Monday, March 29, 2010

In which Nathan considers his good fortune

Recently, I was sitting with nine good friends and I was trying to articulate a principle of life.
"I am beset by trials," I began, "but I seek to keep life in proportion by kindling gratitude in my heart for the simplest things."
"Such as?" my friends inquired.
"The smile of my sleeping child; the accident of birth that makes me Australian; the laws of physics and mathematics."
I encountered consternation. "Physics? Maths?"
I explained, "Did you know that you can zoom into a Mandelbrot set so deeply that if the original was as big as the entire universe and you zoomed in so that what you were looking at was smaller than a quark, you would see a tiny little simulacrum of the original shape, repeated anew? There it is, woven into the fabric of reality. Like a signature."
The purpose of our gathering was philosophical, and just as well. Such observations rarely travel well at the pub.

And why not choose to feel some sense of wonder and gratitude at both sunsets, and the laws of physics that make sunsets possible? A few nights ago, I told my son to regard his upraised hand.
"Many of the atoms in your hand, your body and everything you see around you were made in a Supernova, before the Solar system was even formed. What planets did that star keep warm, I wonder?" I explained.
His eyes widened. I love doing that, and we enjoy many such moments as I deliberately inculcate a love of science in my son.
Carl Sagan's observation that "We are made of star-stuff" stands to me as one of the most wonder-inducing and humbling statements we can reflect on. To think that the glint of gold on my wedding band came from the core of an exploding star 5 or more billion years ago is a fine reminder of both our transience, and equally our participation in the Universe. I give thanks for that. That the Universe is interrogable by Human intellect at all (a situation in which the Universe could equally have felt no obligation)... that is grounds for wonder and thanks.

Strangely, these are among the thoughts that sustain me in my earthly trials. Family, yes. Friends, of course, but some sense also that the world is full of hidden joys and marvels that we miss through harried inattention. When my 7YO son has built a Lego model of the Yamato because we're watching Star Blazers on my laptop together at bedtimes (one episode a night. "Hurry, Star Force! There are only 315 more days to save the Earth!"), and he wants to explain how the guns work at exhaustive length; that moment has as much significance as any could in history. Making my son feel listened to is as profound a purpose I have as I can conceive.

How easily I could have missed that. Or to let my other trials wear at my soul until the bone shows. The best philosophy is to expect a better day and to not be idle in the meantime.
To get to that gathering of my friends I recounted, my brother in law had dared me to ride from Oakville to Wilberforce, some 28km round trip, and I had acquitted myself. It was further than I had ridden since High School.
Yesterday, I sang at a good old fashioned Australian bush dance (My big number was The Wild Colonial Boy. Did you know that song was considered seditious in the 1890s and banned?) We wheeled and cavorted, my son partnered by grandmas and aunties alike through the heel-toe polka or the Drongo, now inducted like his immemorial ancestors into the courtesy of bowing and asking girls sweetly if they will dance. I beamed.
 Today, I constructed the frame of a grand new cubby house for my boy while the family gathered in the back yard. Sprinklers were jumped through. Balls were chased by the dippy Spaniel. The BBQ setting was repainted, largely to cover the sins of a previous artistic painting afternoon 7YO son and I had in which the garden furniture came off second best.

Tonight, I cleaned the study. As Satie's Gymnopédies shuffled through iTunes, my hand chanced to rest on the volume of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations I borrowed from my friend Grant years ago and haven't quite managed to return yet. As it fell open, there it was. What I'd been trying to say to my friends that night:
"Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest. How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!' By no means; say rather, 'How lucky I am, that it has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present, and undismayed by the future'. The thing could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have emerged unembittered. So why put the one down to misfortune, rather than the other to good fortune? Can a man call anything at all a misfortune, if it is not a contravention of his nature; and can it be a contravention of his nature if it is not against that nature's will? Well, then: you have learnt to know that will. Does this thing which has happened hinder you from being just, magnanimous, temperate, judicious, discreet, truthful, self-respecting, independent, and all else by which a man's nature comes to its fulfillment? So here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not, 'This is a misfortune,' but 'To bear this worthily is good fortune.'"
This neatly encapsulates the view I want to have about life. This is what I would like others to say of me. Stoicism has always had a strong appeal, but this passage is beautiful in its truth. To be sure, recent loss gives my son and I, (and others in the family) a sadness that sometimes verges on the inconsolable, and an anger as well, and a railing at injustice and helplessness. But equally, I carry a sense that if I keep my nerve... if I focus on my family, my community and my study, then our satisfaction and happiness will be inevitable.

1 comment:

Matt Reedake said...

Great post Nathan, I found it insightful and inspiring. It also makes me look forward even more to having a son of my own :)