To Thine Own Search Be True
I graduated from Scarsdale High School in June 1943, shortly after turning seventeen. The first thing I did after graduation was go to a sort of “peace camp.” I no longer remember why I went, or how I’d found out about it, but it turned out to be an indoctrination attempt to interest young people in socialism. I remember a lecture a Swedish woman gave, heavily promoting the socialism in her country. After her talk, I raised my hand.
“You’ve listed the benefits of socialism,” I said. “Surely, if this system were so perfect, it must also be sufficiently convincingly so that there would be no need to persuade people to accept it. Are there also reasons why it hasn’t been universally accepted? In the name of fairness, it would be helpful if you told us also of its possible drawbacks.”
The woman, outraged at my impertinence, fairly spluttered, “Why, there are no drawbacks!”
I promptly lost interest in everything she had to say, and in what the camp itself was promoting. I had begun in any case to understand that any outward “perfection” is always diminished, or even nullified, by some opposing imperfection. In fact, I was to learn years later from my Guru that the whole universe is founded on the principle of dwaita (duality). For every “up,” there is a “down”; for every plus, a minus. Only God is “One, without a second.”
An older man from Persia, named (if memory serves) Reza Shashahama, who was also attending the camp, commented to me toward the end of it that my presence had contributed a voice of reason. My attempt to adjust, during the past year, to the norms of others had shown me that no “norm” was fully to be trusted.
After my “peace camp” experience, Bob and I were invited by George Calvert, a school friend of ours, to work with him on his father’s farm in upstate New York. There we picked strawberries and pitched hay. The work was vigorous, healthful, and good fun. After six or seven weeks as a farm hand, I decided to take advantage of my vacation to broaden my experience of the world. The change I hit upon was radical: from bucolic pastures to grey skyscrapers and sterile acres of concrete.
New York! I worked there as a messenger boy for the Herald Tribune. Every day, dodging determined cars, trucks, and buses, and weaving through impatient hordes of shoppers, my fellow messenger boys and I visited the inner sanctums of well-known department stores, delivered advertising copy to and from countless corporations, and swept pellmell through the rushing bloodstream of big-city life. The myriad sense impressions were stimulating, almost overwhelming. In faces madly bobbing down crowded sidewalks; in the pleading glances of girls from behind drugstore counters; in fleeting smiles, frosty stares, angry gestures, twitching lips, and self-preoccupied frowns, I saw mankind in caricature, exaggerated out of all credible proportion by its sheer multifariousness. Here was a veritable sea of humanity: the youthfully exuberant, the sad and lonely, the stage-struck, the determinedly success-oriented, the hard, the cynical, the fragile, the lost: all, hurrying; all, harassed to desperation by a tumbling surf of conflicting ambitions and desires.
New York! Its surging waves of humanity charm and repel at the same time. They encourage a sense of exaggerated self-importance in those who pride themselves on living in one of the largest, most vital cities in the world. They also drown a person’s sense of self-importance in the general indifference. New Yorkers face a perennial conflict between their own boasted self-worth and their crushing, but inevitable, sense of anonymity.
Beneath the frenzied pace of big-city life, God whispers to the soul: “Dance with bubbles if you like, but when you tire of dancing, and the bubbles begin, one by one, to burst, look about you; see within all those bobbing faces their underlying relationship to you. They are your spiritual brothers and sisters, mirrors to your own self! They, O tiny ripple, are you! Transcend your littleness. Discover your oneness with all life!”
When autumn came, I began my higher education at Haverford College, a small men’s college on the (railway) Main Line to Paoli from Philadelphia. At that time, because of the war, Haverford was smaller than ever.
The students were bright-eyed, enthusiastic, and intelligent; the professors, quiet, sedate, seriously preoccupied with their students’ welfare. Haverford is a Quaker college, and conveys the simple, serene dignity that one might expect of any institution run by that pacific sect. I don’t mean we students didn’t have our normal boyish share of high times, but these were inflicted on a background of gentle disapproval from the discreet greystone-and-ivy buildings, and of restrained dismay from our ever-concerned faculty.
