The Finite Experience of Infinite Life
O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small. -Prayer of the Breton Fishermen
For a year I lived in Southern California, in a suburb of Los Angeles. Like all cities of its size, Los Angeles suggests the idea of bustling life. In every populous city there is an exuberance of energy and activity: a constant clamor, a continual rushing about, a customary sense of urgency that leaves the small town visitor feeling dazed and overwhelmed, but which the city dweller breathes as his air and element.
In Los Angeles, the freeway is the symbol of incessant motion, and so the symbol of life. Ships come to port in harbors; airplanes, after long flights, park at gates; trains stop at stations. But on the freeway there are neither stoplights, yield signs, nor crosswalks at which to pause, only furious and never-ceasing movement. The freeway, in its very conception, is so disdainful of stasis that it will only let enter its flow those already in motion: thus it does not offer turning lanes or intersections, only entrance ramps on which the aspiring driver must build enough speed to become worthy of its lanes. The freeway is a call to the open road; and in Los Angeles, where every hour is rush hour, it offers the chance to join a million others, whose common bond is a need to go. The only time traffic stops on the L.A. freeways is when there is too much of it. Los Angeles is known for having the worst congestion and the longest commutes in the country. Yet even this is a testament to the unrelenting life and energy of this city, that only its own excess of motion can bring that motion to a standstill.
Many a Saturday during that year of our residence, my wife and I would load our car and take to the freeways, whose sprawling network placed a few hundred cities, the vast Mojave Desert, several mountain ranges, and the mighty Pacific all in an hour's reach. We traveled throughout the area, seeing as much as we could, though only a fraction of what was there: downtown skylines and entertainment districts; train stations and ship harbors; farmers' markets and world bazaars; public parks and botanic gardens; mountaintop villages and lakeside resorts; commonplace lodgings and luxury estates; towns in the desert and cities by the sea. There was almost no place we visited for which I did not conceive at least some small desire to move there. It was never as though I judged that this new setting would suit me better but simply that everywhere I went I saw life, and life attracted me. Driving through the streets of an unfamiliar city, with cars zipping by and taxis taking people places; residents out walking their dogs, merchants setting out their wares, and businessmen hurrying down the sidewalks; couples sitting on verandas, friends chatting in cafes, and surfers heading for the beach; people working in their yards, or on the roads, or on their romances, with the sun going round overhead—all in a place I had never been before—I would think to myself: how is it that life has been going on here all this while, and I not a part of it? Can it be that I shall live only in my own little corner of the world, far from here, and not walk daily down these streets or at evenings retire to those fine homes on the hillside? Know merely my own neighbors, and not learn the names of these people and listen to their stories? Life was happening in that place, and it seemed a shame that I should miss out on it. Though an actual move would have been impossible, I could not help daydreaming about it, not merely playfully but with real hope, for our imagination runs ahead of our reason.
But the drive home on the freeways was invariably enough to curtail my thoughts of moving. On the freeways, which cut their way through an unending progression of cities, my attention was turned from the single place where I had been, to the innumerable places where I might go. In the first city I had seen the streets pulsing with life, but back on the freeways I saw the whole region pulsing with cities, each as rich as the one I had just left. What good would it do to move, when there would still be a thousand places where I was not? It was not life in one or another town that drew me, but life itself, in whatever town. How could I be content then to settle in any town? If my visit to a new place had revealed to me a new life, the drive home revealed a glimpse of far more life than could be joined, thereby stifling hopes, for even imagination cannot picture living everywhere.
I remember once flying into Los Angeles from the East Coast at night. During the day, one sees only the physical features of the land; at night, one sees only the lights of civilization. Flying high above, the sight of cities gives an impression of the human struggle for survival against the harsh inhospitality of nature. We do not space ourselves evenly across the land, but huddle together in little clusters. From the sky our city lights look like the campfires we gather around for safety and warmth, against the cold and dark of nature's night.
