Make it exemplary. Three simple but demanding words. They challenge us to do our best in whatever we do.
What is the next thing you absolutely have to do? Why not perform that task to the best of your ability (no matter how dread or how tiresome a prospect it might be)?
In the latest episode of the excellent Alexei Sayle Podcast, Sayle looks in depth at the work of Bertolt Brecht – perhaps the key influence on his confrontational performing style. Sayle notes that besides his work as a playwright, Brecht was also an accomplished poet. At the episode’s end, he recounts from memory a quite beautiful poem by Brecht, entitled Washing. I have tried to find this poem online, but I just cannot find it. So here I transcribe the version that Mr Sayle carries around in his memory:
When years ago I showed you how to wash, first thing in the morning
With bits of ice in the water of the little copper bowl
Immersing your face, your eyes open
Then, while you dried yourself with the rough towel
Reading the difficult lines of your part from the sheet pinned to the wall
I said ‘That’s something you’re doing for yourself. Make it exemplary.’
Now I hear that you’re said to be in prison
The letters I wrote on your behalf remained unanswered
The friends I approached for you are silent
I can do nothing for you
What will your morning bring?
Will you still do something for yourself, hopeful and responsible, with good movement, exemplary?
Make it exemplary. These simple but demanding words challenge us to do our best. To approach everything we’re doing as something that we are doing for ourselves, and to do it to the best best of our abilities (such as they might be).
While I couldn’t find the original text of Brecht’s poem online, I was able to find out a little more about the woman for whom he wrote it. Brecht’s muse here was a German actress named Carola Neher, whose IMDB biography makes for sobering reading. Neher was imprisoned in Russia, and would die a prisoner there in 1942. As mentioned in Washing, Brecht wrote letters on her behalf, but to resounding silence.*
The Verso Books website has an extract from one of German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s conversations with Brecht, in which the latter talks about how he taught Neher how to wash her face in the morning, and to make it exemplary:
“‘I taught Carola Neher all kinds of things, you know,’ he said, ‘not just acting – for example, she learned from me how to wash herself. Before that she used to wash just so as not to be dirty. But that was no way to do things. So I taught her how to wash her face. She became so perfect at it that I wanted to film her doing it, but it never came to that because I didn’t feel like doing any filming just then and she didn’t feel like doing it in front of anybody else.”
No audience is necessary when you are doing something for yourself. When a person chooses to wash their face in an exemplary manner, is it any less exemplary just because no-one is there to witness it? As Brecht’s poem aks: “Will you still do something for yourself, hopeful and responsible, with good movement, exemplary?”
Right action and right conduct
Brecht’s words urging us to make what we do exemplary – even when we find ourselves under the most testing circumstances – reminded me of a wonderful book that I read a few years back.
I wept during and after reading neurologist, psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. A short, beautiful book that will transform how you see the world.
His message is positive and his words are transformative, life-changing. Frankl explains his belief that meaning is vital to life, always. My words are inadequate to conveying the appalling power and gravity of the book’s subject, and to the wrenching beauty of Frankl’s response.
Frankl describes how he was able to find meaning even in the endless, crushing cruelty of daily life in Auschwitz. Finding meaning in life enabled him to survive. Stripped of his previous life, possessions, clothes, hair and even his name, he writes that his internal ability to find meaning and dignity in life was the one thing that could never be taken away. But he had to choose this path. To identify, pursue and perhaps even to achieve “a meaning worth living for”. He says:
“[H]uman life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death”.
For Frankl, meaning in life is ultimately to be found in how we engage with life on life’s own terms. He worked to share this message with his fellow inmates. He writes:
“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it really did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Right action and right conduct were central to Frankl’s search for meaning. Right action and right conduct were a choice. How he approached each day in this most dreadful of places and times was a choice he made for himself.
After what seemed an eternity (in which each day seemed to drag on forever, yet the weeks would pass in the blink of an eye), Frankl’s dream of liberation and freedom came true. He was dismayed that the depth of suffering in Auschwitz had so distorted his perceptions that he felt a kind of disappointment on the day he was liberated. But this disappointment did not last. He used his freedom to share his beautiful, life-affirming and life-sustaining words with the world.
Where do you find meaning in life?
What are you going to do with your own freedom today?
You have the choice to make whatever you do exemplary. But more important than setting an example for others is that you do whatever it is to the best of your ability for your good self.
Approach today with right action and right conduct. Make it exemplary.
May you be nothing but kind today, to others and to yourself.
May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.
** From Neher’s IMDB biography: “In her secret file, recently found in the KGB archives, she was already branded as an “adventuress with anti-soviet sympathies”, which at the time equated to a death sentence by the Moskow regime. She was finally arrested and sent to prison a few months later. She endured exceptionally harsh treatment there and tried to commit suicide by slashing her wrists. After several weeks of interrogation and torture, she was condemned to 10 years hard labour in a gulag as “Trotkyst spy and conspirator”, whilst [her husband, Anatol ] Becker was shot in front of a firing squad. Several of her long-time friends, amongst them Bertold Brecht tried to help her but to no avail.”
- Unbekannter Fotograf (Archiv Philipp Kester), Carola Neher, 1925 via Wikimedia Commons.
- Julie Wolfthorn, Carola Neher 1929 via Wikimedia Commons.
- Viktor Frankl2 via Wikimedia Commons.
- Reflections On A Dream (121534577) via Wikimedia Commons.