We are all travelers on this journey through life. On the way, we encounter others, in our personal experience as well as indirectly in the arts and sciences, who inspire us. According to Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, the old adage that the only constant is change resonates with the clarity of Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell from hundreds of years ago. Although we mistakenly cling to constancy and attachments, it is liberating to realize that our growth and evolution depend on perpetual reinvention.
At the finale of Ethan Hawke’s seemingly unassuming, though exquisitely bound and illustrated by Ryan Hawke, Rules for a Knight, the narrator’s grandfather contemplates his death and realizes that he has died on previous occasions as he passed through the different stages of life. The experience of reading these meditations that serve as a guide for a well-lived life impacted me profoundly, causing me, too, an experience of death and rebirth, perhaps, as an individual ever so slightly more enlightened.
The principles that guide the knight in his journey are comprehensive, from generosity to courage, from solitude to friendship, from love to death, from gratitude to forgiveness. The complete list of topics covered is nicely summarized at the conclusion of the book. While reading the book, I didn’t notice any omissions, except perhaps that of acceptance, detachment, and compassion, though these ideals weave throughout the book despite not possessing their own chapters. During the process of reading the book, I found myself referring back to prior sections to remind myself of the wisdom contained in its eloquent revelations.
I’ve tried to incorporate these principles into my mode of living previously and have exposed myself my entire life to the Western and Eastern philosophies on which the rubric for life in Rules for a Knight is based. However, somehow this book reached me, was able to penetrate my armor, in a way that previous readings had failed. I do not fully understand why this particular treatment of ancient philosophies was so transformative, though I suspect in part its success is through its simplicity and organization in addition to its clear and compelling expression. Each chapter explicates one of the principles, such as forgiveness or gratitude, followed by a short parable illustrating the way this theme can be incorporated into one’s experience. Perhaps one reason why this book could resonate so well with me is that its author grew up in the same era as I did, as a contemporary.
I had previously read the importance of the two principles, forgiveness and gratitude, but had difficulty embracing them. I have been fortunate to have lived my adult life in the companionship of love, and though I certainly did not take it for granted, I would often dwell on life’s obstacles and challenges, what my life lacked, and my own imperfections instead of forgiving myself for the life sentence of being human. I also did not fully live a life embodying gratitude for the beautiful and poignant aspects of humanity. I could not feel true and pure gratitude and comprehension for love and the redeeming qualities in life until I learned to recognize forgiveness for myself and those who have wronged me. The power of forgiveness and gratitude cannot be understated, and they can lead to you different dimensions of being.
The last section of the book is The Ballad of the Forty-Four Pointed Red Deer. I am not sure I interpreted this ballad correctly, but as a vegetarian who has striven to promote harmony with the planet since my early youth, I would like to think of it as a secular prayer for peace for our treatment of animals and the environment which gifts us our home.
I can barely recall a time when the movie, Dead Poets Society, which launched Ethan Hawke as a household name, did not influence me. Art influences us and comforts us, and Dead Poets Society certainly served as a companion for me during my lonely youth, particularly Hawke’s character Todd Anderson. It was, in part, quite ironically, the romanticism of this film which drew me to my alma mater, Wellesley College, a New England women’s college. However, Wellesley, though possessing a similar physical beauty to that of Welton’s, is a sacred environs to promote, rather than squash, individual, intellectual, and artistic freedoms. At Wellesley, I remember being influenced by other Ethan Hawke films during rare moments not studying physics, such as Reality Bites and Before Sunrise. In a sense, all these films embody a philosophical bent which urge the viewer to think beyond the paradigm she might have grown up with. The guidebook, Rules for a Knight, follows a similar vein. I wonder, how could the characters from these films could have benefited from the book and where would they be today (though, of course, we have a glimpse of this every nine years for the Before Sunrise series)?
Did Todd Anderson ever forgive his parents or Neil Perry’s father? Did he ever find someone to love? Did he ever learn to love himself? Did he ever experience enduring and caring friendships? Could he forgive himself for his own existence? Could he feel gratitude today for having encountered Neil and yet also accept and forgive his suicide? As he grows through middle-age, can he do so with grace, as outlined in Rules for a Knight? Can he accept his own births and deaths and also his final surcease of existence? Will he resolve his internal struggles?
I hope we all can.