Orienting Life Around a Farthest Point
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Life, as the bumper-sticker goes, is a journey, not a destination, yet a journey without a destination is little more than one great meandering saunter. A builder does not assemble a great heap of lumber, grab his tools and see what comes of the following fracas into the pile. He goes into it knowing to himself, I am building a table, or I am building a bedroom. Grand or modest, he may even design something previously unimagined, but he still maintains the end in the front of his mind. Call it ‘vision’ or ‘goal-oriented thinking’ or whatever suits you (I regard neither phrase particularly well), but the point is, without a destination, any journey has a tendency to wander, and a lot of lumber ends up wasted. While, as Tolkien taught us, not all those who wander are lost, but many are, which is why his phrase points out the exceptions. Journeys can certainly take detours. A destination does not mean a race to a finish line.
It means an orientation. It means seeing the mountaintop on the horizon line of your life.
Proper orienteering requires finding a fixed point in the distance—the farther the better—by which you establish your heading. Mariners traditionally oriented themselves by stellar signs, constellations or Polaris, because these are the Farthest Points, the most distant things by which you can plot your course.
In classical Western thought, from the Bible to the old Babylonian and Greek ways of thinking, we are comprised of three components: body, mind, and soul. The body is obvious, comprised of matter and energy. The mind is often called the Spirit, that part of you which can form words and ideas, commune with the Transcendent, with God, and the Soul is the compass, the judge, the part of you that understands that there is a difference between right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, etc.
Contemporary Western man has largely forgotten or failed to acknowledge the existence of things like the Soul, and in so rejecting, rejects the belief that our souls have specific ways of nourishment. You could call this the Spirit of the Age—or Post-Modernism. It also rejects by association that we have spiritual elements as well as physical, because it rejects the existence of anything that Science cannot observe, which is only matter and energy. This is a conflation between what we are made of and what we are.
One way to think about orienting your life is to align these components, Body, Mind, and Soul alike. If you spent your time reading Chaucer and Plato but fill your ears with nothing but 2000’s pop music, the junk food of music, your soul is left starving for beauty. Fail to take care of the body and your mind will not operate as it ought to. Relishing in experience without reflection on the deeper meaning of things or following after Truth, and your whole life will linger without purpose.
For the purpose of these pages, I will suggest looking at the Transcendent—ultimately, at God, or more specifically, at Christ Jesus—as the Farthest Star, the ultimate aim around which a man might align himself, for there is nothing beyond the Beginning and the End of all things. If God is the Farthest Star, what of earthly life? It helped me tremendously to think of that aim as the Mountaintop or Summit on the horizon, the HighestPoint in life, the destination of the journey—not the end, but the aim.
Speaking of Journey...
Stories often say things better through narrative than we can explain them through exposition. It’s why I read, tell, and give my children good stories. While it might be expected to begin with a book, I actually want to begin with a game. In 2012, a small independent studio released Journey, an utterly brilliant narrative experience that crystallized images I had carried in my mind for a long time. It was an archetypal story, the Hero’s Journey, the symbolic pathway of life, aptly named. The premise is simple: you begin in a sprawling desert, and in the distance is a mountaintop with a light at its summit. That is all. The meaning and history of the story is told, if you look for it, in the path along the way. The game is a lonely journey to that summit. The traveler will face vistas, plains, ruins of what came before him, plunge into the Abyss and lose sight of the Summit, encounter other travelers along the way, experience figurative death and transformation, but all the while move towards the blissful destination atop the mountain.
It is elegant in its simplicity, an interactive narrative told through allegorical play, but it illustrated the act of orienting yourself towards a fixed point in life. Of course, the purpose of the “life is a journey, not a destination” phrase is a good one: to highlight the importance of slowing down and smelling the proverbial roses, to experience the adventure around you on your way to your destination. This is an important lesson, but like many, we take it too far, to the point that it becomes antithetical to its own meaning. You still need a destination.
1– be beyond the range or grasp of human (experience, reason, belief, etc).
2– to excel; surpass.
The Spirit of the Age of the modern West has shifted the star in rejecting that the Star—or anything transcendent—even exists. Nietzsche referred to this as “[unchaining] this earth from its sun.” You could think of it as removing all fixed points from the horizon. That’s what Transcendent things are, things that go “beyond” the limits of our experience, the ultimate being God. Regardless of the turns your road takes or storms that arise, you can reorient yourself by the Farthest Point and ask: where am I in relation to that?
