The Wisdom of Grooks

by Ray Grigg

Piet Hein’s “grooks” (little poems) encouraged his fellow Danes to continue fighting for change during the Nazi take over of their country. Can we learn from him how to foster an encouraging and supportive peer culture within the environmental movement, amongst the mounting ecological catastrophes?

Piet Hein (1905–96), a Danish scientist, mathematician, inventor, author and poet who was writing during the 1940s, penned little aphoristic pieces he called “grooks” during his country’s occupation by the Nazis. One was a disguised morale booster to his compatriots, a reminder not to lose faith in the eventual return of their freedom:

Losing one glove

is certainly painful,

but nothing

compared to the pain,

of losing one,

throwing away the other,

and finding the first one again.

Hein wrote many other grooks. Another applies not only to us as individuals but to us as a culture. It’s about the way to evolve toward improvement, particularly relevant advice during a time in which we are so stressed with environmental angst:

The path to perfection,

It’s plain and simple to express:

Just err, and err again,

But less, and less, and less.

In essence, Hein suggests, the way to learn is by making mistakes. The trick, however, is to notice what we are doing wrong and then to change our behaviour so as not to repeat those errors. Perfection lies in the direction of continual refinement.

But what is the “perfection” we are trying to reach along this error-strewn path? We actually don’t know because we’ve never been there. We get a sense of what it might be, however, by a process of elimination. When we make mistakes, the results are discordant, or they prove to be inefficient, polluting or unsustainable. So we try something else. It’s a perpetual trial-and-error evolution moving intermittently toward improvement.

How do we know it’s improvement? Because greater numbers of people are contented, fulfilled, enriched, secure and peaceful. Our ecologies remain diverse and vibrant. In some respects we have actually come a remarkable distance as a civilization since the early cultures of many millennia ago. The mistakes we’ve made have had uncomfortable consequences but we have learned some important lessons.

We are now entering another serious phase of mistake-making and learning. This time it’s environmental. We don’t know the perfect solution to all the problems we are encountering but we have identified our mistakes — we know what to stop doing and we are in the laborious process of trying to make the necessary changes. Some choices will be better than others. Some may even be foolish. But, if we remain open and questioning, diligent and discriminating, honest and caring, and if we can expand our ethics from an anthropocentric obsession to include a harmonious relationship between ourselves and nature — one of the major mistakes we have a propensity for making — then we will be making progress toward perfection.

We actually know a great deal about this perfection. It’s quite ordinary. It’s doing no harm. It’s equality and respect. It’s the integrity of wholeness rather than the fragmentation of parts. It’s understanding rather than intolerance, inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness. It’s knowing rather than ignorance, trusting rather than fearing, embracing rather than rejecting, opening rather than closing. It’s what the world becomes when we give as much attention to other beings as ourselves. It’s allowing a place for everything within the borderless reaches of our awareness. It’s what we gain by being attached to “less, and less, and less.”