By Sue Caulfield
The primary purpose of my meditative wall hangings is to create beautiful ways for people to connect with profound ideas. At times, the idea might be the image of the labyrinth, which draws one in contemplatively. At other times, the idea is found in others’ words. One of my perennial favorites includes lines from Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem. These words are:
Here is what Cohen had to say about these words:
“That is the background of the whole record, I mean if you have to come up with a philosophical ground, that is ‘Ring the bells that still can ring.’ It’s no excuse…the dismal situation…and the future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities toward yourself and your job and your love. ‘Ring the bells that still can ring’: they’re few and far between but you can find them. ‘Forget your perfect offering’, that is the hang-up, that you’re gonna work this thing out. Because we confuse the idea and we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture, which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution or perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.” (from a 1992 interview; see http://www.leonardcohen-prologues.com/)
Furthermore, blogger Gerry Cordon cites Howard Jacobson from the Independent:
“And then comes another, still more wonderful, clinching line – ‘That’s how the light gets in.’ Savour that! At a stroke, weakness becomes strength and fault becomes virtue. I feel as though original sin has just been re-explained to me. There was no fall. We were born flawed. Flawed is how we were designed to be. Which means we don’t need redeeming after all. Light? Why go searching for light? The light already shines from us. It got in through our failings.”
One of my great teachers once told me that everyone is broken. At first, I did not understand, as I always saw others as together, complete, and nearly omnipotent. Indeed, I often saw others as having all those great traits that I believed had eluded me. However, as I ruminated on what my teacher said, I realized that, indeed, all of us are broken in some way. All of us struggle in some way. All of us seek love, acceptance, community, ways to connect, ways to engage, and ways to be who we are. If Howard Jacobsen is correct, we are born flawed, because we are, by nature, flawed. Yet, Jacobson rightly sees this as virtue, not as a fault.
This is what Cohen taps into so eloquently. Let go of the ceaseless search for perfection. Engage the life you have been given. Ring those metaphorical bells while you still can. Do not begrudge your imperfections for they are what makes you human.
I believe that Cohen might be soul mates with the Skin Horse. From Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit: “’Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” …’It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’”
So, being Real means imperfection. Living fully means not hiding the cracks, but fully engaging the cracks. While the Oxford English Dictionary disputes this story, some tell that the word “sincere” has its roots in Latin: sine = without and cera = wax. The idea being that dishonest sculptors would cover flaws in their work with wax to deceive the viewer. A sincere piece of work would not have any wax, no attempt to show itself as anything other than what it was. That is, a sincere piece of work would show its true self.
As I reflect on Cohen’s words, I am reminded to engage my life to its fullest extent. Whatever metaphorical bells present to me, let me ring them while I still can ring. Let me be fully present in the world, cracks, flaws, gray hair, loose in the joints, and with my own personality. The more I am fully present in the world, the more I engage the world, the greater the chance of connecting with the light.