- Life is not a journey to the grave with the intentions of arriving safely in a pretty, well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming . . . Wow! What a ride. [variously attributed]
- To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom. [Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience“]
- The longest journey is the journey inward. [Dag Hammarskjöld]
- The journey is the reward. [Chinese proverb]
- Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. [attributed to Helen Keller]
We can choose how to look at life, to a point. One way is to see life as a journey. We first recall being on this road at a young age, with no idea how we got here. Decades later, we may still be asking that question. However, sometimes – most of the time – the better strategy is just to take the ride, as opposed to trying to figure out how we got here. Give any answer you like, if you’re in New Jersey, then you’re in New Jersey.
This does not mean that we should take the ride passively. I could leave Jersey by choice. Sometimes we may take the wheel or get under the hood to repair the engine; other times, in some ways, we may let others drive. Sometimes others will drive whether we give consent or not. Whatever happens, we can choose – to a point, depending on our circumstances – how to respond to life as it unfolds. We can plan, take action and shape our lives and the lives of others. We can choose. That is the essence of ethics and morality, all debates about whether we truly have free will aside.
Who are we? How did we get here? Why are we here? Where are we going? These questions are far beyond us to answer, so let us take another approach:
Who are we? How did we get here (a legitimate question that we need not necessarily answer)? What can we make out of it? What will our journey, and the journey of others be like? What will be the quality of our lives? How shall we act in relation to others, and within ourselves? Can we humans sustain the lives that we have in large measure created? How can we shape the world, and will we have the wisdom, compassion and courage to do it? Will we live truly on a foundation of Love for all of humanity, extending into the future for as far as we can see; or for that matter for the Love of all living beings? Perhaps these are life’s greatest and most meaningful questions. The more conventional questions are interesting but we cannot answer them in any meaningful way; we can only guess. The focus of this model is on what we can do, in keeping with Reinhold Niebuhr’s brilliant prayer, paraphrased as: live with the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. It is all founded on a core commitment to honoring the intrinsic worth of all people, and eliciting the best in them, thereby enhancing dignity and nurturing its expressions, both in others and in self. We can make this the essence of our journey.
If you can think of life an extended invitation to a dance, then you are poised for a life in the spirit.
This week on our liturgical calendar is about an attitude, an approach to and a way of seeing life. Having just explored the idea of choice and personal freedom, the natural next step is to decide what kinds of choices we will make. We Humanists recognize that in the main life is dynamic, not static. We seek to open ourselves to its possibilities as fully as we can.
Today we focus on seeing life as a journey. Most of our narratives could be placed under this heading but because we are setting a tone for what is to come, this theme is best expressed through art, music and literature.
- Homer's The Odyssey is perhaps the quintessential literary work on life as a journey. The protagonist is challenged continuously, and even after a lifetime of challenges he cannot return home until he returns, metaphorically, to his core. Humanists probably will recognize that the narrative is told through lens of the barbarism that prevailed when it was written.
- Amber Dermont, The Starboard Sea: A Novel (St. Martin’s Press, 2012): a waterborne trip as a metaphor for personal journey.
- Chaim Soutine, Two Children on a Road (c. 1942)
- Wassily Kankinsky, Fugue (1914)
- Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Childhood (1842)
- Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Youth (1842)
- Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Manhood (1842)
- Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Old Age (1842)
- Joseph Mallord William Turner, Die Teufelsbrücke St. Gotthard (1803-04)
- David Hockney, Garrowby Hill (1998)
Music: songs and other short pieces
- The Beatles, The Long and Winding Road
Film and Stage
- La Strada (The Road): a study in wildly contrasting characters all making their way through life. “Like life itself, it is seemingly aimless, disjointed on occasion and full of truth and poetry. Like the principals, it wanders along a sad and sometimes comic path while accentuating man's loneliness and need for love.”
- Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. The final film of the trilogy contains practically every emotion and most of our values, so it defies categorization under a single value. The theme becomes clear only when Frodo, having returned home after a epic-fantastic journey, must leave: ''You can't go back. Some wounds don't heal.'' And some journeys leave you so changed that returning home is impossible.
- The Long Voyage Home, telling “the never-ending story of man's wanderings over the waters of the world in search of peace for his soul”
- The Thief of Bagdad: a fantasy presenting life as an adventure
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Two works that we could place within the idiom of classical music, broadly defined, present the idea of life as a journey.
- The more accessible is Rimsky-Korsakov’s familiar Scheherazade, Op. 35. The title is the name of a mythical woman who became one in a series of brides of an ego-driven and immoral sultan who vowed to marry a new wife each day and have her executed the next morning. The resourceful Scheherezade ends the legalized serial killing by telling the sultan one fascinating tale after another. These are the stories Rimsky-Korsakov set to music in this symphonic suite. More interesting than the underlying story are the tales themselves: The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship; The Kalendar Prince; The Young Prince and the Young Princess; Festival at Baghdad: The Sea. Here are links to performances conducted by Bernstein, Svetlanov, Immerseel and Gergiev; and a ballet version.
- Wagner’s is the second in the composer’s epic Ring cycle. The entire cycle can be seen as an extended tale of life as a journey but Mehta, Janowski and Karajan.in particular emphasizes Siefgried’s undertaking of that journey, making the opera suitable as an expression of this early-in-the-year subject. Here are links to performances conducted by
- Henze, Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen (6 Songs from the Arabian) (1998), are songs about life and its many vagaries.
- Gál, 24 Piano Fugues, Op. 108 (1980)
- Flagello, Odyssey (1981)
- Baksa, Journeys (2005)
- Barber, Excursions, Op. 20, H108 (1944)
- Bax, Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1918)
- Bloch, Symphony in C-Sharp Minor (1902)
- Bloch, Poems of the Sea
- Widor, Chansons de Mer (Songs of the Sea), Op. 75 (1902)
Albums from others idioms:
- Wynton Marsalis, “Big Train”
- David & Steve Gordon, “Sacred Earth Drums” (a Shaman’s journey)
- Moody Blues, “Seventh Sojourn”
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me, /
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, / Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, /
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, / Strong and content I travel the open road.
Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens,
Asia, Africa, Europe, are to the east—America is provided for in the west,
Banding the bulge of the earth winds the hot equator,
Curiously north and south turn the axis-ends,
Within me is the longest day, the sun wheels in slanting rings, it does not set for months,
Stretch'd in due time within me the midnight sun just rises above the horizon and sinks again,
Within me zones, seas, cataracts, forests, volcanoes, groups,
Malaysia, Polynesia, and the great West Indian islands.