If all you have to orient yourself by is non-transcendent things (experiences, friends, mortality), you face a future with only relative navigation. The New Testament calls this being “carried about with every wind of doctrine [or teaching].” It means you have no standard by which to measure your life, your decisions, or anything else. At one time in the West, absolute Truth was the simplest form of the Farthest Star, though its nature was debated plenty. Post-Modernism (what I am calling the Spirit of the Age in these pages) could be summarized as the total religious rejection of Truth: essentially, you go through life with no Farthest Point, no Summit, nothing specific to aim towards.
In my own generation, I watched this phenomenon arise. All patterns of former lifestyle were summarily rejected as “conformist” or as blindly following after a pattern without reason. I will later speculate as to the reason for this generational change, but for now, it was enough to say that things like marriage, especially young marriage, working with your hands, owning land, parenthood, and even humility under a transcendent God were all replaced by endless, promiscuous dating loops, office jobs, renting, pet-obsession, and arrogant defense of an aimless life. Young men and women would wander from job to job, boyfriend to boyfriend or girlfriend, apartment to apartment, without direction, and without purpose, or at least a sense of it.
The Classical image of life (what I am about to promote) was now viewed as a prison, a chain, from which we had become unfettered, but I rather came to see it (eventually) as Nietzsche saw the rejection of God—as unchaining the earth from its sun.
A Lost Generation
Peter Monamy. Ships in Distress in a Storm. c.1720–30.
If this all sounds philosophical and theoretical, I will argue its pragmatism. This issue of empty horizons is one I have seen up close, hundreds of times over, counseled, mentored, and been afflicted by. The generational shift I described came into far fuller fruition by the time I was raising my own children. For seven years, I taught the dreaded Freshman English for the University of Wisconsin.
A question I used to ask my students was simple: what are you for?
They were accustomed to being asked what they wanted, what their dreams were, what “impact” they hoped to make—whatever in blazes that means—but most had never been asked a question like this. The honest answer that had been taught to them by the Spirit of the Age’s Religion of State Education is: you are for nothing at all. While this might seem beautifully liberating, having too many choices does not evoke creativity;it cripples it. One does not sit down with somebody to play a game and say “you go first” without first establishing rules, which really just means limitations. While we might balk at the idea, we thrive on limitations. Limits spark ingenuity and give us direction. Too many make a prison, sure, but too few imprisons us in an aimless cacophony of options.
They would not (and almost could not) read, and most had no idea why they were enrolled at university, beyond pleasing mom and dad. At that time, the climate in American universities was to discard all things Classical or Occidental (meaning Western in origin) in favor of a neo-Marxist view of history. Few of us assigned books integral to the Western Canon. In that environment, I created a curriculum designed to draw out questions like what are you for? Or on what foundation are you basing your sense of right and wrong? Or what are you building?Or simply what is Truth? Every term, more and more of them would approach me after classes, through emails, phone calls, etc. to speak with me privately, and the conversations became so formulaic that I could recite their problems ad nauseum. Many were depressed, unfulfilled, unhappy, and searching for Something—a Summit by which to orient their life, maybe, or even a Farthest Star.
The contents of these pages are a summation of the curriculum I ended up developing in response to this observation, and the beginnings of a ministry and work that would go far beyond my professorial experience.
The class I drew them through was about adventure, discovery, and risk. The following class was about logic, moral argument, and learning itself. By the end of both, many were grappling with what they really believed in life, and more importantly: why. I taught them less than I asked them, questions we once called fundamental to life, but were now unspoken. Once these questions settled in, they wanted to talk about things, but (in a case of unmitigated irony), they felt they couldn’t discuss these kinds of topics on the campus.
So Elizabeth and I opened our home.
It began with barbecues open-house style, and eventually became a weekly gathering. Since then we have had the opportunity to minister to and counsel many, many young people. The emergence of the links between old Western ideas and the lives of these young men and women happened by itself.
Their lives seemed like they had become journeys without destinations, with neither Summit nor Star. How and why are discussions for another day, but the Spirit of the Age might support something like this: A good life is one where you live up to your Potential (Translation: academic achievement), and anything less than the total exploration of your Potential is a cosmic and criminal waste of the mortal life you have. You will find this Potential lived out in a Career or a Dream, which are the same thing. Marriage and children should only be considered after all this is established, that is, after the true meaning of your life is settled and some side-pleasures can be enjoyed which exist to support your career, sort of like hobbies.
In a sense, adulthood itself was veered away from as a desirable Summit, largely, I am suggesting, out of a mis-imagined view of what adulthood is, but more on that later. In contrast to all of this is the Classical Western Summit of the aim(s) of a man’s life:
Get out of your father’s house.
Have an adventure.
Face danger and grow strong.
Find a nice girl.
Support and protect her.
Purchase and maintain land.
Work with your hands.
Have many children.
Build a future.
Leave a legacy of these values to your sons and daughters.
