When one reaches the “aged” phase the temptation is great, and the privilege exists, to revisit life itself – decades and decades of it! Mankind as far as we now know, is unique among our fellow living creatures, in having a consciousness of self. We retain memories of the past, anticipate the future, and are acutely aware of our mortality. With all this come questions: many of them! Some are profoundly important throughout life, some vary according to our age, and for the most part the answers are elusive.
It fascinates me that these questions, the search for understanding and the efforts to find answers cut across peoples, cultures, and the ages. Archaeologists now know that even the earliest of primitive people wrestled with much the same questions that plagued more sophisticated societies, and still remain unanswered today:
What is the purpose of life?
What is my role here?
Is there something “out there” that is greater than all else?
Why is there good and evil?
What can I do to make my life worth living?
It appears to me that if we are to be fully human, we must have this inner debate – forming our questions and searching for answers. The questions will not be new to mankind. Our ancestors would recognize them. The elusive and inadequate answers, despite the span of time, would also have a familiar ring to them. We will find that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If we are very lucky we may be able to improve the wheel just a tad (who knows?), but much work has been done on it before.
One of the exercises that brings me satisfaction and pleasure and a degree of comfort is collecting the distilled wisdom of the ages in the myths, proverbs, and quotable sayings that are found in every culture and language. Formed over centuries, even thousands of years, they resonate with us today. Why? Because we recognize and respond to the genuineness of the search – if not always to the tentative answers. We are comforted to be squarely in step with humanity, and not alone on a lonely journey. Pithy sayings with their brevity, humour, understanding, and the ring of truth are a gift indeed. Samuel Johnson recognized this when, in the 18th century he wrote “A quotation is a good thing, there is a community of thought in it”.
As we struggle with this inner search we can turn to Plato, philosopher and teacher who, about 300 BCE stated: “Thinking is the talking of the soul with itself”. Plato was a master at posing questions and expecting his students and followers to think their way through to answers or conclusions.
When we pose such questions as “What is the purpose of life?” or “What is my role here?”, we can turn to the Talmud. For centuries it has been the most significant collection of Jewish oral tradition that interprets the Torah. One could think of it as presenting a practical guide to living one’s life, based on the Holy Scriptures, the Torah (roughly the Christian Old Testament). The Talmud states: “It is not laid on our shoulders the responsibility of completing the perfection of God’s world, but neither are we free to ignore what we are able to do”.
Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, adds further good directions with the terse statement, “Avoid these two excesses: excluding reason, and admitting only reason.”
The last two quotations are among my favourites. For me they are helpful at any time in life, and in whatever situation I find myself. They are by 19th century writers, one English and one American.
George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), an Englishwoman, wrote: “You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from stopping to build their nests there”.
The second, written by the American John Greenleaf Whittier, follows:
“No longer forward nor behind
I look in hope or fear,
But grateful, take the good I find,
The best of now and here.”
It is with pleasure that I share these thoughts and a few of the quotations I love. If I am fortunate, you may share some with me.