I’ve been stuck lately. It happens to all of us. Now and then, we feel like Dante, who opens his Divine Comedy in the midst of an existential crisis:
IN the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray Gone from the path direct. . .
Fortunately, most of us don’t need to walk through hell and purgatory before we reach the heaven on the other side. And we don’t need to need to wander between dream vision and sleep, gradually learning how to “do well” like William Langland’s protagonist in Piers Plowman.
But what these texts from the Middle Ages note remains true: sometimes we lose our momentum. Like a turtle pushed out to the center of a frozen pond, unable to gain footing and reach the shore again, we feel lost, adrift, and powerless. Sometimes, this makes us stiff and wooden. As Albert Camus writes in his essay “Return to Tipasa“:
A day comes when, thanks to rigidity, nothing causes wonder any more, everything is known, and life is spent in beginning over again. These are the days of exile, of desiccated life, of dead souls. To come alive again, one needs a special grace, self-forgetfulness, or a homeland.
Indeed, sometimes we really do need to come alive again.
Yesterday, while sitting in the cafeteria, sipping the last of my tea, I scanned the seething mob of students around me. Pockets collected around tables, laughing. Some weaved through the rows of chairs, balancing plates. Most were focused, making beelines through the groups, mumbling excuses and smiling as they dodged bodies and carts, slipping into their own chair. Others took their time, stopping at tables, picking out apples like a chef at a farmer’s market.
Each person had a way of being. Some wore exercise clothes, others had prim button-down Oxfords, most shuffled through lines in pajamas. They had places to go, things to do–or an absence of things to do that they filled with conversations and distractions.
Having spent the morning reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century, I recalled one of the more famous lines. The narrator, a mysterious figure named Will, falls asleep and finds himself in the midst of a strange country. He describes it:
I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built; A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein, With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight A fair field full of folk · found I in between, Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor, Working and wandering · as the world asketh.
Will then goes on to describe these “fair folk.” Some toil in fields, while “Wasters” devour their products in gluttony. Some seek after salvation, becoming monks and anchorites; others wear the habit as a means to a escape poverty and cheat others. Merchants sell wares. Pilgrims travel. Kings rule, judges judge.
The poem describes a diverse spectrum of life, from highborn to low, and sandwiched them between these two towers: the one on a hill, the other in a ditch. We later discover that the tower on the hill is the tower of Truth, a symbol for God and salvation. The tower in the ditch belongs to Wrong, providing a symbol for a wasted life and a doomed afterlife. As the poem progresses through it’s many “steps,” visions chronicle Will’s search for salvation through Truth.
In the cafeteria, I considered Will’s vision, particularly this “fair field full of folk,” buzzing, weaving, laughing, and living around me. Where are they all going? I thought. What are they doing? Why are they here? A surge of compassion welled up in me as these questions turned over in my head, rolling one to the other. I felt connected to everyone and detached at the same time, an outside observer with a unique stake in the observation.