Thursday, September 23, 2010

Walking the Ben Franklin

Though I am old enough to have discovered that the dreams of youth are not to be realized in this state of existence, yet I think it would be the next greatest happiness always to be allowed to look under the eyelids of time and contemplate the perfect steadily, with the clear understanding that I do not attain to it.
--Henry David Thoreau, from the Journal (October 24, 1843)
When I was in high school in the mid-1970’s, my daily pre-occupations consisted mostly of baseball, girls, and marching band. I worried little about my future and understood even less about the problems of others. What I had planned for Friday night and whether the brown-haired girl in science class liked me were high on my list of concerns; the Energy Crisis, Watergate, the cessation of hostilities in Vietnam formed merely the historical backdrop of my existence. I was interested in the world’s problems, but only superficially, and without the perspective that life’s experiences can bring.

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I was the all-American boy, achieving academic honors while earning varsity letters in two sports and playing snare drum with military precision during halftime at football games. I laughed a lot back then, told corny jokes, watched old fashioned cartoons, and made frozen soft pretzels on steamy summer nights when the Mets or Phillies were on television. Much has happened since and, though I miss those days, I long ago abandoned the intellectual provincialism of what was a simpler, more innocent time.

Upon graduating high school over 33 years ago, I left for college in the Midwest and discovered a love of learning that has stayed with me ever since. Then I was off to Washington, D.C, and three years of law school, where I developed skills in critical thinking and mixed with more ethnically diverse and worldly students, many having arrived from the nation’s top schools, others having left accomplished careers in journalism, science, politics, and business. The world and its opportunities seemed unlimited then; my greatest worries concerned grades and exams, summer job opportunities, and career choices.

Twenty-five years have passed since I finished law school and, life’s tribulations having taken their toll, I find myself worrying more than I used to, and laughing less. Money and finances, work and fatherhood, marriage and divorce, have all contributed to the reality of dreams deferred and plans unmet.

I walk a lot now. And think. At lunch hour on weekdays, when time and the demands of my job permit, I escape from my office on the 21st floor and walk a few blocks to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the avenues are wide and expansive, the streets lined with trees and flags of many nations, the sidewalks less crowded. Walking along the Ben Franklin, I achieve a temporary reprieve from the stresses of work and the hustle of life. Starting from the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, I wander by the fountains of Logan Square, past the Free Library and the Franklin Institute, and stroll along the half-mile stretch of tree-lined sidewalks leading to the Art Museum. I would like to tell you that I think great thoughts, that I find solutions to the world’s most pressing troubles. But mostly I just think; and walk; and worry, about my kids and my family, the economy, my job, my life and the lives of those closest to me.

On certain days, particularly in the fall, when the air is crisp and the sky a deep blue, my daily walks aim to soothe the soul, though reminders of life’s realities are ever present. The exhaust fumes of passing buses assault my senses, while homeless men on park benches beg for change. The dust and debris of local construction projects penetrates my lungs and sticks to my clothes on warm, humid days. On certain walks, on my best days, I am reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” It is then I develop perspective born of understanding, that my worries are of my own making and pale next to the genuine troubles seen in the many desperate faces I pass.

“To be awake is to be alive,” wrote Thoreau. When I look skyward and absorb the city air, when I let my mind wander ever so briefly, I feel awakened to life’s infinite beauty. Thoreau reminds us, “When we are unhurried and wise we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute value, that only petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of reality.”

Compared to when I was younger, my worries now are less mundane and self-centered, and extend beyond the confines of my limited, undeserving causes, for they concern the destiny of others; my daughters, who find themselves embarking on their own life journeys; my family and friends, who confront issues of health and jobs, of loss and love.

Thoreau wrote that most people “lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Although quoted and discussed for more than a century, the power of these words from Walden penetrates deeply. By them, I believe Thoreau meant that most of us live life complying with societal expectations and fail to find true meaning, ignoring life’s small joys and soulful pleasures. Many are afraid to discover passion and fail to find contentment in daily living. The need to conform, the failure to dream, for some even the failure to think for oneself, leads to the quiet desperation of which Thoreau speaks. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions,” writes Thoreau, “perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

When possible, I will continue to walk the Ben Franklin, absorbing the warmth of the sun and the vitality of the sky, listening to the whispers of God as I breathe in life and open my mind to the needs of the soul. I will think. I will worry. And on a good day, if I am lucky, I will be awakened to the wonders of life.

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