Tuesday, July 27, 2010

This Will Pass Away

Late last night I was suddenly awakened by the howling of a tremendous thunderstorm. Violent cracks and peals of thunder, sharp flashes of lightning, and the heavy, steady beating of rain pounded and raged outside my window. Wide-eyed and wakeful, I watched the storm for some time, stumbling out of bed to peer out at the fierce wind and rain whipping about the trees and drowning the lawn. One after another, streaks of lightning filled the sky, accompanied by cannonades of thunder so loud I knew the lightning must have struck quite close to me.

A little shaken and more than a little weary after watching this spectacular display of nature's wild temper, I crawled back into bed and turned my face away from the window in hopes of getting a few hours sleep in spite of the war that was apparently raging outside.

This morning, I awoke to an immense stillness. Every tree, every leaf, every blade of grass was as perfectly still outside as if it had been part of a painting. The sky was a fresh, clear blue, punctuated by one or two wispy white clouds. The sun had just risen and was sending shoots of light all across the garden, setting the foliage a-fire as every drop of water hanging on the flowers caught the light and sparkled and glistened. But everything was absolutely silent and still. Even the birds were not awake and singing yet.

Such an incredible contrast, between the stormy wilderness of last night and the peaceful garden this morning, brought to my mind a poem I had read--oh, many years ago--by John G. Saxe. In this poem, a youth, full of hopes and dreams, approaches a wise old man and asks him what he should take as his motto in life.

"Give me a motto!" said a youth
To one whom years had rendered wise;
"Some pleasant thought or weighty truth,
That briefest syllables comprise....
And, reverend father," said the boy,
Since life they say, is ever made
A mingled web of grief and joy;
Since cares may come and pleasures fade--
Pray, let the motto have a range
Of meaning matching every change."

The old man ponders a moment, commenting that the lad has given him no easy task. Finally, he replies:
"What think you, lad, of this device
(Older than I--though I am gray),
'Tis simple-- 'This will pass away.' "

The old man explains that everything on this earth comes to an end. Good times may come, but they also will assuredly go. More importantly, however, even the bad times will pass away, too; when the boy meets with his darkest hour, it is not the end of all his hopes and dreams, warns the old man. "To grim Despair be not a prey," he cries.

"When skies are clear, expect the cloud;
In darkness, wait the coming light;
Whatever be thy fate today,
Remember, 'This will pass away.' "

This plain phrase struck me the first time I read it; and it has grown on me since. As simple and even quaint as the old man's motto is, it is proved true in veritably every stage of life--at least, I've found it so. Our youth, our friends, even our families change and pass away with time; everything earthly that is good is, alas, not eternal. And yet, the minute we must face the bleakest of outlooks, when we seem in the dark, when we can't see our way, then, as Zechariah said,
"In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and guide our feet into the way of peace."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Walking with Children

Several days ago I found myself braving the withering summer heat and humidity to take my 6-year-old niece and 4-year-old nephew for a walk. I'm not sure why I thought going for a walk in that sort of weather was a good idea; perhaps I felt I needed a little excitement in my day. The fact is, I've discovered that taking walks with little ones always ends up as something of an adventure. Children, you see, aren't as afflicted by the bored sort of familiarity with which all adults regard their normal, every day surroundings. Going on a walk is a sort of philosophical recreation, a stepping outside to get a look at the world; that, of course, also makes going on a walk the perfect time for children to demonstrate their own fresh way of looking at everything. I love to switch roles with them; to let them play the teacher to me, so they can tell me all about life and why things are the way they are.

Case in point: as we passed one of my neighbor's lawns, I pointed out to them an obvious object of interest: an electric-blue garden ball, perched on a stand next to a tree.

"What's that?" I asked them.

"It's a ball," they sagaciously replied.

"But what is it doing there?"

They pondered a minute. Said the six-year-old, "Maybe somebody lost it."

"But what is it? What's it for?"

"Maybe..." the four-year old said, thinking hard, "Maybe it's a bird--no, a bird bath! It's for the birds, it's a bird bath!"

While secretly I agreed that garden balls are "for the birds,", I merely said: "Hey, you're right, it is sitting in a bird bath. But what is the ball there for?"

"I think the ball is sticky, and it got stuck to the bird bath. That's why it's there."

"No, no, no!" Said the six-year-old, who happens to be a master at puzzles and "find the one that doesn't belong" games, "It doesn't belong there! It doesn't go next to a tree!"

This sparked an argument about whether the ball was stuck there or whether it was supposed to be there for the birds as a sort of nest or shelter. There are, however, a million more interesting things than garden balls on any walk, so the conversation soon moved on to clouds that looked like dinosaurs, bugs on the road, birds that flew by, etc.

