Adult: Pick up your shoes. I’ve told you three times, you need to clean up your room.
Teenager: I’m trying.
Adult: Yes, you’re very trying.
The first definition of trying is “difficult, annoying, hard to endure.” The conversation above is spot on, as it were. To try is to make an attempt or endeavor to do something. To make an effort. The depth and breadth of the effort is generally left open to interpretation by the listener. The word try comes from the old French, trier, or “sift.” It was virtually unknown before the 17th century and meant something very different to the English – it meant to adjust to a level surface by using a plane or other tool. In the general sense, it means an attempt to use or do an action. It is not a guarantee of success.
In most cases today, in North America, it is generally used to mean “you want me to do something for or with you, and I don’t really want to do it, but I’m going to tell you I will make an attempt because it will make you leave me alone.” Certainly, this is a pessimistic point of view, but, let’s face it – it’s generally true. According to Oxford word usage metrics, the word has increased in usage 10x in the last 50 years, generally in relation to attempting to do something rather than an archaic form of testing something.
The word is detestable. Like a reformed smoker, a person who has given up the word “trying” in favor of actually doing becomes irritated at every mention. Yes, me. “Are you coming to my party?” “I’ll try,” is tantamount to “I want to appease you but as for myself, I am not going to commit, and no, I probably won’t be there.” It smacks of falsehood, either to oneself or to the other, and it is disingenuous. We shun the words “yes” and “no” because we know so little about ourselves. I am a horrid pessimist about “I’ll try,” so this may sound more like a rant than an exploration. I hope you bear with me.
In a recent conversation with someone, this word came up in a context of not attending a regular study group. The woman has had several medical issues and has a difficult time remembering things. She’s not one to generally make excuses for herself and she’s worked through various adjustments in her life to make life work. Yet, she still settles into old habits, especially later in the day when she is tried and forgets to attend the study group. In this recent conversation, she said “I’ll try to commit to attend.”
Being the reformed “trying” person, the hairs on the back of my neck rose, the small muscles in my neck twitched, and I swallowed several times before answering. Slowly, calmly, I answered, “I hate that word, ‘try.'” I did my best to remain calm but I knew that the edge of irritation had escaped. “I’d rather you say that you can’t be there and if you show up, you show up. Or, be non-committal.” She did not understand what I was driving at because she wanted to please me. I couldn’t communicate clearly enough to her that I’d rather have her know herself and communicate accordingly rather than please me with an ‘I’ll try.’ We both went away slightly frustrated until a little later when she had digested it further and I was able to be clearer.
I know that when we say we will try, it means that we won’t do it. We are not committed enough to do it. Yet, we work hard to fool ourselves and others that we really will make an attempt but if anything gets in our way, it’s over, finished, done. There’s a certain sense of self that is lacking, a falsehood that taints our words when we’re not honest about how we feel or what we’ll do. We are not even able to come up with a “maybe,” and provide excuses. The first words generally blurted out are “I’ll try,” with rationalizations and excuses afterwards. The reformed “try” person knows all of this and that is why they hate it so much.
In the quest to be a better Freemason, this was brought to my attention early on. It was brought to the fore by two people, one another Freemason and one not. In both cases, the message was the same. Don’t tell me you’ll try something: either commit one way or another or stay silent. I’ve never been the silent type, so this took me a lot of trial and error to get right, especially for one who wants to please others. Little did I realize that by “trying” a great deal, I was more trying than pleasing. Clearly, the actions that I wanted to perform were to please others and not taking care to understand who I was, what my limitations were, and ultimately living in integrity. An older Freemason said to me once not that long ago, “stop trying to please others. You want everyone to like you.” This was a little frustrating, after having thought that I had surmounted the idea that I wanted to be everyone’s friend. What I didn’t see, or see the subtlety of, was the lack of concrete responses was my way of attempting to please others and not be honest with myself.
