On Reflection

Scenes from Childhood, “Happy Enough”

Robert Schumann

Walter Klein

“Sitting on Top of the World”

Doc Watson

“Hard Times”

Stephen Foster

Anna McGarrigle & Kate McGarrigle

The Sound of Music “Climb Every Mountain”

Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein III

Patricia Neway

“No Expectations”

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger

The Rolling Stones

“I’ve Got the World on a String”

Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen

Frank Sinatra

Madam Butterfly, “Una Nave Da Guerra”

Giacomo Puccini

Fiorenza Cossotto, Renata Tebaldi, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia & Tullio Serafin

“The Reason Why I’m Gone”

Chuck Cannon and Gary Lloyd


Gregorio Allegri

The Tallis Scholars

“Tears in the Holston River”

John R. Cash

Johnny Cash

Lakme, “Dôme épais le jasmin à la rose s’assemble”

Léo Delibes

Dame Joan Sutherland, Huguette Tourangeau, The Elizabethan Sydney Orchestra & Richard Bonynge

“Diamond in the Rough

Sara Carter, Maybelle Carter, and A.P. Carter

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Featuring June Carter Cash With Earl Scruggs

Scenes from Childhood, “Dreaming”

Robert Schumann

Walter Klein

On Reflection


Painting of the image a woman sees when she looks at herself in the mirror

The Mirror

William Merritt Chase



The songs capture events and life experiences that often produce reflection, lost love, rejection, expectations (or the lack of expectations), death and remembrance, the exhilarating experience of success, the need to confront our dreams no matter the obstacles, worship and encounters with God and the supernatural. The music begins and ends with two movements from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, “Happy Enough” (there is both satisfaction and a hint of regret and diminished expectations) and “Dreaming” (which can be a source of or an escape from reflection and self-awareness). Childhood is where we all begin and the process of growing into maturity is one that often involves reflection and growth in the practice of reflection.


Asian woman looking in a mirror

Kitagawa Utamaro ukiyo-e




The two arias, one from Madame Butterfly, the other from Lakme are both popularly known as “The Flower Duet.” The one in Madame Butterfly has in it a few bars from The Star Spangled Banner, the American National Anthem. The musical quotation is Puccini’s way of suggesting the presence of the American naval officer who betrayed Madame Butterfly. When heard today it suggests, perhaps, that Puccini does not think much of Americans, but at the time the opera was written this anthem was not the National Anthem, but the Navy Anthem, and it is the values of an American seaman that Puccini is calling into question. The aria, though, expresses Butterfly’s love and expectation of a happy reunion, an expectation that is not to be fulfilled. Her mistake is in believing Pinkerton, the naval officer, to be an honorable man. He is not honorable unfortunately, nor was he very courageous. The other “Flower Duet” is a song that delights in flowers and natural beauty, but it also contains a prayer. Lakme begins to worry for her father’s safety, and her servant, Mallika, encourages Lakme to pray for her father’s safety. Adversity often provokes reflection and reflection often carries us through adversity.


Alice from Alice Through the Looking Glass on the mantle touching the mirror above the mantle

Alice through the looking glass

John Tenniel



The illustration from Through the Looking Glass suggests the importance of getting to the other side of the looking glass, to get beyond our image in the glass. Reflection, when it is effective, takes us out of ourselves; it helps us recognize larger communities and the needs of others. I am filled with the desire to be successful, to do what I do not just as well as others, but a little bit better than others. Ambition seems to be engrained and not easily tamed. But at the same time I am often happiest when I am sharing in the success of others. I was a theater major in college and one thing I learned as a young actor was how conflicted I was about praise. I was told that the only thing actors hated more than being praised was not being praised. Being praised brings with it embarrassment, it made me (and many other actors I knew) uncomfortable because on the one hand how do you respond to praise without being immodest, disingenuously humble, and on the other, being well aware of what went wrong in performance, it is difficult to believe in it, to take it as more than a courtesy or a kindness. But as an actor I was also terribly insecure and as a result if there was no praise, that fed my self-doubt. The humble side of my character was uncomfortable with praise, but the egocentric side of my character saw it as a kind of sustenance.


