We live in (yet more) turbulent times. The expected orders are being upended, the familiar dreams are being destroyed, the economic system on which most of us have relied seems headed for the junk pile, our leaders are people we would earlier not have chosen in a thousand years. It seems that we are experiencing the re-valuation of all values.
So I was lazily drifting through blogs, books and emails when I stumbled across the following. I’ve shown it to a few people and all agree: there is here some validation of the woe of our times. See what you think:
“Oh grim calamity, where have my years all gone?
Have I dreamed my life or is it real?
Whatever I held to be something, if it were there,
Was it really something?
And so I slept and knew nothing of it.
Now I am awake and now is strange
That which was before as familiar as my own hand.
The folk and the land in which I grew up
Are now foreign to me—as if that all were untrue.
My earlier playmates have grown slow and old.
The fields are abandoned, the forests all cut down.
Were the streams not flowing
Where they formerly flowed,
My pain would be truly great
I must believe.
I’m greeted coolly
By those who knew me well.
Everywhere the world is bleak
The moment I recall many a magnificent day
Which has now slid away like a splash in the ocean
Then, forever: oh woe is me.”
Ring any bells with you? My sense was that, essentially, this sums up a lot of how I have felt recently. And says it more eloquently than I could,, for sure.
But there is another aspect to this also: perspective, in the sense that, first, my impressions are not just my own particular insanity, and, second, that we have been here before and are still around to talk about it. It appears that we are like the timex watches of ads when I was young: we take a lickin’ but keep on tickin’
And why, you might ask, do I come to that conclusion about this:
Simple. It was written 800 years ago.
800 years ago by an itinerant German troubadour named Walther von der Vogelweide. Walther spent a lot of his life walking —. Yes on foot in all weather, day and night at a time when the world was lit only by fire — from one Prince’s court to another. HJe composed his poems and then sang them to his audiences for food, shelter and any other reward which his benefactor cared to bestow.
He turns out to have been the for many greatest poet of the German Medieval era. Apparently some people back then thought so too. His works survive in 32 manuscripts and one of them has a record of the melody to one of his Crusade Songs, the Palästinalied.
For me, today, his words go well beyond just having great historical importance. Historical importance is a value in and of itself for me. But this occasions both a sad reflection on persistent tragic folly of mankind and in a roundabout way, an encouragement in these turbulent times of ours. It’s pretty obvious that here is an 800 year old ode to the tensions in the Holy Roman Empire during his time, and that they are to unlike some of mine at least, here 800 years later in another time of tensions and struggles. Our tragic folly is hardly different today: fractured governance, fractured values consensus, seemingly endless warring, repeating some of the same actions that led in 1932 to The Third Reich, reversal of the reverence for nature implicit in our former embrace of ecology, etc, and so forth. Different bottle, same sour wine.
The questions then must arise: have we changed? Has our notion of progress been an illusion? If it has not, even in part, then could it be that we are not fundamentally here to make this world a better place? DO we need some deeper reflection on the persistent tragic folly we create?.
On the other hand, this man lived in circumstances physically enormously more dangerous and trying than mine. He lived in a world lit only by fire. He walked or, if he was lucky, rode or was pulled by some animal in his travels. In the winter, he did not have to worry about his cars heater and defroster working. No impermeable snowmobile suits with fitted gloves, boots, headgear and facemasks: he wore heavier cloaks and possibly leather boots. There weren’t even buttons to use on clothes. No radio, no tv, no newspapers, no mail service… He depended on handouts for his food, drink and shelter. There was no social safety net of which we know (have to be careful here not go judge then by now’s standards however). Lifespan was shorter. Diseases which we have controlled then regularly cut down whole populations like scythes cutting tall grass. He even engaged in some rather pointed and possibly very dangerous political poetry/song writing which could easily have been seen as Walther biting the hand that fed him.. And yet: he survived and left this world works of beauty that have endured 800 years.
Therein lies the encouragement. Do we not have so much for which to be grateful, even if it becomes the stage on which we act or our age’s tragic folly? Should I then be consumed by concern? Where are the gifts that are bestowed upon us in our time? If we can be open to it, even the cry of human woe grasping at our hearts across 8 centuries can be beautiful—-to my ears the beautiful music of Walther’s words. Think of a poem or work of some sort where the words and the rhythm of the writing pleases you very much. You will then have an idea of what this man’s literary power was 800 years ago..
Walther seems a lot closer to me now than he did 50 years ago and yet his distance has grown by 50 years. Increasingly my reading of history uncovers how we have been similar over the centuries, how our humanity has been the same, regardless of the physical and technological conditions of any particular time. I have a growing sense that we are all in all ages in this together somehow. Why not? Einstein said time is a delusion. My dear friend Bruce asserts that there is no future and no past, just the same day repeated over and over with different perceptions of the same thing=and all for the purpose of learning. Walther’s cry of Owê, oh woe, oh alas, ach Weh gives that abstract thought shape and color. At least for me.
Such mulitleveled beauty in one cry of existential sadness! If we did not know that Walther said that 800 years ago, we could think someone said it today! His reality and beauty is then ours too.
If truth is beauty, then our true reality is beauty, not turbulence. Turbulence just causes us to find new ways to create and celebrate beauty–to love. That’s! the reassurance of Walther’s Owê.
With this perspective, do we really have anything to fear but fear itself? O in the end Walther leaves me with this one compelling question:
Owê,what am I leaving behind of beauty?