On Beginning Again

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Today we decide who we will be. We begin a new year with new books, clothes, binders, pens, and passions. Hopefully, we also begin with new aspirations, whether they direct us to find some new object towards which we might dedicate our curiosity and intellectual faculties, or in refining some aspect of ourselves that seems overly rough upon examination. We must remember, regardless of whether we are a parent, a teacher, or a student, that we are not, and never will be, a settled thing except by our own choosing.

We have within us the makings of both greatness and smallness. We must bear patiently in mind that no “great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig.” As Epicurus wrote, “If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer that there must be time.” In order to enjoy this fruit, to reap the rewards of an examined life, we must consciously undertake a great project, which is to say our lives. Now is the time for us to be resolved in our resolutions: to do better in school, to be gentler and kinder to our fellows, to be more courageous, humble, noble; to be more generous with our time, to work harder and focus more on those closest to our hearts.

With a new school year comes new possibilities and we should not wait idly by for a better moment or a more propitious set of circumstances. Now is the time to cast off any insouciance, petulance, bitterness, empty rivalry, and jadedness. The belief that the river of life can wash over us and leave one unaltered is the product not only of a fool’s pride, but amounts to an assurance that the believer has doomed himself to moral, intellectual, and spiritual stagnation. In our rush to assuage ourselves and others that we know precisely of what we speak and of what we do, we should consider Pope’s message about our hubris in believing our foresight to be clear and our knowledge thorough.

Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

We are not as much as we would make of ourselves, and yet now is the day to begin what can be done. Carpe diem is one of the Latin expressions that most of the educated world has found itself acquainted, but most could neither say with whom it originated nor complete the sentence in which it occurs. It is attributed to Horace, from his Odes, and as important as the first part of Horace’s statement is, it is the second that should capture our attention: quam minimum credula postero – put very little trust in the future. A similar sentiment was expressed by the Scottish poet Robert Burns’ in his poem To a Mouse in 1786.

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.

What of ourselves shall we leave the world? What remembrance will be worthy of our lives and the troubles we took? Shall we live today as though it were the last with hedonistic abandon, or shall we strive to be better each day than we were before and not perish with regret for so many missed opportunities to make great what merely was? To borrow and somewhat bend a famous phrase from Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech of 1895, we must cast down our buckets where we are. We must cast them down into the richness that is Ridgeview’s curriculum and culture and faculty and draw up a greater purpose, a finer truth, and some reaffirming beauty. To borrow from Epicurus one final time, we must also remember that “only the educated are free.”

The opportunity of a fresh start is rarely so marked as at the beginning of a new school year, and we must not spoil it by clinging to our resentments or jaundiced views. We must overcome to ensure that tomorrow will hold in store for us a version of ourselves worth knowing and worthy of commending. Let us begin again.


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