The lights of towns and cities were sparse for much of that cross-country trip, as we flew above the Midwest, over the Rocky Mountains, down through northern Arizona, and across the border into the California desert, almost pitch black below. All of a sudden, as we came over the crest of the San Bernardino Mountains, I saw spread out below a breathtaking panoply of urban lights, vast and brilliant, stretching some eighty miles to the Pacific Coast—the Greater Los Angeles metropolis. What a difference from those rickety outposts scattered across the Plains! Here was no mere embattled tribe clinging hard to existence, but a great and glorious empire. Here was a city awake while nature slept, burning its billion candles through the night, as if impatient of the dark. So vast and tremendous a sight filled me with a vague longing to experience in full the richness laid out before me. I wanted to grasp it with my whole being. But what could I do through that narrow airplane window but look with hungry eyes? Never before had all Los Angeles been contained in my field of vision, but the price of seeing so much of it at once was to see it from afar. From the ground it had been too large to take hold of in full; from the sky it was too distant. A city of such size is like a vast and intricate painting: if we step close to examine its details, we lose our view of the whole; if we step back to consider the whole, we cannot make out the details. Our powers of experience are not great enough for so great an object.
It was not only my encounters with the city that impressed me with a sense of life's immensity, but even more my adventures beyond the city. The state of California seemed an infinite gallery displaying the works of civilization as well as the wonders of nature. For all the glories of the former, it is invariably the latter that take first of show. Nature builds bigger and more beautifully than mortal architects. In the city I had seen great monuments, carved by human hands; but beyond the city, I saw where the hand of nature, with violent force, was carving the very continent and raising up new mountains from the sea. In downtowns, I had looked admiringly upon towering skyscrapers, but how could any city skyline rival the spires of the Sierra? The sheer diversity of nature was dazzling. There were cold foggy shorelines, breezy blooming meadows, and dusty dunes of scorching sand; there were ambling streams, quiet lakes, and roaring falls tumbling down granite domes; there were mountains in the deserts, mountains by the ocean, and mountains in the ocean; there were groves of the world's oldest trees, canyons carved by glaciers, and craters blown out by volcanoes—places of gentle beauty and places of thunderous splendor. My wife and I felt something like a moral obligation to see everything we possibly could. Fortune had laid great riches within our reach, and we were vowed not to squander our opportunity. We ate our meals in the car and napped while the other drove, in order to squeeze more touring into our trips. There might have been occasions when, worn and weary, it was difficult to keep going, but with such an abundant land spread out before us, it would have been impossible to stop.
From time immemorial our human race has been called a race of wanderers and wayfarers, a restless people forever setting forth in pursuit of a better life. But as my wife and I rushed frantically around California that year, I sometimes felt that life, far from not being good enough, was on the contrary too good, on a scale we cannot experience except by endless roaming. This whole wide earth is a great Diaspora of beauty, and there is no way to see that beauty unless we travel to it. To stand still is to miss out on life. The reason of my discontent was not that I never found a place worth staying, but that I always saw another place worth going.
I could never envy people who are happy to stay at home their entire lives. We are born provincial; and until we learn better, our own little town seems to us the whole world. The greater world cannot draw and entice those who have no inkling of its greatness. For the expansive mind, traveling is an attempt to experience the entire world. But as rapidly as my car carried me to new places, it carried me away from old ones. I admired each and was loath to surrender any. Traveling made of me a tourist and temporary visitor, and so I always felt at a loss. The more I traveled, the more I wanted something no amount of traveling could give: to see the world not merely in stages but in its total and miscellaneous spectrum. Traveling had added to my finite experiences of the world, but the world is infinite, and I wanted to experience it infinitely—to discover a universal habitation. I wanted, perhaps, to make the world smaller, to condense its vast and sprawling beauty into one precious jewel. I wanted to hold the whole world in my hands like a globe, its shrunken semblance, to circumnavigate the planet with my fingers and sail the seven seas in the same hour.
Such a sublime vision of life was no part of our humble birthright. In the old creation accounts, it was said that the Creator, having made the earth and filled it with richness and beauty, gave it to humankind, the last of his creations, to enjoy. But the world seems to have been made more for desire, for by what means can so small a creature as man enjoy so great a thing as the world?
To the creation stories of old, the science of today has added its own narrative, recounting the origin of our species from forms far older and humbler and demonstrating the depth of our interconnection with all that lives and moves upon the earth. We have learned that the strange creatures that share our planet are not only our brothers and sisters, as the poets and mystics have long known, but our earliest parents as well. We have learned not to think of ourselves as created apart but as an outgrowth and offspring of the world, having emerged from within it. These hills around us, the trees and their birds, the rocks and the woods and the streams meandering through them—all the fine sights that stir our love—are the very source from which we came. This fair earth, now the object of our desire, was first the origin of our being. The scientists also say that our planet was born in turn from the primordial pulsations of the stars. Our delicate and intricate bodies, accordingly, are the blown-off dust of ancient suns. The heavens above us are in us, but we are far from them and cannot reach up to their beauty. We are a scrap of life, cut from the infinite fabric of the universe; a few of the world's atoms in love with all the others; a drop in the ocean, enamored of the sea.
