perched 
On the stand
When I woke up today,
Your water glass
And mine,
Still sitting from just
Two evenings past,
When our mouths
Were dry
And emptied of
Their secrets.

I stared at them and
Thought of all
I said and did
Not say
And wondered if 
You were somewhere
Thinking the same.
They looked so natural,
Resting there.
We were quite 
The attractive pair.

But there is no need
For sets of two
In this room of one,
So I washed them off
And put them up 
Where they can be
Upside-down and empty,
No longer streaked
With foretastes of
Our separate, salty

Monday, November 8, 2010

"There There" by Radiohead

In pitch dark I go walking in your landscape. 
Broken branches trip me as I speak.
Just 'cause you feel it doesn't mean it's there.
Just 'cause you feel it doesn't mean it's there.

There's always a siren
Singing you to shipwreck
(Don't try, don't reach out
Don't try, don't reach out) 

Steer away from these rocks
We'd be a walking disaster
(Don't reach out, don't reach out
Don't reach out, don't reach out)

Just 'cause you feel it doesn't mean it's there.
(There's someone on your shoulder)
(There's someone on your shoulder) 

Just 'cause you feel it doesn't mean it's there.
(There's someone on your shoulder)
(There's someone on your shoulder)

There there!

Why so green and lonely?
And lonely
And lonely

Heaven sent you to me
To me
To me

We are accidents
Waiting, waiting to happen.

We are accidents
Waiting, waiting to happen.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

For Atlas, When She's Tired

It's all in the knuckles, 
You see,
And that knot 
In the middle 
Of your back.
As long as you 
And keep it still 
And taut
And controlled
When the water 
Starts to creep 
From your eyes
And your lip 
Like a mutinous
Little spy - 
That's when you have to
Squeeze tighter 
And harder
Just a little bit 
Because it's all resting
On you, 
You see,
And you won't break 
If you don't want to,
And if you falter
Then everything, 
Falls to the floor 
With a splash 
And a thud
And the crowd 
Just stares at their shoes
While you stand there, 
Shivering -

Just another naked girl
With nothing to hold on to.

Friday, September 10, 2010

What We Don't Remember on 9/11

On this eve of 9/11, I am overcome with sadness.  Not only because this day, 9 years ago, was so painful for my country, but because 9/11's anniversary sparks an overwhelming wave of patriotism... and patriotism can be very frightening.  

The simple definition of patriotism is love of one's country - and there's absolutely nothing wrong with appreciating your national identity and heritage.  But why don't we see a surge of this type of patriotism on July 2?  It's the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a monumental piece of legislation that proved democracy works when people band together to boycott unjust systems and march peacefully to our nation's capital.  Why don't we wave our flags proudly every August 18th?  On that day in 1920, women in this country were given the right to cast their ballots alongside their husbands, fathers, and brothers.  These are the moments in our country's history where we see American ideals like equality and freedom truly triumph over oppression and ignorance.

But, despite the fact that these dates ought to make us "proud to be an American", they mean nothing to the majority of our citizens.  We would rather wave our flags on the 4th of July or D-Day or, as of late, 9/11.  In my opinion, this is where we need to be careful.  When the days that define us are days characterized by bloodshed, war, and terror... who does that say that we are as a people?  Our national memory, like all nation's, is skewed: we are always, always the good guys.  Unfortunately, the facts of history do not always align with our perception of it.

When we think of the 4th of July, we envision a small group of determined colonists who, against all odds, overthrew an empire.  This is partially true... but we conveniently forget that, in the eyes of the Native Americans who already inhabited our "colonies", we were the empire.  The US government put the Native American death toll conservatively between 1 and 4 million during those years.  Other experts describe a genocide of greater magnitude than the Holocaust.  We look to Hollywood films starring attractive actors for our perspective on the 2,500 or so Americans killed at Pearl Harbor, yet I doubt we would pay to see high-definition footage of the over 200,000 charred bodies that blanketed the ground in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after we dropped not one, but two atomic bombs.  We also conveniently forget the 110,000 Japanese Americans that we forced to live in internment camps following the attack.  

