Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why You Never Whip a Mule

Why You Never Whip a Mule
A homily delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 24, 2015
Gibson Memorial Chapel
Blue Ridge School, St. George, Virginia
Luke 15: 22-32
Hebrews 12: 1-2

Click below for th live audio recording of the speech

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

Shakespeare wrote, give me the man who is:

As one in suffering all that suffers nothing—
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks. . . . Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart.

Hamlet is talking about Horatio, and praising him for being steady, being loyal, being true to himself. I have argued that, staying true to yourself, “To thine ownself be true” is the great commandment of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, those who are, survive, and those who are not, become victims of the tragedy of the play, inadvertently causing their own death through their inconsistent, untrue, sometimes meddling, sometimes manipulative actions. They run afowl because instead of being consistent and true to their core principles, their own selves, they are blown by the wind and seek to control ends, and forget about the means, thinking that the ends are what matters, that the ends justify any means necessary. . . in other words they are worried about punishment or reward, good results or bad results, and act accordingly.
I want to seek outside of Western Tradition, because Eastern Wisdom and their traditions do a much better job of refuting the idea that the ends justify the means. . . The Ancient Hindu Scripture the Bhagavad-Gita stated:
Be intent on action / not on the fruits of action. . . perform actions, firm in discipline, relinquishing attachment; be impartial to failure and success-- / this equanimity is called disipline.

This definition of discipline suggests that there are right and wrong actions, which is not that radical a statement, but it also suggests that the qualifications for right and wrong go beyond and are much deeper than simply judging them based on their outcomes.
It’s pretty simple really, I am a football coach, and as a football coach my goal is to win football games. . . my team has the ball on the other team’s one yard line, and I call a play. The rightness or the wrongness of my call will be judged on the basis of whether we score or not. We score, and I’m the smartest man in the room, we don’t score and I’m a fool. Right and wrong based on results. . . but here we are saying that there may be more involved in right and wrong than simply the outcome, that there are ideas, principles, virtues, that somehow live above the world of cause and effect, the world of reward and punishment. . . read in the Blue Ridge Code of Conduct the section on Moral Courage, you'll find it there too.
I bring this up because you all, or at least many of you, on Saturday morning, viewed the end of the movie The Reivers, I wasn’t there because I was off proving myself a fool at the football game, but I’m pretty sure having suggested that book, and that movie, that you saw the scene at the end where Lucius, the boy, who has lied, and stolen his grandfather’s car to go on a trip to Memphis, is owning up to his mistake. 

You all were focused on the boy and lie, but I want you to think about why his grandfather doesn’t spank him, or stops his father from spank him. Because it is the central reason for the book, the reason Faulkner is writing, and the reason the book’s narrator is telling this story. . . the book begins with “Grandfather said,” so it is told from the point of view of the now grown up Lucius, to his audience, and we get to take on the role of the grandchild, and why do grandfather’s tell stories? To teach lessons. . . . His lesson is why you never whip a mule. . . and why he wants his grandson to be a mule and not a dog. You whip a dog, you whip a horse, but you never whip a mule.
Let's look at the dog first, have you ever trained a dog? If you have you know, you give him treats. . . you repeat the behavior, you reward him when he does what you want, and you scold him when he doesn't, then he learns. . . Same thing with the horse, you have the carrot and you have the stick, and you break a horse down so he'll work for you, and once you break him, he'll work himself to death just please you, to get that carrot, and avoid the stick.
But neither works with a mule. Faulkner says a mule will work for you 25 years, just to get the chance to kick you in the face one time, to make sure you know he is independent and not your slave, it says you don't whip him because he already knows the way home, if you try to lead him he won't go. Mules are stubborn that way.  Faulkner then goes out of his way to say that mules are the gentlemen of the animals. He doesn't whip Lucius because he wants him to be a gentlemen, he wants him to be a mule. . . he knows that Lucius knows he's wrong, and so he knows that Lucius somewhere deep inside knows the way, and if he were to hit him, Lucius might get to thinking that, that somehow punishment erases the wrong doing, and makes it right, but it doesn't, not for a man, not for real. . . because Lucius is the one who needs to be able to look himself in the eye again. . . Lucius is the one who needs to find his way forward, from inside, and the hit, the punishment, just adds another lie, it adds the lie that someone else determines your value and the worth of your word, the value and the worth of yourself. And that just ain't true, unless you are a dog, a slave, or someone who is a dependent. . . and we don't need more of those, we need instead givers.
People say all the time that you all are a part of the entitlement generation, where you get to show up and you get rewarded for just being, that you think you deserve it. . . the problem with that is you get so wrapped in the rewards and the punishments, that you just can't judge yourself anymore. You're motivated by the path of least resistance. You do whatever you can to get by, to not get messed with, to avoid confrontation, you can't stand to get yelled at, you can't deal with failure, so you do just enough to avoid it, how many times have I've been asked how long does it have to be, how many pages, how many words, any answer I give would become the minimum, and you'd do just that because you are motivated by the reward of my grade, or me not yelling at you, me letting  you alone, me saying you are done. . . you're completely motivated by the carrot, the trophy, the reward, the grade, and when you don't get it you're hurt, disillusioned, you start thinking that "it's not fair," you start looking at what rewards those around you get, and you get jealous.
I chose the Gospel lesson for today for that reason. The Older Brother in the story can't accept his brother being welcomed home, he's been there, he's been working, where is his fatted calf, where is his party, he even says, here I've been working for you like a slave. . . really a slave? Perhaps that is the case for someone worried about fatted calves and parties, is that why the elder brother stayed all those years, or was it fear of living, fear of actually living to his full worth, and that fear, that regret is coming home to roost as envy. He made his choice freely, remember, he could have gone he chose to stay.  
We talk a lot about freedom in this country, here is what I think freedom means, it means having the opportunity to reach your potential, to become what you were put on this earth to become, fully, but not for yourself, freedom for yourself is the trap of rewards, the trap of materialism, focused on what you will get out of it, no you reach your potential, so you can give yourself to the world, because the world needs you to give, and can't accept less than your all, we do that  too much already, and your all means you aren't looking for something in return for yourself.