Being honest with yourself, sitting in that silence and listening to your “realest” thoughts, can be difficult. We believe we are far better than perhaps we really are. Listening to yourself can be ugly, and we don’t want others to discover our ugliness. We don’t want others to discover we might be lazy, xenophobic, tired, cranky, struggling, or desiring silence. We want to be accepted and loved. In general, though, we forget to treat ourselves with exactly the same kindness or honesty. It truly does start with ourselves.
From the 1934 Walley translation of the Tao De Ching,
To understand others is to have knowledge;
To understand oneself is to be illumined.
To conquer others needs strength;
To conquer oneself is harder still.
Freemasonry tells us the same thing, in so many different ways. We are reminded, in rituals and charges, that the thing we must strive to do is continue to learn, mostly about “the knowledge of yourself.” The trick is to figure out how to do this practically. As Lao Tzu said, “to conquer oneself is harder still.” Why? Because we fear the loss of other’s opinions, favorable judgements, and good will. We want others to like us, because that means we are good people. It’s living by the judgement of others and not the judgement of ourselves. Perhaps we don’t trust ourselves to make an honest assessment of our person, so we let others do it for us. Whatever reason that dishonesty was born within us, there is no reason it has to continue to reside there. In fact, it seems as soon as we find it, it’s probably a good idea to let it go. No rationalizations, no dishonesty, no dodging, no worries: own what you will not do, own what is not priority or what is not as important as other things and then move on. I guarantee the rest will move on as well. It’s far better to not try.
As Yoda so eloquently put it, “Do, or Do Not. There is no Try.” With this in mind, the world becomes a far simpler place to navigate, as do the recesses of our own hearts and minds. And don’t fear – good brothers will hold you to that task.
Recently, I was with a group of Freemasons having a passionate discussion about the word “magic.” Some of the members of the discussion group felt that Freemasonry is “magic,” while others disregarded the word as superstition and illusion. Still others were exploring different meanings, trying to find within themselves how the word made them feel, what it made them think, and what was their own relationship to magic. As Freemasons, we regularly discuss religion, or rather, being religious. We sometimes specifically compare religious symbols to one another and generally explore spiritual diversity and messages. Often corrupted by men, we lose site of what being religious truly is. We almost never talk about magic, even in free-thinking circles and in public, you only hear “magic” discussed, generally, with humor, disgust, or fear.
Most humans may lose sight of what being “magical” is. Our current world is corrupted by the thoughts of the fearful in so many ways, it’s often hard to tell that we’ve been conditioned by it, by ourselves, by our family, media, and friends. For example, when we use the word magic, it tend to conjure up thoughts of either something horrific, like ritual sacrifice or Voldemort (Yes, I said his name). It might bring to mind witches, burned at the stake, or witches doing strange things in forests at night. Yet, the word magical also tends to bring us to Disney artifacts (Tinkerbell, anyone?), gigantic film special effects, or even dreamy, personal experiences – think, Christmas at Rockefeller Center. The point is, we have not explored the word magic as much as we’ve explored the word religion. However, both may be important to humanity and the Freemason as well. Our ingrained fears stop us from talking about the word and stick it in a cave, hidden from the rest of the world. It’s time to do a little word spelunking.
The word magic is presumably derived from Old Persian and possibly from the proto-Indo-European language as meh-gh, which means “to help, power, to be able to.” It’s taken many forms over the years, from everything to indicate the workings of scholars, sages, Zoroastrian priests, rituals, spells, and eventually related to something or someone not of your religion. If you didn’t understand it as part of your personal religious upbringing, it was considered magic, especially by both Judaism and Christianity (13/14c C.E) . In Frazer’s The Golden Bough, he illustrates a very thorough journey from folklore, myth, magic, and religion, to the science of modernity. From what I have so far deduced and experienced, the knowledge and wonder of discovering how the natural world works is what magic has been for thousands of years. It’s learning, understanding, exploring, and working in conjunction with the natural world. Forget the word’s baggage and take it back to its origins: the wonder of the natural world that brings us awe and teaches us reverence and respect.
