The Shape of Our Lives

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Down in the Roman Forum there was erected in 29 B.C. the milliarium aureum, the golden milepost, on which were recorded (they say) the distances from the gates of Rome to all the imperial stations on the main roads.

 

I can imagine our shared past as a sort of golden milepost. It stands there at the beginning, with our lives radiating outward.

 

In memory, at least, we can travel back to our common starting point, to a time when our lives were inseparably entangled in welcome and rewarding ways. But it is also true that now, the farther we travel along these individual roads of ours, the farther apart we find ourselves.

 

The fact is that, if we are honest, we know less about each other’s current lives than we do about the lives of our neighbors, our co-workers, our Facebook friends.

 

There is no question of fault or blame. After so many years of travel, we have reached various far-flung stations. Between us lie many an adventure: crossing craggy mountains, fording wild rivers, creeping through dark forests. Communication across the vast expanse of everything-that-has-happened–to-us-since is difficult if not impossible.

 

When we are thrown together — for a funeral, say, or a chance encounter in a strange city — we sense that distance and struggle to bridge it, but it’s a lost cause. Still, it is very, very good to be together when we can, isn’t it? To hear familiar voices. To see and ponder what seems unchanged. To see and ponder what seems new. That last bit, continuity and change, is mostly what this is about. 

 

* * * * *

 

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is supposed to have said that it is impossible to step into the same river twice. Everything is always in flux. The only thing that does not change is change itself, which gives rise to a kind of paradox: “Out of all things comes a unity, and out of a unity all things.” Wisdom, in his view, comes from understanding that stability can be the product of change, that every pair of opposites is both a plurality and a unity, that the world is a complex whole.

 

Not so, said Parmenides, who came along just a bit later. Creation and change are obviously impossible. After all, nothing comes from nothing. We mortals, fallible beings that we are, may perceive that there is change, but it is all mere illusion. There exists a transcendent reality, “uncreated and imperishable … whole and of a single kind and unshaken and perfect.”

 

Some of us would like to believe, with Parmenides, in an unchanging reality. Others are sure that Heraclitus had it right: change is real and change is good, because it makes the world go round. But even if you agree with Heraclitus in principle, accepting the inevitability of change can be very hard. We all have vivid memories of various unhappy departures in our lives, mingled with tears, and in dreams, we may sometimes find ourselves in a bewildering land, some hellscape from which we want to return home but are uncertain of the way.

 

* * * * *

 

Is character destiny, as the Greek philosopher says? Or does the Roman poet have it right: his beleaguered hero is (despite his unimpeachable character) “exiled by fate” from home, love, and peace. Character, in other words, has nothing much to do with it. It can’t give Troy back to you.

 

There is resonance here for me, a strong interest in the tension that exists between what we would like to do and what we are permitted (by fate, genetics, God, circumstances, ourselves, et al.) or able to do. I suppose that what I am trying to tell you is that I have long felt much greater sympathy for the views of the Roman poet than those of the Greek philosopher.

 

Like him, I have had a fundamentally tragic view of the universe; I have tended to mourn loss where others celebrate progress; I regularly assume that the gap between what I intend to do and what ensues from my doings will be deep and wide. I have suspected that whatever character is (its own reward?), it is certainly not destiny.

 

This is a radically un-American and very old-fashioned view of things, conservative in the original sense of the word. For such a person – a person who cannot be reassured by the belief that he is master of his little corner of the world – the thing to do is to hold tight to what he cherishes, until it is wrenched from his grasp.

 

And why not? One of the things that I have always valued is a belief in the exceptionalism of our shared childhood in that hometown of ours. We were unusual, I have liked to think: more closely knit, more generous and charitable towards each other, more affectionate in whatever ways children can show that.

 

This may be a naive belief – or take your pick: mistaken, foolish, arrogant, damaging – but it is one that I would not willingly surrender. For one thing, I resent change, as you now know, and I have been living for a long time with this view of our childhood together. For another, when I take stock of my good qualities, weighing them against the bad, I can see that they are connected in meaningful ways to the way I grew up.

 

* * * * *

 

The Georgia Review published a wonderful essay many years ago, titled “How to Die,” by Richard Watson. That sounds awfully morbid, but I don’t think you will find it so, if you can locate it. I think that it was reprinted as the the final chapter in one of his books, titled The Philospher’s Diet: How to Lose Weight and Change the World (1985, 1998).  In it, Watson writes:

 

“If you would like to do one difficult thing in your life that requires total commitment — something that, if accomplished, would fill you with joy and satisfaction for the rest of your life at the thought of having done it — then the content matters, but it is the form that carries you through.

 

“It is the form that counts …

 

“[So] write your book before you die.

 

“To write is to die a little. But it is a good way to go. It is like having children. You created them, but once they go on their own way there is nothing much you can do about it. But sometimes it is nice to think that they will still be yapping away, after you yourself have gone.

 

“Write your book before you die. You will get great satisfaction from it.

 

“That’s the form of the thing. The content is any serious expression of self that does not harm others. It takes some dedication, some commitment. It is taking control of some part of your life to shape it as you will …

 

“Render out some of that fat. Get down to the muscle. Bare yourself to the rising wind. I have said before and I will say again that it really does not matter much to the rest of us what you do, so long as you don’t hurt anyone. But if you do something you will be proud of later on, it will matter to you.

 

“Take hold and fight.”

 

That is helpful to me. Maybe I have been wrong about character. However much the content of our lives has changed over the years, and will change in the years that remain, maybe it’s also true that the form, i.e., the character, of our lives has remained (more or less) the same. And the form of our lives is something we created together: on those aimless summer afternoons when we dreamed of being anywhere else in the world, in fierce pickup games that ended in skinned knees and hurt feelings, on trips to nowhere that felt like epic journeys, in idle moments when we laughed and laughed, at moments when we fought for each other.

 

Without even realizing it, we were working on how we would be in our lives, not what we would be. We were molding the form, to be filled later with content. That form, that commitment to living a life as fully as we could manage, continues unaltered, even as each of us has traveled alone down his own road, Rome dwindling in the distance, terra incognita just over the horizon.

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