Back in college, I was invited to participate in a production of Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, which was being put on by the drama department of Notre Dame College. It was a nice diversion from my engineering studies for one thing, as well as causing me to gain two really good friends from the then-all-female enrollment of that school. I don’t recall ever actually reading for any one particular role, but I wound up with the part of George Gibbs, who starts out as a wide-eyed kid in the first act, falls in love with and marries his childhood sweetheart, Emily Webb in the second, and then finally has to deal wordlessly with her early death in the third.
Much as I always liked the idea of acting, I don’t know as the play or the role of George Gibbs really suited me all that well. There was something in Gibbs’ wide-eyed, not-quite-innocent character that I couldn’t equate to. I’d been brought up first in suburban Cleveland, Ohio and Winnetka, Illinois, both pretty sophisticated towns, and the mindset of a country cousin like George just wasn’t in me that I could find. No great surprise, the environment of Grover’s Corners, its people and unremarkable day-to-day were largely outside of my experience as well. Thinking back on it, I can’t imagine that I represented George very well to the audience as a result. I suspect I looked rather a stiff on stage.
I may not have been willing to acknowledge it at the time, but there was a lot that put me off about Our Town, but nothing so much as one line, spoken by Emily Webb, as she comes to terms with her own death during the third act:
Oh, Earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
Adjacent to that line, she asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly recognizes all the wonder of life while they live it, and is told, “No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”
My impression, right or wrong, is that Wilder thought we sleepwalk through our lives, and to a degree, maybe he was right. It does seem as though many people go through life largely on autopilot, going through the required motions while failing to see the beauty that surrounds them on a daily basis. In 1938 when Our Town was first performed, people were beginning to get a more global perspective on their place in a world which had content they had no idea about, a world that could impinge on them on something more than just a local basis. The idea of the Milky Way being only one of a nearly uncountable number of galaxies was a very new concept back then. The vastness of reality was growing quickly, and it is very possible that people were either dismissive, unaware, or frightened of even a fraction of what that immensity entailed. Many of them likely wanted to keep their lives simple and not overly convoluted and back then, and mostly they were successful.
The problem has always been, though that external events have a tendency to disrupt such self-involved reveries. Such events may be as simple as a birth or a death, the entrance or departure of someone from our lives or as complex and tumultuous as those which occurred on 7 December, 1941 or 11 September, 2001. Such transients superimpose themselves on us, flip a taunting middle finger at our routine, and play 52-Card Pickup with our lives. They force us to recognize hitherto unrecognized situations and facts, both about others and, more uncomfortably, about ourselves and thereafter to make necessary corrections, which cause even more internal distress.
That is, IF we’re willing to make such changes. There are those who assiduously resist change in certain venues, especially if the change threatens an established lifestyle or belief. Some will resist, deny facts on the ground, or make excuses as to why this alteration in their day-to-day doesn’t apply to them. Then there are those who have the wherewithal to recognize that Life IS Change, that shit does indeed occasionally happen but, to borrow from Louis Pasteur, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” These are the people who LOOK at the world on a daily basis, perhaps instead of staring obsessively into their cell phones, who take in the reality around them. They recognize reality’s ability to alter or interrupt their lives, but they have chosen to enjoy and embrace it rather than to dread or ignore it.
I submit that it is that second group which makes a lie of Emily Webb’s assertion that the world is beyond the grasp or appreciation of the living, and there are a considerable number such people here on A|N and elsewhere who embody that attitude. We watch Cosmos or Through the Worm Hole and marvel at the universe. We see the impact of climate change and don’t just deplore it but determine to do something about it. We recognize the serendipitous luck that allowed us to be alive, and we deeply appreciate that rare and precious opportunity. We’re not just glass-half-full people; we know where the water pump is, and we know how to use it. Do we have a complete and comprehensive understanding of our world? Perhaps not, but we’re willing and interested in learning and growing, in a milieu which would scare Emily and the denizens of Grover’s Corners to death.
We appreciate and realize Earth and more: we have learned to dance, if sometimes unsteadily, in the hurricane which is life.