Matt Dickerson: On hope and delight (reflections on the end of a decade)
It’s the second of Christmas’s 12 days. The next time you pick up a paper with one of my columns, Christmas will be over. In fact, 2019 will be over. It will be a new year. The way most people tally decades (making the most of the same second-to-last digit of a year), my next column will reach your eyes in a new decade. It will be the fourth decade in which I have put thoughts into words and stories in these pages.
I admit that the passing of individual years means less to me these days, since I passed the half-century age mark more than half a decade ago. Time is definitely speeding up. I have to remind myself that even today’s college students have little or no memory of 9/11 nor even of the financial crisis of the first decade of this millennium, an event that had a significant impact on the lives of most of my adult friends. The causes of, and our country’s entry into, the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are as distant and mysterious to young adults today — and simultaneously as much a fact of life — as the Vietnam War was to me growing up.
In my adulthood, climate change and all its anthropocentric causes has gone from a concept and warning in the minds only of our most prophetic scientists and writers to a fact of life: a reality evident in storms, floods, droughts, invasive species, declining and shifting ocean productivity, and the wildfires that impacted every place I tried to visit in Alaska this summer and are a constant reality in the life of my brother and his family in California.
In the last 18 months I have lost a mother to cancer, a significant spiritual mentor to old age, and a young nephew to a tragic car accident caused by a driver high on meth.
I have also stood in wonder and delight watching a mother brown bear catch salmon for three triplet cubs just a few yards away, watched the sun spiral upward through impossibly jagged glacial-carved peaks to cast a morning glow on a turquoise Alaskan lake filled with morning fog, made even more beautifully golden by the smoke of a wildfire burning 50 miles away upwind. Closer to home I have held in my hand a little Vermont brook trout whose bright colors and patterns couldn’t have been any better imagined by history’s finest painters, and watched osprey hunting over Otter Creek with awe (and perhaps a little jealousy) at their ability not only to spot fish from above the heights of our tallest trees but then to dive down and snatch them from the water. I have sweetened my tea with the miracle we call honey: something made by my own honeybees through their unique mysterious all-natural digestive manufacturing process from blossoms growing outside my door.
With each passing year, I am more thankful for the time I get to spend in the outdoors and especially in “the wild” practicing my favorite outdoor recreational pastimes — especially angling. I am more enamored than ever by the beauty of fish, and the beauty of the places I’m able to catch them.
In my last column — an Advent column — I wrote about waiting. Implicit in the thought of waiting is the importance of hope. True hope is not mere wishful thinking. It is not an unrealistic day-dreaming for the impossible. One of the important (though little known) stories by my favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien, is an exploration of the importance of hope. The two main characters seek to define what hope is, and whether it is even possible. One defines hope as “an expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known.”
The other character agrees that this is a good definition, and a worthwhile type of hope to have and to practice. But then he describes another type of hope that is more personal. It is based not on an abstract “foundation of what is known” but on a personal relationship. This deeper hope is rooted in trust. We hope in something because we trust a person. Returning to the thought of waiting, we are willing to wait in hope for something or somehow because we have reason to trust that someone. This later deeper hope is the hope celebrated and remembered in Advent.
But now Advent is over. Christmas is here. Hope in part comes from, and ultimately leads back to, delight. For families that celebrate Christmas, it is wonderfully illustrated in the delight of a child on Christmas morning. For me, it is also captured by the delight I feel when I briefly hold that beautifully colored brook trout, or Alaskan Dolly Varden char, and admire the magenta or red pearls sewn onto the dark green dress that adorns her sides before letting it slip out of my fingers back into the water. Or the delight in watching a 600-pound brown bear leap full on into a pool in the river and come out with a bright red sockeye salmon in its jaw.
Two others of my favorite authors, the 20th Century poet, essayist and fantasist C.S. Lewis, and the 19th Century Scottish novelist and fairy tale writer George Macdonald (whose works profoundly influenced both Tolkien and Lewis), wrote of delight as being fundamental to our lives. Delight is the opposite of possessiveness. When we desire to possess something, any happiness it might bring us is fleeting and always tinged with jealousy and fear that we might lose it, or unhappiness if it belongs to somebody else. By contrast, delight is in the thing itself. I can delight, without any thought of possession, in the sunrise or sunset or the white blanket that covers the top third of Mount Abe as it towers majestically over the Bristol Gap.
As such, delight is not merely a feeling, but a decision: a virtue we need to practice.
Peter Kreeft, one of my favorite philosophers and a scholar of the writings of Lewis and Tolkien once described love as a fountain flowing and lust as a toilet bowl flushing. The former keeps pouring forth freshness into the world. The later sucks everything down into itself. Delight is like love. As hope is to the waiting of Advent (to the promise of my next trip to Alaska or my next May morning standing in the Middlebury River), so delight is to the enjoyment of all outdoor sports, as it is to the joy of Christmas morning.
Indeed, the practice of delight rather than the lust for possession may be the best hope we have as a nation and a world for the coming year, the coming decade, the impending future.
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