The novel I’m currently working on has as one of its themes the point in life when a person senses that they have passed their peak: their high point of strength, beauty, power and respect from others. The best is in the past, and ahead lies only a long decline. Because I’m pursuing such thoughts I pick up passing references to the theme, and I have a memory of an article recently read (I can’t track it down) that illuminates it. The subject of the article was a poet who, having reached the age of 70 without becoming famous, wins the Pulitzer Prize. He feels gratified, and vindicated, and all that you’d expect, but also something else, something strangely closer to dismay. To explain this he refers to the two climbers who recently spent nineteen days clawing their way up a sheer rock face. On reaching the top they were met by awed reporters, acclaiming their achievement. The applause bewildered the climbers. The moment they got to the top, the experience was over: the thing they climbed for had stopped. It was not a moment to celebrate, but to lament.
I find this a powerful image. Perhaps it’s no more than a re-stating of the old adage ‘To journey is better than to arrive’; the trouble is, no one really believes that. I want to arrive at my destination. I want to achieve my goal. But I live in time: there is no arrival. No sooner is a goal achieved than I must set a new goal. So in brutal truth, I had better pay attention to the journey. The goals I set myself turn out to be mirages. They melt away as I reach them.
This means, at its most basic, I should never do a job I hate because it pays well. I should never neglect my emotional life because I’m too busy becoming successful. Maybe even, and I write this as a hard worker, I shouldn’t work too hard. And it also means, I should give up punishing myself for falling short of self-created goals. I’m ashamed to admit it, but however well I do, I always reach for more, and when I hit the point at which the more is beyond my reach, I feel regret. I feel disappointed. But the regret is pointless, and the disappointment is missing the point.
I doubt if I’ll learn from this, or change my habits of mind. But I write it down to focus my thoughts, and to give myself strength.