The diminished student body was composed mostly of freshmen, a fact which didn’t conduce greatly to the maintenance of certain hallowed traditions, such as freshmen hazing. When a handful of upperclassmen appeared in our dormitory one day to subject us to that ancient rite, we met them with another venerable American institution: the bum’s rush. With whoops of joy, flying pillows, energetic shoves, and a solid phalanx of inverted chairs, we drove them down the stairs and out of the building. Thereafter they left us strictly alone, concluding, no doubt, that in wartime there are certain sacrifices that older and wiser heads must make in the name of peace.
We freshman were so dominant numerically that I actually made the football team. One of my problems at Scarsdale High, apart from my light weight, had been the fact that I could never throw the ball properly; my hands were simply too small to get a grip on it. At Haverford our coach, “Pop” Haddleton, solved this problem by making me a running guard. Counting on speed rather than weight, I pulled many a larger lineman off balance while he was still shifting his body into position to block me. I then dashed through the line and often caught a runner before he’d got off to a good start with the ball. The other left guard on our team, a boy named Mason, was as lightweight as I. Our college newspaper soon began dubbing us “the watch charm guards.”
We played the whole game, every game. There was no such thing in those days as offensive and defensive teams. “Sportswise,” the season was a success: We were unbeaten, untied, and unscored upon. My big play of the season came near the end of one of the last games. Up to that point, neither team had scored. Our captain decided, in a last, desperate move, to try an end run down half the length of the field. I was to run interference.
We cleared the end safely, and were well on our way into “enemy” territory, when two “big bruisers” rushed up to intercept our runner. I prepared to block the first of them, hoping our runner would succeed in dodging the second. One of my boots, unknown to me, had come untied. Just as I was diving to block the first opponent, I tripped on a dangling shoelace! Sprawling full length on the ground, I made a perfect, though involuntary, double block. Our man went on to make the touchdown, and I was the hero of the hour. I tried to explain what had really happened, but no one wanted to believe me.
As I said, we won every game that season. And so it was that my athletic “career” reached a happy climax, before petering out altogether. For soon afterward, college sports and I came to a rather distant parting of the ways. The separation was due partly to my own increasing preoccupation with the search for meaning, and partly, I’m afraid, to the fact that I was attaching “meaning” to a few wrong things — like sitting in local bars with friends, nursing a variety of poisonous decoctions and talking philosophy into the wee hours.
I began to devote much of my free time also to writing poetry, the themes of which related to questions that had long puzzled me: Why suffering? Why warfare and destruction? How can God countenance hatred, violence, and other forms of human madness? Surely, I thought, suffering can’t be His will for us? Must it not be a sign, rather, that man is out of harmony with His will?
And what of eternal life? Not even matter or energy, I reflected, can be destroyed. Was it not reasonable, then, to suppose that life, too, is eternal? And if so, what about the reality of heaven and hell?
I wrote a poem at this time in which I postulated a world after death that was perceived differently by each individual, seeming to be either beautiful or ugly, happy or sad according to the state of consciousness he brought over from this world. Not so far from the truth, actually! for I have since learned that when people die, they do go to realms that are compatible with whatever state of consciousness they have themselves developed.
At this point in my life I might easily have embraced a religious calling. But I knew too little about religion, and had found no meaningful guidance, rooted in wisdom, from anyone in religion.
Haverford College is a prominent center of Quakerism. In my time there, leading members of this society were on the faculty: Douglas Steere, Rufus Jones, Howard Comfort. I was impressed by their transparent earnestness and goodness. I also liked the Quaker practice of sitting quietly in thoughtful meditation at the Sunday services—“meetings,” these were called. Above all, I liked the Quakers for their simplicity. Everything they did seemed to me admirable. At the same time, however, I found no challenge in it. I was seeking a path that would engross me utterly, not one that I could contemplate benignly while puffing on a pipe.
Sunday meetings became, all too frequently, scenes of genteel competition. The Quakers have no ordained ministers; their members sit in silence on Sunday mornings until one of them feels moved “by the Spirit” to rise and share some inspiration with others. Haverford being an intellectual community, our Sunday meetings were more than usually taken up with this kind of spiritual generosity. Hardly a minute passed in silence before someone else was on his feet, sharing with us all. Sometimes two or more simultaneously were “moved by the Spirit”—though in such cases courtesy always prevailed. I myself never felt moved to speak, for I was still questioning the nature of truth.
