But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go. — Matthew Arnold, The Buried Life
As an only child, raised by grandparents, I lived in a household filled with books, relative calm, and hours of solitude. There were neighbors with children my age and older, no lack of friendship and camaraderie; indeed, I was the adopted little brother of several families. But running to make it for supper on time after spending the day roaming the hills and vineyards near our home with friends, I had the calm assurance of time by myself before sleep. Time to read, to daydream, to imagine, to question, to wade into the stream of our collective memory in solitude but not alone.
I don’t remember being lonely. Memory, of course, drops out the also-rans, the near misses, the close seconds, and often replays only the beginnings and endings, the most intense jolts on the emotional Richter scale. I do remember wondering who I was, where I had come from, and if I would be myself had I been born to other parents. Our household was quiet: my British and Canadian grandparents rarely raised their voices and our mealtime conversations were danced out on a metaphorical carpet of manners, not stomped out on a stage of boisterousness. But I often sat in the midst of a swirling tornado of banter, arguments, boasts, bad jokes, insults and adolescent belching contests at my friends’ house, where I was not so much a guest as another sibling separated at birth. Being there was a heady mix of belonging and blame: I was always welcomed with a hug from the womenfolk but not spared in the judgement when my friend and I committed our misdemeanors. But at the end of the day, gently shooed out the door toward home, I could be glad for the friendship without envying the tumult.
So I grew, hoping to be in favor with both God and man, but wordlessly realizing I’d always be just beyond the edges of the crowd. On my bedroom wall during high school was a poster that read: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away”— the closing words of Walden by Thoreau. Whether that shaped my outlook or reflected it I can’t be sure, but I know that it is more or less a faithful transcript of my life. Never the heroic type, I have often found myself, nonetheless, on a different path than those around me, not from sheer cussedness, but because I could not do otherwise and know myself. “What we have to be is who we are,” says Thomas Merton. His words are to me so completely true that I hesitate to bring them up because similar sentiments have been marketed, advertised, packaged, and sold in the bazaar that is American self-indulgence since the 60s. Yet, as long as there is a context with integrity the imitations are annoying but not fatal.
How is it that an introvert like myself gravitates to the classroom? That I could find a deep satisfaction alone on a country road at night while hitchhiking to Scotland during my college years? That in the midst of a crowd, touching those I love, I can feel alone but not lonely? That there is in me the activist who is suspicious of movements, the pilgrim who resists joining the pilgrimage, the sinner who will not stand for “the call,” the observer who nevertheless believes deeply in community? These contradictions pull and tug at us, they wrench us off our feet at times, fill us with vertigo and ultimately define us. It would be so much easier to simply react without reflection.
“The world is too much with us,” lamented Wordsworth. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers/Little we see in Nature that is ours. . . .” Although I do not deify Nature I know that we are deeply estranged from it, even at war with it, and that our very survival on this earth demands that we learn our place. I come from a religious tradition that asks for a lifelong commitment of service to a world which could end tomorrow. Although not incompatible, those two beliefs are frequently at odds. Do we settle down and build for tomorrow, all the while believing that the Lord will come ‘like a thief in the night’ and that this world will end in fire? How to love the world and leave it?
I find words of wisdom in Thomas Merton’s reflections on solitude. A Trappist monk devoted to contemplation, he lived on the blade-edge of activism within a Catholicism that seemed to him to sanction the mad race to nuclear arms. A man who longed for silence and solitude, he kept writing books that brought him world-wide attention. Having taken vows of obedience, he chafed under the rule of superiors who did not understand him. Struggling with ego and pride, he prayed for humility. He was, like all of us, a complicated being, yet he treasured simplicity. One who had stepped back from the world he continued to engage it, taking up the cross of love for the world though it cost him dearly.
“Keep your eyes clean and your ears quiet and your mind serene,” he advised. “Breathe God’s air. Work, if you can, under His sky. But if you have to live in a city and work among machines and ride in the subways and eat in a place where the radio makes you deaf with spurious news and where the food destroys your life and the sentiments of those around you poison your heart with boredom, do not be impatient, but accept it as the love of God and as a seed of solitude planted in your soul. If you are appalled by those things, you will keep your appetite for the healing silence of recollection. But meanwhile—keep your sense of compassion for the men who have forgotten the very concept of solitude. You, at least, know that it exists, and that it is the source of peace and joy. You can still hope for such joy. They do not even hope for it any more (Seeds, 66-67).”
Years ago, in the backwash of the Vietnam War and the bitterness of the end of the 60s, Crosby, Stills, and Nash sang, “Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on.” They were right, but we can do more than just endure. Matthew Arnold, in The Buried Life, thought we might find the answer to who we are in the love of another. There was a chance, he surmised, that we could dodge “the thousand nothings of the hour,” that “When our world-deafened ear/Is by the tones of a loved voice, caress’d—/A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast/And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.” It is just possible, he believes, that this harried lover can find a lull in our hot race of life. And then in calmness “he thinks he knows/The hills where his life rose/And the sea where it goes.” Arnold finds a way to live in the world through love for another; Merton finds it in love for God and the world. I suspect they are both right.