I'm sure that those who reverence the Ten Commandments of the Torah and the Christian Bible don't need to hear my opinions about them. For the purposes of narrative, though, I need to mention that, just for myself and my own provisional personal beliefs, I had rejected the Ten Commandments by the time I was in my 20s.
That makes it sound like I once accepted them, but I don't think I ever did. They never seemed particularly useful.
But it's not like I didn't see the usefulness of having some sort of rules to live by. I got mine, adventitiously, not from Yahweh by way of Moses, but from the Spider Woman of the Hopi Indian tribe by way of an American writer who now lives in Missouri called William Least Heat-Moon, who is part Irish and part Osage. (And who holds a degree in photojournalism, I believe.) I stumbled into him in a bookstore on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. that is no longer there, and got to talk with him a while. He was a smallish man in red suspenders whose eyes were magnified by thick spectacles and who walked with a cane. I remember the conversation being quiet but intense, and so, to be polite, I bought his book, a great bestseller called Blue Highways that has become a classic of American travel writing.
It's not like I made a conscious decision to follow the guidance of the Hopi as presented in Blue Highways (or by William himself in his talk at the bookstore? I honestly don't remember now). It's just that, looking back at my life, I find that I have done so.
I don't know what you'd call them. Every label seems pejorative in some way. Maxim? Admonition? "Commandments" is doubtless the wrong word. "Rules"? Seems legalistic. The two pieces of advice? I don't know. "Guidelines" is most neutral and accurate, I guess, although that word has a bureaucratic flavor that doesn't harmonize well with the vision of a mystical Spider Woman who created the stars (they're dewdrops in her web, according to the creation myths of the Pueblo peoples).
Matt, in the Comments, suggests "tenet." A tenet is "a principle or belief, especially one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy." That sounds right.
Anyway, the Two Tenets of the Hopi are:
"Try to understand things"
"Don't go around hurting people."
That's beautiful, and more like it.
I haven't been spotless, pure or blameless in my adherence to these precepts, of course. I don't try to understand color management, for example—I prefer to throw up my hands and capitulate to superstition on that one. (Life is short; why spin your wheels?) But, it turns out, they're what I've lived by since I heard about them. They seem to cover everything, with a brevity, a pithiness, and an avoidance of needless elaboration of which William Strunk jr. might have approved.
Incidentally, the word "commandment" wasn't applied to what are now known as the Ten Commandments until the year 1560, when that word made its first appearance in the Geneva Bible. Although not nearly as famous a translation as the King James Version, which came along 51 years later, the Geneva Bible was the translation used by Shakespeare and the one brought to America by the Pilgrims.
(The photo was uncredited at The Wichita Eagle)
[Ed. Note: I could swear I've written about the "two commandments" of the Hopi before in these pages, but if I have I can't find it. Apologies if this is not the first time you've heard this from me and I'm just missing it.
"Open Mike," by the bye, is the off-topic, anything-goes editorial page of TOP that appears on Wednesdays.]
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Featured Comments from:
Joseph Holmes: "I remember Blue Highways very fondly. I read it in the same couple of years that I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and the two books had a very soothing effect on that young(ish) mind, which had rejected religion but sought ethical models, especially really well-written ethical models."
Mike replies: The two books are classics of about the same level, aren't they?
Off this topic, Joe, I received your privately printed 2016 Annual and I wanted to say it's gorgeous. Last year's was great but this year's is if anything even better. The pictures and printing are excellent and the pacing and editing are adroitly, expertly done. Lovely and full of feeling and interest. Thanks very much for again including me among the lucky 100.
beuler: "I am a regular reader since the Sunday Morning Photographer on the Luminous Landscape site, and I don't recall mention of this topic. It's first time I've come across this 'Try to understand things' and 'Don't go around hurting people.' It is interesting to note that the two 'utterances' are given equal importance, whereas most religious and/or ethical systems place much more importance on the second. I like that. We have an obligation to study and know the world around us, and one corollary is that ignorance should not absolve us from our wrong actions. I agree with that."
Steve D: "I'm staring at my screen a bit slackjawed at the moment. When I was a wee lad of eight or nine my stepfather (a wonderful human who never met a stranger, and who I miss dearly) sat me down to impart some wisdom. He was a large French Canadian man with a thick accent who had traveled the world mostly for work but also a short stint in the Korean war. I admired him and his stories enormously. Looking back now I'd say it was a son's love to the point of hero worship. Anyway, I can still feel him capturing my eyes with his, holding my gaze and saying...'Son, there are only two things you need to know in life to get through it as a good and happy person. I learned this a long time ago from the Indians. They say it a lot prettier than I'm going to say it to you now but I think you'll remember it better the way I'm going to say it.' He leaned in a little and said 'never stop learning and don't be an a**hole.' He added, 'If you have to wonder if you might be acting like and a**hole then that's usually a good sign that probably are so stop whatever it is you're doing and do it different or not at all.' It got traction with me. I failed his advice often enough and the results just reinforced his words. I still forget sometimes and am still reminded.
"I honestly never imagined he was serious and that it was actually rooted in genuine Native American philosophy but I guess that was me not thinking...Lord I miss him."