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Content Any Way U Want It!

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September 21, 2023

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Poem looks at both the light and dark sides of life, challenges understanding

Written in 1655 when he was totally blind, John Milton’s poem “On His Blindness” takes a dispassionate look at his disability and its ramifications.

Milton ponders his value to God and fellow humans with his eyesight gone and this gift or “talent lodged with me useless.”

Milton uses the word “talent” not to identify a capability or attribute, but in the sense of an entrusted gift for which we will be held accountable.

The Parable of the Talents in Matthew’s Gospel comes to mind.

Milton reminds himself that God “does not need man’s work, or his own gifts.” God is totally self-sufficient. He realizes that the best service to God is to “bear his mild yoke.”

Milton also understands that God is regal and has “thousands” spread “over land and ocean” to do his bidding “without rest.”

His epiphany, the highlight of the poem, is contained is the famous last line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Milton comes to understand that our worth and our fulfillment do not flow from frantic activity or attempts to transform ourselves into perpetual motion machines. Maximum productivity is not the ultimate criteria of our value.

Reflecting on the meaning of the phrase “stand and wait,” we see that it doesn’t suggest an indolent, passive approach to life. Rather, It points to an active, ready-at-the-gate, on-the-edge mode of living. No easy-going escape into texting or computer games [or whatever they did for amusement in Milton’s time].

“Stand and wait” implies a watchfulness, a readiness for action, a willingness to serve.

A famous example involves three carpenters. One can build five chairs in a day; the second can construct only three. The third has become disabled and can only assist the others. All are equally valuable.

We tend to search for an escape when confronted with a discouraging or a sterile, meaningless mode of existence. Upon finding our circumstances intolerable, unexplainable or at least perplexing, we tend to avoid further exploration and seek an escape.

But we should press on search for ultimate answers, just as Milton did. Perhaps he recalled Socrates’ advice “the unexamined life is not worth living.” [Milton was fluent in ten languages, including Greek.]

He moved past the tendency for superficial self-pity, focusing instead on the question: what can I do with what I have.

There is an appropriate time for action and a time for waiting and reflection. The eighth chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes explores this duality, beginning with the words “To everything there is a season.”

To fully appreciate the poem, a passing familiarity with Scripture is helpful. For those possessing this, Milton’s poem can be a source of reflection and inner peace. For those who don’t know or who reject such things, his poetry can be easily regarded as scribbling by a dead, white male.

But his poetry has just as much relevance today as it did when first penned. In our frantic, overloaded life, “On His Blindness” is more than merely an opportunity to “stop and smell the roses.” It’s an invitation to assess our place and purpose in, as Milton wrote, “this dark world and wide.”

Milton’s poem should generate hope. As we go through our day and our life, “On His Blindness” can give us not only hope but also the realization that “standing and waiting” has merit and value.

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