Connecting with the East

At age 11 Ruth Weigle wrote, “I pause now to look back over my childhood days before passing into the dim, shadowy regions of the future.” She composed those words in 1933, little aware that within a decade the entire world would descend into total war. She herself would face unimagined challenges as a young adult.

But there was still some time to make the transition from youthful freedom to responsibility. Growing up in New Haven in the 20s and 30s, she had many advantages: excellent schools, a safe neighborhood, the intellectual climate surrounding Yale University and particularly the Divinity School.

Ruth would later recall an impressive visitor to her childhood home on Cold Spring Street – the great poet-sage of Bengal and India, Rabindranath Tagore. At the funeral of a loved one she would reflect long upon these words which he wrote:

Rabindranath Tagore --- Image by © CORBISWhen death comes and whispers to me,
        “Thy days are ended,”
Let me say to him, “I have lived in love
        and not in mere time.”[1]

Of course, as a child Ruth could not appreciate the visitor’s Eastern viewpoint. She might have said hello and curtsied, but she hardly would have been expected to join the conversation. She made no written record of that visit. Yet the influence of such connections must have helped to shape her emerging outlook.

When Tagore visited the United States, his discussions with Albert Einstein received considerable publicity. In the following transcribed dialogue,[2] Tagore’s view is more compatible with that of Schopenhauer reviewed in these blogs and that of the 5 rules espoused here, while Einstein’s view is a blend of natural realism and rationalism.

Einstein:  The mind acknowledges realities outside of it, independent of it. For instance, nobody may be in the house, yet that table remains where it is.

Tagore:  Yes, it remains outside the individual mind, but not the universal mind. The table is that which is perceptible by some kind of consciousness we possess.

Einstein:  If nobody were in the house the table would exist all the same, but this is already illegitimate from your point of view, because we cannot explain what it means, that the table is there, independently of us. Our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief nobody can lack – not even primitive beings. We attribute to truth a superhuman objectivity. It is indispensable for us – this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind – though we cannot say what it means.

Tagore:  In any case, if there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity, then for us it is absolutely non-existing.

Einstein:  Then I am more religious than you are!

A discussion like this would far outreach Ruth’s understanding at the time. Tragically World War II and the subsequent Cold War ended for a long time many such East-West conversations, as the world became a more desperate place.

Ruth through high school and college continued to benefit from her unique environment. She gained more than a passing acquaintance with faculty in the Yale Divinity School, enjoying a particularly close relationship with the Christian historian Roland Bainton and his family.

One more surprise occurred in Ruth’s adolescent years. Her father and mother suspended her schooling at age 14 to take her to China for half a year. An internet article about Luther Weigle describes the trip –

At the invitation of the Chinese Christian churches Weigle had spent six months there in 1935 visiting colleges and seminaries and attending conferences. He was accompanied by his wife, his son Richard and his daughter Ruth. One result was the formation of an association of theological seminaries in the country.[3]

This exposure to the largest and arguably the most ancient nation on earth broadened young Ruth’s outlook immensely. The work of organizing the seminaries would never meet long-term success, however, as a cloud of war overshadowed the land. Japan had already occupied Manchuria by the time of their visit. All-out war between China and Japan erupted in 1937.

“If you go there, Johnny, you’ll have to learn to squat to move your bowels. And you’ll learn to eat all kinds of things!”

No toilets in China then, just two pads where you put your feet, and a hole in the floor between the pads. That was the limit of my youthful understanding of what Mama told me about her time there. But her outlook throughout the long years of the Cold War reflected a longing for the time of peace when travel all around the world was possible. When she and our father had a chance to return to China around 1990, they quickly made the trip along with son Robert and daughter-in-law Calico.

Our family room in Jackson, Mississippi, was decorated with colorful kites, dolls, and paintings from China. We were constantly reminded that the world is a bigger place than mid- to north Mississippi where we grew up, or even the United States that the older children toured by automobile at the beginning of the sixties.


In the 1980s my wife Susan and I got a call from Dr. Yu, an older Chinese physician, who would be visiting Houston where we lived. He had some long-ago connection with Yale-in-China, if I recall correctly. After a quick telephone consultation with my mother, we invited Dr. Yu to dinner. Over King Ranch Chicken, we fell completely under his spell as he told stories from his experience in a changing society. First he was the academic physician sent to the fields to share life with the peasants. Then he played the peasant, the official, the soldier, and perhaps another part. I shall never forget the passion with which Dr. Yu, rising from his chair, re-enacted the Cultural Revolution in the corner of our dining room. 


Next post:  Ott in a Hurry

Previous post:  The Swinging Gate – an Autobiography at Age 11

Searching for GSOT Outline:  Home

[1] Tagore, R. Fireflies, 1928.

[2] Dutta K and Robinson A. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man. Bloomsbury, London, 1995, p. 295.

[3], accessed 1/23/2017.



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