The Most Dangerous Gift

More  advice from Belloc:

“Look you, good people all, in your little passage through the daylight, get to see as many hills and buildings and rivers, fields, books, men, horses, ships, and precious stones as you can possibly manage to do. Or else stay in one village and marry in it and die there. For one of these two fates is the best fate for every man. Either to be what I have been, a wanderer with all the bitterness of it, or to stay home and hear in one’s garden the voice of God.”

This is, initially at least, a curious piece of advice, recommending as it does two seemingly opposite forms of life as being, one or the other, the very best. But something about it rings true. If I contemplate each possibility, I can feel the lure of both; each in their own way make their claim upon my imagination. Although, I suspect that by confessing to find the latter homebound life at all compelling I likely find myself in a very slim minority. We have a much easier time sympathizing with the “pilgrim soul” and the wayfarer. Americans infuse the road with the mystique the English attach to their gardens. (Although the English have had their fair share of adventures on the sea and abroad.) In Bellloc’s formulation what unites both possibilities is the purposeful abandon of each, the thoroughgoing commitment each path entails — and, I believe, the disclosures made possible by this sort of commitment. It is easy to see the possibilities for disclosure that attend the wayfarer’s life, but harder for us to imagine what might be disclosed by a lifetime in one place. I’m tempted to say that one discloses the world while the other discloses the self, but I don’t think this is right. Both disclose the world and the self in their own way. Few have written about a life committed to a place as well as Wendell Berry, and so I will borrow his words:

“… our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible … A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure—in addition to its difficulties—that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.”

Perhaps the best life refuses the choice, it takes its adventure but makes it home again. “There and back again,” Odysseus, and all that. But those stories remind us that you never come home again, really. So perhaps then we must choose. But none of us chooses anymore, not in this sense anyway. We make countless small choices, some significant to be sure, but never one overarching choice.  We do not strike out with purpose to be a pilgrim soul, nor do we strike deep to anchor ourselves to home that we might cultivate our own inexhaustible fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure. Consequently, the world does not disclose itself to us nor do we know ourselves truly. Aiming at both, we achieve neither.

What we have sought to maximize is choice, not experience. Perhaps we’ve confused the one for the other; but they are not identical, and they may be antithetical. Maximizing choice is another way of refusing commitment and refusing commitment is another way of guarding our hearts, sealing them off from experience and its joys and sorrows. Or perhaps, we have refused commitment because we cannot bear the responsibility it entails. But without commitment there may be only endless alienation.

And so we are neither pilgrim souls nor those who hear the voice of God in our garden. We are wanders in the worst way, led about not by wonder but by anxiety and the lure of small, safe, and ephemeral satisfactions and by choices others have made for us which we have not been brave enough to challenge.

Elsewhere Wendell Berry has written, “We live the given life, not the planned.” It is a measure of our disorder that we are likely to read “given” as “fated” rather than in relation to “gift.” But it is also true, as Chesterton remarked, that “the most dangerous thing in the world is to be alive.” Our temptation it seems is to refuse the gift because of the attendant dangers. This may in the end be a safe life, but it certainly will not be a good one.


2 thoughts on “The Most Dangerous Gift

  1. Michael,

    Again, you blow me away. Extremely powerful statement. And summed up, after the arguments and the thought processes throughout, in one simple, brutally powerful word, but one which seems to be lacking in many people in the world. Commitment.

    “Aiming at both, we achieve neither.” This sentence is probably the single greatest piece of advice and lends itself to your closing statement so well. Another creator of a different sort of literature (manga) is quotable as stating at one time:

    “The machine designed to do everything generally does nothing well.” – Masamune Shirow

    I took this not just in the sense of machines, but also with people (also in that we are arguably biological machines), that we should choose to specialize. And when it comes to specialization, none take it to greater lengths than those that deign to live their lives either upon the open road, as with the wanderer, or those whom do so by remaining where the heart is; home.

    They are both probably the greatest specialists we can think of, and yet, due to their limitations of scope, are capable of achieving by far greater values in their lives and those they touch, than those that seem to waffle and try to ride the fence between the two.

    To sum all this up of course… Awesome post.

  2. Jamie,

    Thanks for the kind words. In truth I wrote this as a reminder to myself and also with full knowledge of how challenging it can be even for those who desire it.

    That’s a great quote from Shirow. In that same essay I cited from Berry in this post and the following, there is also this great line:

    “… as one of my best teachers said of people in general: ‘They’ll never be worth a damn as long as they’ve got two choices.'”

    Thanks again.


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