By Hilton Gregory
It came in the mail with a collection of bills. Hundreds of copies of it must have gone out to residents of the suburb I live in, announcing that the local historical society wanted volunteer researchers. I let the letter slide into the wastebasket.
Then something made me fetch it out again. Within a week, I was on a study committee. Soon I was writing a paper, delivering a speech meeting new friends. But the most remarkable thing is what the experience did for my outlook and feelings. I found that my spirit soared, borne aloft by the new interest.
About that time, I read a sketch of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I learned that as a sickly youth he had been given up by the doctors. He went south to die-“yet still his spirit soared.” The words leaped out at me. Anyone who has read Emerson even cursorily knows the multiplicity of his interests and can guess that the exhilaration of new discoveries from day to day lifted him above defeat and ill health. He lived to be 78.
There are those such as Emerson whose talent and disposition enable them to rise above adversity or the humdrum of existence. Always mounting above petty resentments, their talk moves up from palaver about people to principles and ideas. You can’t get these people down because their spirits are elsewhere, elevated and renewed by interests. They perceive others’ views by rising above their own.
Fortunately for us soaring spirits have characteristics we can study. Here are some specific traits I have observed: they don’t make reaching out a chore. Soaring spirits instinctively now that the road to new interests is the natural route of fascination and delight; they do not drearily drive themselves to self-improvement. Some of us grimly jog instead of enjoying long walks attend encounter sessions instead of trying to communicate with our marriage partners. True, any line of inquiry diligently pursued is preferable to ennui; but what we need are sustaining, rather than sustained, interests. A leisurely approach that trusts spontaneous curiosity permits our faculties to soar.
They exploit their moments of inspiration. Even greatness has only intervals of glory. It is a mistake, said W.Somerset Maugham, to think of genius as forever in action. A rare talent may for drab periods slog along with the common lot. But when a new interest takes him up, he drops everything to go.
Periods of transcendence may be brief. In such periods, the artist, animated by what is known as the “divine afflatus,” operates far above ordinary abilities. He nows the importance of these moments, and uses them while others waste them.
We have all enjoyed moments of unaccountable good feeling: work does itself; we feel strong and confident; problems shrink. We must learn to take the current when it serves. What we need to notice is that these moments are usually associated with new things that interest us.
They rise with their natural thermals of interest. My friend Bob Buck, a retired international airline pilot who loves to soar, took me up in a sailplane and, without the power of a motor, we remained aloft for hours. The sky seems empty and motionless, but Bob knows that it is alive with capricious currents and invisible elevators-most of them going up.
You soar in a sailplane by finding what the skypilots call thermals-immense columns of warm air rising from the earth. At their minimum, thermals may support the sailplane; at their maximum, they lift it high in moments of shuddering excitement. The skilled pilot gets the best out of every thermal he finds, circling and rising in its broad embrace. When it plays out, he glides gently downward until he feels the lift of another thermal. If he doesn’t find any, he glides back to earth, trailing his experience behind him.
Everyone knows that there are around us every day thermals of interest. A penetrating book or conversation with a new friend can propel us to maneuvering heights. Once we are up, we have the cooperation of a skyful of ideas.
They find inspiration in others. People often soar by means of the interests of other people as we as their own. I learned the principle when y younger son directed a vacation jaunt from plan to finish. To none of the places he chose would I have gone without the tutelage of his enthusiasm. There was a newness of perspective in his interests, so different from my own. I tarried over new territory, and was renewed.
Everyone you meet has some interest you don’t have. The judicious use of ears will suffice to acquire it . Here is a chance to get above yourself by letting the sincerity and intensity of another’s concerns buoy you.
They follow the current wherever it may lead. In youth, before we get trammeled by requirements, we learn how far a new interest can take us. I remember hearing a college lad talking about one subject that “won’t take any time at all. Unless,”he added, “I get interested.”
There are regions of culture most likely to lift the spirit. Philosophy, art and religion are three areas in which man transcends himself. I have found the landscape of language worth a try. Words have great warmth-and a height that arises out of their history. And there are at least 450,000 possible thermals in the biggest dictionary!
Most of us will never be what Sir Walter Scott described as the soaring and ardent spirit for which the earth seems too narrow. Yet we all have what Shakespeare called “immortal longings” in us. I remember the fable of the eaglet stolen from its nest and chained to a stake. The story has it that the captive, fed and befriended, survived and accepted its lot until one day an eagle appeared in the distant sky. Each day the eagle came closer, circling lower and lower, until at last it touched the captive with its wing. It was this act that made the bird on the ground tug with such might that it puffed up the stake and took off.
Whatever the grubbiness of our lot as earthlings may be, we know that there is some of the sky in us. We may not be able to pull up stakes, but there will be times when we will be touched by wings and want to soar.
By Hilton Gregory