Am I the same person who walked along the Potomac River when I was a boy or who was so convinced at the age of 22 that God was calling him into the Sacred Priesthood? Where is the man with whom a beautiful brunette fell in love an eternity ago. I look into the mirror. I hardly recognize the one who stares back. It’s not just the wrinkles and grey hair. It’s something else.
Being a self in history is perplexing. How is it that I am myself when I can hardly remember a fraction of the life I have lived and cannot even be sure if those memories are accurate. I do not understand how the continuity of personhood is maintained through time. For ten years my father suffered from Alzheimer’s. Eventually he lost all memories of his past—no memories of his childhood, no memories of his career as a businessman, no memories of his life as a husband and father, no memories of his only son. He could no longer grasp his life as story. I had become a stranger to him, as he had become a stranger to me. I would look into his eyes and I would see … blankness. Where had my father disappeared to?
You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure, / That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here. / When the train starts, and the passengers are settled / To fruit, periodicals and business letters / (And those who saw them off have left the platform) / Their faces relax from grief into relief, / To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours. / Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past / Into different lives, or into any future; / You are not the same people who left that station / Or who will arrive at any terminus, / While the narrowing rails slide together behind you; / And on the deck of the drumming liner / Watching the furrow that widens behind you, / You shall not think ‘the past is finished’ / Or ‘the future is before us’.
“The patient is no longer here.” “You are not the same people.” But why? Yes, persons in history are changed by history, but do they thereby cease to be themselves? Did Eliot really believe this? Likely I misunderstand what he is saying.
But the lines begin to make sense if we see them as gesturing toward the state of detachment—detachment from past and future. When the travelers settle into the clickety-clack of the train ride, for a few minutes they forget both what lies behind and what lies ahead. They put aside their griefs and fears. They attend to the orange they are eating or the newspaper they are reading. They relax into the present moment.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial, / Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear, / The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language) / ‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging; / You are not those who saw the harbour / Receding, or those who will disembark. / Here between the hither and the farther shore / While time is withdrawn, consider the future / And the past with an equal mind. / At the moment which is not of action or inaction / You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being / The mind of a man may be intent / At the time of death”—that is the one action / (And the time of death is every moment) / Which shall fructify in the lives of others: / And do not think of the fruit of action. / Fare forward. / O voyagers, O seamen, / You who came to port, and you whose bodies / Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea, / Or whatever event, this is your real destination.’ / So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna / On the field of battle. Not fare well, / But fare forward, voyagers.
More than one medieval scholar kept a human skull on his desk to remind him of his mortality—memento mori. “Remember, O man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return,” the priest recites as he imposes the Lenten ashes. What if we could live every moment as the time of our death? Our minds would become totally focused, not on our plans, hopes, fears, and regrets but on surrender to God—“Be it unto me according to thy word.”
Recall the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna is torn between his duty as a warrior and the terrible consequences of battle. Krishna advises him to focus on doing his duty and to put aside all worries: “When a man frees himself from attachments to the fruits of Action; Action Itself; or the objects of the sense world—then hath he reached the highest stage of right action.” We must detach ourselves from the results of action and focus on the action itself. In so doing, the poet tells us, the action “shall fructify in the lives of others.” How so? That he does not say, though Christians will immediately think of the communion of saints. Helen Gardner, quoting the exposition of an orthodox Hindu, B. P. N. Sinha, notes that Eliot in fact has given to the text a meaning that it does not have in the Gita:
Eliot does not accept the metaphysics of the Gita, particularly its doctrine of the soul as being ‘unborn, eternal, everlasting’ successively re-incarnated in flesh, or its conception of the world as illusion. The fundamental concept that he takes from the Gita is the concept of distinterested action: Karma-Yoga. Action (Karma) is Arjuna’s duty: the fruits of action are not his business. ‘To work alone thou hast the right, but never to the fruits thereof. Be thou neither motivated by the fruits of action nor be thou attached to in-action.’ Success or failure is not man’s concern. He must have ‘an even mind in success and failure for evenness of mind is called yoga.’ Eliot applies the concept of ‘yoga’ the ‘even, or equal, mind’, or ‘sameness-and-indifference’, as Zaehner renders the word, to man’s attitude to the future and the past. The ‘equal mind releases man from servitude to either future hopes or past regrets. The future, as it exists in our imagination, and the past, as it exists in memory, are infected with sentiments arising from our desires. In the present moment, ‘between the hither and the farther shore’, the past is not finished, the future is not ‘before us’. The present, the actual moment, is the moment in which past and future exist. Eliot’s actual quotation from the Gita, put in quotation marks, is only the first part of the sentence that Krishna delivers. As Eliot completes the sentence he modifies its original meaning. Krishna declares ‘Whatever state (or being) one dwells upon in the end, at the time of leaving the body, that alone he attains because of the constant thought on that state of being’. Krishna means that the mind of man as it is at the time of death is fructified in the next life of that man, i.e. when he is reborn. But Eliot translates the idea into his own terms. The ‘fructification’ here is in the lives of others, and the one ‘action’ that can fructify in their lives is the disinterestedness with which man acts not the actions themselves. (The Composition of Four Quartets, pp. 56-57)
What is important is to remove self from the equation and simply do the will of God. “If we would aim at perfection,” John Henry Newman writes, “we must perform well the duties of the day.”
A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.’ So the old man said, ‘Go to the cemetery and insult the dead.’ The brother went there, insulted them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’ He replied, ‘No.’ The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’ So the brother went away and praised them, calling them ‘Apostles, saints and righteous men.’ He returned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’ And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you?’ The brother said no. The old man said to him, ‘You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 132)
We cannot perform our duties well if we are obsessed with their consequences or concerned about what others will say about us—actionless action, detachment, apatheia, dispassion.
Fare forward, voyagers.