“I must admit that as for many others, the last ten years were neither a singular triumph nor an unmitigated disaster. There were joys and sadnesses, the melody of life soaring high and crashing low. No one finds heaven on earth.”
Dividing time and life into decades is somewhat artificial. We don’t really see our lives as bounded by ten-year boxes. Things are more fluid, and what characterizes a decade can go longer or shorter. Think of the long 19th century, for example. Even so, the end of the 2010’s offers a chance for reflection, one which is all too rare in today’s frantic world.
For myself, I must admit that as for many others, the last ten years were neither a singular triumph nor an unmitigated disaster. There were joys and sadnesses, the melody of life soaring high and crashing low. No one finds heaven on earth. The pursuit of this paradise leads to a hell of nowhere, the never-ceasing search always driving the seeker onwards, emptying his heart along the way for wont of enjoyment of the things he has, here and now. The search for a final resting place, a perfection in this life is never satisfied. The knowledge of this tugs at the conscience of the one looking, inducing a lassitude that life is unbearable for its lack of final triumph in the world as it is.
Growing older, from 15 to 25 now, leads to the realization that dreams of Eden are just that. The quest for something better can lead to improvements, but aiming at the perfect brings only disappointment. Lowering your sights does not mean giving up on hoping for the better, but it is tempered with appreciation for what can be lost as well as gained. Things fall apart more easily than can be created or mended. This goes for our crooked hearts just as it does for communities or civilizations. Acceptance of life’s finitude does not have to be a dispiriting thing. The fact that life is bounded by the limits of existence can be a liberation: it is a paradox that limits, and acceptance of such can engender a sense of freedom. Knowing where we stand is necessary to know where we could go.
The last decade has taught that having a disability (and reconciling myself to this) means learning to live and move with the unchosen and inherited. As with this purely biological fact so with the implicit social bonds and byways that accumulate to comprise society and civilization. Finding a place in the world requires reconciliation: to yourself as a less than purely autonomous, self-creating being, and to others, without whom you wouldn’t be who you are. For so many today, this is no longer possible. More and more have little idea of who they are—or where they fit. More and more of us do not feel that we have—or indeed can—find a home. This sense of being alone (and ill-fitted for this life) lies at the basis of the numberless small tragedies of despair that play out across our societies. Those of us who did not have to face this can at least be thankful for what we have.
As with Solzhenitsyn and the human heart, this fallen world is riven by a line between good and evil. The knowledge of the knife-edge between good and evil could lead to inaction borne of fear of what might be. And yet, knowledge of the limits of action in life, the fragility of one’s place in the world, is again a form of liberation. It can—with cultivation of one’s spirit—lead to a realization that aiming for the good is the best thing in life—and that the pursuit of perfection borne of fear of failure is its own form of individual tyranny and torture. For me, humility in the face of the inevitable challenges that life brings does not come from a fatalistic acceptance of the impossibility of the betterment of our condition but, instead, from an appreciation for the complexity of our individual and common life.
For myself, this recognition came in a rather abrupt manner mid-decade, with a serious health crisis that wiped away the childish feelings of the eternal nature of our time here. Most of us feel this to some extent in the spring of our lives.
The growing appreciation for this complexity over these ten years has accompanied an increasing sense of gratitude. This grew with an awareness of the fleeting nature of life itself, one which comes at different times for different people. For myself, this recognition came in a rather abrupt manner mid-decade, with a serious health crisis that wiped away the childish feelings of the eternal nature of our time here. Most of us feel this to some extent in the spring of our lives. It instils a sense of existential invulnerability before reality sets in. Gratitude comes from the contrast between our time in this world and the world yet to come. This contrast enhances the joy and the tragedy of life, revealing that life brings joy among the tears. This is real living, the agony of which more and more do not really know, lost as they are in what Mark Dooley calls Cyberia, the flat, grey, never-world of cyberspace in which love and loss and the possibility of redemption are absent.
Despite the delusions of our seemingly everlasting present, we cannot conquer time, as Auden put it, and it will have its fancy, tomorrow or today. But we can be grateful for the moments we do have. Our finite existence is the ultimate limit. It is also the ultimate liberator. The fact of our mortality does not have to be a weight that bows us into despair. Coming to terms with our all-too-brief lives (rather than bringing a melancholy that corrodes the soul) can encourage a sense of gratitude for the things we have. These are no small things: the loves we were fortunate enough to receive and to give, the things we were able to do and enjoy, the relationships in which we participated, and—if we are lucky—the children we bring into the world who manifest the continuation of the meaning of our lives.
This talk of mortality might seem morbid, but perhaps the greatest paradox of the human condition is that mortality can imbue life itself with meaning. Life, Auden wrote, remains a blessing, even when we cannot bless. I believe Augustine was right when he wrote that: “it is only in the face of death that man’s self is born.” As Anthony Esolen writes, we are wayfarers in this world, on a pilgrimage towards an appointment with the grave that, in the end, we all must keep. Like Odysseus, we are in search of Ithaca. Unlike Odysseus, we journey towards a home that this world cannot ultimately provide.
Far from bringing a fear of the end, this knowledge brings perspective on what matters in life, and a sense of peace that only comes with acceptance of our final destination and reconciliation with our place on the road of pilgrimage. Augustine embodied the greatest lesson for me from the last ten years, when he wrote that to live well means accepting that, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” This is the final lesson from the troubled decade just gone: hope in the possibility of rebirth and redemption. In the death of the old year we see the possibility of hope for the new, symbolized for Christians in the birth of Christ. I hope that readers find some solace in these words, and I wish you all hope and good will for the New Year.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.