Thursday, November 18, 2010


In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness.
--Samuel Beckett, Irish playwright

According to legend, it was on November 18, 1307, that Swiss folk hero William Tell famously shot an apple off his son’s head. While the story, and even the life of the hero himself, may be apocryphal, many Swiss people point to this defiant act as the symbolic beginning of the modern Swiss nation. The story also illustrates the consummate Swiss virtue of Genauigkeit (Precision).

Genauigkeit (pronounced Geh-NO-izh-KITE) has at least 20 different translations into English, including Faithfulness, Shrewdness, Veracity--even rigidity. All of these nuances apply to the Genauigkeit of William Tell, but if we wanted to sum it up in just one word, Precision I think captures his nature best. Like their famed watches, renowned for supreme Accuracy in keeping time, the Swiss people themselves have a reputation for prizing exactitude, which may explain the popularity of the apple story.

There’s a wonderful (ahem) telling of the Tell story here, but for those who want the short version: William Tell, who lived in the region of Uri in central Switzerland, was known as an expert shot with the crossbow. At the time, his country had been taken over by invaders from Austria, whose local governor, a man named Gessler, had hung his hat on a pole in the central square of Tell’s village. Gessler demanded all the townsfolk bow before the hat. One day Tell passed by the hat with his 6-year-old son Walter without bowing to it, and an Austrian soldier arrested him. Tell refused to bow to the hat, and so the guard brought him before the governor.

Gessler, who disliked Tell, decided that as punishment, Tell would have to shoot an apple off Walter’s head, or else the Austrians would execute both of them. He promised Tell his freedom if he successfully made the shot. In front of a crowd of anxious villagers, Tell split the apple with a shot of miraculous Precision.

At that moment, Gessler noticed Tell had a second bolt in his jacket, and asked him why. Tell replied that if his shot had killed his son, he would have turned the crossbow on Gessler himself. An angry Gessler then went back on his word and took Tell captive. Tell later escaped, and in the fracas that followed killed Gessler with the second crossbow bolt. Tell then led a rebellion of the natives against the invaders. Legend has it this eventually led to the formation of the Swiss Confederacy, forerunner to the modern-day Swiss state.

It is not solely in the Excellence of his archer’s aim in which we find Tell’s Genauigkeit--a word that sparkles like a diamond, with so many facets. If we look carefully (applying Genauigkeit to Genauigkeit), we can find the ultimate virtues treasured here on TTV: Self-Knowledge and Self-Possession. Tell’s Clarity in understanding himself gave him the Strength to know he could not bow down to a literally empty-headed symbol of oppression. He knew his limits. Likewise, when confronted by the governor about the second bolt, Tell showed Truthfulness in revealing his will to exact Justice upon Gessler should the shot have killed his son.

The quotation from Beckett I used above invites a deeper contemplation of the meaning of Genauigkeit. What I think Beckett means, and what the story shows, is that when we face a threat of annihilation of that which we love, we must at those times summon Strength to our side, a Resistance that does not buckle (a Light aspect of rigidity, which normally I would not categorize as a virtue). In Genauigkeit, in knowing the Truth of who and what we are and are not, we find this Power, which can translate into action. We become the captains of our souls.

While William Tell may have had a natural talent for archery, undoubtedly the Discipline of hours of practice allowed him to pull off the feat of the apple-shot. Likewise, regular return to our meditation practices, of honing our blade, gives us spiritual Genauigkeit. What practices or techniques do you use regularly in order to cultivate such Genauigkeit? When you face a horrific challenge that threatens what you care about, can you summon the Courage to nock your arrow and believe your aim will be true?

May we see the gates of Genauigkeit, and perhaps make a home there.

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