Joss of Crowing Crone offered as the second challenge for my “coming-unstuck” improv session these words from Martin Luther King, the formidable civil rights leader and activist: “You don’t have to see the whole staircase to take the first step.”
The first thing that popped into my mind in response to Joss’s quote was the old saying, The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. A truism, yes — but no less true for all of that. One step, the first step, is the beginning of anything.
Dr. King’s metaphor, though, has an additional nuance. To me, it contains a veiled warning that you may lack important information about the journey, such as what stops you will make along the way, and what you will need to enable you to keep going. And, he says, that’s unimportant. The choosing is all.
Or to use another word for it, commitment is all. Commitment to what? To a goal of the heart, whether clearly indicated or simply a vague yearning. (Dr. King had a clear goal, but I don’t think that’s always necessary. Vague yearnings, if strong enough, also have propulsive energy.)
But stepping out into the unknown is risky business. We may know our own strengths, but we are usually even more familiar with our own weaknesses, and so we well may wonder, How can I do this? I need to know X, Y, and Z AT LEAST, in order to stand a chance, don’t I?
There are perhaps as many ways of saying this same thing as there are people with ears to listen to it. One way I like is a German proverb: Begin to weave; and God will give the thread. Thomas Merton puts it this way about commitment without a blueprint, a floor plan, or a map: The way opens before you as you go. He may have gleaned this from a Zen saying, Move and the way will open.
But my own favorite way of saying the same thing is an elaboration of my post title, Taking the Plunge. There is a midrash, a teaching story that the rabbis tell about the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. In the story, when the fleeing Hebrews on their exodus from Egypt came up against the waters of the Red sea, Moses held up his staff in confident expectation that the waters would part. But they did not. The soldiers pursuing the Hebrews were hard on their heels, in front of them thundered the rolling waters, what was to become of them? There they stood, in bewilderment and dismay, until suddenly one brave man rushed into the waters — which immediately parted, and all the people following him were able to cross over on dry land. One step, the first step, is indeed the beginning of everything.
(Thank you, Joss, for this challenge. And viewers, be sure to look at Joss’s post, Waiting, written almost a week after she’d sent Dr. King’s quote for me to comment on. What better proof that our ideas, which we may think come out of nowhere, in fact come from extremely specific somewheres!)