I’ll never forget Douglas Steere rising to his feet one day to inquire brightly, “Is there a little bird in your bosom?” Involuntarily my hand went to my chest. The solemnity of the occasion, and my own respect for him, prevented me from succumbing to hilarity on the spot. Afterward, however, my friends and I made up delightedly for our heroic repression.
Needless to say, I had much still to learn, not the least of it being reverence and humility. It may be that those religious leaders had more to teach me than I knew. Since I didn’t know it, however, I had no choice but to follow my own star.
Early during my first semester at Haverford I made friends with Julius Katchen, who later acquired fame in Europe as a concert pianist. I loved his intensity and enthusiasm. And though I was less agreeably impressed by his egotism, loudly affirmed, I found compensation for it in his romantic devotion to every form of art, music, and poetry. Our friendship flourished in the soil of kindred artistic interests. In this relationship, Julius was the musician, and I, the poet. Through our association my feelings for poetry became more musical, artistically more romantic. Julius’s mother, too, had been a concert pianist. When I visited the Katchen home in Long Branch, New Jersey, I was caught up in his entire family’s devotion to the arts.
At this time, also, I took a course in poetry composition at nearby Bryn Mawr College under the famous poet, W. H. Auden. Auden encouraged me in my poetic efforts. For some time thereafter, poetry became my outward focus of self-expression.
Yet there was another side of me that could not remain satisfied for long with beautiful phraseology, nor with Keats’s romantic fiction, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” In every question, what mattered most to me was not whether an idea was beautifully stated, nor whether the truths it expressed were themselves beautiful, but whether in some much deeper sense it and they really were true. In this concern I found myself increasingly out of tune with the approach our professors took, which was to view any actual commitment with suspicion. Scholarly detachment, not involvement, was their guiding principle.
That’s all very well, I would think. I want to be objective, too. But I don’t want to spend my life sitting on a fence. Even objectivity ought to lead to conclusions of some kind. To my professors, scholarly detachment meant holding a perennial question mark up to life. It meant supporting, “for the sake of discussion,” positions to which they didn’t really subscribe. It meant showing equal interest in every argument, without endorsing any of them. I was impatient with such indecisiveness.
My need for truths to which I could commit myself had posed a problem for me in our debating society at Kent School. It made me a failure in public speaking classes during my freshman year at Haverford. It made me a bad actor in the plays I occasionally took part in at college and afterward. My firm commitment to truth spoiled my chances, years later, of becoming a radio announcer, when I learned that the job demanded an excited outpouring of lyrical enthusiasm for every product, every issue, the sponsors of which were paying for their block of time. Were I to accept the job, I’d be expected to promote products and ideas about which I knew nothing. A professional announcer told me, “It’s very simple: a sort of trick. I just put my mind on automatic pilot, and don’t even listen to the words coming out of me.” Could I wax poetic over a special brand of soap just because the advertisers raved about the shiny bubbles it produces? If I spoke, I had to mean what I said. Otherwise, my only alternative was silence. I could not be false or hypocritical even about trivial issues — or non-issues.
More and more, my hunger for truth gave me difficulties as a student as well, particularly in such subjects as English literature and philosophy. I had to know whether what was being given us for our consideration was true. In reaction against my professors and their insistence on a spirit of polite scholarly inquiry, I gradually developed a rebellious attitude toward college in general.
It was at about this time that I met a student at Haverford whose search for truth coincided more nearly with my own. Rod Brown was two years older than I, very intelligent, and a gifted poet. At first, our relationship was one of learned sage and unlettered bumpkin of a disciple. Rod treated me with a certain amused condescension, as the ingenuous youngster that I certainly was. My poems he read tolerantly, never lavishing higher praise on them than to call them “nice.” His own poems I couldn’t even understand. He would quote at length from countless books I’d never heard of, and manage to make each quotation sound so important, the listener got the impression that only a confirmed ignoramus would dare to face life without the ability at least to paraphrase that passage.
Rod was a sensitive young man who had learned early in life to fend off others’ rejection of him by treating them with disdain. It was purely a defense mechanism, but he carried it off well. I was as intrigued by his superior attitude towards me for my ignorance as I was captivated by his single-minded devotion to philosophical realities. Surely, I thought, if he knew enough to look down on me, it behooved me to learn what the view was from his altitude.
