I’m going to jump from JFK to Khalil Gibran. Bear with me.This coming Friday, November 22, is the 50th anniversary U.S. President John F. Kennedy‘s (JFK) assassination. The memory of that day is still vivid in the minds of those many of us who lived through it. Understandably there’s been a considerable mention in the press over the past week or so and Kennedy’s most oft-repeated quote is “Ask not what you can do for your country but what your country can do for you.”
If you read a lot, you know JFK may have popularized the thought but he wasn’t the first to make the observation. The point was made as long ago as Cicero in the 1st Century and Juvenal in the 2nd Century. The American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, said it. Even another American president, Warren Harding, said it. However the person who comes first to my mind is the Lebanese-American artist and poet-philospher, Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883-1931). In 1925 Gibran published a book entitled The New Frontier. In it he wrote:
“Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.”
When Gibran came to the United States he settled in Kennedy’s home town, Boston. Perhaps JFK or his speech writers were familiar with Gibran’s work.
And a man said, Speak to us of Self-Knowledge.
And he answered saying:
Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights.
But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge.
You would know in words that which you have always known in thought.
You would touch with your fingers the naked body of your dreams.
And it is well you should.
The hidden well-spring of your soul must needs rise and run murmuring to the sea;
And the treasure of your infinite depths would be revealed to your eyes.
But let there be no scales to weigh your unknown treasure;
And seek not the depths of your knowledge with staff or sounding line.
For self is a sea boundless and measureless.
Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”
Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”
For the soul walks upon all paths.
The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed.
The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.
– Khalil Gibran