The View From 14A: The Arts and the Importance of Time

‘Sometimes we can get lost living in the here and now
Sometimes it takes the sky to see what’s on the ground’

                                                  –Ben Rector, ‘30,000 Feet’ [1]

For those individuals born during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the possibility of air travel has brought tremendous opportunities and possibilities.  The convergence between potential and kinetic energy affords panoramic views as passengers are lifted thousands of feet into the air and gaze down upon an ever-diminishing earth.  This vantage point presents a unique opportunity to ponder various aspects of existence, such as how small human beings truly are in the grand scheme of the universe and our own place within the larger frame of existence.  While the daily events that permeate our lives tend to create a false narrative of inflated self-importance, this elevation of viewpoints provides the opportunity for existential reflection and the provision of clarified perspective.

Air travel is merely one of the many events in life that interrupts our daily, often cyclical, schedules by placing us in front of a mirror of contemplation.  These reflective moments allow us to emerge from the daily rhythms and patterns that define and circumscribe the limits of existence.  As a result, it affords the opportunity to ponder the details of life and to prioritise our commitments, inevitably raising questions about eternity that lead us further to bump up against questions about God and divinity.  As philosopher Charles Taylor maintains concerning our pursuit of happiness and fulfillment:

. . . and yet the sense that there is something more presses in. Great numbers of people feel it: in moments of reflection about their life; in moments of relaxation in nature; in moments of bereavement and loss; and quite wildly and unpredictably. Our age is very far from settling in to a comfortable unbelief.  Although many individuals do so, and more still seem to on the outside, the unrest continues to surface.  Could it be otherwise? [2]

An example of this convergence between contemplation and the divine can be found in the song, ‘Good’ by Dave Barnes. [3] In a moment of solitary reflection as the sun begins to rise at dawn, Barnes is made aware of a glorious nature awakened each morning, his wife’s laughter in the kitchen, and the sounds of his child’s footsteps on the stairs.  Often lost in the constellation of pressing commitments within the orbit of daily life, each intimate detail leads to a feeling of dependence and gratitude to God for these undeserved blessings.  An example of how G.K. Chesterton defined gratitude as, ‘happiness, doubled by wonder.’ [4]

Similar to the view from an airplane window, the human encounter with time provides further occasions of clarified perception, both existential and theological.  Despite our best efforts to manipulate time and to harness its power, it is a framework that humans are never able to truly escape prior to death.  Its fluidity and resistance to being bridled induces an uncomfortable state that haunts the human condition.

A persistent characteristic of time is that it rarely remains static.  Rather, the hands of time tend to either push us forward too quickly or hold us back in moments where time seems to stand still.  As the Epistle of James reminds us, ‘For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.‘ (4:14)

Whether through the prolonged passing of childhood days or a malignant medical diagnosis, our perspective of time arranges the furniture of our priorities and sets the schedule of what receives our full attention.  The more time we feel we have at our disposal, the easier it is to relegate the important things to the recesses of our attention and to fill our days with the mundane and innocuous.

As the character Simon Stimson, in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning theatrical play, Our Town, remarks from beyond the grave, ‘That’s what it was to be alive.  To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those . . . of those about you.  To spend and waste time as though you had a million years.  To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another.’ [5] The allure of financial or professional gain, the endless options of entertainment during our free time and the anticipated escape from stress during our holidays grab our attention and implore us to seek the deceptive ploy of self-pleasure; While the more our perception of time becomes limited, the more our focus shifts toward the most essential and fulfilling elements of life, such as family, friends and faith.

At the centre of this tension is the human tendency to be pulled continuously between the poles of immanence and transcendence.  There are moments when each person becomes so intertwined within the details of everyday existence that the larger narrative of life fades into the abyss of unawareness, while a solitary focus on the grander storyline reduces the constituent parts into blurred points on a broad canvas.

Yet, the great tragedy of existence is that most people tend to inhabit a space of boredom situated somewhere between these two divergent points of perception, navigating between a passive indifference to the individual components of life, while not contemplating the larger narrative either.

Therefore, we need an encounter with an outside entity (air travel, time, the arts, etc) to nudge us into the realisation that something is amiss and to unsettle our state of complacency.

One of the most effective forms of initiating these reflective elements of life and faith is found in the arts.  The arts and its various forms of expression have a way of transforming the world around us, offering glimpses into a spectrum of possibilities, and blowing a gentle breeze across the deepest embers hidden within the recesses of the human soul.  In his ‘Nobel Lecture’ of 1970, Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reflects upon Dostoyevsky’s enigmatic phrase, ‘Beauty will save the world.’  He observes that artistic mediums are latent with the ability to transmit truths and alter the lens through which we perceive reality, ways that are much more effective than the methodical processes of logic and reason that tend to permeate our usual encounters with the world:

Not everything assumes a name.  Some things lead beyond words.  Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience.  Through art we are sometimes visited – dimly, briefly – by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking.  Like that little looking-glass from the fairy-tales: look into it and you will see – not yourself – but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man fly.  And only the soul gives a groan… [6]

Or perhaps as novelist Robert McCammon posits, ‘When people get weepy at the movies, it’s because in that dark theater the golden pool of magic is touched, just briefly.  Then they come out in to the hard sun of logic and reason again and it dries up, and they’re left feeling a little heartsad and not knowing why.  When a song stirs a memory . . . you step beyond who you are and where you are.  For the briefest of instants, you have stepped into the magic realm.’ [7] Thus, the hued strokes across a canvas, black words on a white page, song lyrics that illustrate an imagined picture, or the cinematic congruence between the visual and the audible are all able to arouse desires or to awaken an audience to see aspects of reality that have become mundane or buried under the rubble of disaster and pain.  As Emily Webb ponders through her tears in Our Town, ‘Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? –every, every minute?’  ‘No,’ the Stage Manager curtly replies. ‘The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.’ [8]

