Who knew? `The Prophet' has advice for parents

August 01, 1999|By Susan Reimer

WHEN I WAS a fringed-vest-wearing, This line is longer than measure/can't be broken moccasin-treading, This line is longer than measure/can't be broken love-bead-stringing, This line is longer than measure/can't be broken free-verse-writing college co-ed waiting for my perfect love to find me, Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet" was my soul's little instruction book.

I absorbed those life lessons through the skin of my fingers, which turned the pages of that slim little volume again and again as I dreamed of the spiritual union awaiting me: "And stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow."

I believed I was, during my 1960s hippie-chick phase, part of a dedicated little band of Gibran disciples. But we were only the latest wave of admirers of Gibran. The Isadora Duncans and the beatniks had come before me, and the New Agers would come after me. "The Prophet" has sold more than 10 million copies since it was published in 1923, and it's enjoying another of its periodic resurgences now. It seems that many more yearning souls than mine find comfort in Gibran's blend of poetry and philosophy, neither of which ever received anything but critical derision.

These have included some unlikely searchers: Flip Wilson and Jimmy Carter's mother, Miss Lillian. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf was reported to have kept just two books in his quarters during Operation Desert Storm: the Bible and "The Prophet."

Gibran, who would be invoked at every barefoot wedding-in-a-meadow I ever attended, was 12 years old when his family emigrated from Northern Lebanon to a Syrian ghetto in Boston. He used his gift for drawing as his passport into wealthy turn-of-the-century salons; one of the women who fawned on him, wealthy school teacher Mary Haskell, became his patroness.

She believed he was Christ reincarnate and spent a small fortune protecting him from non-believers and cultivating his talents. She sent him to Paris to study and then set him up in Greenwich Village, where he was a modestly successful artist.

But the publication of "The Prophet" made him a cult figure. In it, he portrayed himself as Almustafa, getting ready to board a ship for home after many years in a foreign land. His muse, Almitra (Mary Haskell) asks him to share his wisdom with the people of Orphalese (New York) before he goes.

She questions him on topics like love, work, pain and time, and he answers with a mix of Islam, the Bible, Blake, Yeats and Laotzu. It sounds like gobbledygook if you don't recognize its antecedents. "Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls," he writes.

Sadly, life happens and cynicism follows; I lost my copy of "The Prophet" years ago, probably in the shedding of one persona for another.

But in a happenstance in which Gibran would have seen much meaning, a new copy of "The Prophet" has come to me from a friend and fellow parent, Joe. Joe thinks harder about (and is more optimistic about) the job parents try to do with children than I do on my best day.

With an inscription that advised me to "enjoy and learn," Joe called my attention to a chapter in "The Prophet" that wouldn't have held my attention 25 years ago -- the chapter on children.

Here is what "The Prophet" has to say: "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you. "You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. "You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. "You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness; for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable."

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