On Adventure: A Letter To My Children

JackGiantSlayer
[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. But today I am just flipping the page on twenty-one years, and there is already so much I want to tell them and can’t yet. Here where I stand on the threshold of adulthood, looking back on aspirations and ahead towards all the bends in the road, I want to say a few words about adventure, so they will know that I was young once, and boisterous, and learning so tremulously to trust that what is ahead must be even better than all that has been behind. I will write a letter…]

My Dear Children,

You want to kill a dragon with your own two hands and a sword that gleams like a stroke of light. I know you do.

You want to set off over mountains hatted in mist and recover the golden hoards of kings. You want to sprout the magic beans and chase a splendid princess right into the heart of an adventure. You want to press through the wardrobe and shatter the wand in the hands of the witch, and go thundering after the white stag of wishes in the forest of forgotten things. You want get your hands on the giant’s heart. You want to come home cradled in an eagle’s talons. You want to take a little coracle over the white wall of foam at the end of the world.

Me too.

CliffJumpingAnd there is more. At the brink of waterfalls and in the hills over the river, we get a little wild, don’t we? You all want to go hurtling right through, to the far side of sanity and fences, with your hearts like songbirds. You want to plant your feet on a rock no other bared, leathery feet have hugged, and look down with scorn on ordinary things. Me too. We want to flip our boats into the shock of cold, and chase the current and work our immaculate lungs and flaunt the fabulous mystery of our being like we earned it.

This is not to say you are not afraid of anything. For you are, aren’t you? You are afraid of growing rich and respectable and predictable and doing things according to form and custom. You are afraid you might grow old and give up on the dangerous business of stepping outside your door. You are afraid you might stop going on adventures.

Me too. I am afraid you might do that. Please don’t.

You are getting old enough to see that the grim world is full of people coming and going with harried scowls, not-believing in fairytales. People who see drudgery and inconvenience where they should see hazardous journeys with treasures at the finish line. You laugh at them now. “Adults,” you say, and you shake your head, as though that explains everything.

But my children, here I am, blowing the lights off my 21st birthday cake. And I was like you, such a little while ago, with youth laid out before me like an eternity of possibility. Now, there is no standard by which I’m not an adult.

And the grey, sagging woman behind the cash register at the grocery store was like us once, though one look at her now will tell you she doesn’t believe in fairies anymore. Do you suppose the black-suited businessman at the bus-stop, who goes babbling angry words into the mouthpiece hanging off his ear, has quite forgotten that he once wanted to put a black arrow into the armpit of a firedrake, and save a whole terrified village?

The poison of the age is more potent than you think.

For some, it looks like a hope of comfort which turns into fear, and eyes closing to the war around. And if you never look out the window, you will forget about adventures altogether, and perhaps it will quite slip your mind that somewhere a princess needs rescuing.

For some, fear makes friends with arrogance, and swells into a golden idol. And a man who goes chasing after the green dollars has hardly got time to comb the rugged crags for the giant’s heart.

Children, sometimes a sorrow comes in that blacks out the sun. And today you are untouched by any such thing, but maybe one day you’ll go to sleep and hope you never wake up again.

There are so many ways to settle. And whether it’s settling for security or settling for selfishness, or settling for sadness, if you settle down for what there is, you will never get out to the way things ought to be. And this world is a mighty dull place if you stop going to war.

Yes, you’ll grow up and learn a great many things. And you’ll learn that fairies aren’t real and neither is the wild white stag, and the knights are no more, as the old song says, and the dragons are dead.

But you already know these things. You were never really fooled into thinking that the stories are true in the sense that they actually happened. What then do we mean when we say you’ll stop believing in them? What do you mean when you make fun of adults who complain about cold weather and ice on the roads, and thunderstorms and unexpected guests?

Simply that the world has grown grey to their eyes, and commonplace, and ceased to be a perilous countryside where quests are waiting to be embarked upon.

But that can be fixed. “This world,” said G.K. Chesterton, “can be made beautiful again by beholding it as a battlefield.

And oh, children, it is. You don’t have to look hard to see that the planet is riven right through, and replete with monsters. You know it now, that cruelty thrives on the air of this place. Every day that you live here, you will know it deeper.

VillageBurningDragonThat there is a sickness on the loose and no heart is untouched. And rulers are sated and overfilled while the world is filled with the hungry. There may not be dragons on the loose, but there are still whole villages going up in smoke. The things that you’ve read about are real: like widows turned out of their homes, and cripples crushed and enslaved, and an entire generation of starved minds. There are a great many things you haven’t read about yet, and they are real too. One is almost ashamed to be alive in the same world with some of the things that are. And people in fine houses are deaf and blind and don’t hear how the globe is rank with horror.

What is worse is that truth, which should go up on the lamp-stands of every street and free the whole world, is hated and hidden away. What is worse is that the lovely and glorious truth is mocked and assaulted when it dares to show its face. It will be a mighty adventure to set out to free the world, with truth like a crest on your helmet, on a planet of armies armed with lies. Don’t you think?

I want to tell you something else about adventures, though.

This war is going to wear you plumb out. It’s more than likely one day you’ll take such a beating you go reeling with the shock of your own blood on your tongue. It’s more than likely that the world you want to save will deliver this to you, with bony fingers curled into fists, taking delight in giving you grief. It’s more than likely you’ll sit down and say you don’t care if the giants and the trolls win. It’s more than likely that the adventure will be a great deal too big for you.

I want to tell you about another kind of adventure. A kind of adventure that you’ll keep going out on, as long as you live. The kind of adventure you’ll never be too little for, or too old for, or too weak for. The kind of adventure that’s worth running after, even when the world doesn’t want to be saved.

