About three years ago I had an unusual experience. I won’t say it was all for nothing because it was beneficial overall, and I learned a few things about myself. Nevertheless, it was unsettling. It was perhaps one of those missed opportunities to share what some of your deepest beliefs are, and what your guiding light in life has been.
I was walking in my favorite park. I don’t recall what time of year it was, which is too bad, because that park is the place I can most vividly experience all four seasons, mainly because it has a large garden and is somewhat like an arboretum in that it has such a variety of old oak trees and many other kinds of trees.
I was approached out of the blue by a bearded young man, who later told me he was 23. Being the cautious type that I am, I started to back away and began looking for escape avenue. I really didn’t feel like dealing with a homeless person asking me for help. Looking back now, I sort of cringe with guilt because I know I have to confront those situations in a kinder, more upfront way. But that is, alas one of my weaknesses. Like most people I don’t want to be bothered. “Leave me be, will ya?”
But this young man was not homeless, apparently, and was not seeking money. He said he was going around asking older people what the secret of a good life was; in other words, what lessons life had taught me?
Needless to say I was was taken aback and momentarily speechless. This had certainly never happened to me before. I think I must have mumbled or stammered for a minute or so, mouthing a few empty platitudes, searching awkwardly for some little gem of wisdom he could take away from the encounter and later record in his journal or notebook. I was trying to keep up some sort of conversation with him because he seemed so earnest and genuinely interested in what I might say to him. How odd, I was thinking. What’s the ulterior motive here? Am I perhaps in some sort of danger and don’t realize it?
Finally, and I have no idea what made me think of this, but I suddenly remembered a line in that famous poem by the English romantic poet, John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” I told him, “…beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
How I elaborated, or didn’t, on those famous lines, I don’t at all remember. Literary critics and scholars, and average mortals alike, have spent almost three centuries trying to decipher and interpret the poem. In preparation for this essay, I’ve read it twice and listened to it being read aloud. Although I am more cognizant of what the poem and this particular line mean than when I was an undergraduate English major in the early 1970s, I still dont know quite what to make if it. I love some of Keats’ other poems and odes, but I always related more deeply to the metaphysical Nature poetry of William Wordsworth.
I might have said to the young man that by learning and then knowing what is truly beautiful, whether in our fellow human beings, or in Nature, we can discover the truth about God, life and why we are here. Then we will come to know what love is in its deepest meaning.
I wish I had been able to tell him those exact words. But I’ve had time to think about this tonight.
For now, I can’t remember or know what I said to him other than those four words. But I guess that doesn’t really matter. Those few words might have been enough.
Shortly afterward, I told him I had to be going, when it was obvious he would have sat down on a nearby bench with me and had a long conversation if I had taken the time to do so. But it all still seemed a bit odd and I couldn’t seem to think of much to say, so I left.
A week or so later I saw this same young man seated on a bench at another park closer to where I live, and where I also take walks. He seemed deep in conversation with a man older then me. I passed by and looked at him, but he didn’t look up nor would he probably have recognized me. But again, I don’t know the answer to that either.
How would you have reacted? What might you have said to him if he had asked you what you had learned in your many years of life of life. He was just starting out.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats
Last updated March 24, 2021