|The Soul's Flight - Janmot|
In the last light of what had been a gray day, small buds, like tender promises, could be discerned on the tips of some branches, but most were still bare as they lifted their naked arms, as though in supplication, toward the blank slate of sky. I sat on a bench on the bike path, observing all this as day changed to dusk, for I had leisure for such a pastime. I had just retired. It would be more accurate to say I had just resigned, abruptly, impulsively, with a mix of anger, fear and exultation, but it was the exultation that filled me on that first evening of my new life.
For decades, I worked as a local news editor for a daily newspaper. Whenever I was introduced to someone, the question was asked: “What do you do for a living?” My answer allowed the questioner to gauge my probable wealth, social status, education and whether he was in a superior or inferior position to me in any of these respects. But it told him nothing about who I am. And the fact is that after years of identifying myself by my job, I had come frequently to forget who I am.
All of us who get tangled in the toils of Mammon tend to forget who we are. We do certain things, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, and we come to believe that what we do defines us. Only with difficulty and on certain occasions can we separate our form from our function and see ourselves truly: as divinely created souls with a supernatural destiny. God did not make actuarial agents or stock brokers or auto mechanics or computer programmers. He made men. The great cathedrals of commerce are not His dwelling place, nor did He design newsrooms or business offices or the thousand and one dreary enterprises that sap the energy and drain the joy from countless lives. These instruments of degradation are our creations; our self-inflicted modes of tedium and torture. But how can we escape? How long ought we to endure? Sometimes the situation can grow so dire that, at whatever worldly cost, we must summon the courage to walk away, or else risk forgetting the look of our own faces.
|Tower of Babel - Bruegel|
How many people do we see in these financially dolorous days who have spent a lifetime in some irksome occupation for the sake of building up their investment portfolios and IRAs and 401-Ks and real-estate holdings, only to see it all evaporate? With their money gone, their jobs gone, who are they now? Who do they see when they look in the mirror?
I am no longer a local news editor, nor was I ever one in the sense that such an occupation defined me. Now, when I tell someone I am retired, the next usual question in about what I used to do for a living, and the old persona is again fixed upon me. In the future, when asked what I do or used to do, I think I will answer: “Nothing important” or “Nothing worth talking about.” In this way my true face, however it may appear, will not be hidden behind the mask of my former profession.
I could, of course, simply answer the question about what I do by saying, “I am working out my salvation.” Such a response would doubtless obviate many tedious conversations. If the questioner persisted, I could then talk about matters of genuine interest to me and we might come to know one another, rare occurrence in most social intercourse. But the fact is, few people want to know who you are, or even who they are. It is much simpler and safer to keep life humming along on a superficial plane, or so it seems.
Amid the voluminous rhetorical twaddle of American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, there appears a line that has become famous because it resonates with an enduring truth: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Recall that desperation comes from despair, which is the loss of hope. Hope in what? In God. Men cannot be sustained by a hope that is not theological.
Thoreau recognized that there is implanted in the human soul by its Creator a desire for truth and beauty that makes the commercial and social round that circumscribes the lives of most men deeply unsatisfying. He sought his escape by turning to nature. Yet, he only lived in his cabin in the woods for two years: just long enough to gather material for his book. If what he wrote were true, if contemplating the flora and fauna of the forest were sufficient for the human spirit, he would not have returned to the town, nor would he have bothered to write his book. But nature is not sufficient for the human spirit. Man can no more be sustained by nature than by artificial distractions. Perhaps that is why devout environmentalists are always seeking new causes and usually appear so intensely unhappy. How can a Divinely created intellect rest content to expend its gifts on saving the piping plover or protecting the habitat of the gray tree frog?