(Photo of Glenoory Bay, Donegal, courtesy of Alison Hirschel and Gene Burns)
In one of my last posts, I talked about being a tortoise rather than a cheetah. I recently saw a friend and roommate from college, Marilyn Beals, and she reminded me that I am a cheetah when I eat – at least I was in college – but that may be because she is a tortoise when she eats! She wanted to affirm for me that I can still do some things quickly.
For months now, I’ve been thinking of a William Wordsworth sonnet, “The World is Too Much with Us,” which is a poetic companion of sorts to my cheetah vs. tortoise post. Although I was trained as a fiction writer, I have read and taught enough poetry over the years that lines from poems often come to my brain unbidden, which happens, I think, when you love words, and also when you share/teach the same poem to four sections of literature-based composition on any given day, as I did in the 1980s at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
At some point I must have committed the sonnet to memory, because different lines come to me at different times. Wordsworth was an English Romantic poet, and the poem is often described as asserting his frustration with the Industrial Revolution and the way in which it moved humanity away from nature, robbing the human spirit of mystery, beauty, and the capacity for wonder. His message certainly resonates in our current era as well, even though we long ago moved past the Industrial Revolution and into the Information Revolution.
Wordsworth’s message also resonates for me on a slightly different plane. As I have intoned “The World is Too Much with Us” to myself in the last few years, what I’m positing is that I have become too slow for the world. Because of the speed of everyday life and my slow pace, I can’t keep up. We are out of step, the world and I.
Yet I am not alone, and recent events have underscored this point for me.
The dissonance and the space between my speed and the speed of the world is no more evident than when I am traveling and must manage the GPS system on my phone while driving. I expect the navigational guide to reign on the screen; when a random text or email message interrupts the navigation depicted on my phone, my blood pressure rises, and I panic. If I lose my navigational screen, I will be lost. None of the paper maps on the seat next to me will do any good after dusk has arrived and I ‘m in the middle lane of some six-lane expressway. My hands grip the steering wheel; my neck moves as if on a hinge, snapping right, then left to check the lanes around me. “The world is too much with us,” I mumble to myself, and what I means is that I am frightened at how old I have suddenly become, how inept I feel in this world that moves at a pace even my adolescent self could never have managed.
I wrote the paragraph above several weeks before I learned of the sudden death of one of my daughter’s high schoolclassmates. He was driving with two friends on a rock-climbing adventure in a western state, just a few weeks before he was to be married. In the afternoon on a precipitation-free day, a car drifted from its lane on a two-lane road and hit his vehicle head on. He was killed instantly. One of his passengers died just over a week later.
In the media report, the law enforcement officials suggest that some driver inattention on the part of the other driver might have been involved. That driver was also hospitalized.
Driver inattention. That two-word phrase could mean so many things. It could mean that the driver, like me, has difficulty trying to follow the GPS on her phone to determine her travel path. It could mean that she was texting while driving. It could mean that she has undiagnosed narcolepsy. It could mean that she was under the influence of alcohol or some controlled substance. There are a host of possibilities for that two-word phrase “driver inattention,” but in the end, none of it really matters because so many people’s lives have been irrevocably changed by the consequences of the driver inattention, regardless of the specific kind of inattention.
A much more mundane example of how the world is too much with us is apparent in the recent presidential debates for the Democratic candidates. While these debates are arguably no different than those in the last half century, the number of candidates make the compressed intensity of the debate style more apparent. In order to narrow the field, the candidates must “take on” each other with respect to key issues. Each candidate’s team members perform research and develop talking points based on opponents’ past policy decisions. The television viewers watch to see which candidate gets to have a “moment” in the limelight, based on his or her delivery of a one-liner or zinger.
Let me make a pointed statement. I will vote for any candidate who is not Donald Trump. But the media runs the risk of turning all of these candidates into miniature Trumps with its focus on minute- and seconds-long answers. Whether a candidate is talking about his, her, or their policies, plans, platforms, or values, a tweet-sized thought is not substantial enough. Candidates deserve the opportunity to articulate their ideas. There are so many of us who just can’t live any longer in this sound-bite world that Trump has harnessed for his reign.
And finally, the obvious example of the “too much with us” world. Wordsworth is mourning the loss of the natural world: “Little we see in Nature that is ours,” he says.
The ice in Greenland is melting. The temperatures in Europe and elsewhere have soared. Trash floats in and chokes the earth’s bodies of water. Every night, a different expert on a different news show explains to us that we have only ten years to alter the path that leads to the earth’s destruction.
At times, over the years, I have stopped in my tracks, often in a quiet room, and intoned Wordsworth’s words: “Great God! I’d rather be/A pagan suckled in a creed outworn….”
A pagan. For Wordsworth, the idea is radical, his “Great God!” serving not only as an exhortation but also as an exclamation.
Regardless of what creeds we follow, we must slow down. A slower pace is imperative.
When we are driving. When we are speaking and even arguing with others. We must embrace the quiet in the world and linger much longer in some silent, natural moments. We must turn to others, speaking gently and with humility. We must extend our empathy. Above all else, empathy, respecting the dignity of others. The dignity of humanity.
The World is Too Much with Us
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.