Hearts at Work

A Column by James Tipton

“If you love someone….”


Lebanese-American writer and artist Khalil Gibran is largely remembered for The Prophet (1923), one of the best selling works of the 20th century. This collection of 26 inspirational and poetic essays became one of the guiding lights of the 1960s revolution that attempted to restore America to a culture that indeed would care more about love in all of its variations than about power and money.

Gibran was born in the mountains of northern Lebanon on January 6, 1883. His father, a compulsive gambler, was imprisoned around 1891 for alleged embezzlement and all of the family property was confiscated. Although his father was released in 1894, his mother Kamila Rahmeh (a Maronite…very old sect of Syrian Christians) in 1895 immigrated with her four children—but without her irresponsible husband—to South Boston. While she sold her hand-sewn lace and linens door to door, young Khalil began to study English and art. Teachers recognized his talent.

In December 1896, he was introduced to photographer Fred Holland Day, whose reputation at the turn of the last century rivaled that of Alfred Stieglitz. Day declared Gibran a “natural genius” and became his mentor. While exhibiting his art at Day’s studio, Gibran met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, a prominent educator, who became another mentor—for two decades she was his patron, his supporter, and his tutor in English.

In 1898, Gibran returned to Lebanon for several years to study his own culture. In 1902, he returned, going through Ellis Island a second time…although he never became an American citizen. In 1908-1910, Mary Elizabeth Haskell provided funds for him to study painting and drawing in Paris. His teachers included Auguste Rodin.

Most of his earlier writings were in Arabic, and they were about aspects of Christianity, particularly spiritual love. By 1918, Gibran was writing and publishing in English and in 1923 he published The Prophet. It has never gone out of print and has been translated into more than twenty languages. Some claim Khalil Gibran is the third best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao-Tsu.

Most people are familiar with some of his words. For example, “Your daily life is your temple and your religion” or “Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”

Being close to God is the important thing. Being close to others can be obsession rather than love. Gibran writes, “If you love someone, let them go, for if they return they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.” Sting adapted the idea to a song, “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free,” and Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls adapted the idea this way: “If you love someone, let them go.  If they truly love you, they will return. And if they do not it was not meant to be….”

This idea had such circulation in the popular culture in the 60s and 70s that I had a lover whose favorite t-shirt drew all eyes to this variation printed across her braless and significant breasts: “If you love someone, let them go. If they don’t return, hunt them down and kill them.” Well, that was decades ago…I assume she is no longer trying to hunt me down.

Fritz Perls, who actually founded Gestalt Therapy with his wife Laura Perls, was a popular psychotherapist in the 60s and 70s (associated with Esalen Institute). His “Gestalt Prayer” begins: “I do my thing and you do yours. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine.”

Gibran, much earlier and much more poetically, expressed something somewhat similar, but with a focus on his favorite word… love. “But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love; let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”

Gibran recognized the role suffering has in soul development: “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Khalil Gibran was only 48 when he died in New York City on April 10, 1931.

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