And then there's 9/11 - a day when 2,996 Americans were suddenly and tragically killed.  I remember watching the news footage in my high school classroom and seeing the streets of New York coated with ash and tears and death.  It was traumatic.  Psychologists have even done studies on the effect that 9/11 had on my entire generation.  This is why I can't even conceive what it would be like to live in Iraq and watch as 100,000 of your civilians are killed - not in one tragic day, but over the course of many tragic days and years.  The majority of these men, women, and children do not receive news footage or memorials built in their honor.  They are merely collateral damage.  They are the "price of freedom"... or so we say.

I do love my fellow Americans, including quite a few soldiers.  They are in my family, in my neighborhood, and among my facebook friends.  But we're supposed to be honest with the people we love.  Maybe, just maybe, instead of blindly supporting our troops on this day, we should gently question them.  Maybe we should grab our young engineers by the shoulders and say, "Don't work for Lockheed Martin and devote your talents to building smarter bombs!  Design devices that make dirty water drinkable!  Show us how to make strong and safe houses that the poor can afford!"  Maybe we should go into our churches and say, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!   When evil men come to destroy you, put your hope in God - not horses or chariots!  You may be fed to a lion, you may be thrown in jail, but you'll be in good company!"  In light of all the "God Bless America" stickers I see, I can't help but think of the Amish school shooting a few years back.  Within a few hours of that soul-destroying event, members of the community reached out to the shooter's family and extended forgiveness to them.  They even set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter.  Can you imagine?  How would the world react to that foreign policy?  If Jesus was a radical, and we are a self-proclaimed "Christian" nation, why do we continue to follow the worn tracks of anger and violence?  Even the "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" mandate was intended to keep justice restrained so that we do not respond to a few thousand murders by committing a few hundred thousand more.  

And, so, on this day, I remember.  I remember the brokenness of humanity and the wounds we inflict on each other.  I remember my own capacity for hatred and violence.  I remember my nation's history, both the noble and the obscene, so that I do not repeat its mistakes.  I remember that a willingness to die for something does not require a willingness to kill for it.  I remember the 1 in 8 American soldiers who have returned from war with PTSD.  I remember all of this on this day... and I pray for peace.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction....The chain reaction of evil - hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars - must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation." - Martin Luther King, Jr

Amish response to hatred and violence

Monday, September 6, 2010

Outwit, Outplay, Outlast

"Define yourself radically as one beloved by God.  This is the true self.  Every other identity is illusion." -Brennan Manning

I hate feeling useless.  My best days are days when I climb into bed at night and know, unquestionably, that I offered something unique and valuable to the world.  In turn, my worst days are when I can't seem to justify why I matter... why I'm still worthy of love when I didn't fill a niche or "pull my weight."  My life is like a series of Survivor episodes, and I end each day before a panel of skeptical judges who must decide whether or not I'm worth keeping around.

In our "tit-for-tat-I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine" culture, I've grown used to grounding my security in my competency.  I'm usually not the smartest person in the room - but I'm rarely the dumbest.  I'm not an expert at anything - but I'm at least average at almost everything.  And, on most days, in most situations, that's enough to convince the imaginary tribal council in my head that I deserve to stay a little longer before I'm kicked to the outskirts of society where the worthless and the marginalized go.  

And that's where my problems with God begin.  When dealing with an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-complete entity, there's not much you can bring to the table.  My ability to "talk a good game" is useless in the presence of the One who created speech.  So how can I be secure in a relationship where I hold no power?  How can I be loved by someone who doesn't need me?  What do I have to have to offer when I have nothing to offer?

I've yet to figure out how this plays out in community.  On one hand, community has to be transactional on some level.  After all, somebody has to pay the bills, cook the meals, mop the floor.  If you are doing these things, you can still curl up in bed at night and say, "I matter because of XYZ."  The tribal council in your brain will be appeased for the time being.  However, I truly believe that God knows how much we struggle to grasp His non-transactional style of love and gives us community to serve as a model.  If, over time, I can see what it is to be loved collectively and indiscriminately by a group of people who still know my individual shortcomings, maybe I can begin to grasp the "furious longing of God" for His children whom he loves both personally and en masse.  Maybe I'll begin to rest in the security that, no matter what I do or how little I offer, He's not going to vote me off or cast me away.

"We unwittingly project onto God our own attitudes and feelings toward ourselves... But we cannot assume that He feels about us the way we feel about ourselves -- unless we love ourselves compassionately, intensely, and freely." -Brennan Manning

Monday, August 30, 2010

Why Do We Fear Community?