I can vividly remember the sense of expectation I felt when, as a college student, I first set myself to the serious pursuit of knowledge. I read with a feverish enthusiasm, revering each new author I studied and rejoicing in the humblest insights. If I grew discouraged by the slow pace of my progress, I would tell myself that even small steps over time would get me to my distant destination. Of that destination I had no definite concept but imagined it vaguely as a kind of summit of accumulated knowledge, the reward for which was to look out across a panoramic vista of life. "Man desires to know something whole and perfect," said St. Thomas Aquinas, in a dictum that conveyed my aspiration. Impossible though I knew it was to master everything there was to learn, I supposed that the sum of my enlightenments would culminate eventually in a grand illumination.
I can remember the excitement I felt at the prospect of such an illumination and the subsequent disappointment of realizing it was but an idle dream, due to the limitations of memory and the narrow scope of consciousness. We may draw deeply from the well of human wisdom, but we draw with a leaky bucket. Time is both an aid and an obstacle to our knowledge, providing the opportunity to learn and the possibility to forget.
But even a perfect memory would not satisfy me so long as I possessed an imperfect consciousness. It is the nature of consciousness to deal with one thought at a time. One may think a multitude of thoughts only by moving among them in sequence. We cannot be in a hundred places at once, no more in thought than in space. To think upon the conclusion of an argument we must cease to think upon its premise. We may accumulate great stores of knowledge, but we never grasp that knowledge in its totality. Our knowing is always incomplete, not merely because we cannot master all that we could know, but because we cannot even master all that we do know.
The mind being imperfect cannot satisfy the desire for whole and perfect knowledge, a desire to comprehend the world as in a vision. Such manner of knowing had been my aspiration long before I could articulate it and, in so doing, realize its futility. It was never enough to read and fill my mind with rich thoughts, to call upon at my pleasure, for I wished to summon them all at once in a moment of supreme consciousness.
The impulse of philosophers to construct philosophical systems stems from this desire for unification of thought. It is a source of frustration to the thinker that he cannot control the chaos, letting go unwittingly one thought each time he grasps another. To write a book is the nearest approximation of mastery that can be achieved, with ideas arranged in some rational order and fixed together for all time. In the physical object of the book, we achieve a semblance of command over the contents inside and feel ourselves in possession of that gathered knowledge. In this respect books may be regarded as symbols, not so much of intellectual achievement as of limitation. We write systematic treatises because we have fragmentary minds.
The inadequacy of our knowing is due to its temporality. We know only in part because we know only in time, grasping our present thought but not those of the past and future. Every aspect of our lives being temporal is partial and, being partial, can stir in us a yearning for wholeness. As the world is always in transit, we never possess it more than in passing. We wade in the stream of time and touch reality as it flows by, each drop no sooner come than gone. We long for an eternal Now, a moment of absolute presence when the waters might converge and we might taste all of life. But reality, like secret gold, lies mostly buried in the past or sealed in the womb of the future; and of its infinite sum, we hold but an infinitesimal share.
It is true that the future is not forever locked up, for it comes rushing out into the present as the present recedes into the past. We observe this pattern yearly in the changing of the seasons as the ephemeral beauty of one withers into the beauty of the next. Joys of the future will relegate others to the past as today is lost in tomorrow. And the wisdom of old age will supersede the passion of our youth. Life is immeasurably rich, but it gives only as it takes away.
Yet even the giving has a limit when the beneficiaries, being mortal, cease to receive. As the span of our lives measured against unending time is exceedingly brief, we are fated to miss out on the unwritten episodes of the future. Benjamin Franklin, in a letter, once expressed regret at having been born so early in the progress of modern science; for having no higher pleasure in life than to learn of a new discovery or a clever invention, he was pained to think of untold advances certain to follow in future centuries, of which he would have no knowledge. Life goes on, but we do not. Only the outward trappings of our existence will endure: the places we lived, the sights we knew, the works we accomplished, the things we possessed. And just as a mollusk shell once vacated may be taken over by a hermit crab, the external forms of our lives will be filled by others after we are gone. The place we live, a hundred years hence, will perhaps be little changed, and yet there will not be a single familiar face. As if from a page of science fiction, this customary planet will play host to an alien people with not so much as a moment's remembrance for us. The men who will rule the world then, declaring wars and deciding the direction of our race, are not yet even in the world. The stage will be the same and the script similar, but all the actors will be different. How little will have changed in a hundred years, and how much!
