I Contain Multitudes

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It has been said that if one is going to steal something,  steal the best thing you can get your hands on.  And so that’s what I’ve done with this meditation.  The title “I Contain Multitudes” is a title of a song by my favorite singer/songwriter/poet Mr. Bob Dylan. The song can be found on the Album “Rough And Rowdy Ways” which was released in 2021. 

Now, Mr. Dylan is a creative genius in my opinion, but he  is no stranger to theft of a good idea, a metaphor, a rhyme, or a rhythm to help with a composition.  And so it is in the case of this particular song because “I Contain Multitudes” is a line from the poem “Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, initially published as the central part of his book Fields of Grass in the year 1855.

Song of Myself is written in Whitman’s signature style of free verse and cadence based on the Bible. He believed this form to be simpler than forms of poetry used in his day and more accessible and appealing to a mass audience.  He was not a particularly religious man, he denied any one faith was more important or valid than another.  he embraced all religions, respecting them all and believing that all religions contain the deepest of truth.

That all religions contain the deepest of truth.

What he did believe is that God is the Devine presence that permeates every part of this world, as well as  existing outside of this material world.

In his poem, Whitman speaks in the first person singular emphasizes an all-powerful “I” which serves as the narrator for the poem. The use of the pronoun “I”  should not be limited to or confused with Walt Whitman himself. Rather, he introduces a different notion of the “I” or of the self.  His concept of self is both individual and universal. The self is no longer seen to represent the individual but also as the expression of the whole, the universal, the Divine.  Whitman writes: (I) am not contained between my hat and boots” I’m a whole lot more than is right here.

There are several other quotes from the poem that make it apparent that Whitman does not consider himself, or anybody, to be merely a single individual, but that we are all connected, one with each other. 

Let’s listen to what he has to say in the poem:

  • “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
  • “In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less/and the good or bad I say of myself I say of them”
  • “It is you talking just as much as myself… I act as the tongue of you”
  • “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

This idea of the self being larger than just the one individual, that one person can contain a multiplicity of selves, that every part of me can be found in you and that which is you makes up me, also fascinates Bob Dylan. In the 1960’s he came across a quote by a French author, which translates to: “I is another” In an interview in 1997, Dylan said, “I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time. It doesn’t even matter to me”. 

Both Whitman and Dylan understand the complexity of human nature, the fact that we do not exist in dichotomies, we’re all infinitely complicated compilations of many different and often conflicting thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Have you ever had an experience where you felt differently, had thoughts that you see as not common to yourself or did something that you thought was out of character? 

I have and I think these experiences are a result of the multitudes that I contain.  These contradictions, these detours from our usual self are often viewed in a negative light.  We are supposed to be consistent, predictable, rock solid in how we are in life, right?  But sometimes, as unnerving as these episodes of inconsistency and  conflicting behavior might be, this complexity of self, the multitudes we contain can be helpful. I tell you story about my cousin…

He called me the other day to check in.  (Give background Houston successful in business only relative on father side of family don’t communicate much but remain close)

He talked about his ongoing difficulty with one of his sons, and that recently he became quite frustrated with him.   He expressed that anger using words that he said he had not used in decades and was quite embarrassed for himself. I thought to myself: Here is a person who contains multitudes, some of which he thought he left behind, but had clearly stayed with him. I wondered aloud if his expression of frustration, anger, his use of words he had not use in decades, might not have been what his son and my cousin needed in the moment.

`We all have parts of ourselves that we don’t recognize, or perhaps that we don’t want to recognize. When I encounter someone and my initial response may be one of disapproval or dislike, and I say “I am not like him, or her.” What am I really saying?  Perhaps something like I don’t want to be that person,  I don’t want others to see me in that way. 

Or perhaps closer to the bone I recognize myself in that person and I don’t like it.  

Ever have that experience?  And why is it important to pay attention to these perceptions and feelings? 

We gain a greater sense of ourselves, both the positive and negative aspects of our personalities, helping to better utilize the positive parts and better manage the negative parts. 

Some years ago, before Covid, Patricia and I attended a day long meditation retreat in Brunswick,  During one of the small group sharing sessions I attended, the conversation turned toward the difficult and frightening politics of the day, and there was a general condemnation of one individual in particular.  One of the participants, a man of about the same age as us, gave another perspective.   He said that he was grateful for this particular individual, because he acted as a mirror.  He recognized himself in that mirror; that he  has elements in his own personality that he shares with the political leader.  Parts that he is not proud of, but are there nonetheless.

Paul Knittner, an American theologian known for his bringing together Christian theology with Buddhist thought, talks about unitive consciousness, or how we are all bound together.  The phase he uses is: I am not you, but I am of you. Another way that he puts it is:  We are not one, nor are we two. The Catholic writer Romano Guardini extends this to our relationship with God when he says “Although I am not God, I am not other than God either”

I must admit that this is not an easy idea to get my head around, much less my heart.  I can start to see the truth to this idea, but what does it really mean in day to day life? Perhaps the man at the retreat has part of the answer. He was able to see that he is not the other, but he is of the other. It seemed to me that because of that insight, he found it difficult to be judgmental, more forgiving; both of the other person, but also of himself. 

Last August Gracie the Golden Retriever and I were driving along Route 111 through the commercial area of Biddeford, when up ahead i saw a Jiffy Lube,  Knowing that my old Toyota Tacoma was in need of a oil change. We zipped into the parking lot, gave the truck over to the one of the Jiffy Lube employees, and Gracie and i went into the waiting area and took a seat.  After a few minutes another customer came in and sat down with us.  Gracie, being a friendly dog, was excited to meet someone new and immediately was all over the guy. Fortunately he was a dog lover, and we started to talk about Gracie and about his dog, a black lab.  This led to a wider conversation about work, family. He worked for a construction company and had one of the company trucks in for an oil change,  He was recently hired and hoped that he would move up in the company.  He talked about his two children, his wife of ten years and about his parents.  He inquired about me and gave him some of my back ground.  He were having a conversation that more self substantive and meaningful than I  might normally have had with a stranger.  The conversation then took a turn into politics, specifically gun control and he expressed some opinions that were noticeably different than my own.  I was unsure how to respond; I could agree, just to be friendly, not say anything which would have brought the conversation to an uncomfortable end, or disagree and get into a confrontational and probably acrimonious and unproductive dialogue. Because I had been recently reading some of the ideas relating to unitive consciousness, I thought I would try that approach.   I observed that we enjoyed talking about our dogs, our family and work lives. And even though we may have different viewpoints on many subjects, we seem to have a lot in common as well.  I’m not sure how well it was received, but felt better and I think we left on good terms. 

There are two morals  of the story.  One is it can never hurt to reach out to another in recognition that we are not so different from one each other.  As Walt Whitman said, “In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less/and the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.”  In this time of extremism and polarization, perhaps this is more important than ever, and probably because of the extremism and polarization that we experience daily, no doubt more of a challenge than ever.  If we can see ourselves in the other, especially one who we initially perceive as radically different, one with whom we have nothing common, if we can instead, see the other, as not so different from ourselves, we can then begin to open our hearts and do Christ’s work right here.  We are, after all,  all one in God and God is in each and everyone of us.

The second lesson is this: it always helps to have a Golden Retriever close at hand.