If you ask the average postmodern twentysomething if man is inherently good or evil, they're going to say "good" 9 times out of 10.  If you ask that same twentysomething if they'd be willing to open a bank account with a stranger who shares their worldview, they're going to look at you like you're crazy.  Americans perpetually preach the doctrine of autonomy and independence while statistics show that we're lonelier than ever.  We want to be loved and known, but we maintain our relationships via 140-character tweets rather than engaging in meaningful, face-to-face interactions with the people around us.


I've been pondering that question quite a bit lately.  Why
is the idea of community... of interdependence... of a collectivist mentality so terrifying?  Some may point to recent examples of "communities gone bad" (Jonestown, Branch Davidians, etc.) to explain their misgivings, but I think our fears run much deeper than that.  

Lately, I've been exploring the works of
Marina Abramović, a performance artist from the 1970s who examined the complex relationship between performer and audience.  The video below describes a controversial piece that was performed in Germany but ultimately proved too provocative for US galleries.  (Disclaimer: This clip contains a bit of nudity...)

The comparison I'm about to make is far from perfect.  Actively engaging in community is a far cry from passively surrendering to a crowd of strangers, but both do require you to put your life and your well-being, at least partially, in the hands of others.  This is, in my opinion, why we fear community.  Despite our hopeful platitudes on the benevolence of humanity, on some very real, instinctive level, we know better: People are evil and, if given the chance, they will destroy me.  We would prefer a kinder summary, but our behavior (and our history books) betray us.  The audience members of Rhythm 0 were not animals - they were likely upper- to middle-class, educated patrons of the arts.  The undergraduates chosen for the Stanford prison experiment were probably good kids from good families.  And, yet, when allowed to exert power over others, even "civilized" individuals are quick to abuse and terrorize.  As much as it's nice to talk about peace and love in theory, the thought of really living as one is simply not an option for most of us.  Charles Bukowski said it well: 

beware the average man the average woman
beware their love, their love is average
seeks average

but there is genius in their hatred

I think this is why, of all the things that Jesus could have prayed for His church, he prayed for unity.  It is in our close, interdependent relationships that we reveal who and what we really are.  Nice people are not uncommon - I meet at least one or two every week.  But truly loving communities are rare indeed... and our deepest wounds are usually inflicted upon us by the ones who are supposed to love us the most.  I think Jesus knew that the most powerful statement about who He was couldn't come from an army of "nice people."  There's nothing especially unique or inspiring about that.  Jesus knew that what the world needs most (and sees least) are people who love each other like family when they're not... who carry each other's burdens when they don't have to... who sacrifice for each other when there's nothing to be gained.  This is the type of behavior that points to something transcendent and other-worldly in the lives of everyday, broken human beings.

And the early church understood this.  In his book Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community, Phillip Kenneson describes the reputation of Christians in their early days:

Because the Greek word for Christ (christos) was so similar to the word for kind (chrestos), apparently many people mistakenly (though perhaps fittingly) called Jesus' early followers not "Christians" but "the kind ones."

I don't think that most Americans would feel comfortable calling today's Christians "kind ones."  A recent study conducted by the Barna Group, an Evangelical research and polling group, found that the majority of Americans view Christians as "judgmental," "hypocritical," and "homophobic."  Perhaps it is because, unlike the early church, we do not practice what we preach by sharing our possessions with each other and the poor among us... or opening our doors to strangers who need shelter... or loving one another deeply like brothers and sisters in the family of God.

If we did, maybe community wouldn't be so scary after all.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Albuquerque (posted late)

Today I got off the bus in Albuquerque, NM.  It is beautiful here, but I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’m wandering around in a cheesy 1970s TV sitcom.   I keep expecting a police officer with aviators and too-tight pants to stop me on the street and say, “You’re not from around here are you, little lady?”

