Perspective. I first saw the news at the ski area on Wednesday night as skiers thumped up and down stairs in Yarrow’s Lodge to sit on the benches next to the television. They buckled and unbuckled boots, adjusted layers, talked about the condition of the hill and the jump outrun. Outside, the wind deepened the bitter cold, spilled hot chocolate froze instantly, and ski jumpers launched off the 38.
Reading the banner running at the bottom of the screen, I learned of the Charlie Hebdo attack. I studied the still frames of the assailants, hooded men with assault rifles. Anderson Cooper and someone else were discussing how the men held their weapons. They had practiced grips. They were trained.
It was one of those news stories that jars deeply. Looking at a ski lodge filled with competitors and family, I thought about perspective. How do we regain it in a responsible way? How do we not just blank out the shocking? The senseless?
Later that night I rummaged for a letter written last summer, shuffled through files to read again what had settled me when I wrote it last August. When I found it, it helped restore a sense of meaning. As our children look for advice in these times when they see the news, we will all find ways to guide them. Here are some of my thoughts from a parental missive written last summer. Perhaps they are applicable today as well.
You’ve been asking questions about the meaning of life since you were about 10. You, I suspect, probably ask it of yourself a little bit every day. I know I do. The question really should be reframed into two questions: what is the responsibility of life? how do we honor the spirit of life? Those two questions start to build a lot of individual and communal structures in a different way than the question about “meaning,” which essentially turns us inwards. What is the responsibility of life? How do we honor the spirit of life? Focus on those two questions and I believe meaning will take care of itself.
Responsibility. It can make us more reflective about our own talents and gifts and how we might best leverage them for the good of our own spirit and the good of others. It can make us work harder, buckle down, slough off the proclivity to inertia that resides in us all. It can make us want to solve small problems like creating a more sustainable house, or large problems like bringing potable drinking water in third world countries. It can help build schools, hospitals, museums, and fair government. It makes us think of Golden Frogs, the California Condor, the Pacific garbage patch, or Ebola. It can make us give up plastic bags or start to compost. It can make us work a little more when all we want to do is work a little less.
Responsibility makes us want to seek out those who know more, who can teach us, who can guide us. You’re probably sick of me telling you to “Keep the wise ones close.” Well, the wise ones have the ability to help us understand our responsibility and grow into it. I don’t think that this pushes us down any one particular track. I can give you a list of the wise ones in my life, a column of names of people who have guided me, who have nudged me in their distinct and different ways: Clough, Beams, my grandmother, Donadio, Stolley, McWilliams, Sidar, the Peabodys, Armstrong, Conrad, O’Brien, James, Morrison, McPhee. There are many more. Some of them are writers, for as Thoreau once wrote, “I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced, whose names are hardly known here.”
My wise ones have not all told me to do the same thing. They are unequal in their intelligence but unparalleled in their capacity to inspire me to change, evolve, grow. Sometimes it’s helpful to not ask the question “What do I want to do?” but “What would the wise ones counsel me to do?” These are important people in our lives, important voices. We slough them off at our peril.
Secondly, we have a responsibility to honor the spirit of life. All of life. Honoring the spirit unlocks the door (to the likes of you and me) to the joys of being in the wilderness where the overwhelming grandness of simply being seats in our soul. That means being in the Whites or the Winds or the Alps or Rumney, or simply jogging the Jose’s Bridge loop on a Sunday afternoon and watching the way the leaves turn in that pre-thunderstorm jostle of wind. Or of the shivering joy of a Pond Brook plunge. Honoring the spirit unlocks us to adventures.
Honoring the spirit also propels us to laughter, to not taking ourselves too seriously, to seeking out the humor that allows us to catch ourselves before we go too deeply into ourselves. I try to laugh every day, and most days I find I laugh at myself, which I think is pretty healthy given that I am pretty tightly wound. Without laughter, there would just be too much to overwhelm the spirit.
Honoring the spirit means honoring those who have come before us like Gramma or Aunt Sally, Granny and Gramps, or Uncle Jack. It means honoring those who have different traditions or ways or faiths and allows us to experience the awesomeness of those journeys even if we have not quite figured it out for ourselves. It means delighting in creativity – music, dance, paintings, writing. It means looking at those who move through community in a different way and not defaulting to condemnation. It means looking for redemptive qualities and knowing that everyone’s story is nuanced and everyone is seeking a way to unlock their spirit.
Everybody plays the game with their own style and there is no one “right way” to play that condemns all others. Or there shouldn’t be. Ruby De La Rosa pitches with a way different tempo and form than Clay Buchholz, and both are pretty darn good. Honoring the spirit of life honors different styles and approaches.
It goes on.
As I look to France and see the response in the protests, see the flowers, the candles, and the Je Suis Charlie placards, faith returns. Understanding the responsibility of life and honoring the spirit of life gives it full meaning and measure, and tending to this individually gives hope to our collective whole.
Please share your thoughts with me in the comments below, and follow me on Twitter.
Mike Henriques P'11, P'15
Proctor Academy Head of School