More than a decade ago I stood on a jungle hillside on the Island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific, and I gazed on the incessantly pounding surf of the ocean that lay at the base of that tropical hillside. The roar of the waves never ceased during our stay and the vista upon which I gazed was, to use a cliché, awe-inspiring.
It is vast, this ocean. It is the largest single geographic feature on the planet. That same ocean’s waves wash near my home on the west coast of North America, yet here I was in the vicinity of New Zealand. In my passage to Rarotonga — a seemingly incessant ten-hour flight from Los Angeles — I had only covered part of a body of water that, while massive, is still finite.
While I was on that hillside I was both humbled by the magnificence and hugeness of what lay below me, and frustrated in that I could not ever in this lifetime appreciate fully what lay before me. I was further struck by a kind of sadness that told me I would never explore all the reaches of this ocean, let alone the boundaries of the globe.
Not in this lifetime, as I say. Lifetimes are as finite as the ocean is, and very much smaller. Like the Pacific, what has the potential to be known in life is vast. When we move into realms of the entire universe we mortals, in comparison, shrink even more. As for the metaphysical, that is truly beyond the pale of what we can ever understand, so we must only speculate.
That said, when I hear the utterances of those who profess to know the
answers to the whole damn thing, I am amused. Not angered, just amused.
My moment of pondering, and indeed revelation came about some two weeks after the horrors of September 11th, 2001 — a day in which, despite how much we might want to deny it, and I have often pondered how the world was rendered a little different.
I think there was maybe no time in my adult life in which I had felt so vulnerable, and so mortal. I didn’t want life, as I understood it to be over. I wanted to have the world at my disposal in my remaining years, but my tropical hillside musing told me I could not have that. I could only have that which my limited lifespan would permit.
The world is not a globe or a map, it’s real. So is life; so is death. And death restricts us, as far as we know. Possibly I felt, for a few days at least, the way people felt when Germany attacked Poland in September 1939, or Japan carried out the Pearl Harbor raid in 1941. Something dreadful had happened, and nobody could foresee how the hand of destiny would be played out. They only knew, as I knew, we would never be quite the same.
We haven’t been the same, and we’re the worse for it.