There was a prince who came through once, to take the globe out of the clutch of the dragon. The morning star heralded him, and the very dove of God went to war with him. And you can love the world with your whole heart, but be assured that this sorry old world which didn’t receive its only Hero, won’t love you back.

Come away, for there is a higher adventure.

After all, what is the philosophy of adventure? Is it not the idea that that which we have to do is of grand significance and laced with risks? And it is this which turns the weary now into war, and this is the sort of war which makes everything joyous. Whether the sad world receives you or not, you can go out on this sort of adventure.

KnightIndeed, the Prince of Champions has asked for you especially,

Singing, ‘Lady, lady, will you come away with Me?
Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath;
Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain . . .
If we perish in the seeking, . . . why, how small a thing is death!’ “

This is the adventure of love. For love makes everything an adventure, a setting out in expectancy. And if you love the only utterly complete prince, you will have the only utterly complete adventure.

Imagination As Love

Kid ImaginationImagination is the power of image-creation. It is a living fire in the mind, for we are image-using creatures. Indeed, all our dealings and deliberations are the chasing – or the fleeing – of some picture we aspire or dread to enter into. Images are the way we understand the world, the way we sort what is desirable from what is to be avoided, the way we associate words with each other and words with deeds and words with the world. Words without pictures are without meaning. Images are the incarnation of language, the taking on of flesh.

This picture-processing begins in childhood. A child knows that words must go with something, they must belong to something. Like “spoon” belongs to the long, metal shovel that puts ripe, strong bananas between the teeth. Like “flowers” belongs to the cotton-white clusters that house the bees. Like “mommy” belongs to the soft, big person who knows all of the answers to everything.

SharkThe young people harried and hurried on every side by the world rushing to plot a plan, a course for all their days, they know it: how “actress” means they will strut the red carpet with the eyes of the world on their shimmering gown and their thick scarlet lipstick. How “secretary” means they will sit behind a little oak desk and speak in polished terms over the wires to disgruntled customers and important potential clients. How “engineer” means they will masterfully disassemble and gut the insides of automobiles, computer hard drives or spaceships. Based on the little that they know of the world, they chart their ways in hopes they will fall in with the image they saw once on the cover of National Geographic and loved: the sleek-skinned deep sea diver caressing the rubbery shark, the chic, fairytale couple kissing on the bridge over the Seine.

Red Carpet
A man or a woman who has not learned image-making is forever confined to understand the world through the images presented to him or her by life as it rushes by in its haphazard, careless way. Without imagination, she will not know until her own way takes her there what it is like to be an actress, a secretary, an engineer. She will not, perhaps, understand the possibility of soul-destroying preludes to the red carpet, the way she might have to give up everything she has for the eyes of the world on her mincing steps. Without imagination, how will she know that a secretary is more than the name of an employment position, that it is what she brings to it, that there are so very many pictures to go with a word?

Ten years in AfghanistanWithout imagination, a man will not know what it is like to be the parent of a runaway child or of a young boy slaughtered in an unjust war. He will not know what it is to be sick with hunger so that the smell of break cooking is dizzying. He will not know what it is to lose two legs, to lose his dream job, to lose his one true love. He will not know what it is to be the only survivor of a bombed village in an arid desert country. He will not know what it is like to be old and dying in a hospital with no one to visit you or even send cheap flowers.

Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed,” warned Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter. “By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion.”

This, perhaps, is one of the strongest arguments for the transcendent value of literature. A man who has not lived any of those things, when he reads the words of one who has, can know suddenly some part of what it is to walk in another pair of shoes that look nothing like his own. A man who has cultivated and nurtured imagination in himself, though he be young and untried and little-travelled, can yet know the world deeply and love it all the harder. And God so loved the world.

In recent days, I have been reading Anton Chekhov’s Complete Short Stories. It would be a waste of breath to remark that the man was a masterful teller of tales. That fact is well-known. But something else that he was, which gives his stories much of their value, was a fabulous image-maker. His stories are from a century past in a country across the globe, but they speak vividly of the same human spirit we encounter around us every day, that we “joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.”

One of these stories in particular has served for mmiserye as a stellar example of the importance of image-making to love. It is, of course, not certain that this story will act on everyone else in quite the same way, but it is beyond question that something else will.

The story is Misery. It is short and grim and sad and you can read it online here. It is just a sketch, an incomplete and unresolved look into another life. But when I read it, I cried as though at the end of a long, fully-developed work of tragedy. Such is the power of imagination.

Iona Potapov is a cab-driver in the snowy twilight of evening in long-ago Russia. His son has died and he is a poor man, a working-man, with no leisure for sorrow or for talk. He must load up his sledge with hasty, arrogant people all night and taxi them to and fro in the chill wind. Their schedules are brimming and they are not polite, but he is a man sick with grief and he must tell of it, though none should listen.

“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”

Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.

“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”

In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets off.

“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the right! You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.

A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.

“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”

Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips…. Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.

“What?” inquires the officer.

Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son… er… my son died this week, sir.”

“H’m! What did he die of?”

Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:

“Who can tell! It must have been from fever…. He lay three days in the hospital and then he died…. God’s will.”

“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”

“Drive on! drive on!… ” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”

The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box…. Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white.

Iona is not necessarily a sentimental man, not necessarily a good man even. He is just a man who has lost a son. You have seen them before. And yet, have you really seen them? Have you really dedicated your powers to putting yourself in their place? So as to love?

And God so loved the world.

That He gave His only Son.