Life is a journey, so hang on for the ride!

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 2, 2004

In the journey of life there are those who attempt to live each day as safely as possible so as to avoid all pain.

Some of our coffee companions don't buy that. Tami Netzband, of Cochrane, was the first of several to alert me to a quotation celebrating an alternative view:

"Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, 'WOW! What a ride!'"

In my office hang two paintings that motivate and comfort me in the embrace of the latter approach to life.

The one, Earthen Vessel, Ladder to Eternity, is by local artist Marie Sigurdson. More about that treasured painting at a later date.

The other – actually a set of four reprints in one frame – is Thomas Cole's 1842 Voyage of Life. The four originals, much larger than my reprints, hang separately in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Each image represents one of four stages in a person's life: Childhood, Youth, Manhood and Old Age. The metaphor is that of a voyager in a small boat traveling along a stream from its source in a cave to its end at the sea.

In the first image, the voyager is a baby fresh from the cave and accompanied in the boat by his guardian angel, who is in charge of the tiller. Everything is lush, pristine. There is a full hourglass mounted on the prow.

In the second image, the voyager is a young man standing in the boat, his own hand on the tiller, and leaning forward toward the vision of a celestial city just over the horizon, almost within his grasp. His guardian angel waves farewell from the shore. The water flows gently. The sand in the hourglass is falling.

In the third image, the innocent landscape of the first two is replaced by raging whitewater, sharp rocks, ugly windswept trees, and black, threatening skies. The boat has no tiller now, and everything seems out of control. A middle-aged man, hands clasped in prayer and seemingly abandoned by his guardian angel, kneels in his boat pleading for help. He does not see the angel high in the clouds behind him. The hourglass is just about run out.

In the fourth image, the earthly journey has ended at the sea. A white-bearded old man sits in a badly battered boat, its rudder and hourglass gone. His guardian angel floats in the air just in front of him, leading him forward to another angel in the parting clouds who welcomes the old man into the ray of glorious light that draws him into eternity.

Cole's Voyage of Life presents a reality many of us can identify with. And what a ride his voyager had! Especially in the Manhood part of the journey with all its trials, bewilderments, loss and despair, you'd think he'd have been tempted to cut the journey short. But he didn't.

Some time ago I wrote about a Stoney Nakoda elder who stayed on for the ride, even when her own journey had turned really rough. You may recall the story:

When the late Becky Beaver lost her sight as a teenager, she didn't want to live any longer. One day she threw herself on the ground in tears.

"Suddenly there was a voice from somewhere that gave me a word," she said. "'Your life isn't over! Get up and walk in the new path I've given you!"

"So I changed my mind," she said. "Something had come back to me, and I knew I had to face this world regardless of what troubles I had. Now, though I have struggles, I feel that I have help. I feel we shouldn't be sorry for what we are," she said. "We are to live the life God has given us."

Becky's spirit was no more going to be crushed just because her body had broken down, than Cole's voyager was crushed just because his boat was battered.

The 20th century French scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin captured the essence of such life journeys, I believe, when he wrote: "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

And what a ride that experience can be!

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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