A group of women looking at their reflections in the water

  The Mirror of Venus

Edward Burne-Jones



In life I would like to live, as I never could in the theater, beyond praise, in a realm of genuine self-satisfaction that neither needs praise nor is embarrassed by it. Reflection does not help me attain this; it often reveals to me how far I am from attaining this. It reminds me that about all that anyone can know about wisdom and humility is that those that think they have it, probably do not. Wisdom and humility are always a bit (usually a good bit) beyond our grasp. There were a number of articles recently about a new book by David Brooks on character (“David Brooks: ‘I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard’” and “The Moral Bucket List”). In a You-Tube talk (Should you live for you resume or for your eulogy (Transcript)) Brooks gave on the new book he talks about “the two Adams”:

So I’ve been thinking about that problem (of character), and a thinker who has helped me think about it is a guy named Joseph Soloveitchik, who was a rabbi who wrote a book called “The Lonely Man Of Faith” in 1965. Soloveitchik said there are two sides of our natures, which he called Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is the worldly, ambitious, external side of our nature. He wants to build, create, create companies, create innovation. Adam II is the humble side of our nature. Adam II wants not only to do good but to be good, to live in a way internally that honors God, creation and our possibilities. Adam I wants to conquer the world. Adam II wants to hear a calling and obey the world. Adam I savors accomplishment. Adam II savors inner consistency and strength. Adam I asks how things work. Adam II asks why we’re here. Adam I’s motto is “success.” Adam II’s motto is “love, redemption and return.”

And Soloveitchik argued that these two sides of our nature are at war with each other. We live in perpetual self-confrontation between the external success and the internal value. And the tricky thing, I’d say, about these two sides of our nature is they work by different logics. The external logic is an economic logic: input leads to output, risk leads to reward. The internal side of our nature is a moral logic and often an inverse logic. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer the desire to get what you want. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.


Still life painting of variou objects on a table that are objects that promote vanity or about which we are vain about having


Anonymous French Painter



This is a useful way to think about ourselves. Though this is put into a religious context it still has merit when removed from this context. It captures metaphorically the conflict created by the need to excel and the need to be virtuous. Perhaps not everyone sees this as a struggle; perhaps some have an easier time living comfortably with one or the other of the two Adams. The painting above captures most of the avenues to worldly success, wealth, power, accomplishments of various kinds (from musical to gaming). The title, Vanitas, suggests the success that the various objects in the painting represent are not fulfilling. I have seen vanity defined in a couple of ways. One definition equates it with arrogance or conceit or self love and another, the way that it is used, for example, in Ecclesiastes when the preacher tells us “all is vanity,” defines it as uselessness. The suggestion is, perhaps, that all the worldly success illustrated in the painting does not ultimately satisfy; at some level of the human psyche it is useless and cannot cure what ails us. When I try to imagine what a painting of the more virtuous, more humble side of our nature might look like I think of a Shaker Table that is unostentatious with simple, elegant lines. But with the humility of the table probably comes the pride of having built such a beautiful thing, and suggests, perhaps, that pride and humility can coexist at some level.


Woman posing for a painting in front of a mirror that reflects the painter painting the picture

Der-maler-und-jo oppler

Ernst Oppler



Is this painting about the woman whose portrait is being painted or the artist painting the portrait? There is in the woman’s face a serious sadness. In the artist’s there is focus and determination and a hint of satisfaction. The work probably has a lot to do with the painter’s satisfaction and it may be that the lack of work, the necessity of sitting still and doing nothing, may be the cause of the woman’s sadness. But which is better for us. There is something to be said for work, it keeps us occupied and sometimes it keeps us from having to confront in ourselves that which we would rather not confront. If the sadness in the woman’s face is the result of contemplation on what has produced it, it may in the long term bring her to the other side of her sadness. It may be that the work is enabling the painter to avoid confronting what is unpleasant in his own life. And the truth is that we need to enable both sides of our nature, that which thrives on accomplishment to accomplish and that which thrives on the pursuit of goodness to pursue goodness. There is a magic to living well that enables those that live well to nurture the whole of their humanity; to allow all sides of their character to achieve and strive towards fulfillment.


