Yet we should oftener look over the tafferel of our craft, like curious passengers, and not make the voyage like stupid sailors picking oakum… I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now – Henry David Thoreau
Because you see a buoy when and where expected, don’t assume that it is the right one. – Peter Heaton-
This piece is not an “apologia pro vita mea,” however much there may be a need. Rather, I’d like to state some thoughts about the measurement of success and to lament, brieﬂy, the passing of the last Renaissance Man. (I had always assumed that my enthusiasm for the idea of the Renaissance Man gave Dean Wilson the ﬁnal nudge towards a “yea” in my case. “This lad at least read the catalogue,” he might have thought, “and if he is a little too sincere, freshman English will cure him of that”)
If the Renaissance Man concept was, to continue the maritime analogy, the beacon on our bow at matriculation, it had become but a dim light sinking astern four years later. Somewhere dining those years the Course changed. The college came about and steered for a more professionally oriented graduate, ﬁnding the R- Man too likely to end up a dilettante.
Now skip to about the time of our ﬁfteenth reunion. Many of us were coming to grips with the diminished expectations of our careers and accomplishments; and, although we could laugh at our naiveté in setting our sights, there may have been still a pang of regret that we hadn't gotten on a little further, done a little more. You may remember a follow-up questionnaire that asked us to review our lives since college and respond to some of the Big Ones. One query seemed to ask if the life we had lived was worth living. That was a hard one for me then. I was recovering from the third or fourth bowel resection for Crohn’s disease. Had the question hit a couple of months earlier, or had it hit me without Suzy and our children— well, I don't know what the answer would have been. And I wondered how many people, confronted by the question and forced to look also into the fogs and murky waters of life, finding no familiar markers, would count themselves lost irrecoverably. I remember putting the questionnaire down on the desk with a chill and praying that the it pushed no one over the brink.
I don’t know the measure of success, but I have some thoughts about the process of measurement. No navigator would ﬁx a boat’s position with one point of reference, yet people often seem to ﬁx their lives with less care than that. Suppose we’re peering through the fog expecting to see a red daymark off to the right. Good show, there it is. —Half a mile to a safe harbor and mooring. But a minute later the boat is holed and taking on water. As it turns out, the mark is not the one at the western end of Green Island, showing a north-south channel; it’s Holly’s Ledge, 2000 yards away, where the safe route turns sharply west. Similarly, if we examine our lives through the eyes of people most like us, the narrow range of their experience makes their affirmation of our success a suspect opinion.
The opposite case can occur as well, particularly in a crisis. Say that we’re on the verge of panic because every calculation shows that we should have sighted a familiar landfall; but it’s not there, and every second takes us into more dangerous water. Perhaps we damn the chart, the instruments, our calculations and stupidity, but the most serious error may well be the loss of conﬁdence and the will to keep looking. So, too, people may despair of small accomplishments and a lack of recognition, not because their lives have been petty or worthless but because their examination has been too narrow and weak to show them the value of what they have done and who they are. Records of nautical accidents reveal that experienced people have a better survival rate than younger, stronger victims. The experienced, like Odysseus, know that ﬁckle Fortune may, if they can hang on for ten more minutes, smile on them once again.
The college was right: the world doesn’t need dilettantes, though their fault may lie more in their attitude than their method. The world does need men and women of broad vision who aren’t afraid to march to a different drum. Perhaps, at least, we could all go through a stage of renaissance from time to time (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny) without seriously detracting from our professional lives. Rebirth or the renewal of ourselves is the purpose of avocation, after all. Or perhaps our society could learn to tolerate a few Renaissance Men/W omen as it does poets. I would hate to have to live a life without metaphor.