Religion and Revolution (3)

This is the third post in a series under the same general title of "Religion and Revolution."

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The sun is new every day.



The ultimate origin of the common prefix re- is uncertain, but one possibility is that it derives from the presumed Indo-European root *wret, which is a variant through the transposition of letters** of *wert, “to turn.” Heard in term of that root, the word return, which of course begins with the prefix at issue, comes to sound redundant—another word beginning with re- (with a ‘d’ added to become red-, as is frequent when re- comes before a vowel), plus Latin undare, whence English undulate, which originally meant “to rise in waves,” from unda, a nasalized form of the presumed Indo-European root *wed-, meaning “water” or “wet.” By that derivation what is “redundant” is that which overflows, what is over-full and hence pours over.

What returns again and again (to speak doubly redundantly, since to say it “re-turns again and again” is just to say it turns again again again) is what is so over-full that it can only overflow itself re-currently, which means flowing ever again, pouring over onto whatever lies ready to receive it. In turn (or return), to receive something is to take or grasp it, from yet another return of the re-, plus Latin capare, “to seize or grasp.”

Although it may be more blessed to give than to receive, it is clearly true that to give, one must first have received.  To paraphrase a line from Alcoholics Anonymous, AA’s “Big Book,” obviously one cannot give away what one does not have. But, as the same source also acknowledges more than once, at the base of all we have to give is what we have ourselves first received.

What’s more, although giving may repay—repaying meaning to satisfy or make peace with, from re- plus, ultimately, pax, Latin for peace—more richly than receiving, it may be even more challenging truly to receive what is newly given, than it is to give what one already happens to have. At any rate, if is far from an easy thing truly to receive. 

It takes humility to receive, whereas giving can all too easily couple with an arrogant sense of superiority. The rich exploiting untold poor to amass their wealth, then boasting of giving some of what they’ve stolen back to the poor in the form of donations to various charities, provides a good example.

In contrast, letting oneself be given unto is at least as great a gift as giving; and, to repeat (from Latin repetere, “to do or say again”) the gist of something I said just a moment ago, if one never learns to receive, one will never have much to give. Those who have the gift of growing old gracefully, for example, accepting without resistance the help that family and friends offer them as they do so, feeling no diminishment of their genuine sense of self-worth in the process, show how gracious receiving is itself a great gift back to those who give: a repayment in full, and with interest, over-flowing the bounds of any debt. It is no easy matter so to receive.

What is more, among the very hardest things to learn to receive in that generous, open, self-affirming way, is simply the gift that comes anew with the coming again, as it has come so many times before, of a new day—the return every day of the day anew, with the rising of the sun yet again. As Heraclitus knew, every day the day re-news itself again, each day anew. 

After all, each and every day is indeed a brand new day. The return of the sun and with it the day itself, is each day the coming yet again anew, which is to say once again for the very first time, as it has already come countless times before.

The simple, obvious everydayness of every day just may be the very greatest gift we are ever given, and therefore the hardest of all gifts for us to learn how fully to receive. The everydayness of every day may be hardest of all gifts for us fully to accept, precisely because of the great superfluity, the over-fullness, that the simple gift of the day—simply the return of the day, such an everyday thing—may be.

Perhaps accepting the simple gift of the everyday newness of every day is the most demanding form of acceptance we can ever learn and practice. It may take a complete revolution of our whole relationship to the world and all that is in it to do that—a revolution that would need to recur every day anew, if we are fully to accept the overflow that the everyday day pours down on us.

Such full acceptance of the everyday overfill of days would require (from re-, plus querere, “to ask, to seek)”, not a one-time, once-and-for-all revolution, but a permanent, ever-ongoing one, as it were, an everyday ever again new revolution to match the everyday ever again newness of every new day.

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Perhaps religion, at least when it is true to itself, is just such permanent revolution—a possibility I will consider in my next post.

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To be continued.



* All the translations from Heraclitus in this post series are by Richmond Lattimore in The Early Philosophers of Greece, edited by Matthew Thompson McClure (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1935).

** Something that often happens and that linguists give the label “metathesis,” from Greek meta-, in this case meaning “change,” plus thesis, which originally meant “a setting down, placing, positioning.”