Two men playing chess

De schaakspelers

Isaac Israëls



Art, music, and literature can stimulate reflection. Depending on how deeply we look, listen, or read they encourage us to consider our responses to them and what produced those responses. They raise issues that are important or resonate with our experience and often suggest different ways of responding to the events taking place around us and inside us. They also suggest to us that the various cultures that produced the work share a common humanity even though there are cultural, ethnic, or racial barriers that can come between us. American Jazz, Japanese Kabuki and Noh theater, German Opera, Italian Opera, the Victorian novel, the Russian novel, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, the paintings of the Dutch Masters, the Impressionists, Japanese woodblock, Chinese pen and ink. All of these and many others have been enjoyed by people around the world; people with little or no understanding of the cultures that produced them, but they are still moved by them. They remind us of what humans share in common as well as the aesthetic sense and the values that we share.


Still life ith fruit, flowers, and sheet music on a table in front of a mirror

Cinq sens

Jacques Linard



Stephen Greenblatt was invited to give the keynote address at a Shakespeare festival in Tehran. One of the men that invited him had published papers that were vehemently anti-Zionist, yet Greenblatt is Jewish and though one might draw a distinction between Judaism and Zionism, Greenblatt is a bit puzzled by the invitation in light of being Jewish. But it is a land he has wanted to see since he was an undergraduate in college so he accepts the invitation. He writes about his talk in “Shakespeare in Tehran.“ He speaks of Shakespeare’s ability to achieve a kind of openness and honesty in a culture that was not always friendly to the open and the honest. He also talks about Shakespeare’s ability to bridge cultures and find loyal readers and viewers of his plays in many disparate cultures throughout the world. (I remember a scene in one of the Star Trek movies where a Klingon quotes Shakespeare identifying him as a great Klingon poet.) At one point in his talk he said:

What did it mean that Shakespeare was the magic carpet that had carried me to Iran? For more than four centuries now he has served as a crucial link across the boundaries that divide cultures, ideologies, religions, nations, and all the other ways in which humans define and demarcate their identities. The differences, of course, remain—Shakespeare cannot simply erase them—and yet he offers the opportunity for what he called “atonement.” He used the word in the special sense, no longer current, of “at-one-ment,” a bringing together in shared dialogue of those who have been for too long opposed and apart.

This captures an essence of Shakespeare, but it is also an essence of Cervantes, of Dante, of Tolstoy, of Chikamatsu, Murasaki Shikibu, Bassho, Scheherazade, and Rumi. Literature is often the way one culture speaks to another. It is also a bit subversive. In Greenblatt’s talk a woman asked what he thought of Richard II and the revolt of Bolingbroke. Greenblatt said he did not know and asked her what she thought. “‘I think,’ the student replied, ‘that it was merely one group of thugs replacing another.’” This might be said of many of the world’s revolutions, The French Revolution, The Russian Revolution, and the Iranian Revolution.


Death in the form of a skeleton confronting a woman

Vergänglichkeitsbuch 250 120v Totentanz

Wilhelm Werner von Zimmern



Still, Richard II has some of the most poetic lines in Shakespeare and his abdication is not what one typically associates with a thug:

Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;

Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.

Now mark me, how I will undo myself;

I give this heavy weight from off my head

And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,

The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;

With mine own tears I wash away my balm,

With mine own hands I give away my crown,

With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,

With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:

All pomp and majesty I do forswear;

My manors, rents, revenues I forego;

My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:

God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!

God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!

Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,

And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!

Long mayst thou live in Richard’s seat to sit,

And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!

God save King Harry, unking’d Richard says,

And send him many years of sunshine days!

Notice when he speaks of himself and his personal state his lines rhyme. When he officially abdicates the iambic pentameter is maintained, but the rhymes disappear. He goes from rhymed to blank verse. The abdication is official and states what by law must be stated (though it does state a bit more) the rest of it speaks his heart and those lines carry all the emotional effects poetry gives to them. In the abdication he speaks as the office demands when he speaks for himself he speaks with his whole heart and the change in verse forms captures this. There is a poetry of the heart that cannot be touched by mathematics. The abdication maintains the mathematics of poetry, the iambic pentameter; his personal remarks keep the mathematics, but add his humanity. Also, the poetry, as the mirror in the painting, reminds him, and us, of his, and our, own mortality, “And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit.” Michael Roberts in discussing the value of poetry (“Equipment for Living”) sees its true value in consolation not deliverance:

Boethius would have understood: he composed De Consolatione Philosophiae in prison, awaiting execution. According to one reputable
source, “a cord was twisted round his head so tightly that it caused his eyeballs to protrude from their sockets, and … his life was then beaten out of him by a club.” Lady Philosophy does not console the prisoner by freeing him or providing him with worldly goods or happiness, but by reconciling him to his fate. He comes to accept that all things are ordered sweetly by God, and he aspires to achieve spiritual freedom through contemplation of God. (Actual redemption is implied, but not easy consolation.)

