The Light We Leave Behind

“Were a star quenched on high,

For ages would its light,

Still travelling downward from the sky,

Shine on our mortal sight.

So when a great man dies,

For years beyond our ken,

The light he leaves behind him lies

Upon the paths of men.”

–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from his poem,

“Ode to Charles Sumner”

While recently reviewing an speech written by the famous orator, Daniel Webster, entitled, “The Seventh of March Speech—The Constitution and the Union,” delivered to the Senate of the United States on March 7, 1850, I was completely surprised by the power and the tone of the speech, which should clearly be recited once again in the United States Senate.

Daniel Webster was the Senator from Massachusetts at the time, and he was making a case against the institution of slavery.  Tensions were high in the United States at that time, and the competing views of what to do about the future of our country were front and center.  What he said in that speech could easily be a description of our current circumstances:

“It is not to be denied that we live in the midst of strong agitations, and are surrounded by very considerable dangers to our institutions and government. The imprisoned winds are let loose.”

Recognizing the parallels to our modern day circumstances, which seem no less worrisome to the American people now, I thought to write about those parallels for this post, and decided to search for an image of Daniel Webster to include with my commentary. Upon conducting that search, I came across a website with an image of a more recent individual named Daniel Webster that struck me as being even more relevant to my efforts here, and felt compelled to share it with my readers.

One of the most startling aspects of the website posting was the image of the man himself.  He appeared in every way to be a kindred spirit.  His face radiated what must have been a joyful, living soul, and as I began to read further, it quickly became apparent that the parallels between my own life and his were just too strong to be simply a coincidence.

It was unfortunately an obituary of a man who lost his life one year ago today, after a long battle with cancer. The loss of any life for any reason is cause for us to pause and reflect, but in this case, the description of his life, combined with the image, really struck a chord within me.

He was “…An accomplished guitarist, pianist, singer and songwriter, in the mid-1970s he performed at clubs in the Boulder area, once opening for Tom Waits. Later performing and recording several albums under the stage name Dan Oakenhead, he continued to write, perform, and record his music until the last months of his life… His love of travel frequently found him and (his wife) Margaret in mountains and canyons around the world… Dan’s other great passion was his lifelong study of philosophy, Yogic teachings and Tibetan Buddhism. For many years he was an active member of the Eldorado Mountain Yoga Ashram, where he was known as Tukaram.”

His devotion to the spiritual aspects of his existence were central to his life endeavors, and combined with the particulars of his life, his devotion to his family, and to the creative arts, just seemed too much of a coincidence to skip over.

He was described also as “…a wonderful and caring husband and father, sharing his love of music and nature, and his curiosity.”

The fact that he passed away at the age of 68, the age at which I will also arrive this summer, also rendered the encounter with a kind of purposeful meaning that felt important to consider.  While my own accomplishments were clearly of a different sort and which, by comparison, resulted in far less notoriety, I couldn’t help but notice how closely our lives could be measured in a number of strikingly similar ways.  The important differences really didn’t seem all that different, and the similarities seemed significantly important as I read about his life.

In many ways, his life seemed enviable and wonderful, and his efforts to make a life for himself that had meaning and purpose were not all that different from my own efforts in the same way.  I do not suppose that either one of us would necessarily want a different life than the one we experienced up to this point.  No one wants to have cancer or to depart from this life prematurely, but our lives are what they are and we must live them as best we can, while striving for whatever goals seem right for us as individuals and as members of a family and as a larger community of people.

The poem by Longfellow expressed the sentiments I was feeling as I contemplated the parallels and the differences in our two lives, and the thoughts expressed by the original Daniel Webster, himself a notable figure in the history of our country, all show unequivocally the importance of every life, regardless of the status achieved or the accomplishments accumulated.

In his conclusion to the speech on March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster wrote:

“Let us make our generation one of the strongest and brightest links in that golden chain, which is destined, I fondly believe, to grapple the people of all the states to this Constitution for ages to come.”

Both of the men named Daniel Webster lived important lives that “left a light behind them, which lies upon the paths of men.”

I can only hope that my own life will have some portion of light that will be left in a similar manner.

Our Most Important Task

Since the very first behaviorally modern humans walked the Earth some 50,000 years ago, there has been an enhanced sophistication in their cognitive talents and an expansion of brainpower brought about by a gradually increased utilization of the human brain’s extraordinary architecture.  Fossil evidence of significantly more creative activities, like making tools out of bones, or markings and decorations on stones, which indicate a greater self-awareness and a capacity for symbolic thinking, began to appear at about that time, but there are competing ideas and sporadic finds that suggest it may have been possible even many years before that time.   

In any event, once the capacity was reached it eventually began to appear more widely in the regional human populations, and advanced rapidly after that point.  Considering the hundreds of thousands of years which it took for Homo sapiens to reach this point, it only took about 40,000 years after that early epoch to land a man on the moon.  This rapid acceleration, comparatively speaking, includes an extraordinary development in syntactically grammatical language and abstract or symbolic thinking, and with thousands of years of experience to build upon, humans have made exponential progress in scientific technologies, as well as achieving a greater understanding of the Universe in which it all takes place.

Sadly, it seems we still have a great deal of work to do in bringing all the diverse cultures and human populations up to speed on how best to proceed along the lines of modernity.

Part of the reason for the disparity in advancement for every human population can be attributed to regional differences in cultural priorities and beliefs, a variety of socio-economic conditions, as well as a lack of resources or an imbalance in the availability of opportunities that exist worldwide.