This simple journey is antithetical to what the Spirit of the Age teaches us. It is a forgotten and fulfilling life, an ideal life for you, your wife, and your children, a far higher Summit than the Spirit of the Age can offer to a single soul, and a far greater one around which to orient your life. You could say it is on the way to the Farthest Point.
Life brings forks in the road, but without a destination, how can we ever take the better road to that end? We could say that neither is better than the other, but this assumes there is no Farthest Point at all, that all roads are equal because there is no standard by which we can measure our life, our decisions, or any possible future we might have. The Spirit of the Age mentality says that a one-night stand with an attractive girl is equal to proving your worth to an ideal help-meet in order to win her hand in marriage.
The former is what boys do; the latter is what men do. They build toward something—they are on their way to the Summit. Solomon’s wisdom says it this way:
“Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.”
—Ecc. 9:7 (KJV)
Times Are Changing
You could call all this a timeless life, in that it is not bound to any particular culture, region, or era. The popular saying goes that “times have changed,” but what if times do not change, because human nature does not change? What if we simply discover new ways to commit old acts, made easier by the dropping of our eyes from the Farthest Star to the ground?
The Summit is an easy enough thing to lose sight of. This is what happens to Saint Peter when Christ invites him onto the stormy waves of the Sea of Galilee. Peter and the other Disciples are caught in the storm and their boat is like to break on the waves. Someone catches sight of Christ walking on the surface of the water and when Peter asks if it is indeed him, Christ invites him out. Peter steps off the boat and makes it part way to Christ’s open hand, and does so in faith, but somewhere along the road his eyes fall to the waters and off of Christ—to his earthly life (and all its dangers) and off the Farthest Point of the Transcendent. We call this the “all is lost” moment of the great Western story: when all sight of the Summit is obscured by the sheer height of the thing, or by the monsters between you and it, or simply the valley at its base.
The story of Journey takes the player into such an abyss where the literal sight of the Summit is lost. These are the moments where faith is difficult. One must move forward believing that the Summit is still there, and still worth fighting for, even when it cannot be seen.
When you learn to drive, or even to first ride a bicycle, one of the first lessons is to keep your eyes on the road, but not on the road in front of your wheels. You are taught to keep your eye on the point where the road meets horizon—the Farthest Point.
The Western great classic Don Quixote, though published first in 1605, tells the story of a man who lived in a time when the stories he’d grown up hearing—stories of knights and maidens and dragons and giants—were obsolete, replaced by a world of reason, rationality, and progress (a less intensive but similar rejection of Truth, the Spirit of His Age), but to him, it was also rather … soulless. Joseph Campbell put it best this way:
“Our life evokes our character. You find out more about yourself as you go on. That's why it's good to be able to put yourself in situations that will evoke your higher nature rather than your lower. ’Lead us not into temptation.’ Ortega y Gasset talks about the environment and the hero in his Meditations on Don Quixote. Don Quixote was the last hero of the Middle Ages. He rode out to encounter giants, but instead of giants, his environment produced windmills. Ortega points out that this story takes place about the time that a mechanistic interpretation of the world came in, so that the environment was no longer spiritually responsive to the hero. The hero is today running up against a hard world that is in no way responsive to his spiritual need.”
Don Quixote created adventure in a world that no longer saw the value of it. He saw giants in the windmills. His soul rebelled at the passivity of his age. He set his eyes on the Summit of a dead heroism, and in so doing, he kept it alive.
I once asked a student of mine, what is the purpose of school?, meant in the loosest sense. She didn’t know. I suggested that it equips the student for his or her life. She agreed. I then asked why her experience in K-12 had (as she herself previously expressed) seemed only purposed to equip her for college, i.e. more school.
Somewhere along the way, the table had flipped. Now, it seemed as if the purpose of life became to prepare you for school. The destination had altogether disappeared and the journey itself took its place at the Summit of our aim. We wonder why we wander. What these pages exist to champion is what I would refer to as the Intention of Design, the Summit of a simple life by which you can still orient yourself on your way towards the Farthest Star. I can’t give you an adventure; I had and have my own to discover. I can share with you something that Western man has forgotten, or been deliberately kept from knowing—who and what he is, as found in the stories it used to tell, from Paradise Lost to the Odyssey and, of course, Don Quixote. Beyond these, the most foundational and powerful stories like these are found in the Bible. In the pages to follow, there will be many stories, not only from books like these but from my own time in the company of them and the young men and women they affected. Most of my students did not like English class, but everyone loves a good story. Stories are how we pass our values to our sons and daughters. They are how we connect ourselves to something larger, and transcend the limitations of our own experience.
“Stories are the wildest things of all. Stories chase, and bite, and hunt.”
—Patrick Ness: A Monster Calls