Part of being reflective is coming to grips with our mortality, though hopefully, in not as blunt a manner as Boethius.       


Hail the Conquering Hero Comes

Preston Sturgis

Universal Studios


The film is set during World War II, and the character played by Eddie Bracken, Woodrow Truesmith, has been sent home by the Marines because of a severe case of hay fever. He is embarrassed and disappointed. He encounters some soldiers just home from the war that experienced combat and demonstrated real courage. They feel sorry for Truesmith and want to help him save face with his neighbors. They make him one of their company and “write him into” their stories. Truesmith becomes a local hero and before he knows what’s happened he finds himself a candidate for mayor. The scene in the video is Truesmith trying to recover his honesty and his integrity. He is told that no lies have been told; just a few names have been changed. But everything happened just as they are described in the stories. The film is a comedy and a funny one, but the truth at its heart is worth thinking about. What is the nature of honesty; where does corruption begin; what does it mean to have integrity? Ben Jonson imagined two audiences for his plays. One audience got the jokes and went home and thought no more about them. The other audience got the joked but also reflected on them and applied them to their own experience. They were enriched and changed by the humor. Jonson said in one of his epigrams, “Pray thee take care, who tak’st my book in hand, / To read it well: that is, to understand.” He referred to this second audience as the “understanders.”


Woman sitting in front of a mirror with two lit candles

The Repentant Magdalene

Georges de La Tour



Mathematics and the sciences give us wonderful machines, figure out ways to solve problems and cure deadly diseases; they are to be valued and pursued, they have much to teach us and much to offer to lighten the burdens of our days. But the Humanities offer us something real and substantial as well. We cannot always hold what the Humanities give us in our hands, but without them it is difficult to imagine how we become fully alive and complete as human beings. The math and sciences can make us better machines but the Humanities make us better human beings. Lily Tuck in “Reading with Imagination” writes about how reading well differs from the more common ways of reading, for information or for entertainment:

In the Middle Ages, reading was regarded as a contemplative act. It was lectio divina and limited to sacred texts that, for the most part, were read out loud and optimally, the words read were repeated by the listeners in order to fill body and soul with their significance. Reading then was essentially a form of prayer. Today, however, most people read to be informed and instructed — where to take a vacation, how to cook, how to invest their money. Less frequently, the reasons may be escapist or to be entertained, to forget the boredom or anxiety of their daily lives. These are valid reasons, but I believe most of the reading one does for these reasons is actually a “bad” practice for reading literature.

Imagination is defined as “the creative process of the mind,” and its power is both limitless and marvelous and most probably redemptive as well. We are surrounded by works of the imagination: our transportation, our communication, our technology. Every song we hear, every picture we look at that genuinely gladdens our heart for a moment is a work of the imagination. Literature is the language of the imagination refined by heightened sensibility, and reading, to use the literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman’s phrase, should be “an encounter of imagination with imagination.”

This does not mean reading with the imagination does not entertain, but that it does much more than entertain and that it is a kind of reading that does not have entertainment as its sole object.

Perhaps “entertainment” is too “light” a word and we need another, but we live in a time that sees the pursuit of enlightenment and self-knowledge as a kind of work, often arduous work; that does not seem to believe that work can be fun, that it can be entertaining. Jonson’s “understanders” left the theater entertained, but they also left enlightened and much more self-aware. James Parker in “A Most Unlikely Saint” quotes G. K. Chesterton, “The Madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Those of us that spend our lives exclusively with mathematics and the sciences are in danger of loosing everything but our reason; it is the humanities that restore to us the other components that make us fully human and keep us sane.


Girl looking at flowers on a mantlepiece in front of a mirror

Girl in Blue Arranging Flowers

Frederick Carl Frieseke


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