When I read this quotation attributed to Maya Angelou on the stamps I just bought, I wept with emotion. And then I thought about it a little more, and came up with a more complex response.
The contrast between an answer and a song is stark. An answer–in this context–comes from the isolated intellect, is possibly dogmatic, and is surely limited: proposing closure that discourages further inquiry.
How often have I proclaimed answers tinged with these limitations!
By contrast, think of a song. Birdsong, as experienced by humans, is liberated from biological urges that fall short of beauty.
If we reflect on these insightful implications and the charming bit of poetry, more ideas arise.
Countless people are looking for answers–answers! Life doesn’t make sense and it is intensely dissatisfying; conventional answers don’t do the trick. The urgent and agonizing demand for answers wells up in intellect, emotion, and soul; and it carries within it an assumption: there are answers to be found.
These answers are truths. They have an intellectual aspect because they are meaningful; but they also minister to our emotions and satisfy the longings of the soul. Truth reaches out to us in our unique individuality, in our particular situation, giving voice to what we need.
“Seek and you shall find” is a teaching of Jesus and a cosmic truth. But sometimes when people find answers–or the Answer–they may become dogmatic and stop growing. But truth is living. The life of truth flourishes when we wake up and look around with fresh eyes to see what facts are salient, to open up to new insights of how truth is illuminating that situation, and how we can become a partner of truth in that situation.
The great insight of these lines of poetry, in fact excerpted from Joan Walsh Anglund’s 1967 book, A Cup of Sun, is that expression of truth only rings true when it is more like a song than like a print-out from an intellect isolated from the other great dimensions of the self. The more of truth you are, the more your expression will sing in others’ hearts.
(I Googled “bird song” and found this site to be more accessible than the Cornell one and educationally diverse in the variety of birds represented: http://www.math.stonybrook.edu/~tony/birds/ )
Profit from the error of the Post Office: here’s Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird”: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178948 plus a review of her first autobiography: