I walk out into an October afternoon, and the air is clear, full of the jingle of crickets. The breeze shifts the shadows and sunlight on the leaves, and the trees in their green and gold glory reach into the blue. This is autumn in Maryland; it isn’t a fireworks show of colors, but the world is still lovely with abundance at the year’s end.
Its sweetness stirs all my senses, and a yearning pierces me, wafting from the secrecy of the tree-shadows, or else from the heights where the trees meet the sky–I can’t tell which. It is a promise, like a half-recovered memory, of the possibility of . . . what? But I have learned that if I am to take a walk, I must acknowledge this yearning and then ignore it. Otherwise it will poison my vision of the afternoon.
Where do these false promises come from? Is there a spirit in this autumn day that offers them? Or is it that my soul hears whispers it cannot interpret, and chooses to attach meaning to them?
By now I have learned what it is that my soul hears in the promise of the breeze. “This is it,” the whisper says. “This is beauty, this is your heart’s joy, what you have been looking for. Follow; the answer is here.” And if I listen and follow, all the splendor grows sour and the world turns its back, because (oh so painfully) it isn’t it, and it will not speak to me. Wordsworth and the other Romantics heard such a promise, and they believed it; I wonder why they did not fall out of love with nature sooner. If I listened too long, if I was always grasping hard at the beauty that moved me, as though I could make it stay and invite me into its secrets, that is what would happen to me.
Our best pleasures must be painful. Anyone who has made an idol of food or wealth or love or any kind of beauty knows this pain. By their nature pleasures do not satisfy; they do the opposite. They remind us that we desire something, and that they are not “It.” I believe that if many of us were honest, we would admit that our happy moments sometimes carry more pain than our troubled times.
How is one to solve this paradox? St. Augustine, also plagued by the siren-call and sorrow of pleasure, offers an answer in his Confessions. We must say to every lovely thing: “You are not Him, but He made you.” This thing that attracts your passion is not God, but it comes from him, it points to Him. Maybe those whispers you hear (and misconstrue) have all the time been whispering of Him.
I believe that accepting that painful yearning, which we cannot and must not seek to interpret, is part of our enjoyment of any good or beautiful thing. We cannot force our impressions to stay; we cannot create our own meaning or make an experience last. We must kiss the sweet moments and let them go. That is because they are merely signposts for wayfarers (as C.S. Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy) and not the thing itself. They remind us that we are on the path to the soul’s joy, and that the destination is ahead.