Let me launch forth and sail
over the rim of the sea yonder,
and when another rim arises, over that,
and again onwards into an ever-widening ocean
of idea and life — Richard Jefferies
The old explorers, breasting unknown seas in their frail ships, had one unfailing friend and familiar, and that was the limitless horizon. It was never the same; it was always the same. It beckoned. They never knew what was on the other side. But it was always there, encircling them, even if it was the embrace of the Infinite. These old mariners were wise as well as ignorant. It was common knowledge with them that when a vessel hove in sight out of the blue distance it was the tops of the masts that first appeared, because the rest of the ship was hidden by the curvature of the earth. It is quite probable that there were others besides Columbus who deduced from this that the earth was round like a ball. Or they may not all have gone so far; still, they could not help being aware of curvature, implying a dimly-sensed never-endingness — in other words, an eternity of untried opportunity.
In the same way, we of the modern world have our horizon, and our promise of the infinite and the untried. We also are wise, and at the same time ignorant. Balanced between past and future, we hold only the present in our hand, conscious that there are broad uncharted oceans towards which we are bearing, but uncertain how to plot our course. But at least we are on the move. If, a few generations ago, we were content to remain in the snug harbor of complacency, in a seeming completeness of material things, we have long since felt the urge to embark upon the high seas once again. The material adventure that has given us skill with atoms and the jet plane has suddenly become merely the symbol of a spiritual adventure that fills us with a wild surmise as potent as that of the old explorer upon the peak of Darien.
As I write, the small town where I live is placarded with the query, "Where is this World Heading?" — the title of some lecture that is to be given by a religious group. This can be taken as typical of the underlying question that is a part of human consciousness today. But underneath our questioning there is an instinctive knowledge that all is well at the heart of things, and that our hand on the wheel will be guided if we keep alert to the directions of the pilot. That is where we are wise; our ignorance is in not yet knowing to what port we are bound.
The tempo of the age is swift, and we know now that we must move along with it or be lost. But because of this swift tempo, we are all the more aware that movement and growth are the intention of the gods for us. This forward movement has two aspects: as it affects humanity in general, and as it manifests in the individual life. But the aggregate is only the resultant of the multitude of individuals. There are any number of signs that people have an instinctive recognition of this law of growth, and many have rules of life to conform to it. "I try each day to do one thing that is outside of my general routine," wrote a friend — quite unconscious that she was voicing wisdom, yet there was the creative secret wedded to simple common sense. Back in October, 1952, the radio program, "Invitation to Learning" was given over to a discussion of Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, and the remark was made that most of Dickens's characters "do not grow." Whether we agree or not with that opinion, the remark was significant as showing that the modern attitude takes for granted the essential need for growth.
So vastly changed is the temper as well as the tempo of our age in the last few decades, that in general it is not necessary to remind people how futile it is to regret the past. The present and the future have become so compelling that the past as such is more than ever outmoded insofar as it was more restricted, more complacent, more myopic, than the present. It remains true, however, that each individual, in his secret heart, is preoccupied with the effort to shape himself to meet ever new and unknown conditions and demands.
We have among us still the traditionalists, and — a new word, probably from applied psychology — the "nostalgics," meaning persons who tend to look back with regretful longing to some situation or episode, interesting and brilliant in itself, perhaps, but now past and gone. Possibly it would be wiser to say that each man has within himself a "nostalgic," until he learns to re-orient his consciousness away from attachment to the past. This is the attitude to life comprised in the ancient adage: "The world is a bridge: pass over it, but build no house upon it," inscribed by the Emperor Akbar over the gate of the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri in India. The sequel was that, as if putting into action his own precept, Akbar later deserted his fabulously beautiful city, never to return.
Yet we cannot be utterly oblivious of the past, nor even of the fleeting present — the moment-by-moment death of the scene about us. Literature is full of reflections on this inevitable phenomenon. Many of these are tinged with longing and regret for "the dear dead days beyond recall." Others are broadly philosophic. Mary Webb, in her novel Gone to Earth, speaks of "the keening — wild and universal — of life for the perishing matter that it inhabits"; — a profound thought, for it brings us the sound and rhythm of the indwelling root-soul which touches earth's kingdoms and their myriad forms, gathers experience therein, and then moves on. On a different plane, but still highly philosophic, is Keats's allusion to
Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu . . .
True, but only to give place to other joys, greater ones — larger experiences altogether. This altered attitude to the swift passing of the familiar is already becoming habitual in the folk-mind, as implied in a simple remark heard recently over the radio:
Does each morning-glory only last one day?
Yes, it curls up, but another bud uncurls the next day.
If this idea could become a natural conviction with us all in our individual strivings, the pull of the past would give way to the lure of becoming, and we would indeed "sail with God the seas." There is, of course, a wise and balanced attitude which, while its eyes welcome the future with readiness and apprehend the present justly, still is not afraid to look upon the past with a dispassionate regard, for what there is of value in the lessons it contains and in the broad principles that have found expression in all ages.
Something of this can be found in the challenge of the Christmas broadcast of Queen Elizabeth, for while she invoked in her hearers "the strength to venture beyond the safeties of the past," she envisioned also "a new faith in the old and splendid beliefs given us by our fore-fathers," thus linking the old with the new, for the best in both is of the nature of the everlasting.
The old Egyptians called their gods Horizon-Dwellers. In this sublime image is preserved the thought that all things human are compassed round with divinity, and that greater beings wait for us as we forever approach them, rise upon rise, over the Rim of the Sea.
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