The Undiscovered Country

I am doing an online retreat from the Abbey of the Arts site that provides a process for finding a word or phrase that might serve as way to think about the coming year as it is lived out day by day. The goal is to find a word or that is layered with meaning through the process of finding it. The word provides a thought-provoking perspective on events that might otherwise seem ordinary, barely worthy of notice.

Today’s instruction suggested taking a walk outside and letting the natural world suggest words and phrases to be considered. Instead, I sat looking through the large sunroom windows at the waterfall and flora and fauna in the area behind my house. Squirrels were the most active and entertaining, eating, drinking at the birdbath just outside my window, playing and arguing with one another. Included in that view, on a wall next to the windows, were the photograph of a sunrise at Lake Hefner in OKC and a fused glass art piece that brings to mind a spot in Tobermory, Scotland, where I spent an hour or two in contemplation. I pulled up on my iPad the photo I took of that engaging view when I was sitting there a little over a year ago and propped it up on a small table next to me.

The those visuals combined to provide a very fertile medium for contemplation. While I sat on a bench in Tobermory in conversation with that view, I was drawn to thoughts about the shape my life has taken in the last seven years. Those thoughts led me to catch sight in that view of a way of framing my future. It is not that I have any way of knowing what will come in the next moment, let alone in days, months or years to come. What comes is not mine to decide, but how I see the future and how I approach it is something to which I can attend. There is, of course, a truth so obvious as often to be missed. What I am doing at any point in my life that is called “now” is precisely how I am approaching the future. Say what I will, dream about who I wish to become, create whatever illusions about what I will achieve, what is real is what I am doing and thinking and feeling right now.

Right now, I am tired (for no good reason I can think of); I don’t feel particularly well (but not actually sick – I think); I don’t feel like doing anything other than sit in my very comfortable antique Mission-style rocker. At the same time I am exhilarated about the future as I converse with the visual stimuli engaging my thoughts. I am back in Tobermory with the fused glass abstract art piece (thank you, Stacey) expanding the view in my picture far beyond the limits of a photograph (even though she had no knowledge of the photograph when she created it). My exhilaration comes from recognizing the possibilities for what lies ahead. Not that there are specifics that come to mind. Exactly the opposite. They are possibilities, unknown, an undiscovered country.

All of you Trekkies are thinking of Star Trek VI. Maybe that is why that phrase popped into my mind, but, of course, “undiscovered country” is a phrase from one of Hamlet’s soliloquies in the Shakespeare play. I assume that is the place from where the movie title came. I found Shakespeare to be hopelessly enigmatic as a high school Sophomore. I still do, but not quite as much so. In context, the undiscovered country is death. After describing the pains and struggles of life endured in preference to an early arrival at the undiscovered country that lies ahead in death, Hamlet (Shakespeare) concludes that “Fear of death makes us all cowards, and our natural boldness becomes weak with too much thinking. Actions that should be carried out at once get misdirected, and stop being actions at all.” (This is a modern text version of the original Shakespeare.). Whether one has an expectation about the nature of that undiscovered country from a religious tradition or not, the specifics of that undiscovered country are unknown. The future will include the end of self-aware flesh and blood walking the planet.

When I sat on that bench in Tobermory, what lay in front of me was a ribbon of sea that wound between tree-covered hills into a mist revealing the outline of distant mountains. I realized that the future that comes with each “now” is an undiscovered country. I realized that my exhilaration is fueled by the unknown not only in what lies ahead but also in the present moment, now. I am especially drawn to the people I encounter, what lives inside them. I am not so much interested in gathering information about the places I visit as I am experiencing the presence of the people I meet. Of course there is self-interest. If I honor their presence in that moment, by inference, my presence on the planet is recognized. To be trite, it is a win-win. When I leave the planet is not particularly relevant. What is relevant are the glimpses of that undiscovered country in each moment as it comes, glimpses of a future awaiting discovery.

For now I make plans in pencil on slips of paper that are easily recycled or tossed out. In the past weeks plans have changed dramatically, more than once. I use pencils and erasers to do German homework. For me, the directions to the undiscovered country are being written in pencil with erasers nearby.

Here follows the entire soliloquy in contemporary English and the English of Shakespeare: After all, who would put up with all life’s humiliations—the abuse from superiors, the insults of arrogant men, the pangs of unrequited love, the inefficiency of the legal system, the rudeness of people in office, and the mistreatment good people have to take from bad—when you could simply take out your knife and call it quits? Who would choose to grunt and sweat through an exhausting life, unless they were afraid of something dreadful after death, the undiscovered country from which no visitor returns, which we wonder about without getting any answers from and which makes us stick to the evils we know rather than rush off to seek the ones we don’t? Fear of death makes us all cowards, and our natural boldness becomes weak with too much thinking. Actions that should be carried out at once get misdirected, and stop being actions at all. But shh, here comes the beautiful Ophelia. Pretty lady, please remember me when you pray.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country from whose bourn

No traveler returns, puzzles the will

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.—Soft you now,

The fair Ophelia!—Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remembered.

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