 It's a tall order huh. . . this school's mission believes in that possibility, this school strives for such an ideal. . . this school's complete gift of itself is to fulfill that calling, that mission. You come here as partners in that mission. . . so you must seek your all. . . look inside yourself and strive for whatever is there, what is there sometimes hidden deep inside underneath alot of garbage, and history, and lies, and hard times, and worry, and fear, and insecurity, but it is there. . . help us let you find it, we'll do so by any means necessary, but don't let us trap you with the sticks and carrots, we'll use them sure because they are effective, just like training a dog, you can train boys, but eventually we want you to be men, and men, gentlemen, men of character, the cost of such a distinction is that you live beyond such trivial things, above the carrots and above the sticks, the treats. Because then you can weather any storm, you become what Hamlet was talking about "suffering all, suffering nothing" you can face all adversity, and still remain yourself. You can persevere. . . such a great word, but the Greek equivalent is so much more powerful. It's the word ὑπομονή, in the New Testament it's in Hebrews, let us run with perseverance, hupomone, the race. Like many Greek words, it's a compound, the first hupo, means beneath/under, and mone means to stand, how long can you stand under, without trying to escape. . . such is the task we face as human beings, such is the test of life. . . things won't always be easy. . . you are never done. . . you matter too much to ever be done. . . so go live your life, go give your life.  Amen. 

Some quotes from Faulkner's The Reivers

"He'll know different, because mules have got sense. But a mule is a gentleman too, and when you act courteous and respectful at him without trying to buy him or scare him, he'll act courteous and respectful back at you--as long as you don't overstep him. " (245)

"You were born too late to be acquainted with mules and so comprehend the startling, the even shocking, import of this statement. A mule which will gallop for a half-mile in the single direction elected by its rider even one time becomes a neighborhood legend; one that will do it consistently time after time is an incredible phenomenon. Because, unlike a horse, a mule is far too intelligent to break its heart for glory running around the rim of a mile-long saucer. In fact, I rate mules second only to rats in intelligence, the mule followed in order by cats, dogs, and horses last--assuming of course that you accept  my definition of intelligence: which is the ability to cope with environment: which means to accept environment yet still retain at least something of personal liberty. . . . 
The mule I rate second. But second only because you can make him work for you. But that too only within his own rigid self-set regulations. He will not permit himself to eat too much. He will draw a wagon or a plow, but he will not run a race. He will not try to jump anything he does not indubitably know beforehand he can jump; he will not enter any place unless he knows of his own knowledge what is on the other side; he will work for you patiently for ten years for the chance to kick you once. In a word, free of the obligations of ancestry and responsibilities of posterity, he has conquered not only life but death too and hence is immortal; were he to vanish from the earth today, the same chanceful biological combination which produced him yesterday would produce him a thousand years hence, unaltered, unchanged, incorrigible still within the limitations which he himself had proved and tested: still free, still coping. (121-123)

" 'Live with it? You mean, forever? For the rest of my life? Not ever to get rid of it? Never? I can't. Don't you see I can't?'
   'Yes you can,' he said. 'You will. A gentleman always does. A gentleman can live through anything. He faces anything. A gentleman accepts the responsibility of his actions and bears the burden of their consequences, even when he did not himself instigate them but only acquiesced to them, didn't say No though he knew he should. " (302)

"Now go wash your face. A gentleman cries too, but he always washes his face.'" (302)

"Grandfather must have been teaching me before I could remember because I don't know when it began, I just knew it was so: that no gentlemen ever referred to anyone by his race or religion. (143)

"both these mules is colorblind" (91)