The Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments as they’re more commonly referred to, came to mind recently as I enjoyed reading random passages from Mark Twain’s essays. I’ll get to him in a moment, but first the twentieth chapter of Exodus, which is the second book of the Torah and the Old Testament, and whose author is presumed to be Moses.
They are commands to: worship only God, honor one’s parents, keep the Sabbath (a day of rest), and avoid idolatry, blasphemous language, murder, adultery, thievery, dishonesty, and covetous thoughts or behaviors (especially about your “neighbor”). Judaism and Christianity embrace these biblical tenets as the cornerstones for worship and living an ethical life. And now back to Mark Twain, the man William Faulkner referred to as the “father of American literature.” The author and humorist had just finished a lecture before a capacity and enthusiastic crowd when he was approached by one of the front-row attendees. The well-dressed man, a wealthy and notoriously ruthless businessman, cornered him and declared:
“Before I die I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I will climb Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud at the top of the mountain.”
“I have a better idea,” the great author replied. “You could stay home in Boston and keep them.”
There’s no record, at least that I could discover, of what the prideful man’s response was to the author’s withering sarcasm. I suspect the man’s hubris prevented him from “taking in” Mr. Twain’s words, and that he kept his retirement plans in place.
I, however, found his response provocative and challenging. My retirement plans aren’t set, but if they included a trip to the Holy Land and a visit to Mt. Sinai, a God-like proclamation from the summit would not be on the itinerary. My arrogance and pride find plenty of opportunities for expression elsewhere.
This short piece has been percolating in my soul since the New Year began, already more than three weeks ago. Listing the Ten Commandments has been a doodling habit of mine during this time—an annoying one because the truths revealed make me uncomfortable, even as I smile at the design of my listings.
Reenter Mark Twain: “A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself as a liar.” My aimless scribbling, however creative, exposed my propensity to lie to myself. In 2016, to the best of my “truth-saying” knowledge, I kept three of the Ten Commandments, selectively adhered to another three (when convenient), and broke four of them.
I took a modicum of solace knowing that, in baseball, if a hitter over the course of his career gets a hit three out of ten times (.300) he’s most likely going to end up in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In the statistically bound world of professional baseball only one player has achieved a batting average of 1.000, and he was five for five but never played in another game due to a career-ending injury.
Though my love for the game of baseball and years of playing the sport never translated into Hall of Fame statistics at any level, success and failure, frustration and pleasure coexisted, and with them came a desire to strive to be better. I strive for the same on the spiritual playgrounds and fields where I roam, and life and God offer the same mix.
However my Ten Commandment stats rise and fall in 2017, I will appreciate their ethical and spiritual values alongside Mark Twain’s wonderful way of skewering arrogance, self-importance and righteous adherence to anything etched in stone including the Decalogue. As a devoted reader of his and the Old Testament, I’ll apply patience and humor, two great companions on the journey, while scrutinizing the stories I tell myself—the ones I too frequently become enamored with.