I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.
Do you ever yearn to be great?
While the longing for significance is clearly a common human desire, I’ve read that it’s a unqiue characteritistc of my Millennial generation to have an unjustified, even absurdly high level of confidence in ourselves; it can work to our benefit or our detriment, as described in this Psychology Today article.
But I know that it’s not just people of my generation who have hungered for greatness, impatient for the world to catch up with what we already know: that we are smart, unique, capable, and full of important things to say and do. Part of this attitude is inherent to youth itself.
But this attitude also tends to run especially strong in writers, artists, and other creative visionaries. (I reflected on this some in my impassioned post On Being a Writer.)
We yearn to be great—not necessarily to be praised, famous, rich, and so on, but just to matter and to make a difference in our world. We know we’ll eventually have to die, so we intensely seek to use our life’s moments in the absolute best way we can.
So when I first read this poem by E.A. Robinson, it dealt a hard blow to my psyche:
“And you that ache so much to be sublime,
And you that feed yourselves with your descent,
What comes of all your visions and your fears?
Poets and kings are but the clerks of Time,
Tiering the same dull webs of discontent,
Clipping the same sad alnage* of the years.”
— from “The Clerks”
*(I had to look up “alnage”—it was a medieval procedure for measuring woolen cloth.)
This poem knocked me down in two ways. First, it showed me the condescending attitude I have sometimes: thinking that I “feed” myself—that is, make a living—by descending from my visionary inner tower to perform tasks that are a waste of my precious time. Whether or not that is true does not change the fact that it’s an unhelpful perspective.
And second, this poem popped my balloon of grandiosity—I found myself dropping from dreams of greatness to moans of pessimism and nihilism. “There’s really no point at all in trying to do or be anything! I might as well just lie around my whole life.”
(All right, there were other factors going on too to make me fall so fast…but this up-and-down sensation has long been a pattern in my writing life [not as much these days, thankfully].)
But then Henry Wadsworth Longfellow danced across my mind, and pretty soon my balloon was expanding and rising again.
“Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem. …
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife! …
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.” …
— from “A Psalm of Life”
Eventually, I drifted back to a happy medium between the excessive pessimism of the “I’ll-never-be-a-great-writer-and-even-if-I-am-then-so-what?” thinking and the excessive optimism of the “Why-can’t-the-world-see-my-awesomeness-already?-I’ve-got-important-things-to-say-and-do-here-so-let’s-hurry-up!” thinking.
And that’s where I am now, I think, or at least where I strive to be: with a medium-sized head, aware that I’ve got a lot to learn and that I’ll likely never be as great as my literary idols, and that it takes a lot of blood and tears to accomplish what I want to, but also that I might as well try because maybe I’ll have a chance. I’m trying, as Longfellow says at the end of that poem, to “learn to labor and to wait.”
But sometimes I’ll still revert back to the pendulum swings of yearning for greatness. This is just what life is like when it’s in your nature to want to be sublime.