If, as the sometimes trite-sounding refrain has it, “life is a journey,” we are forced to ask ourselves to define what we mean by journey. Is it just simple traveling? Is it a pilgrimage? Is it something inside of us or does it indeed require packing up a suitcase and “going places?” Or is this phrase just too saccharine and simplistic and deserving of a “live, laugh, love”-type placard at Home Goods?
It’s probably a little bit of all those things but our reaction to it depends on our awareness of the world and ourselves. Recently while visiting a restaurant and waiting for my food to arrive, I began noticing other patrons. Some were families and others mostly older couples. There was one thing they had in common: they were all staring at their phones.
There wasn’t much conversation happening. One man, who appeared to be in his 30s, was sitting with his parents, watching a video game on his phone. His mother was irritated but said nothing. His father was stuffing his face with fries, quietly seething.
An older couple didn’t have much to say to each other; they were evidently both busy having affairs with their respective devices. After dinner, they took one more look at their phones, and made the trek to the transportation pod.
There is nothing wrong with sitting in silence with the people you love. But what I saw was more like a different kind of noise than it was silence. It was a noise that does not allow space for any kind of awareness, and certainly not imagination. It is a very alienating way to exist but it is one which people have experienced in the past as well. Today, however, the alienation is punctuated by the droning “sounds” of doom scrolling and binging. With all of these bits of data, how can anyone in this state of mind, to use C. S. Lewis’ phrase, be “surprised by joy?”
This lack of awareness for the present moment is indirectly connected to a growing lack of imagination in our society. Ideology has existed for decades, but artistic inspiration still somehow made its way through the cracks. The problem for us now is that we are no longer practiced in telling stories. We don’t hear or read them, either.
Books are mostly composed of empty filler as best-sellers tend to urge us to be combative and argumentative, and not really appreciate the universal aspects of being human. Similarly, other forms of media such as television and movies, are not creating the kinds of gripping stories necessary for human flourishing. There is a sense of emptiness and as a result, disconnectedness from each other and the world at large.
The late biographer and historian David McCullough understood the necessity of telling a story and telling it well. His subjects were often famous (John Adams, for instance, or the Wright Brothers), but he also wrote of ordinary people attempting to do extraordinary things. His subjects didn’t need to be heroic in the usual sense. McCullough didn’t consider their perceived failures to be negative. The success he aimed to describe came from the journey, the interior and exterior pilgrimage. The essence, at least of the American story, is that an attempt to succeed against all odds has been made. This is the central and essential part of McCullough’s storytelling gift—accepting humanity as is. There is no perfect human being, and thank goodness for that.
If McCullough wasn’t aware of his own journey, then he couldn’t have been curious or aware of his subjects’ journeys. This involves a lot of thinking, writing, experiencing, and being open-minded. More than anything, it means being fully in the present moment. McCullough describes this elusive joy through a particular moment in the life story of Teddy Roosevelt.
In his book, Brave Companions: Portraits in History (1992), McCullough writes with his usual care and touch:
There is a story that goes with the painting of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent that hangs in the White House. Sargent, it is said, had been waiting about the mansion for several days, hoping for a chance to see the president and talk to him about doing his portrait, when one morning the two met unexpectedly as Roosevelt was descending the stairway.
When might be a convenient time for the president to pose for him, Sargent asked.
“Now!” said the president.
So there is in the painting, standing at the foot of the stairs, his hand on the newel post. It is a great portrait, capturing more of the subtleties of the Roosevelt personality than any ever done of him.
And it’s a good story. Moments come and go, the president was telling the painter. Here is the time, seize it, do your best.
It’s an instructive vignette, not only for an artist but all of us. McCullough could have given us a cold take on this subject, but instead he chose to tell a story, however brief it was. Stories are entrances into the human heart, and they awaken us to the possibility that, just like those of the people we read about, our journeys matter.
There is, however, an individual prerequisite to this. We have to reclaim the idea of the present moment. By nature, man is impatient and distracted but this doesn’t have to be the beginning and the end of one’s existence. Stories are our way back into the possibilities of individual and collective imagination, no matter what happens. Reflecting on his subjects, McCullough writes, “Humboldt never reached the summit of Chimborazo. Agassiz’s star faded. Washington Roebling endured the painful effects of his work on the Brooklyn Bridge for the rest of his days. Harry Caudill did not live to see an end to strip mining or poverty in Kentucky.”
Where is the beautiful dream, you might say? This doesn’t sound very optimistic. But McCullough writes, “. . . I recognize now, these are all success stories. The key is attitude.” Indeed, it is here that our virtue (or lack thereof) becomes obvious, and here that we realize our potential.