However, the limiting factors in these examples alone are not sufficient to explain the lack of advancement in the wide range of humanity.  Economic standards can be improved eventually with appropriate investment and attention to correcting whatever imbalances exist in the many regions that have them, and with a dedication to improving education and investment in forward-looking endeavors, we can help to provide the next generations with the tools they require to improve the status of whatever regions need it.   

Beyond these material or phenomenal concerns, though, is the urgent need to understand and appreciate our responsibilities as the species that can alter the future for the better, or risk failing to do so through ignorance or apathy.  We all have a part to play in the unfolding drama of life on Earth, and in order to promote a better future for all, we must be willing to do what is necessary to ensure that future generations are equipped to meet the challenges they will likely face.

Coming to terms with our true nature as evolved human beings, in my view, now requires a degree of attention to our “inner evolution.” With the rapid pace of the last 40,000 years as a guide, it seems clear that we have accomplished much in the phenomenal world of science and technology, and made great strides in coming to terms with our fellow humans, in spite of all the competition and adversarial relationships that exist among the countries of the world.  The same cannot be said of our progress in understanding ourselves. 

The broad range of human interactions these days includes just about every variety of cooperation and conflict that one could imagine.  There are no limits, it seems, to what might possibly develop in both the promise and the peril represented by today’s modern humans.  A significant factor in this uncertainty is the apparent lack of attention to our inner lives—what one might wish to describe as our truest selves.  We spend so much time concerned about the events in the wider world of human society, and yet we often neglect to consider sufficiently the most important influential factor in all of human life—our own subjective experience of consciousness. 

It may seem to us as though our own experience of our existence is less concerning than the events of the wider world, until we realize that every single event in the wider world is populated with each of us.  Every participant in world events, from the lowliest individual to the heads of state and the most famous and celebrated individuals involved—each of us has only the same singular experience of our existence.

Even though our individual experience is only one of many, the ripples of consequences of the collective experiences of all, combine in every case to influence events in one way or another.  Many times throughout human history, while the famous and celebrated have garnered much attention for their actions, and in many cases, rightfully so, none of those actions could have come to fruition without the participation of every individual involved.

Whether we are the leader of the free world or the least well-known and unrecognized participant in a crowd of thousands, each individual contributes a portion to every moment in the larger range of world events.  We may never learn of the contributions of every individual in these events, but rest assured, if the majority of unknown spirits participating in an event can alter the outcome, as we see many times in large scale events, it is only possible with the combined strength of each individual.

How important it is then to bring to each endeavor we undertake the most aware and considered self that we can be!  This then becomes our most important task, regardless of what our social status or prominence in the world might be.

The Greens and Colors of Hope Return

The view out of my office window

Spring has been fully underway since mid-April on the Eastern seaboard in America, but it’s taken these past few weeks to really blossom into the spectacular array of greens and colors that we’ve come to expect during this time. The contrast in the character of the currently available scenery is illuminating when compared to that of the winter views like the one below here out of the same window last winter.

Whenever we consider the state of our personal reality, it’s important to maintain a degree of perspective in both cases. During the winter, the natural course of the season includes the loss of leaves on most trees, fewer sunny days and fewer hours of daylight, and the eventual absence of most colors provided by the plants and trees in our local region. Once the winter season begins to wane, the natural progression toward the spring begins, the renewal of every living thing becomes a much anticipated event that provides an astonishing array of scenes, even just in the modest confines of the property surrounding our humble home.

The greens are the first and most noticeable colors to appear.

Prior to the arrival of spring, the backyard looked particularly devoid of color, and looking up into the trees had little to appeal to the eyes, except perhaps as a contrast of black and white limbs against a grey sky.

Once the spring gets fully underway, the contrast and the vivid colors among the leaves is quite a sight!

The green leaves are really starting to fill out now.

But in order to truly feel the full effect of the change of seasons, I usually have to wait until the last week of April and the first week of May, when all around the house bursts of color explode!

Pink Azaleas
purple flowers and hyacinth
traditional daffodils
yellow azaleas
Hard as I try, I can’t seem to stop the relentless crawling of the ivy in the yard.
Flowers out in the front yard.
Tulips are usually the last to show up.

With all of the chaos and isolation of the past year, almost everyone has held out hope that by the summer or early fall we might be able to emerge from the social distancing, and most everywhere you go, the conversations surround the attainment of both doses of the covid 19 vaccine. Up until recently, finding a spot on a list was a daunting task, and most often, unless you had some particular condition or were of a certain age, the wait was indefinite. In my case, as a part-time “essential worker,” I was fortunate enough to qualify through my employer to receive the opportunity a few weeks ago. I had to travel over fifty-two miles to a large site operated by the National Guard and wait in line with hundreds of other individuals to attend a drive-thru inoculation.

Winding my way through the lines of cars waiting to get the vaccine.
After about an hour in line, I finally approached the vaccine distribution tent.

After the long winter in isolation, other than for the most essential tasks, we are finally beginning to see the gradual lessening of restrictions, and as someone fully vaccinated, I can be less concerned about my own health regarding the virus, and can look forward to being together with my other family members who are also vaccinated. The return to even a modicum of normalcy feels very much like the arrival of spring, with the renewal of life and the return of the vibrant colors in the yard, matching up quite well with the hopeful anticipation of a season of living and renewal long awaited this year, perhaps more than ever before.

While there is still much to do to recover and to move forward across the globe, the greens and colors of hope available in my own yard are encouraging to me personally, and I am hopeful that with time, the rest of the world will catch up also, and that the terrible lessons we had to learn over the past year or so will provide us all with an incentive to renew our hope, and increase our determination to make the best of our individual circumstances, as we navigate the years ahead.