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Sweet Mysteries of Life

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

Sweet Mysteries of Life

Make room for uncertainty.
Cornel  West
Cornel West More by this author
May 20, 2010 at 10:00 AM

I have a lifelong love for John Keats, the greatest of the English Romantic poets who lived during the nineteenth century. His uncanny ability to create beauty with words touched my soul. I was still quite young when I read the letter Keats sent to his brother in 1817. In it, he wrote about “negative capability,” which he explained as the quality “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I was drawn to this idea because so much of what I experienced as a kid, teen, and young man seemed shrouded in mystery.

Even the basic story that had been passed down from my grandparents to my parents to me was clearly mysterious. If I read a biography, for example, of Theodore Roosevelt, I was told where he was and what he did every year of his life. But the four biblical accounts of Jesus’s life don’t do that. The narrative is sketchy, the vast majority of his growing-up years undocumented. At times, Jesus expresses uncertainties and doubts. In the Garden of Gethsemane he falls to the ground and wants to know if God will let him out of this jam. On the cross, he cries out that worrying blues line, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

None of this made me challenge the power of Christ-based love. I lived with people who modeled that love—my mom, my dad, my brother, my sisters, my grandparents, my preacher. They modeled humility. In their own way, they washed the feet of those they served, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. But at this critical juncture in my life I also knew what Keats was talking about. If Jesus Christ could express his uncertainties and doubts, then the English poet was pointing me in the right direction. I didn’t have to resolve every contradiction or inconsistency. When I read the poetry of Walt Whitman, I could understand why he answered the question, “Do I contradict myself?” with “Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Because I was considered precocious, I was asked to deliver sermons during the junior church service. I tried to avoid it, not because I felt incapable, but because it meant missing a sermon by our pastor, Willie P. Cooke. Cooke was not bombastic, although he would have Holy Ghost visitations during his sermons. He was not intellectual. He was sincere. He loved to talk about the litany of love. He started each sermon by quoting Psalm: 121 “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord.” Later in my life, when I began speaking in churches, I followed his lead and started with those same wonderful words. He was a man of deep discernment and genuine charity. He was humble. He wasn’t interested in hellfire and he wasn’t interested in self-aggrandizement. It seemed right that he was a carpenter as well as a preacher.

As a child, Cooke’s beautiful soul kept calling me. I also loved the way he called on the deacons to serve the parishioners. Deacon Hinton was our designated mentor. He was childless and treated me and Cliff like sons. Lord, this man was a loving soul! He was a chauffeur who drove for white folks. Every summer he’d make sure to take me and Cliff to the picnics put on by his rich employers. We were the only blacks in attendance. It was like something out of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel about social yearning and spiritual malnutrition. Strangely enough, though, Cliff and I didn’t do a lot of yearning. We were too happy running around the great manicured lawns and gardens of the wealthy. We won all the foot races. Played ball with the kids. Asked if we could borrow their mitts. “Hey, man,” we’d say, “nice glove you have here. Mind if I use it?” “No, go ahead.” It was an easy rapport. Deacon Hinton carried us to these picnics every year of our childhood. We developed friendships and allowed the social graciousness of the occasion to wash over us. And I believe that we, being the children of Irene and Clifton West, brought some social graciousness of our own.

About Author
Cornel  West
Educator and philosopher Dr. Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. Known as one of America’s most gifted, provocative, and important public intellectuals, Dr. We Continue reading