This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on for November 17, 2017.
The classical Greeks drew the picture of their hero Opportunity with one forelock of hair hanging long over his forehead. Opportunity was not balding…he had a great shock of hair hanging down to his eyebrows. When Opportunity approached, you had to reach-out and seize him by the forelock before he passed by, because once Opportunity passed, there was no way to get a handle on him. Once he had passed, he was gone.
The wisdom literature of many traditions directs us to be ready to seize opportune moments before they pass us by. An effective person is expected to be well prepared. They are to have nurtured appropriate inner dispositions supporting right action in the moment of decision. Self-knowledge is helpful, as is a firm sense of one’s deepest guiding principles and an internalized, intentional and well-considered system of values. To be prepared, one must have a sense of what you want your life to be about and what your purpose is…else, opportunity will pass you by every time.
Dostoevsky writes, in ‘the Brothers Karamazov’: “The secret of man’s being is not only to live…but to live for something definite. Without a firm notion of what he is living for, man will not accept life, and will rather destroy himself than remain on the earth.”
A great many folk have no firm notion of what they are living for. This may go some distance toward explaining the current opioid crisis, a cultural materialism that is often not especially satisfying, and aggrieved people who shoot up concerts, school-yards and churches. Without a clear sense of purpose, cynicism crooks an invitational finger, and nihilism whispers into famished ears.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, from which lectionary readings are drawn in 2017, Jesus tells a tale about a wedding party. In the first century, just as now, it was a great honor to be selected as a bridesmaid. Folk in agrarian Israel lived hard lives, and when there was a wedding in the village, it was time for the town-folk to cut loose. Marriages took place after the harvest when there was a bit of free time, and generally mid-week at night, when lamps and torches in procession made for festive atmosphere and great display. The feast could go on for days until the wine gave out.
In Jesus’ parable…a wisdom tale if ever there was one…half of the bridesmaids show up unprepared. Then as now, bridesmaids help the bride, celebrate the bride, and are the bright lights during general festivities. They must dress splendidly, smile brightly, and witness to the beauty of the marriage underway.
Folks carried oil-flasks to replenish their lamps in first-century Palestine, much as we keep flashlights in the trunks of our cars, (and maybe an earthquake-kit for extra measure). So how is it that half of the bridal party shows up unequipped? They have been sleeping, the Gospeller tells us. When the moment arrives for the wedding festivities to begin, they are groggy from their naps, and have run down to the local 7-11 trying to buy themselves some kerosene. They are not present for their duties.
The crime of the foolish young women is both small and great. They have miscalculated. They are not available for the one function they have been asked to perform. They are asked only to light the way. They have an excuse, but it doesn’t really matter. They might argue that they did not intend to run out of oil, but in view of their absence this is quite beside the point. There are opportunities that come only once, and then they are gone.
Shakespeare’s MacBeth rails that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. Priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin offered a quite different perspective: “something is afoot in the universe…something that looks like gestation and birth.” In my experience, most people, theist or otherwise, sense that the gift of existence places an inherent moral demand on those of us who are its glad recipients. Theists universally admit that God does not confide the full sweep of his intent to mortals. All of us are under obligation to develop a moral code and an adequate response to the demands of life. MacBeth’s nihilism leaves us wanting, and is quite inexcusable.
It is sometimes dark outside, even in bright-sky Southern California. Each one of us is summoned to be, as best we may, a light bearer. In poor communities in first century Israel, peasants wrapped rags around sticks and doused them with olive oil to join the bridesmaids that did show up, leading the procession toward the festal event. We can probably do at least that much…nurturing our values and tending our commitments and standing for something definite and well-considered.
We have to be resolute and available for the one function we have been asked to perform. We are only asked to light the way. We may have excuses, but they don’t really matter. We might argue that we are busy and there are many demands on us already, but that is beside the point. There are opportunities that come only once, and then they are gone. Processions must occur in times of darkness in order for their beauty to be seen. So wrap the poor rags of your good-enough commitments around a stick, pour on the oil…all you have…and light the rag, and hold your torch up against the night. Opportunity is not balding. Don’t let him pass by. Grab him by the forelock, and live for something definite, with a firm notion of what you are living for.