There is a story I've told my students for years, and it turns out that I've only been getting it about half right. I first read the real story in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt, and it goes like this:
Poet Conrad Aiken used to like to sit in a Savannah cemetery by the spot where his parents were buried, drink martinis, and watch the shrimp boats pass by.* One day a boat named Cosmos Mariner sailed past. Aiken saw this and was quite taken with the name. Later that evening he looked it up in the shipping news and found this: "Cosmos Mariner; Destination unknown."
This is part of the inscription that Aiken chose for the bench that is his own headstone, where he now lies in the cemetery beside his parents. The other part of the inscription reads: "Give my love to the world."
I didn't get the story too terribly wrong, I just messed up the name of the boat a bit. I've always remembered it as the Cosmic Explorer. But you know, I like the incorrect name better. Coupled with the second half, "Destination unknown," it seems a perfect instruction for life: We are all explorers on a journey in unknown waters. Like any voyage of discovery, peril, danger, and sorrow can be found at every turn. But there are also beautiful islands to behold, and they are named Grace, Mercy, Kindness, and Joy. The trick is to make it through the storms to the other side, where they await us.
I was thinking about this on the drive home from San Angelo this weekend. I was listening to a radio program called Humankind, an episode titled "American Resiliency," in which they examined the question of what makes some people more able to withstand hardship and disaster than others. Two things stood out among the things that the psychologists and historians on that program said about people who are resilient: They are part of a community of people on which they can rely, and they are able to focus on positive things even in the midst of the most terrible circumstances.
Oh, and there was one more thing one of the historians said that gave me pause. He said bad things that happen are a normal part of life, but we've forgotten that in the past couple of decades in this country. It seems we've grown complacent and logy, as if we believe we're permanently tied up in the safety of a port. We've forgotten that in reality, like it or not, we are all of us, most of the time, on a journey in unknown waters.
This past week has been a rough one, hasn't it? The shootings in Arizona are too awful to comprehend. Peril. Danger. Sorrow. We need a safe harbor.
Or maybe not. Maybe what we need is to square our shoulders and continue the journey, for grace, mercy, kindness, and joy are out there, too.
There's just one thing, though. All hands need to pull together on the boat. But it seems impossible to achieve this, doesn't it? What has happened this week in the aftermath of the tragedy in Arizona has been predictable and almost as depressing as the senseless shooting itself: The blame game starts up almost immediately. And then the heated rhetoric begins. And now the heated rhetoric about the heated rhetoric.
Robert F. Kennedy once said that one-fifth of the people are against everything all the time. It seems to me that right now in this country, that one-fifth of the people are driving the rest of us aground. They are not interested in reason. They are not even interested in grace, mercy, kindness, and joy. They are only interested in their own self-serving misery and infecting as many people as possible with their disease. They are even perversely gleeful about this. But too easily, the rest of us get caught up in the same virulent unhappiness and anger, and then instead of focusing on the positive, and what we can do that is right and good, we begin to founder.
Well, I vote we leave that malcontented one-fifth off the boat at the next harbor. Just ditch 'em there. They are merchants of misery, profiteers of hate; let them trade their wares somewhere else. They are cranky, selfish, addicted to celebrity and power even when it is bought with the pain of others, and they make us needlessly angry with each other. We don't need them. We can send them a postcard when we reach the island of Joy. It will read, "Give our love to the world."
Once we refuse to allow that perpetually dissatisfied one-fifth to influence us, we shall draw a deep breath and become strong again. We shall be a community, focused on the positive even when faced with senseless tragedy, resilient and sound, able to stand all storms.
Bad things happen, because it is life, after all. But we can do good things in response, because we are strong.
This good ship is the Cosmic Explorer, destination unknown. All willing and able hands on board.
*Maybe you think this is morbid, but perhaps you wouldn't if you'd ever taken my "Landscapes" course. Cemeteries are actually quite peaceful, and full of stories.
It's not too late to join the Bike Garden Challenge: 2011 miles in 2011 for the South Plains Food Bank farm! If you'd like to help out, just leave a comment on this post, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to state specifically that you'd like to pledge a penny a mile ($20.11) to the challenge.