In time we became fast friends. I discovered that, besides his enthusiasm for the truth, he had a delightful sense of humor. He was also eager to share with others his ideas and opinions, always fresh and interesting. Rod only raised a supercilious eyebrow at my theories about God, suffering, and eternal life. Rhetorically he would ask me, “How can anyone know the truth about such issues?” He directed my thinking constructively, however, toward more immediate issues. For the time being, my quest for spiritual truths was, if not abandoned, at least put on a shelf. Where the search is for truth, however, can true religion be very far away?
Indeed, Rod’s thinking and mine verged constantly on the spiritual. He introduced me to Emerson and Thoreau. I drank eagerly at the fountain of wisdom in Emerson’s “The Over-Soul,” in “Self-Reliance,” and in Thoreau’s Walden. These writings were the closest I had come so far to the vast panorama of Indian wisdom,(1) for though I didn’t realize it at the time, both authors admired the Indian scriptures, and echoed in their own writings the lofty teachings of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.
Rod urged me to stop concerning myself with abstractions and to face the more concrete problem of how to live sensibly in the present day. One of the principles we discussed night after night was the importance of non-attachment. Another was the courage to reject values that we considered false, even if everyone else believed in them. Amusing as it seems now, we spent hours in intellectual discussion on the uselessness of intellectuality. And, deciding that the uneducated masses were surely more genuine in their simple, earthy interests than we ourselves, we set out with exploratory zeal to frequent the haunts of truck drivers and manual laborers. No deep wisdom ever came of these outings, but then, people who cherish theories rarely feel a need to sustain their mental fare on the coarse diet of facts!
Not everything Rod said or did won my support. He told me approvingly, for instance, of an older French friend of his, named Jean, whose heart was unnaturally small. To both Rod and his friend this fact suggested a wholesome absence of the emotions that distort the intellect’s clear perceptions. True insight, they believed, demanded the complete separation of the intellect from feeling of any kind, which would result in non-attachment and true objectivity. I disagreed with their equation, however, for I considered non-attachment and feeling not at all incompatible. I felt the important point, rather, was for one’s feelings also to be impersonal. Non-attachment releases one from personal identity with things, but should therefore permit an expansion, not an elimination, of feeling. It is personal feelings, resulting in emotions, that distort objectivity.
Rod also believed that, armed with a genuine spirit of non-attachment, one could behave in as worldly a manner as he pleased. This argument struck me, however, as too convenient a rationalization for his own worldly tendencies. Rod, despite his disdain for middle-class values and his praise of lower-class simplicity, betrayed a marked fondness for upper-class luxuries. Though he often mocked me for it, I myself considered innocence a truer safeguard of non-attachment.
Rod, like most people, had his shortcomings. He was, among other things, somewhat intolerant of disagreement, proud of his own brilliance, and unabashedly lazy. For all that, however, he was at heart a loving and true friend; deeply concerned about others despite his vaunted indifference to them; more hurt by anyone’s rejection of him than honestly disdainful in return; and a great deal more conservative in his values than he would ever have admitted. While others clucked at him disapprovingly, I saw him as someone who could help me to think boldly for myself. For this reason above all, I was grateful for his friendship.
Yet in my association with him I also acquired some of the very traits I didn’t approve of in him. Such, indeed, is the power of all human associations. Like Rod, I developed intellectual pride as a defense against rejection and misunderstanding. Worst of all, perhaps, I acquired some of his worldliness, though never so much of it that Rod ceased to twit me for what he called my naiveté.
In those days it was Rod who gave me my real education. My classes formed a mere backdrop; they taught me facts, but in discussions with him I learned what I would do with facts. Night after night we sat discussing life over pots of coffee in our rooms, or over drinks in bars, or over milk shakes in an off-campus restaurant with the engaging name, “The Last Straw.” We had few friends, but this fact no longer really mattered to me. I was seeking truth now, not the mere popularity of shared opinions.
In those days, courses in Indian studies were comparatively rare. The only actual exposure I ever got to them was from Douglas Steere, in his freshman course on the history of philosophy. For the first twenty minutes of his first class Dr. Steere touched lightly on the Vedas, giving us the impression, merely, that Indian philosophy existed.
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