From the Landmark book, “The Adventures of Ulysses”

A few weeks ago, I wrote about “core beliefs” from the book This I Believe II – More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. The project, started back in the early 1950s by legendary radio broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and resurrected by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman in the early 2000s, asked people to write 500 words on “the core belief that guides your life.”

My column generated a few responses. One reader wrote, “I believe we are completely on our own, but that I am not on my own.” I took the “we” to mean Homo Sapiens and the “I” to mean that individual humans are interconnected and interdependent.

Another replied, “I believe that what I believe is not as important as my actions in the world.”

And a third wrote, “I believe in Nature — I’m constantly in awe of it, and all its complexities. I believe in Now — it’s all I have at every moment. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow isn’t here, but I have this present moment. It’s mine (but it keeps slipping away!)”

I’ve narrowed my core beliefs down to three:
I believe life is a journey.
I believe that everyone has a story and each story deserves to be heard.
I believe in the extraordinary ordinary.

What guides my life most, however, is the journey. That’s not original, of course. Homer established this most commonly held of human metaphors in “The Odyssey,” the epic story of the 10-year journey of Odysseus and his men following the Trojan War as they struggled to make their way home to Ithaca. It has long served as an allegory for every person’s journey through life.

In the late 1800s, Alfred Tennyson extended the motif in his stirring poem, “Ulysses,” wherein he imagines the famous wayfarer, back home in Ithaca, grown old and restless, yearning to set out again. “Come my friends,” he enjoins, “’tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

Greek poet C.P. Cavafy followed with his poem, “Ithaka,” in which he advises us to:

… Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way …

Mary Oliver also embraced the metaphor in her poem, “The Journey”:

… But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

We are all on this journey, but not all of us have it fixed in our sights as a guiding principle. I believe that I must choose to take the journey and find out where it will take me. I am not entirely in control. My journey has been, and will be, full of surprises.

I believe my journey is taking me somewhere. To journey is to change, develop, hopefully someday become wiser. A friend tells me he believes life is a journey without a destination. It seems obvious that death is our destination. But it may not be the end. Even the “afterlife,” if it exists, may not be a destination so much as the beginning of a new journey, setting out “like the beam of a lightless star,” as the poet W.S. Merwin wrote.

If death is the end, so be it. I don’t live my life as if an afterlife were assured. Neither do I live as if nothing exists beyond my personal extinction. I believe life is a journey to some end, whatever that ending might prove to be. But I believe it’s not over till it’s over as the great catcher/philosopher Yogi Berra once said. I believe my journey goes on at least until death, and maybe longer.

The goal of the journey is to better myself and maybe others, to journey as far as I can, given my unique set of circumstances, despite the setbacks that are sure to come, despite my physical and mental diminishments, which are inevitable. Even if I can’t travel, even if I can’t move, I can still journey, which is both external and internal. Hopefully, I’ll keep my wits about me. Hopefully, I’ll still be able to walk and read and think and write. If dementia steals my cognitive abilities, that will end my journey. Until then, I keep going, all the way to the end.

I mention this because on Monday, I turned 70, which is to say I completed my 70th year. I might have 20 more years tops in the best-case scenario. But I also know tomorrow is guaranteed to no one.

I know people who feel they’ve done all they’re going to do in life. The rest is sightseeing, celebrating, enjoying as much as they can. I’m all for sightseeing, as long as it’s part of the journey to seek that newer world, but I also want to activate the better angels of my nature, to widen my consciousness and my horizons, and, if possible, contribute something of real consequence.

It’s not about learning as much as I can. Knowledge amassed is ever at the mercy of memory loss. It’s about seeking wisdom and experiencing the truth and beauty of love. It means taking my one and only life seriously enough to live it, however imperfectly, as fully as possible, to the very end.

I want someday to say, as Tennyson did:

All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone …
I am a part of all that I have met …
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
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.

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