Just this week while idly browsing the radio channels I heard through the static Auld Land Syne. When one hears this song on the radio, one can take it for a clear sign (however staticky the signal) that the holidays and that change are upon us. As the plaintive chorus sounded out, I was pierced with the familiar but shocking bittersweet longing. My hand remained fixed to the tuning dial while my eyes glazed over and I was oblivious to everything around me, sunk in thought–until the fellow I was picking up briskly opened and shut the door of the car (in case you’re wandering why I was idly listening to the radio).
Certainly this season, culminating in the New Year, helps us think more deliberately about our lives–where we’ve come from, where we are, and where it is we at least hope to pursue (if not reach–like twenty-five pounds lighter). Indeed, plans for the future are borne out of realizing our past and present. For our lives are never in equilibrium and we never attain, at least not permanently, the state of being we desire, wherein we can say, “I am perfectly fulfilled and contented. My life is as it ought to be.” In reflecting upon the past and present, or by merely living in an imperfect state, our hearts are at tension, propelling us onward. We yearn for perfection, or at least greater proximity to it, in our imperfection. This is as it should be.
Life is change. It is in essence giving up what we’ve known to know that which is greater. At least it is hoped that what comes next will be greater–a step forward on the path, up the hill, in pursuance of the resting place, the summit. Or perhaps the desire is actually to feel like one is getting better. In other words, perhaps the desire is to feel good and is not to actually get better in any real sense. I say this because in my experience the times during which we are agonized by problems and under great strain result in actual improvement and progress, and none of us really want to be agonized or stressed. Perhaps what we really want is not improvement but happiness, not goodness but comfort.
At this time of the year, when it is good to reflect on life–its blessings, absurdities, frustrations and joys–and where we are and where we’re headed, I’d like to offer an excerpt from one of my favorite poems, Ulysses by Tennyson. Familiar to many, this poem expresses in the most evocative terms the desire to press on, to seek, to know. When life blocks from our memories what this journey of life we’re on is all about, poetry helps reorient our minds on what really matters. This poem helps its readers who may be weary of life rediscover the drive to go on – to once again see and relish life.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.