We’ve all learned that humans put their own connotation on the words we use, and shared and agreed-upon usage are how they become “fact.” We should do our best discard dogma; if something imparts an emotional response, it seems to be time to explore it, not shun it or parrot someone else’s belief. Understanding the words we use, like understanding ourselves, gives us authenticity and gives the words power.
Understanding the truth of what magic is seems to be related to how we are in relationship with our natural world. I understand magic to be the physical laws of nature and the universe that I do not currently comprehend thoroughly, and and magic is the process of continually learning how to “be” and be in harmony with our universe. This is not so far from what we perceive herbalists do when they understand plant lore and heal the sick, or weirdly enough, the gymnast who understands the laws of gravity and motion in his body, and can execute the most incredible flips and jumps. Have you ever had someone throw a ball in your direction and you reached up your hand to grab it at the perfect time, even if you might not have been looking at it coming toward you? How did you do that? Magic? Perhaps you understand the laws of motion and the physics of gravity well enough to make the catch. Others may not. To them, it appears as magical.
The “magical” feelings evoked are the impetus for the process of discovery. We first see something that entices us, intrigues us, gives us a certain spark of interest and imagination. What did we just see? What happened there? Then, we may try to recreate it, seek its origin, find out how to do what it is we saw. “To be able to” means we’re learning magic. From the learning how to do, we wonder and our interest continues. We start dissecting, breaking apart the machine of nature to figure out its meaning, its purpose, and its origin. We might take a path through religion to get there, or we may jump right to science – either is an option. Once we find the how, we seek the why.
There is a quote from a book by Arthur E. Powell, The Magic of Freemasonry, which takes me toward the part Freemasonry plays. It is this:
“Why do men love Masonry? What lure leads them to it? What spell holds them through the long years? What strand is it that tugs at our hearts, taut when so many threads are broken by the rough ways of the world? And what is it in the wild that calls to the little wild things? What sacred secret things do the mountains whisper to the hillman, so silently yet so surely that they can be heard above the din and clatter of the world? What mystery does the sea tell the sailor; the desert to the Arab; the arctic ice to the explorer; the stars to the astronomer? When we have answered these questions mayhap we may divine the magic of Masonry. Who knows what it is, or how or why, unless it be the long cable tow of God, running from heart to heart.”
So, is Freemasonry magical? Not in the way that Disney or Satanists or even fundamentalists of any religion would have the world think. That is fear and ignorance asserting themselves.
I believe it’s the discovery of the world around us that is magical. It persuades us to keep seeking and searching for the mysteries of nature and science. It speaks to us of understanding our world – not just the laws of men but also the laws of nature and whatever source it is that keeps us all “together.” Some may call it God, The Force, Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, Diana, Odin, the Tao, Krishna, and a host of other names. Perhaps they are just human mirrors of the same “thing” that ties us together. Perhaps that is the thing I am truly seeking: smashing the mirrors to understand what lies on the other side.
I would say that Freemasonry encourages magic and magical behavior, magical thought, and a magical mind. Ritual of any sort has a purpose and the structure, words, ritual, and trappings of Freemasonry are not as simple as to call them purely “magic.” Freemasonry requires a curious mind to work on its initiates. If one is not curious about Freemasonry and about the world in general, they will see Freemasonry as an institution, made for charity work, a fraternity in which to socialize, and a series of rituals that just encourage the participant to gain degrees. Maybe, for those masons, that is a first step, and maybe if there are more lives than this, we keep Freemasonry going for theirs, and our, future selves. I see it as the Freemason’s duty to continue to keep our minds open and test our theories, test the world, be inquisitive; thus, perhaps Freemasons are magical scientists.
I do not think that magic is the antithesis of science. I think it is a step in the process of discovery, of which science is another. Science, which is “such knowledge, general truths, or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena” is another charged word, especially in the information and technology age. Is Freemasonry scientific? Take your own voyage and let me know what you think. This is your journey, too.