“…it has been proved in the life of every man that though his loves are human, and therefore changeable, yet in proportion as he attaches them to things unchangeable, so they mature and broaden.”
Hilaire Belloc, The Four Men
Life today is characterized by mobility. Think of the children and their struggles from lack of connection and rootedness. Think of our own craving for what is stable and enduring.
These are not signs of weakness. Rather, they reveal our human nature, as well as the inhumanity of the now common circumstances of life. We can step back, take notice, and take action to address this situation.
Belloc in this remarkable gem of wisdom points to a central principle of human love and life: the primacy of the unchanging over the changing. The point is nuanced. Unchanging things are not always better. Yet as a rule, the most important things are unchanging—or at least have unchanging aspects.
A cornerstone of good philosophy is the insight that change is ultimately for the sake of getting beyond change. This is manifested in our natural aversion to change. Yes, change is necessary and often good. But its true worth is in moving toward what does not change. We can feel this, especially, at different points in life.
The child who ‘does not want to grow up’ will need to overcome this feeling. Yet it is often rooted in an experience of something central in life: a loving, safe, rich environment. Parents suffer when their children leave home, or the elderly suffer in the loss of friends, family, or community. Why can’t things stay as they were?
Some people might respond that there is nothing secure in this life, and so we simply need to get used to that. There is, of course, some truth in this.
But there is another side to the coin. Somehow we need to learn that there are things that endure. Indeed, we need to experience them, to taste them. We need to see that they are real and in reach. This begins in very concrete ways.
Yes, in the end, the greatest goods, the ones that most endure, are spiritual. This is a pivotal truth. At the same time, we are human, which means we are flesh. So we first get a notion and a taste of things that endure, in and through material things. This too is a pivotal truth.
A hyper-spiritualizing approach could miss this, and thereby compromise our access and experience of the higher things that come to us in in-carnate fashion.
Following his words above, Belloc writes, “And on this account, Sussex, does a man love an old house, which was his father’s, and on this account does a man come to love with all his heart, that part of earth that nourished his boyhood. For it does not change, or if it changes, it changes very little, and he finds in it the character of enduring things.”
Sussex, Belloc’s home county, he refers to as a beloved, an alma mater of sorts. Elsewhere (such as in ‘A Remaining Christmas’), he refers to his physical house in a similar vein. It was in and through such places or things that Belloc felt deep in his being that there are realities that do not change, the longing for which gives direction and hope, even if also great suffering.
Here then is a subject for reflection. What concrete things in our life—and of our children, friends, and loved ones—might so function for us today? Some might think the very suggestion is quixotic. I think rather it is a starting point for rehumanizing our day-to-day existence.
This calls for a new approach to thinking about our house, and the little corner of earth in which it is situated. And since often mobility in place cannot be avoided, we can seek other instances of material stability. Contact with and savoring of the natural world has something permanent in it; and there are always trees or mountains or birds not too far away. Further, we all can prioritize rich practices in our home and do them consistently. Perhaps over the years we will not sit around the same actual hearth, but we can consistently do certain things around whatever hearth we have. Reading aloud; story telling; singing—perhaps a stable repertoire of stories and songs, ones worth repeating again and again.
This is the stuff that forms and sustains us. Especially the young. Especially today.
In a world characterized by mobility, abstraction from nature, rapidly changing technology, and disposable stuff, we must be intentional about the material conditions of our life. The point is not to pretend that any embodied things are themselves everlasting. On the contrary. The point is that certain embodied things and practices open our souls to the realm of what endures; they attune us to richer realities and our ultimate destiny. And in them, we might learn to attach our loves to what is unchanging.
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), born of a French father and English mother, was a poet, historian, and essayist.
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