I recently came across this excerpt from John Williams’ novel Augustus:
The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality.
The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the names of gods, and has learned that he is mortal.
But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy. For his triumphs and his failures merge, and one is no more the occasion for pride or shame than the other; and he is neither the hero who proves himself against those forces, nor the protagonist who is destroyed by them.
Wow, that landed. Life in three acts: Adventure, Tragedy, Comedy.
This is really what my book Eating Glass is about. In fact, it’s a major plotline in the story of every human life. Our youthful hopes and aspirations eventually collide with a broken world. One of life’s great tasks is to navigate this difficult middle passage. Hopefully, we learn to make our peace and find a new path towards joyful, hopeful living.
Eating Glass chronicles my Tragedy years and my first forays into the sunnier lands beyond. That’s a journey I’m still on, and my daily life now seems like a daily intermingling of tragedy and comedy.
Fortunately, I at least know what questions to ask now, and they’re the questions I like to explore in my writing: What does it mean to be human? How should we live in this chaotic, crazy, fast-changing world? How do we find purpose and meaning when the institutions we traditionally relied on for stability—organized religion, government, marriage, corporations, civic society—seem so dissatisfying to so many? How can we find genuine joy, hope, and beauty in a world so full of hatred, heartbreak, and anguish?
The preoccupations of my Adventure years seem far less interesting these days than those ultimate questions.
In an online discussion about this quote, one commenter asked—perhaps cheekily, perhaps seriously—”how would one go about skipping directly to the third stage?”
If only we could, but that’s part of the universe’s sense of humor: you have to advance stage by stage. It’s the hardships themselves that plant the seeds of wisdom and make such lightness of being possible.
Sometimes I feel like my Years of Tragedy were wasted, but an inner voice of Wisdom is quick to intercept that thought. Despite the challenges, those years brought plenty of goodness and beauty, particularly as I watched my three small children grow and spread their wings. Beyond that, these years were a transformative period that ushered me into a richer, wiser life that is ripe with possibility.
I would like to think that my apprenticeship is complete and my real life’s work is just beginning. I’m grateful to have experienced that metamorphosis so soon.
Photo credit: The Oceanpreneur