In addition to seeing life as an invitation, we can also see it as a journey. We make that journey by accepting the invitation to live fully. That invitation is naturally present.
- 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”
- Geraldine Mucha (composer), “Naše Cesta” (Our Journey)
- Franz Schubert (composer), “Der Wanderer”, “Ich komme vom Gebirge her” (The Wanderer), Op. 4, No. 1, D. 493 (1816) (lyrics)
- Franz Schubert (composer), “Pilgerweise” (Pilgrim’s Song), D. 789 (1823) (lyrics)
- Franz Joseph Haydn, “The Wanderer”, Hob. XXVIa:32 (lyrics)
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
Works presenting the idea of life as a journey:
- The most accessible is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s familiar , Op. 35 (1888) (approx. 43-53’). 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. “The composer's early life as a sailor informed his evocative music for Sinbad and other tales from the Arabian Nights.” He later explained: “All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other . . .” “. . . the Sultan is represented by trombones and tubas. The theme hints at what's known as a whole-tone scale, inspired by sounds of Eastern (Persian) music. Scheherazade is heard as a solo violin, weaving her tales that mesmerize the Sultan.” Top performances on disc are conducted by Stokowski in 1934, Goossens in 1952, Reiner in 1956, van Beinum in 1957, Beecham in 1958, Kondrashin in 1979, Gergiev in 2001, and Vasily Petrenko in 2020. Here are links to ballet versions from Astana Opera, and Ballets Russes.
- Maurice Ravel, Shéhérazade Overture (1898) (approx. 16-21'): “Shéhérazade evolved out of the composer’s intention to write an opera based on the Sinbad episode from the Arabian Nights. He never finished the opera, but he did complete its Overture . . .” “The poem is a travelogue, a highly spiced stew of Western stereotypes about the Fabled East.” Martinon in 1975, Abbado in 1989, and Trevino in 2022, have conducted the work.
- Giacomo Meyerbeer, L’Africaine (The African Woman) (1865) (approx. 155-214’) (libretto), is an opera depicting fictional events in the life of explorer Vasco da Gama, and a personal journey of sorts, by the composer and by his characters. “The original scenario of 1837 had been drawn from an unidentified German tale and from a play by Antoine Lemierre (1723-1793) (La Veuve de Malabar, 1770) treating the love of a Hindu maiden for a Portuguese navigator, a theme already used by Spohr in Jessonda (1823).” “In the second draft of 1852, the title became Vasco de Gama, the time moved back a century, the first two acts relocated in Lisbon, the Spanish naval officer became the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama; the third act was still set on board ship, but now the fourth and new fifth acts were set in India. The character of the former African queen was adjusted to this new environment.” Audio-recorded performances feature Veasey, Harper & Thomas (Wurmser); Alagna, Machaidze & Carico; and Domingo, Rinaldi & Carroli (Maag); a video-recorded performance features Domingo, Verrett & Swenson (Arena).
- Hans Werner Henze, Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen (6 Songs from the Arabian) (1998) (approx. 47’) (lyrics), are songs about life and its many vagaries. Henze “turned to writing the poems himself, creating a mythic landscape based on his own trips to the Kenyan island of Lamu. Some of the characters in the poems are based on real people.”
- Hans Gál, 24 Piano Fugues, Op. 108 (1980) (approx. 60-65’), a fugue being a piece of music that ventures away from the melody
- Nicolas Flagello, Odyssey (1981) (approx. 9’)
- Robert Baksa, Journeys (2005) (approx. 12’)
- Samuel Barber, Excursions, Op. 20, H108 (1944) (approx. 9-14’)
- Adolphe Adam, Le Corsaire (The Pirate), a ballet (1856) (approx. 96-130’) (synopsis): “Travel to a faraway land for the adventures of a dashing pirate, Conrad, and his feisty girlfriend Medora.”
- Jean Sibelius, Lemminkäinen Suite, or, Four Legends from the Kalavela, Op. 22 (1895) (approx. 46-58’) is a four-movement symphonic poem for orchestra, tracing the exploits of a hero, of sorts. Top performances are conducted by Ormandy in 1953, Segerstam in 1996, Beecham in 1937, Järvi in 1996 and Slobodeniuk in 2021.
- Carl Czerny, Romantic Fantasy No. 2 on Sir Walter Scott's "Guy Mannering", Op. 241 (1832) (approx. 19’): Scott’s novel is about a life’s journey, with many twists, and ups and downs.
- John Harbison, Ulysses (1983) (approx. 80’), is a ballet drawn from Homer’s The Odyssey
Albums from others idioms:
- Wynton Marsalis, “Big Train” (1999) (53’) – “Where does the big train go?” – a metaphor for life
- David & Steve Gordon, “Sacred Earth Drums” (1993) (71’) – a Shaman’s journey: “The album begins with a lively Native American drum beat, 4/4 pulse (there is more pulsing, phrasing, and embellishment than a traditional Indian beat), rattles, a Native American flute, and bird songs. As the album progresses, the music becomes more elaborate; the flute melodies are more fanciful, warm guitars are added, and more complex rhythms (Latin and African) are added with other drums and percussion instruments. Eventually, other animals, keyboards, and space music effects fill out the sound spectrum.”
- The Moody Blues, “Seventh Sojourn” (1972) (63’)
- The Crossing, “Voyages” (2019) (51’), consists of two choral song cycles, the first drawn from Hart Crane’s poem, “Voyages”, the second from Benjamin Boyle’s Cantata No. 2, “Voyages, for alto, tenor, baritone, choir, and string orchestra” (2018).
- Aisling Lyons, “Aistear” (Journey) (2021) (54’): Irish harp tunes
- Quadro Nuevo, “Odyssee: A Journey into the Light” (2022) (69’), “brims with stories, adventure and contemplations on power, wealth, luck and wisdom”.
- Don Rendell Sextet, “The Odysseus Suite” (1970) (29’) is “an unreleased 1970 session that was done after his famous 60s work with trumpeter Ian Carr”.
- Chris Dingman, “Journeys Vol. 1” (2022) (49’): “It’s impossible to predict where life’s journey will take us.”; “Journeys Vol. 2” (2023) (48’) “looks forward to the way Dingman’s solo practice has continued to bloom and evolve as we’ve begun to find joy and solace in community once again.”
- Ye Vagabonds, “Nine Waves” (2022) (44’) and “The Hare’s Lament” (2019) (40’): an Irish brothers duo plays and sings of life’s journey.
- Third Coast Percussion, “Paddle to the Sea” (2019) (79’), is “inspired by the classic children’s book and film 'Paddle to the Sea.'” The book is by Holling C. Holling.
- Joachim Cooder, “Over That Road I’m Bound: The Songs of Uncle Dave Macon” (2020) (44’): “. . . songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Joachim Cooder uses the plain-spoken songs of country-music progenitor and banjo player Uncle Dave Macon as a jumping off point, playing with the lyrics and reworking melodies for his chosen instrument: an electric mbira (a variation on an African thumb piano).”
- Marshall Gilkes, “Cyclic Journey” (2022) (54’): “. . . in terms of the theme, it really came to light through reflection on what’s most familiar to me. That’s how I arrived at the idea to write a soundtrack to my daily external and internal existence.” [The composer.]
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.