One salient example of art equalising this oscillation between the immanent and transcendent views of time is the music of singer/songwriter Ben Rector. [9] His most recent album, Brand New (2015), seeks to re-enchant the world and to cleanse the inner film that clouds our metaphysical and existential lenses.  Whilst the entire album is suffused with emotion at the joys of love and life, the middle songs bring reflection upon the wonder of existence.  In particular, his song, ‘Like the World is Going to End’, imagines what he would do if he found out that the world was going to end on Tuesday morning.  Immediately, he realises the clarifying aspect of this hypothetical reality, ‘It’s funny how the thought of that can make some things real important / And a lot of things seem pretty worthless too.’

After confessing where he would go and the things he would do with the time remaining, Rector laments, ‘We spend most our lives and almost all our time / On what we don’t care about / What we could do without / And the tragedy is that we can’t see it / we can’t see it until time is running out.’  Thus, the intersection between time and art seems to work in collusion to make us confront the reality of our finite existence and to reveal the true blessings that often lay hidden around us in plain sight.  The reality is that each breath we take is indeed a gift and each day places us on the precipice of eternity.  Only when confronted with the limits of our temporal life or the truth conveyed through an artistic medium are we able to view things in a different light.

A similar example is found in the Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually) film, About Time (2013). [10] In this film, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) finds out that the men in his family can travel in time.  As he confesses at the beginning of the film, ‘And for me, it was always going to be about love.’  Whilst a main focus of the film centers on his romantic relationship with Mary (Rachel McAdams), Tim uses his ability to travel in time to help and assist his family and to cherish each moment with his father.  The movie culminates in the realisation that time travel seems no longer necessary to enjoy the individual moments in life, since ‘every detail of life is so delightful.’  Like Rector, perhaps the most poignant aspect of time conveyed in the film is the prospect of its ceasing.  In a very Chestertonian observation concerning the sheer wonder of existence, Tim concludes:

The truth is I now do not travel back at all, not even for the day.  I just try to live every day as if  I’ve deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life.

Like those moments of quiet contemplation, the arts have the ability to force us into a third-person reflection and introspection of our own lives and the meaning of existence.  The most poignant and penetrating moments are those encounters in life that are least expected.  As playwright Thorton Wilder observed, ‘The response we make when we “believe” a work of the imagination is that of saying: “This is the way things are.  I have always known it without being fully aware that I knew it.  Now in the presence of this play or novel or poem (or picture or piece of music) I know that I know it.”’ [11]

All forms of the arts have the ability to situate us within these ‘cross-pressures’ of existence—oscillating between immanence and transcendence—and to awaken us to the important aspects that surround us within our everyday existence.  It is through this encounter with art and time that Christian belief is able to penetrate the immanent frame in which we find ourselves in our current secular age.  In the words of the French writer, Francois-Rene Chateaubriand, the fine arts ‘impart a magic coloring to life, melt the soul, fill us with faith in the Divinity.’ [11] Consequently, music, film and theatre provide reflection on two distinct levels of immanence and transcendence: the appreciation of both the details and larger picture of the human narrative, as well as the immanent frame of our experience on earth and the theological transcendence of the divine narrative culminating in belief in God.

Therefore, if I am to remain consistent, these prosaic words are certainly not the most persuasive way to convey this observation or to elicit your appreciation for the details of life.  A more effective method would be for all of us to engage with the arts ourselves and to watch the film, read the novel or listen to the music that will induce these moments of existential reflection that often defies verbal description.  Indeed, to arrive at the realisation that our ordinary lives already contain all the characters and solitary moments of joy and wonder that comprise a truly epic narrative.  In the end, the result may be a clarified vision of life through tears of joy or tears of sorrow, but most certainly it will result in a view through the prism of reflection that tends to refract colourful hues of glorious existence.

 

 


[1] The portion of the title, ‘The View from 14A’, is in reference to the song, ‘30,000 feet’ by Ben Rector (Brand New, Aptly Named Recordings, 2015).  In the song, Rector is seated in 14A and holds a conversation with the gentleman seated next to him.  As they reflect upon the highs and lows of their lives, while looking down from 30,000 feet, they conclude that ‘Life’s been good to me’.
[2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007), 727.
[3] The video for ‘Good’ can be viewed here. For more information on Dave Barnes’ music, visit www.davebarnes.com
[4] G.K. Chesterton, A Short History of England (London: Chatto and Windus,1930), 59.
[5] Thorton Wilder, Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2003), 109.
[6] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, ‘1970 Nobel Lecture’. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1970/solzhenitsyn-lecture.html
[7] Robert McCammon, Boy’s Life (New York: Pocket Books, 1991), 2.
[8] Wilder, 108.
[9] A live performance of ‘Like the World is Going to End’ can be viewed here. For more information on Ben Rector’s music, please visit www.benrectormusic.com
[10] The trailer for About Time (Universal Pictures) can be viewed here.
[11] Quoted in the ‘Forward’ of Our Town, xvii-xviii.
[12] Francois-Rene Chateaubriand, The Genius of Christianity (New York: Howard Fertic Publishing, 1976), 392.

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