On Adventure: A Letter To My Children
[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. But today I am just flipping the page on twenty-one years, and there is already so much I want to tell them and can't yet. Here where I stand on the threshold of adulthood, looking back on aspirations and ahead towards all the bends in the road, I want to say a few words about adventure, so they will know that I was young once, and boisterous, and learning so tremulously to trust that what is ahead must be even better than all that has been behind. I will write a letter...]
My Dear Children,
You want to kill a dragon with your own two hands and a sword that gleams like a stroke of light. I know you do.
You want to set off over mountains hatted in mist and recover the golden hoards of kings. You want to sprout the magic beans and chase a splendid princess right into the heart of an adventure. You want to press through the wardrobe and shatter the wand in the hands of the witch, and go thundering after the white stag of wishes in the forest of forgotten things. You want get your hands on the giant’s heart. You want to come home cradled in an eagle’s talons. You want to take a little coracle over the white wall of foam at the end of the world.
And there is more. At the brink of waterfalls and in the hills over the river, we get a little wild, don’t we? You all want to go hurtling right through, to the far side of sanity and fences, with your hearts like songbirds. You want to plant your feet on a rock no other bared, leathery feet have hugged, and look down with scorn on ordinary things. Me too. We want to flip our boats into the shock of cold, and chase the current and work our immaculate lungs and flaunt the fabulous mystery of our being like we earned it.
This is not to say you are not afraid of anything. For you are, aren’t you? You are afraid of growing rich and respectable and predictable and doing things according to form and custom. You are afraid you might grow old and give up on the dangerous business of stepping outside your door. You are afraid you might stop going on adventures.
Me too. I am afraid you might do that. Please don’t.
You are getting old enough to see that the grim world is full of people coming and going with harried scowls, not-believing in fairytales. People who see drudgery and inconvenience where they should see hazardous journeys with treasures at the finish line. You laugh at them now. “Adults,” you say, and you shake your head, as though that explains everything.
But my children, here I am, blowing the lights off my 21st birthday cake. And I was like you, such a little while ago, with youth laid out before me like an eternity of possibility. Now, there is no standard by which I’m not an adult.
And the grey, sagging woman behind the cash register at the grocery store was like us once, though one look at her now will tell you she doesn’t believe in fairies anymore. Do you suppose the black-suited businessman at the bus-stop, who goes babbling angry words into the mouthpiece hanging off his ear, has quite forgotten that he once wanted to put a black arrow into the armpit of a firedrake, and save a whole terrified village?
The poison of the age is more potent than you think.
For some, it looks like a hope of comfort which turns into fear, and eyes closing to the war around. And if you never look out the window, you will forget about adventures altogether, and perhaps it will quite slip your mind that somewhere a princess needs rescuing.
For some, fear makes friends with arrogance, and swells into a golden idol. And a man who goes chasing after the green dollars has hardly got time to comb the rugged crags for the giant’s heart.
Children, sometimes a sorrow comes in that blacks out the sun. And today you are untouched by any such thing, but maybe one day you’ll go to sleep and hope you never wake up again.
There are so many ways to settle. And whether it’s settling for security or settling for selfishness, or settling for sadness, if you settle down for what there is, you will never get out to the way things ought to be. And this world is a mighty dull place if you stop going to war.
Yes, you’ll grow up and learn a great many things. And you’ll learn that fairies aren’t real and neither is the wild white stag, and the knights are no more, as the old song says, and the dragons are dead.
But you already know these things. You were never really fooled into thinking that the stories are true in the sense that they actually happened. What then do we mean when we say you’ll stop believing in them? What do you mean when you make fun of adults who complain about cold weather and ice on the roads, and thunderstorms and unexpected guests?
Simply that the world has grown grey to their eyes, and commonplace, and ceased to be a perilous countryside where quests are waiting to be embarked upon.
But that can be fixed. “This world,” said G.K. Chesterton, “can be made beautiful again by beholding it as a battlefield.”
And oh, children, it is. You don’t have to look hard to see that the planet is riven right through, and replete with monsters. You know it now, that cruelty thrives on the air of this place. Every day that you live here, you will know it deeper.
That there is a sickness on the loose and no heart is untouched. And rulers are sated and overfilled while the world is filled with the hungry. There may not be dragons on the loose, but there are still whole villages going up in smoke. The things that you’ve read about are real: like widows turned out of their homes, and cripples crushed and enslaved, and an entire generation of starved minds. There are a great many things you haven’t read about yet, and they are real too. One is almost ashamed to be alive in the same world with some of the things that are. And people in fine houses are deaf and blind and don’t hear how the globe is rank with horror.
What is worse is that truth, which should go up on the lamp-stands of every street and free the whole world, is hated and hidden away. What is worse is that the lovely and glorious truth is mocked and assaulted when it dares to show its face. It will be a mighty adventure to set out to free the world, with truth like a crest on your helmet, on a planet of armies armed with lies. Don’t you think?
I want to tell you something else about adventures, though.
This war is going to wear you plumb out. It’s more than likely one day you’ll take such a beating you go reeling with the shock of your own blood on your tongue. It’s more than likely that the world you want to save will deliver this to you, with bony fingers curled into fists, taking delight in giving you grief. It’s more than likely you’ll sit down and say you don’t care if the giants and the trolls win. It’s more than likely that the adventure will be a great deal too big for you.
I want to tell you about another kind of adventure. A kind of adventure that you’ll keep going out on, as long as you live. The kind of adventure you’ll never be too little for, or too old for, or too weak for. The kind of adventure that’s worth running after, even when the world doesn’t want to be saved.
There was a prince who came through once, to take the globe out of the clutch of the dragon. The morning star heralded him, and the very dove of God went to war with him. And you can love the world with your whole heart, but be assured that this sorry old world which didn’t receive its only Hero, won’t love you back.
Come away, for there is a higher adventure.
After all, what is the philosophy of adventure? Is it not the idea that that which we have to do is of grand significance and laced with risks? And it is this which turns the weary now into war, and this is the sort of war which makes everything joyous. Whether the sad world receives you or not, you can go out on this sort of adventure.
Indeed, the Prince of Champions has asked for you especially,
“Singing, ‘Lady, lady, will you come away with Me?
Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath;
Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain . . .
If we perish in the seeking, . . . why, how small a thing is death!’ “
This is the adventure of love. For love makes everything an adventure, a setting out in expectancy. And if you love the only utterly complete prince, you will have the only utterly complete adventure.