The Genesis:3 Project
When all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well and the sheep watered; then the stone would be put back in its place on the mouth of the well. Genesis 29:3
I wonder if this verse from the Bible is the earliest reference to the rolling stone of fame and proverb. Everyone knows that a rolling stone gathers no moss, a bit of wisdom traceable back to ancient Greece and definitively proven by TV’s “Mythbusters” (who actually rolled a stone for six months in a moss-rich environment).
But without necessarily mentioning the moss (or the similar lichens, hornworts or liverworts), the rolling stone has turned up in all sorts of places. Muddy Waters wrote a song by that name that inspired four young musicians to call themselves The Rolling Stones. Bob Dylan lived into the image when he rolled out of folk music and into rock with his transformational “Like a Rolling Stone.” And Dr. Hook was not the only one who hoped to wind up on the cover of the Rolling Stone.
There is a temptation to overthink the metaphor, but it is worth taking a couple of paragraphs to consider whether being a rolling stone is a good thing. I will stipulate that being a Rolling Stone, even in your mid-70s, is indeed a good thing. But, to coin a phrase, when you feel like a rolling stone, how does it feel?
If collecting moss is the result of being stuck in one place all the time in a stagnant state, I imagine being in continual motion is a pretty good thing. Most of us get relatively regular reminders to move both physically and mentally. An active body and an active mind are important ways to avoid getting weighed down by the collecting moss that can incapacitate us after a while.
On the other hand, if collecting moss means acquiring the stuff of life – relationships, sustenance, “new growth” – then I have to guess that being constantly on the move is pretty dissatisfying, if not to one’s self, then to the people who get passed by or run over. It was no compliment to Papa to call him a rolling stone.
In the end, there is one more variable to consider. It is something we generally overlook when considering the metaphor, but is made clear by the verses from Genesis. A stone doesn’t roll by itself. Aside from the forces of nature’s friction necessary to create a stone that can roll rather than lurch and bounce, some thing or, more likely, some one must be the source of the roll. Maintaining the momentum requires a direction that is downhill, another often unconsidered detail.
In this little vignette, the rolling stone is an important tool, not so much a characteristic. The water in the well is protected by the stone on top of it – it cannot be polluted or stolen, and nobody can accidentally fall in. It requires a collection of shepherds to be moved. The stone goes nowhere without the community pushing it.
Yeah, I know, it’s a metaphor and despite my own warning I am overthinking it. But this image of a rolling stone is a good example of how many different ways a turn of a phrase can be understood depending on context and, at least as important, on proclivities. And how facts that are important may be overlooked.
I am reminded of these lessons as I am confronted by the partisan advocacy that saturates our public discourse. Words, even carefully chosen, can be interpreted in many ways, especially if they are deployed with sly intentions. Facts, if obscured by verbal images, can be overlooked when the implications of a turn of phrase are debated. Practicalities, so easily taken for granted, can disable ideals if they are dismissed as irrelevant. And the needs of a diverse community are often overlooked in the quest to make a point.
I could write more, but if you start me up I’ll never stop.