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To live is not like walking through a field
I like to run. Not as fast as I used to, but even a modest challenge to heart, lungs and muscles still feels good. In London I run on Hackney Marshes: there are no cars, not many other runners or cyclists competing for space, and badly-behaved dogs are a rare annoyance. (To be fair, it's generally the owners whose behaviour demands censure for their failure to control; the dogs' exuberance is only natural). Hackney Marshes has good pathways, a mix of tarmac and hardened earth, which are useable all year unless there is ice.
By contrast, when I'm at my house on the west coast of Ireland, I run on a beach, around 2.5km in length and generally deserted. If the tide is out, the sand near the water, beautifully flat and compact, is as springy as a modern athletic track, and a joy to run on. When the tide is in, I am forced to run nearer the dunes on the soft sand, which is more forgiving for my knee and ankle joints, but much more demanding of my leg muscles. Progress is slow and, when there's a strong westerly wind, wearying.
Yesterday the autumn sun was bright in an almost cloudless sky, the wind was calm, the temperature mild for November, the tide was low and the sand firm. Running was exhilarating. I have no complaint. It was an hour well spent. But on other days, when dark clouds are streaming in from the Atlantic, when the wind is strong and the rain near horizontal, and the waves are lapping at the foot of the dunes, then I know I will have to work my muscles hard, every step of the way. Perhaps I should defer exercise until tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, when conditions have improved?
This question is very familiar to me, and not just because of the average annual rainfall in County Donegal. For it is a question both about running but also about living: do I wait for low tide or will I brave the soft sand?
"To live is not like walking through a field". I came across this Russian proverb while reading some of Pasternak's poetry, skilfully woven into his reflections on the burden of living dutifully in difficult times. The immediately preceding line reads: "Alone. / Now is the time of Pharisees." (From: "Hamlet"). For Pasternak, as for many other Russian writers, composers and painters, the 1930s, 40s and 50s were bleak, risky years. To stay loyal to one's vocation as an artist, to speak with a true, untimid voice, carried a high price, for oneself and for one's family and friends. Something was very rotten in the state of the soviets.
I am fortunate not to have lived in that place at that time. I have no reason to fear that what I write today, in this post, will put my life in danger, nor that of my family, nor will I be sent into internal exile. The situation in Russia has improved since Pasternak's time, but is by no measure as safe as Western Europe. Poets are no longer the principal victims of today's Pharisees, who have turned their attention to journalists and dissidents in exile. Now it is those who report facts who face the gravest threat, rather than those who offer meanings.
And yet, however much freedom we enjoy in the wealthy countries of Europe, North America and Australasia, however easy it is to secure a reasonable standard of life, with more than sufficient food, shelter, warmth and leisure, it remains the case that to live is not like walking through a field. Because living is more than subsisting. For Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak's great fictional creation, the Russian Revolution and the early years of the Bolshevik government provided the tumultuous context in which he lived, worked and wrote. But the great questions he asked – What is love? What is duty? Why are certain places important to us? How and where is happiness to be found? What does it mean, for me, to live a good life? – are real and difficult, resisting easy answers in all times and in all places.
Perhaps it is true that when life is precarious, these existential questions of meaning and purpose become more evident. When the threat of arbitrary arrest, of punishment, exile and death are ever present, when simply keeping alive is the hardest of work, then we are more attuned to the consequences of not attending closely to questions of ultimate value. Harshness breeds sharpness. The converse, that the comfortable consumerism of the richer nations leads to sloppy thinking about what the real point of living might be, seems also to be true. Jaded appetites tend to moral apathy.
As our material lives continue to improve – and for almost everyone in the world they have continued to improve significantly over the past two or three decades, whether we notice or not – the risk is that we increasingly forego the soft sand. In our material summertime, the living is easy. However, the great questions – about love, duty, place, happiness and goodness – are always hard to answer honestly. And as we grope towards answers, whoever and wherever we are, they make great demands upon us, which are often not easily satisfied. Every affirmative answer is always, at the same time, a rejection of other options. Every yes implies many noes.
For me the need to confront these questions, regularly and genuinely, without self-deception or bad faith, is what it means to strive. It is not that I choose a hard way in life for its own sake, as if difficulty is its own reward. Rather, it is that some days if you want to run, the only option is the soft sand; and if you want to live well, the only answers to awkward questions are tough, demanding, chastening.
If a good life matters, then strive we must. Not just for the pleasure of upsetting the Pharisees - although that matters too and brings its own reward - but because there is so much less of lasting value to be found along the easy way, the comfortable life, along which progress can be quick, but is achieved without attaining any deep sense of purposefulness.