"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

31 December 2008

New Year's Resolutions

This morning as I’ve browsed the web I’ve of course run across numerous references to the ending of one year and the beginning of the next. “Have you made your New Year’s resolutions yet?” (of course not; the moment after I make one I’ll break it, so why bother?). “Highlights of 2008” (more depressing than encouraging to me, as a rule – what many people seem to think of as a “highlight” often strikes me as a new low). “How to make your dreams come true in 2009” (sure; it’s all so simple and will certainly happen
this time).

Then I came to one of my favorite sites – Touchstone’s Mere Comments – and found what I wanted: a post by my favorite contemporary writer, Tony Esolen, which offers true wisdom and food for thought – “Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot?” he asks, and answers, of course, “by no means, and here’s why.”

The comments are worth reading, as well, and led me to some thinking about time and how it is described in one of my favorite plays, A Raisin in the Sun. Walter has lost his father’s life insurance money on a scam, and Beneatha, having counted on part of it to help her through medical school, is in the depths of despair. Her suitor Asagai, a Nigerian who plans to return to his country to help free it from Britain’s rule, challenges her. I don’t have the text with me, so what follows is from memory.

Beneatha tells Asagai that man never changes, and simply walks the pointless circle of time, repeating evil again and again. Asagai says no, time is a line whose end you cannot see and thus cannot despair of. Man marches forward, doing what he can in his own day to reach the unrealized dream of a better future, which does exist.

I was trying to explain the difference to my class last semester, and found that I couldn’t show Asagai’s concept as a simple straight line, as he initially states it: he goes on to say that if his country is liberated there will of course be upheaval again, and he may even become a martyr because of new persecutions by different people, but that liberty and peace will still come in some unseeable future if people like him continue to work for that dream. And so I found that my picture on the board became a series of Beneatha’s circles moving across the board in a kind of helix toward the future.

Beneatha’s circle by itself holds a certain appeal as a description of truth – doesn’t it often seem that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” that “nothing new under the sun” means mainly that life is made up of evil and despair? Asagai’s line seems so much more optimistic, more hopeful: it is going somewhere, not merely repeating itself, even if it contains repetition within it.

And yet . . . there is nothing – nothing – in Asagai’s philosophy which justifies optimism. He envisions a future of freedom and prosperity for his people, and he is pursuing the means (education, medical care, political action) that he believes will bring about such a future – yet with no actual foundation for that belief. Education, for example, may bring about better health conditions and greater political involvement, yes, but it may also bring seeds of greater discontentment and ideas which will be just as destructive as those which he sees as now holding his people down. What kind of education is the key to a better future . . . and nowhere does Asagai seem to see the need to consider this key question. It is mere “education” in itself, mere “political action” in itself, which will somehow bring about the bright future he envisions.

So I was encouraged in reading Tony’s post and the comments on it to consider time in both its repetitive cycles (for Beneatha is not entirely wrong) and its movement to somewhere – but not an abstract movement to a merely hoped-for earthly end (as Asagai would have it). Rather, this journey through the cycles of time is a journey to a very specific destination: an eternal life either in the presence of God or separated from His love, either in the presence of those who have gone before or separated forever from human love as well. (C. S. Lewis reminds us somewhere that we have never met a mere mortal.) That destination should determine what means we use to move closer to it -- not just any kind of education, for example, but education which gives us a true image of who and what we are so that we will choose our course wisely.

Several of the images various commenters brought up following Tony’s post bring out time's dual nature as both cycle and line: “a continually widening upward spiral toward God,” one called it, or another suggested that “from another angle, the spiral could be seen as ever-narrowing”; another gave the picture of Abba Dositheus: “a movement inward along the spokes of a wheel: we all begin on the rim, and as we move in towards Christ, who is the hub, we move closer to Him and to each other.” I like these; they help me to see the concept and understand
all the better this journey we are on.

And that perspective of time, a journey with its cycles and its known end, reminds me of the only resolution that’s important each new year, each new day: to live well within time’s possibilities, loving God and my neighbor, for God’s glory and my neighbor’s welfare.


Anna said...

Mmmm. Quite good thoughts. It is interesting to hear more of your thoughts on "A Raisin in the Sun." I was actually a big enough fan of it that I just bought a copy to send to a friend in Iraq (he wanted books). I think that Beneatha and Asagai's discussion is my favorite part of the entire play and one that merits much re-reading.

alaiyo said...

Thanks for visiting, Anna! I think I shall spend more time on that conversation this semester; you are right that it rewards revisiting.