I’m spending the night at the Route 66 Hostel , a quaint and quirky little house a few blocks from the main strip.  So far, I have made two friends.  Stone, the lanky doorman that gave me a discount because I recognized his Philly Love T-shirt, and Cyrus, an out-of-town salesman who ate the last half of my chocolate cake after telling me never to move to Cleveland.  The hostel is quiet now, and I am sitting on the porch watching passers-by and smoking a clove.  I’ve smoked quite a bit on this trip.  Sometimes, it’s because I’m someplace seedy and I want to look less vulnerable and sometimes, like now, it’s my own shallow attempt at appearing mysterious and interesting.  My legs are tucked underneath me because the porch is crawling in beetles and, although I’d rather not come into contact with them directly, I sort of enjoy watching them wander.

I had quite a few interesting conversations while roaming the strip today – mainly with men.  I think I fall into a category that I like to call “approachably pretty.”  I’m attractive enough to turn a head or two, but not so attractive that your average run-of-the-mill dude considers me out of his league.  With my camera slung over my arm, it’s easy to strike up a conversation.  Is that for a class or something?...Why don’t you take my picture?...What kind of lens are you using?  Most of the time, I don’t mind.  Why not be friendly for 15 minutes and enjoy a free beer when you can?  The bartenders at the place where I had dinner tonight seemed sad.  They were all skinny and tattooed with unnaturally dark hair, and I wondered if they wrote poetry on their skin to make them feel more comfortable in it.

I passed by a greenhouse of sorts and bought myself a bouquet of mystery blossoms.  I’ve never been able to identify flowers outside of your generic tulip/carnation/rose variety, but these small blooms were red and orange and a little wild-looking – like they’d just moved up to the weight class above "weeds."  I took to them instantly.  Carrying them around the strip all afternoon made me feel feminine and free and grateful to be exactly who I am, exactly where I am… at least for today.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Holding Hands

I took a crowded bus home this evening.  So crowded, in fact, that there were multiple people standing and only one open seat.  That seat was the one directly next to a middle-aged, homeless black man wrapped in a blanket.  He stank horribly and shook violently from head to toe.  For reasons I still don't fully understand, I sat down next to him.

As the bus pulled away from the stop, I found myself staring at his hands.  They were worn, tired hands with dirty nail beds and permanent callouses.  He would clasp them in his lap, but as soon as he was still for a second or two, the shaking would begin... and it would get worse and worse until he unclasped them and adjusted himself into a new position.  Within seconds, more shaking.  It was was clear that he was trying to rest by leaning his head against the glass, but the shaking made it almost impossible.

"Hold his hand."

It took me off-guard, this prompt from God.  I'm always skeptical of people who say "God told me this" or "Jesus told me that."  All too often, people just drop God's name in the mix as a means of justifying doing whatever they please.  I can assure you, in this instance, that was not the case.  As a matter of fact, I was so appalled by the suggestion that I pulled a Gideon and decided to put God through a few quick tests to make sure I heard Him correctly.  (If you don't get the Gideon reference, read about it here.)  So I prayed, "Lord, if you want me to hold his hand, have him cross his legs right now."  He did.  "Lord, if you want me to hold his hand, have him turn his head and look at me right now."  He did that too.

Not the response I was hoping for.

Suddenly, I became very aware of my surroundings.  This bus was crowded.  What would it look like if I just reached over and grabbed this strange man?  And what would his reaction be?  I didn't understand why he was shaking.  Maybe he was an addict or maybe he was sick or maybe he was just mentally ill.  What if he was schizophrenic and when I touched him, he suddenly yelled at me or hit me or lunged at me or something?  A million scenarios, none of them positive, began to scroll through my head.

And that's when I remembered Peter - the disciple who said he would never leave Christ on the eve of his arrest only to deny Him in the face of difficulty.  How often do I imagine myself accomplishing great things for God's kingdom?  Sacrificing my money, my comfort, my time, my very life to honor my Savior.   Yet, there I was, afraid to risk looking even remotely foolish in front of a small group of strangers that I would likely never see again.  Was this too great a sacrifice for the One who sacrificed all for me?  How could I claim to love Christ and deny Him in His poor?

That's when I reached over and placed my hand on top of his.  He looked at me, expressionless, and I gave him a slight squeeze.  For the next 10 minutes or so, we just rode on the bus next to each other, staring straight ahead, while I held his hand and did my best to calm his shaking.  I kept praying, "What now, Lord?  What do you want me to say?  Do I talk to him?  Do I tell him about You?"... nothing.  So I just continued to sit with him in silence and watch the raindrops trail across the window.