When I go for a walk with children I can't help but feel as if, in their minds, we are on some epic journey: we deliberately leave our home only to come back to it again, braving mad perils and climbing mountains along the way. They spot a car four blocks down the road and announce firmly that we have to stay out of the way, as if it were a giant or a monster; they dash to the safety of the grass crying "Look out!" They point out squished frogs as evidence of the menace cars pose to all things on the road. They spot mysterious markings on the pavement, arrows meant to indicate water meters, and eagerly race forward to find the next ones as if they were a series of all-important clues in a treasure hunt. The blue plastic squares put on the roads by the firemen are also objects of interest and speculation. They point out tiny details and things too big for adults to see. When we near the end of our journey, they try to espy our house from afar like weary adventurers returning home. And--perhaps this is where they are most wise--when they do catch sight of home, they race toward it, without fearing that it is too hot or too far for running.

I've given this weekly column a rather pretentious-sounding title from King Lear, but really, that two-word title fits no one better than the little ones I know. With innocence and wonder, they view the world through the untarnished window of childhood; they see everything the way God made it. They puzzle out the secrets of the universe; they dare to ponder the very plans of Providence. They are more objective than any scientist; more reasonable than any rationalist. They are quicker to see absurdity than adults who have grown to accept absurdity as normal in society--like glass garden balls. And they are wiser for the wonder that pervades their view of life. They ask why, and how, and if things are always that way. They take upon themselves the mystery of things, as if they were God's spies.

Friday, July 9, 2010


During the summer, I tend to indulge to the fullest my whimsical literary appetite by reading as much of whatever I like whenever I like. Freed from the structured discipline of assigned reading for school, I relish picking up my favorite old tales and perusing them once again, or finding some delightful novel I've not yet read. For instance, this particular summer I've had the thrill of revisiting the cheerfully absurd A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Sherlock Holmes canon. Other favorites for relaxing reading are the All Creatures Great and Small series, or the short stories of P.G. Wodehouse. Honestly, I'm a pushover for a solid adventure or a good mystery.

However, I can't say this indulgent method of reading--if one could call it a method---is a practice I especially recommend, because it can often lead to a frightful by-product of reading only for pleasure: escapism.

Now, before I get blasted (though who would do the blasting, I haven't the faintest idea) for discouraging reading, I'd best clarify what I mean by escapism. Almost everyone has something of the escapist in him; if we didn't, both popular and classic novels would be non-existent and everyone would have merely shrugged and turned away when talkies were invented. Everyone loves a good story, whether it be a laughable one or a genuine tragedy; there is a momentous power in fiction, the power to move us or call us to contemplate some ponderous truth about God or men or society or the whole vast cosmos. And of course, fiction also bears the power of drawing us away from our own day-to-day world into an imaginary one that is exciting, fantastic, soul-stirring---and that is where escapism comes into play. By escapism I don't merely mean withdrawing into an imaginary world as an "escape" from responsibilities or personal problems; after all, it is good to take breaks from our difficulties, to get a little physical or mental relaxation, so that we can return to our duties with a fresher mind and spirit. Where escapism becomes most dangerous is when the imagination becomes alluring for its own sake; when it becomes not merely a break from reality, but a serious distraction from it; when an imaginary world becomes entirely more desirable to us than the real one.

I realized this quite suddenly today when I caught myself seriously wondering whether it would be better for me to step outside to enjoy the garden, or curl up with my battered old Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. II., and follow my dear Dr. Watson and his eccentric friend through one of their now-familiar mysterious adventures. I saw the flowers peeping at me from the other side of the window, shining in the sunlight, and I realized that there shouldn't have been any contest. How could I dare to pick my favorite imaginary world, narrow and two-dimensional because it exists only in my mind, over the glorious reality all around me? Even if I were in the most desperate straits--which, thank God, I am not--I ought to be able to recognize that this life, this REAL, living, breathing world, is too monumental a gift to actually compare with an imaginary one. I love my imaginary worlds; but they are only, at best, a quaint imitation of God's creation. It reminded me of a Chesterton quote: "Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction; for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it." It must also be true, then, that as genuinely good as our fictitious worlds may be, every aspect of the real world is better if only for the simple fact that it is real.

There is a great, grand world outside; and with all its dark sides and rough edges, it is inherently good. God gave it to us as a gift to be cherished, not ignored. So, Sherlock Holmes went back on the bookshelf, and he will stay there the rest of the summer. I've read those tales before, but today comes only once, and I intend to thoroughly enjoy it.