Quotes out of Context: T.S. Eliot

I would be in some sort of denial if this next post, scheduled to be published a day before what feels like the most consequential election in the history of the modern world, didn’t at least have something to do with it. The dysfunctional freakshow of the US political scene has taken up so much of my time and energy these last four years that I can’t help but wonder with deep regret what I’d have done with both if I had just not cared about this which I don’t affect and doesn’t affect me. It seems like such an awful waste of caring…and yet caring seems like the least I can do.

A quote comes to mind. It’s one you’ve dropped before with no context and left me to figure out the meaning as applied (which I didn’t bother to do at the time). So welcome to another episode of Quotes out of Context staring T.S. Eliot in “Teach us to care and not to care”:

Such a simple line, but very powerful. Lots of ways to read it but what sticks out to me is that he is speaking to a higher power that is ostensibly in charge of our caring-meter, whether that be God or just the higher self within us all, the one with all the will power. I think it’s in a religious context because a humanist with free will would suggest you teach “yourself”.

Anyway, the quote recognizes the priority problem that plagues humanity, if not most individuals, and perhaps also the media problem of sensationalizing things that aren’t that such big deals and simplifying things that are. We care too much about things we shouldn’t (exhausting and futile) and don’t care about things we should (a shame). The latter is definitely true. It’s just hard to muster up the emotion about it because of the lack of caring to begin with. But logically we all know that we don’t care about what we should.

 “Teach us not to care” is the more interesting bit. It could be about anything. In my context I read it as pleading with the higher power to make me stop caring about US politics, and this makes me automatically want to rebel against this idea because of my nonbelief. I would rather try and justify this feeling I already have because it’s more attainable than asking something outside of me to shut it off. I’d be more receptive if it was “teach yourself” because I would be more encouraged, or reminded, to use the real ability to change my behavior in order to change my thoughts. That is, if I could be convinced that it’s wrong to be where I’m at. There could be some yet unseen advantage to caring, a conscience I’m maintaining for when I am ready for battle. Like with lots of good things, just because it’s suffering, doesn’t make it wrong.

Now for the quote in context. I learn that this is a line in a poem he wrote after he converted to Anglicanism called Ash Wednesday (part I). Too bad for me because I am an understander of neither religion nor poetry.  I can say it sounds like he is at a stage in life where he wants to be relieved of the burdens of his humanity and is definitely bothered by intrusive thinking, but is hopeless to achieve this peace because he lacks the faith?

Let me try and focus on the stanza this line is apart of:

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.”

Let me see…I guess his mechanism with which to believe (his wings) don’t work, but it’s is the world’s fault (the air) and not his (his wings/will)?  So that’s why he asks God for help – to change him if he can’t change the world. Teach him to be someone who can find peace regardless. So it’s a prayer then. Bit of a tall order. Sitting still, though – that I can do.

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