Clearing the Decks

While residing on Hilton Head Island and in keeping with the Maritime aspect of life here, I have regularly engaged in a psychological purgation, a clearing of the decks so to speak.  This act of purification is normally conducted on the beach while bicycling, a pastime which – remarkable as it may seem – consumes about four hours a day on the average.  The cycling (admittedly not strenuous though plodding) is as much a ritual as the cleansing of my mind, perhaps a unification of the mind/body dichotomy. Prompted by the vast beach, the huge horizon and the dome sky, I find the contemporaneous evacuation of my emotional baggage arises both naturally and conveniently.  In less mystical terms the bicycling and the Ocean are an occasion afforded by the current circumstances of my life; namely, retirement and hibernation.  And my awareness of my advancing age and personal amortization.  Reflection I suppose comes naturally to the elderly particularly when there’s nothing else to do.

Even if I were to be more charitable about my tedious philosophizing, the inescapable truth is that this so-called “clean sweep” is historically consistent with my tendency to brush things aside and start anew.  I have applied this activity indiscriminately to people, places, thoughts and things.  Whenever I feel the need for rejuvenation, I engage in a program of “keep and toss”, with the tossing most frequently carrying the day.  It astounds me that one as materialistic and utterly faithful as I can so easily abandon the object of those initial attractions and alliances.  There is almost nothing or no one to which or to whom I am bound for life.

The journey of disinfection began months ago when we first arrived here.  The thoughts just percolated each day, propelling me by degrees to rid myself of distant memories and associations.  I began, as I suppose is quite natural, with the earliest years I could remember (which for example did not include the two trans-Atlantic sailings accomplished before the age of four years).  As one might expect the recollections I had of my early childhood were incredibly sparse (though nonetheless poignant).  The same applies to my first years of school and virtually everything until the age of 14 when I went away to boarding school.  In any event my object was to facilitate the purgation and to do so I found it expedient to summarize years in one or two thoughts.  Most of my undertakings of any consequence were just normal school boy stuff anyway.  With some minor embellishment the same applied to my undergraduate days, law school, articling, Bar Admission Course, Devonshire House and even forty years of the practice of law.  What mattered is that I couldn’t wait to put it all behind me and forget about it!

When at last I had succeeded to detach myself from everything that came before (a process by the way which was undoubtedly aided both theoretically and practically by having sold almost everything of value we had ever owned as part of our “downsizing” venture), I then faced the question concerning what if anything remained?  Technically there was just a carcass on the dunes of a beach in South Carolina.  Any attempt I made to magnify this less than ineffable remainder met with limited return especially after having excised my past.  To distract myself from myself (a strategy I frequently adopt in what is destined to be a failed effort to deny that the universe is ultimately personal) I brooded upon the intrinsic worth of the other nameless human beings who passed before me.  I also reflected upon those of distinction whom I currently know.  And in every case I kept coming up with the same conclusion that all the effort in the world doesn’t matter a damn!  And I knew from prior rumination that very few if any of the youth of this world are visibly moved by likes of any of us who have come before.  Retailing the value of anyone is a hard sell at the best of times; and most often if it succeeds at all it is only because someone else has something riding on it.  Instead it’s just that wretched routine of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”!

An even greater concern however was that it is impossible to start anew.  The entire project of clearing the decks was at risk of becoming redundant. No matter how distant one is from one’s past, no matter how satisfied one is to let it go, the fact is that we are confined to be the living miracle of our entire past with every breath we take. Whether you remove your past, or even your arms and legs and possibly even more for that matter, you can never squelch the spirit within.  And unquestionably that spirit is peculiar to each one of us.  No two are alike, perhaps a small compliment all considered but nonetheless observable.  We are the original synthetic a priori proposition.  As Immanuel Kant so correctly observed, “The crucial question is not how we can bring ourselves to understand the world, but how the world comes to be understood by us.”  Whatever the answer, clearing the decks doesn’t appear to be it.