When we arrived at my stop, I let go of his hand and he looked at me with eyes full of an emotion I can't quite pinpoint.  The moment felt oddly poignant.  As I walked home, I wondered how long it had been since he had been touched compassionately by another human being.  I wondered if, like so many of DC's homeless, he had been invisible, despised, alienated for days and months and years... enough time for it to erode away his sense of human dignity and inherent worth.  As someone who relies a lot on her words, it was strange to sit in silence on the bus with this man, but I think that, more than anything that I could say or any amount of money that I could give, he just needed to be touched.

Lord, have mercy.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Blood on My Hands

Sometimes I am paralyzed by the degree that I am blessed.  Why am I tempted by excess when so many go to bed hungry?  Why do I stir up conflict when I have never known war?  Why do I deal harshly with others when God has dealt so gently with me?

I sat on the bus on the way to work this morning and cried.  I couldn't help it, and it was embarrassing.  More often than I care to admit as of late, I find that I am unable to keep myself from tears.  I looked at the Starbucks cup in my hands, and I thought of the farmers who are exploited for their labor so that Americans like me can avoid inconvenience.  I looked at my pants, and I wondered if a child without shoes made them.  I looked at the homeless men that we passed on the street and considered the times that I have avoided their gaze, ashamed at my lack of compassion for the very poor so loved by Christ.

I realize that God has been granting me the blessing and the curse of stripping my heart.  I find that I am raw, disturbed, outraged, grieved yet also blissful, calm, brave, and, in fleeting moments, compassionate.  He has paid us the terrible compliment of engineering us for the heroic - not for solitary, mighty acts once in awhile but the great and awful burden of daily walking with justice and mercy in a world wrought with unspeakable terror and abuse.  How can I possibly avoid slipping into the ease of comfort that always perpetuates injustice?  Moreover, why do I get to know Him at all?  Why am I one of the few, the fortunate few, in this broken land that can call Him Abba, Father?  As I consider the blood on my hands and on my legs and on my feet, I cannot help but rejoice and mourn and rage and wonder at these things.

Maranatha, maranatha, maranatha...

Monday, March 15, 2010

"The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot

Mistah Kurtz -- he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer --

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Graduation Speech Given by C.S. Lewis ("The Inner Ring")

May I read you a few lines from Tolstoy’s War and Peace?

When Boris entered the room, Prince Andrey was listening to an old general, wearing his decorations, who was reporting something to Prince Andrey, with an expression of soldierly servility on his purple face. “Alright. Please wait!” he said to the general, speaking in Russian with the French accent, which he used when he spoke with contempt. The moment he noticed Boris he stopped listening to the general who trotted imploringly after him and begged to be heard, while Prince Andrey turned to Boris with a cheerful smile and a nod of the head. Boris now clearly understood-what he had already guessed-that side by side with the system of discipline and subordination which were laid down in the Army Regulations, there existed a different and a more real system-the system which compelled a tightly laced general with a purple face to wait respectfully for his turn while a mere captain like Prince Andrey chatted with a mere second lieutenant like Boris, Boris decided at once that he would be guided not by the official system but by this other unwritten system.

When you invite a middle-aged moralist to address you, I suppose I must conclude, however unlikely the conclusion seems, that you have a taste for middle-aged moralizing. I shall do my best to gratify it. I shall in fact give you advice about the world in which you are going to live. I do not mean by this that I am going to attempt to talk on what are called current affairs. You probably know quite as much about them as I do. I am not going to tell you- except in a form so general that you will hardly recognize it-what part you ought to play in post-war reconstruction. It is not, in fact, very likely that any of you will be able, in the next ten years, to make any direct contribution to the peace or prosperity of Europe. You will be busy finding jobs, getting married, acquiring facts. I am going to do something more old-fashioned than you perhaps expected. I am going to give advice. I am going to issue warnings. Advice and warnings about things which are so perennial that no one calls them “current affairs.”

And of course everyone knows what a middle-aged moralist of my type warns his juniors against. He warns them against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. But one of this trio will be enough to deal with today. The Devil, I shall leave strictly alone. The association between him and me in the public mind has already gone quite as deep as I wish: in some quarters it has already reached the level of confusion, if not of identification. I begin to realize the truth of the old proverb that he who sups with that formidable host needs a long spoon. As for the Flesh, you must be very abnormal young people if you do not know quite as much about it as I do. But on the World I think I have something to say.

