In his classic novels Look Homeward Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe examines the syndrome of childhood nostalgia as he speaks of his own pilgrimage back to his upbringing in quaint and picturesque Ashville, North Carolina. As his novels confirm, his childhood was as tantalizing as my own, in Greensboro, North Carolina and then in Atlanta, Georgia.
After college, I never returned to Atlanta except on periodic visits to my parents. However, because my mother lived there until she “passed on” at age ninety-six, I had the privilege, if such it can be called, of watching the finishing touches of Atlanta’s transformation into whatever it has now become. Someday we’ll invent a term for it, hopefully a term that will designate something that no longer flourishes.
The total effect of my periodic visits over time was like watching a time-lapse film I once saw of a building going up. By this rapid-fire means, I could see the city change in a way not available to those who stayed behind. That transition was so complete and astounding that little or nothing was left from what I had known and loved, except for Morningside Elementary school and one brief visit to Grady High School while it was being reconstructed—the fragrance of those aged wooden desks and window frames had a more profound impact on my psyche than any pictures ever could have managed.
It would appear, then, that if we are not forcibly extricated from our childhood reverie, awakened by our knowledge of mortality in general and of our own mortality in particular, we may have to struggle mightily and persistently to escape the myths and illusions of childhood.
This departure has some similarities to what we face in a serious love relationship gone bad. After the inevitably unsuccessful attempts at remaining “friends,” the lovers must in time leave each other’s presence knowing that any attempt to define boundaries are doomed. The more intense and authentic the love, the more essential it is to establish literal space and visual absence between lover and beloved, or else the wounds cannot heal.
Even when true love succeeds, we must in time set aside our intoxication with the initial bloom and glow of mindless attraction—unwary as we are of its source and chemical powers—in order to progress to a love relationship whose foundation is sound knowledge of that to which we are attracted. Baha’u’llah, in his mystical treatise on spiritual ascent, describes this maturation and growth as the transition from the Valley of Love to the Valley of Knowledge—and he does not portray this transition as easy or even as fun. But he asserts that this “escape” is absolutely necessary if we want to progress, to get on with our lives and our life’s purpose:
And if, confirmed by the Creator, the lover escapes from the claws of the eagle of love, he will enter the Valley of Knowledge and come out of doubt into certitude, and turn from the darkness of illusion to the guiding light of the fear of God. His inner eyes will open and he will privily converse with his Beloved; he will set ajar the gate of truth and piety, and shut the doors of vain imaginings. – The Seven Valleys, p. 11.
As Baha’u’llah makes clear in this work, we should not infer from this excerpt that the initial stage of infatuation or enthrallment is undesirable or unnecessary. The capacity to be vulnerable to that attraction and to examine the nature of its power on us is vital, perhaps essential, if we are to progress. Otherwise, we will have no need or desire to attain knowledge by examining the worthiness and character of that which entices us to draw near.
True, Baha’u’llah notes, love in this initial stage of its evolution may derange our perception and delude our reason:
Love setteth a world aflame at every turn, and he wasteth every land where he carrieth his banner. Being hath no existence in his kingdom; the wise wield no command within his realm. The leviathan of love swalloweth the master of reason and destroyeth the lord of knowledge. – Ibid., p. 10.
But the end result of allowing ourselves to become vulnerable, to indulge in this fire, this insanity, this intoxication, is that any illusion that enthrallment is the sum total of love itself, is the best means by which we can then set ourselves on the endless path that is true love. This is a love that is not a circumscribed and changeless passion, but an eternal process that is ever changing, growing. This is a love that strives towards successive stages of sanity and sobriety.
The value of the initial stage of love, the ecstatic attraction to the beloved, is a means by which “the veils of the satanic self be burned away at the fire of love, that the spirit may be purified and cleansed and thus may know the station of the Lord of the Worlds.” – Ibid., p. 10.
In this same context, the stages or milestones of our childhood and youth, whether idyllic or hideous and abusive, must be set aside if we want to proceed to the next milestone. It matters not if we be haunted by nightmares of affliction, or else by romantic visions of longing and return. In time we must slay the past to conquer the future. Otherwise we are doomed to a life of stasis and regret, of waiting for some miraculous return to what once was, instead of being propelled into a life of striving for the possibilities that lie in wait for each of us.
Wordsworth thought he had discovered a palliative cure for his childhood—extracting whatever inspirational verities and images it possessed and synthesizing them into an impetus for dealing with the present and shaping the future. Thomas could not, and it may have killed him. Each of us, possessing as we do a special character and our own unique blend of talents and subsequent responsibilities to employ those skills as well as we are able, must figure out the best solution to dealing with that first stage of our life’s journey.
Why? Because the next stage we approach is one where we clearly possess a sufficient degree of will and personhood, in which we sense ourselves becoming accountable for all that follows, for pursuing all the milestones that loom before us on the horizon of our heroic trek toward the skyline of a distant village.
Next: Courage and Heroism: What’s Worth Dying For?