It is not only our portion in life to be ushered from the world-scene early, we also arrived late to find the world had already been turning for a veritable eternity. More painful by far than reveries of the uncharted future is the thought of the shut and sealed annals of the past. Nostalgia is the longing to break the seal and reopen the book, a longing stirred not only by the thought of ancient worlds we never knew but even more by the memory of our own past—of our youth in old age, of joy in the season of sorrow, of things loved and lost. It was the longing of Wordsworth in the Lucy poems, of Tennyson in In Memoriam, and of A. E. Housman in many of the poems of A Shropshire Lad:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Although there is almost no one who has not sometimes felt these longings, nostalgia has frequently been accused of misapprehending its object and, rather than the real past, loving merely a pleasing phantasm of it, conjured by imagination. According to many a critic, it is dissatisfaction over the present that prompts nostalgia, rather than any perceived excellence of the past. But while the imperfection of the present is very real, the perfection of the past is a fantasy.
A critique of nostalgia would be well in order, if nostalgia were simply a desire to go back in time to a supposed golden age. But I discern in the longing for the past something different, not so much a preference for antiquity as a further instance of the general longing for plenitude. I suspect there are very few of us who, were it in our power, would actually return to those vanished eras and the hardships of an earlier age. We love the past not with foolish idealism but simply as a portion of the drama of life, none the less dear for its imperfections. Fullness of being is not to be found in a simple return to an earlier era but rather in the incorporation of all times into one.
As it is, we possess the past only inadequately through memory and imagination and such things as photographs, ruins and relics. Memory is the mind's cabinet, in which it stores the files and records of past experience. It has, admittedly, a capacity far greater than the eye's, for the eye receives of the moment while the memory is a treasury of years, albeit faded by time. "In the great hall of my memory," boasted St. Augustine, "heaven and earth stand ready for me to perceive." But how dim is that heaven, and how insubstantial that earth! What is the memory of happy times compared to the enjoyment of them? We try to take hold, through remembrance, of what we have loved and lost, but our memories are ghosts and shadows, too subtle to touch. To remember the past is a thin compensation for being without it.
We can possess the past in a more vivid way through the faculty of imagination. Whereas memory brings the past to us, the imagination plants us in that lost world. A book from or about the past can transport us to another era; and that world, though it exists in our mind, takes on its own reality. A vivid imagination is the closest we come to a time machine; but it works only by taking us away from the present. In the whimsical mind of Cervantes' Don Quixote, the old medieval world of knights and chivalry flashed into life again, but only by crowding out the new world of his own modern Spain. In the market of the imagination, the past is indeed for purchase, but only to those who are willing to pay with the present.
Perhaps our most exciting possession of the past comes through photography. With the invention of the photograph came the thrilling prospect of freezing moments in time and preserving them on paper. Fearful of losing anything, we take pictures of almost everything and are often so intent on preserving the moment in a future image that we fail to enjoy its present reality. We fill attics with boxes of old photographs, the running inventory of our lives. But how much is gained from this cult of photography? The purpose of taking pictures is to have them for viewing later. Yet life demands of us that we constantly keep living it; and in our continual headlong fall into the future, there is scarcely an hour's pause to revisit the past, painstakingly preserved as it may be.
We possess the past, finally, through the relics and ruins which survive from years gone by. But these artifacts leave us unsatisfied, too. They are dead symbols of the past rather than its living bearers. To look upon the ruins and relics of our ancestors does not so much resurrect their world as call to mind its irremediable loss. If I see a bust of Caesar or stand in the silent ruins of his once clamorous palace, I reflect not on the greatness of his empire but on the greater empire of Time, which Rome and all her legions could not withstand. In the fall of mighty Rome, I read a parable of our common lot and consider how all that is now standing and that I hold dear must come to a similar reckoning.
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
-Shakespeare, Sonnet LXIV
Time's employment is to erode, and we who watch it sweep away the world must shortly be swept away ourselves. There is no stay against the rush of time. Life is infinite and immeasurable, but we were born to a mortal lot, the inheritors of limits, and have nothing immeasurable of our own with which to grasp it, nothing infinite, except for infinite longing.