In the passage I have just read from Tolstoy, the young second lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two different systems or hierarchies. The one is printed in some little red book and anyone can easily read it up. It also remains constant. A general is always superior to a colonel and a colonel to a captain. The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organized secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it. There are what correspond to passwords, but they too are spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks. But it is not constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the border-line. And if you come back to the same Divisional Headquarters, or Brigade Headquarters, or the same regiment or even the same company, after six weeks’ absence, you may find this second hierarchy quite altered. There are no formal admissions or expulsions. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those who are really inside. It has no fixed name. The only certain rule is that the insiders and outsiders call it by different names. From inside it may be designated, in simple cases, by mere enumeration: it may be called “You and Tony and me.” When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be suddenly expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “All the sensible people at this place.” From outside, if you have despaired of getting into it, you call it “That gang” or “They” or “So-and-so and his set” or “the Caucus” or “the Inner Ring.” If you are a candidate for admission you probably don’t call it anything. To discuss it with the other outsiders would make you feel outside yourself. And to mention it in talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.

Badly as I may have described it, I hope you will all have recognized the thing I am describing. Not, of course, that you have been in the Russian Army or perhaps in any army. But you have met the phenomenon of an Inner Ring. You discovered one in your house at school before the end of the first term. And when you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your second year, perhaps you discovered that within the Ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring to which the house Rings were only satellites. It is even possible that the School Ring was almost in touch with a Masters’ Ring. You were beginning, in fact, to pierce through the skins of the onion. And here, too, at your university-shall I be wrong in assuming that at this very moment, invisible to me, there are several rings-independent systems or concentric rings-present in this room? And I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down, you will find the Rings-what Tolstoy calls the second or unwritten systems.

All this is rather obvious. I wonder whether you will say the same of my next step, which is this. I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. This desire, in one of its forms, has indeed had ample justice done to it in literature. I mean, in the form of snobbery. Victorian fiction is full of characters who are hag-ridden by the desire to get inside that particular Ring which is, or was, called Society. But it must be clearly understood that “Society,” in that sense of the word, is merely one of a hundred Rings and snobbery therefore only one form of the longing to be inside. People who believe themselves to be free, and indeed are free, from snobbery, and who read satires on snobbery with tranquil superiority, may be devoured by the desire in another form. It may be the very intensity of their desire to enter some quite different Ring which renders them immune from the allurements of high life. An invitation from a duchess would be very cold comfort to a man smarting under the sense of exclusion from some artistic or communist coterie. Poor man-it is not large, lighted rooms, or champagne, or even scandals about peers and Cabinet Ministers that he wants: it is the sacred little attic or studio, the heads bent together, the fog of tobacco smoke, and the delicious knowledge that we-we four or five all huddled beside this stove-arc the people who know. Often the desire conceals itself so well that we hardly recognize the pleasures of fruition. Men tell not only their wives but themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office or the school on some bit of important extra work which they have been let in for because they and So-and-so and the two others are the only people left in the place who really know how things are run. But it is not quite true. It is a terrible bore, of course, when old Fatty Smithson draws you aside and whispers “Look here, we’ve got to get you in on this examination somehow” or “Charles and I saw at once that you’ve got to be on this committee.” A terrible bore... ah, but how much more terrible if you were left out! It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.

Freud would say, no doubt, that the whole thing is a subterfuge of the sexual impulse. I wonder whether the shoe is not sometimes on the Other foot, I wonder whether, in ages of promiscuity, many a virginity has not been lost less in obedience to Venus than in obedience to the lure of the caucus. For of course, when promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are uninitiated. And as for lighter matters, the number who first smoked or first got drunk for a similar reason is probably very large.

I must now make a distinction. I am not going to say that the existence of Inner Rings is an evil. It is certainly unavoidable. There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only not a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together. And it is perhaps impossible that the official hierarchy of any organization should quite coincide with its actual workings. If the wisest and most energetic people invariably held the highest posts, it might coincide; since they often do not, there must be people in high positions who are really deadweights and people in lower positions who are more important than their rank and seniority would lead you to suppose. In that way the second, unwritten system is bound to grow up. It is necessary; and perhaps it is not a necessary evil. But the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous. As Byron has said:

Sweet is a legacy, and passing sweet
The unexpected death of some old lady.

