March 18th, 2013
“Tis not too late to seek a newer world”
I remember the summer of 1964, listening to a recording of the soundtrack of a USIA movie about the life and times of President Kennedy titled “Years of Lightning, Day of Drums”. It was narrated by Gregory Peck and ended with the words “someday, the early 1960’s will be a long time ago”.
I was a teenager then, living in Winston-Salem, a young kid at Wake Forest University, and smiled when I heard those words, thinking that will never be.
Only three years later, Robert Kennedy authored a book titled “To Seek a Newer World”, which was a collection of essays and speeches he had given first as Attorney General and then as a Senator. The thrust of the book was the setting forth of new challenges he then thought faced the United States and what he hoped to do about them.
Now, years later, I recently ran across the poem “Ulysses” written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1833, which tells the story of Odysseus, narrating the poem as himself, no longer content to stay at home in his later years but to live life to the fullest. He has been a warrior, fighting in the Trojan War and those times have shaped him. As he puts it, “I am a part of all I have met”.
More specifically, Odysseus says in part as follows:
“I cannot rest from travel. I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly…
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks,
The long day wanes, the slow moon climbs, the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to see a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows, for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulls will wash us down.
It may be that we will touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides, and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
In the last years, I have met so many remarkable people who have faced with so much grace and courage unspeakable loss, in the deaths or illnesses of their children or the loss of employment and security and self-esteem, loss of confidence in who they are, loss of passion in their work or lives and the general feeling that that they want something new in life. They want a new beginning…somehow.
Some just want or need to start over in their careers. Others are facing difficult personal changes. They are all facing challenges, even opportunities, and want to know how best to handle them. In thinking about seeking new adventures, I am reminded of the words of Plato who wrote long ago that “you need to be kind to all that you meet, for everyone is facing a great battle”.
So it seems to me that kindness towards others and in particular being kind to yourself is so important in beginning anew. If I could speak only one word that would summarize what allowed me to survive and start over years ago, it would be the great kindness of people, friends and strangers alike. I remember a lady outside the Justice Building in downtown Raleigh, saying she and others were praying for me, a former F.B.I. agent, the state’s very best polygraph examiner, coming to the 42nd Street Oyster Bar one night when I was working there, and putting a $100 bill in my hand, and then a few nights later, a complete stranger doing the same thing, a letter from a friend with whom I had talked senior high Sunday School writing me a note when I was in Duke Hospital, saying “she didn’t really know what I had done, but she didn’t care, she was on my side”. And so it went.
And so it would go for you as well. Kindness is the secret ingredient that gives us the courage to try new things, not knowing whether we are going to succeed or fail. And we may well fail. But it is not as important as to whether you fail, but whether you get back up. And try again.
The first night I waited tables on my own was a Sunday night, usually the easiest shift of the week. It didn’t go all that well. Someone wanted to know more than I knew about lobsters. I stood there like a deer in headlights. Appearing before trial judges was easier. So I wound up training for an additional month (which meant I made no money) before trying on my own one more time. Finally, I got it right.
And then there is a lawyer friend of mine who tried several times (three) before successfully passing the state bar exam on the fourth try. She was so sure she had not succeeded yet again, she actually waited a couple of days before opening the letter from the Bar that told her she had successfully passed.
And then looking ahead, there is a paralegal in Charlotte who yearns for a new career as a chef soon, starting her own business, leaving behind a legal career. Or the successful lawyer who really wants to be a minister at a small church. Or the person who wishes to be an artist. And anyone who is wanting to change or start over.
But perhaps most touching, there are the good friends of mine who lost their daughter in a tragic automobile accident years ago, not to death, but to a life where speaking, moving and living a full and normal life are no longer options, and handling that adversity with grace, courage and kindness towards everyone. And helping their daughter do the same.
Sometimes, the greatest challenges are the ones right in front of us every day when the uncertainty of life has knocked at our door. But I believe that for all of us, the words from 1964 are still true all these years later…each one of us can have “years of lightning”. Surely, Tennyson’s last words are right on…”To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.