Sunday, December 14, 2014

Upon the Checkered Pavement

“The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.”
~ William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, Act IV, Scene 3)

On February 2, 2014, a man died.

This in and of itself is not especially astonishing as I’m certain that many people passed away on that very same day. Of these many people, I’m also certain that most had families and friends who felt the pain of their loss and anguished (some still) over their departed loved ones. On the other hand, it stands to reason that there were those who gave no pause at all at the death of these people. Why? Perhaps they didn’t know the deceased; perhaps they didn’t care; or perhaps the way the individual passed simply did not touch the right nerve to illicit an emotional response.

Still, as I said, on February 2, 2014, a man died.

However, this man did not pass unnoticed or without an emotional response from both those who knew him as well as those who did not. Such is the way of celebrity. This particular celebrity was Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Academy Award-winning actor and family man. Despite his fame and notoriety, however, he struggled with and eventually succumbed to an addiction to drugs. Immediately following Hoffman’s death, the airwaves and social media were awash with expressions of sympathy for the tragic loss of this gifted actor. Also present were the horribly graphic (though no less accurate) descriptions of his passing at home due to an overdose. Some in the celebrity community lamented the loss and called for greater attention to the problem of substance abuse in our society. Others quickly dismissed the media’s eulogizing as sensationalism and hype in light of a bad person engaging in a reckless and selfish act and reaping the reward for his foolishness.

Both are right.

Unpleasant as the thought is, both viewpoints have merit, and remind me of how frail we can often be as individuals. I am also keenly aware of how equally insensitive we can be to the struggles of others. It all depends on your perspective.

Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
In a Masonic Lodge, this perspective is symbolized by the mosaic tile floor, or black and white checkered pavement. We see it illustrated in books and on tracing boards, but do we ever pause to consider its significance? In the Lexicon of Freemasonry, Dr. Albert Mackey notes that “the variety of colors in the pavement, is a fit emblem of human life, a mingled scene of virtue and vice, of happiness and misery; today ‘our feet tread in prosperity, tomorrow we totter on the uneven paths of weakness, temptation, and adversity.’” (p. 309). W. Kirk McNulty sees the checkered tiles as representing “the universe as it appears to us who are incarnate in the physical world; alternate black and white, active and passive, easy and difficult - at best complimentary, often seeming to be in opposition.” (Freemasonry: A Journey through Ritual and Symbol, p. 18). In Masonic symbolism, these black and white squares are set to remind us that the world is indeed full of both light and dark, good and bad, and that as fallible human beings, we are capable of both.

However, as Freemasons, are we not also given the means to guide us through such conflicting influences? The Plumb is that working tool that admonishes us to walk uprightly before God and man, even though we travel daily upon the checkered pavement. Simply said, we are to remain honorable and upstanding as we carefully navigate both the good fortune and hardships that we are bound to encounter during our lifetimes.

The Chinese see this as balance - yin and yang - opposing forces in the world, both of which are necessary. In fact, Freemasonry suggests that both of these forces are present in all of us and that we must constantly be aware of that internal struggle between what is right and what is wrong. We must find the balance in ourselves and strive to see the balance in the world. If you see only tragedy and strife, what outlook do you have? What emotional influence do you think you are offering those with whom you come into contact? Only seeing the negative in the world will leave you with a lonely existence. 

On the contrary, only seeing the happiness and goodness is unrealistic and leaves you at risk of not being able to cope with tragedy when it appears. The cycle of the day has both dark and light. Existence is comprised not only of life, but also of death. They are opposites, but necessary to complete the balance in nature. As Masons, we are reminded of the three lesser lights, the sun (day), the moon (night), and the Worshipful Master (the Lodge). The sun governs the day, the moon governs the night, and the Worshipful Master (in essence, us) governs the Lodge. The Great Architect has given us the sun and moon to govern the light and dark aspects of time. We, as Worshipful Masters of our own internal Lodges, govern the light and dark aspects in ourselves, keep them within due bounds, and maintain the beautiful balance that the Creator established in the natural world for us to follow.