The painless death of a pious relative at an advanced age is not an evil. But an earnest desire for her death on the part of her heirs is not reckoned a proper feeling, and the law frowns on even the gentlest attempt to expedite her departure. Let Inner Rings be an unavoidable and even an innocent feature of life, though certainly not a beautiful one: but what of our longing to enter them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in?

I have no right to make assumptions about the degree to which any of you may already be compromised. I must not assume that you have ever first neglected, and finally shaken off, friends whom you really loved and who might have lasted you a lifetime, in order to court the friendship of those who appeared to you more important, more esoteric. I must not ask whether you have ever derived actual pleasure from the loneliness and humiliation of the outsiders after you yourself were in: whether you have talked to fellow members of the Ring in the presence of outsiders simply in order that the outsiders might envy; whether the means whereby, in your days of probation, you propitiated the Inner Ring, were always wholly admirable. I will ask only one question-and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.

But I said I was going to give advice, and advice should deal with the future, not the past. I have hinted at the past only to awake you to what I believe to be the real nature of human life. I don’t believe that the economic motive and the erotic motive account for everything that goes on in what we moralists call the World. Even if you add Ambition I think the picture is still incomplete. The lust for the esoteric, the longing to be inside, take many forms which are not easily recognizable as Ambition. We hope, no doubt, for tangible profits from every Inner Ring we penetrate: power, money, liberty to break rules, avoidance of routine duties, evasion of discipline. But all these would not satisfy us if we did not get in addition the delicious sense of secret intimacy. It is no doubt a great convenience to know that we need fear no official reprimands from our official senior because he is old Percy, a fellow-member of our ring. But we don’t value the intimacy only for the sake of convenience; quite equally we value the convenience as a proof of the intimacy.

My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it-this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment, and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing-the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in-one way or the other you will be that kind of man. I have already made it fairly clear that I think it better for you not to be that kind of man.

But you may have an open mind on the question. I will therefore suggest two reasons for thinking as I do.

It would be polite and charitable, and in view of your age reasonable too, to suppose that none of you is yet a scoundrel. On the other hand, by the mere law of averages (I am saying nothing against free will) it is almost certain that at least two or three of you before you die will have become something very like scoundrels. There must be in this room the makings of at least that number of unscrupulous, treacherous, ruthless egotists. The choice is still before you: and I hope you will not take my hard words about your possible future characters as a token of disrespect to your present characters. And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colors. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still-just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naif, or a prig-the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play: something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”-and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure-something “we always do.” And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face-that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face-turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude: it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

That is my first reason. Of all the passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things. My second reason is this. The torture allotted to the Danaids in the classical underworld, that of attempting to fill sieves with water, is the symbol not of one vice but of all vices. It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had. The desire to be inside the invisible line illustrates this rule. As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.

This is surely very clear when you come to think of it. If you want to be made free of a certain circle for some wholesome reason-if, say, you want to join a musical society because you really like music-then there is a possibility of satisfaction. You may find yourself playing in a quartet and you may enjoy it. But if all you want is to be in the know, your pleasure will be short-lived. The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic. Once the first novelty is worn off the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humor or learning or wit or any of the things that can be really enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old Ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one.

And you will always find them hard to enter, for a reason you very well know. You yourself once you are in, want to make it hard for the next entrant, just as those who are already in made it hard for you. Naturally. In any wholesome group of people which holds together for a good purpose, the exclusions are in a sense accidental. Three or four people who are together for the sake of some piece of work exclude others because there is work only for so many or because the others can’t in fact do it. Your little musical group limits its numbers because the rooms they meet in are only so big. But your genuine Inner Ring exists for exclusion. There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident: it is the essence.

The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain. And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the center of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that its secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.

We are told in Scripture that those who ask get. That is true, in senses I can’t now explore. But in another sense there is much truth in the schoolboy’s principle “them as asks shan’t have.” To a young person, just entering on adult life, the world seems full of Insides,” full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities, and he desires to enter them. But if he follows that desire he will reach no “inside” that is worth reaching. The true road lies in quite another direction. It is like the house in Alice Through the Looking Glass.