“Life is a journey, not a destination.”
Are you familiar with this quote?
If you’re not, the saying (attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson — according to some — incorrectly) suggest that we are aware of the present rather than focuts on some future outcome or goal. The thought is that, if you base your happiness, peace, or self-worth on some outcome or goal occurring, you’re less likely to find those things than if you were to look for them in the moments and steps leading to the outcome.
With that in mind, are you living life that way?
I’m trying. The fact is that, gaining this perspective is very difficult. In America, concentration on the outcome is part of our national DNA. You’re supposed work hard to get into the best college possible so that you can get the best job possible so that you can make the most money possible to provide the best life for you and your family so that at some point you can retire and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Don’t get me wrong. Working towards a good outcome or goal is important. Doing so, drives us to bigger successes, greater achievements, and deeper feelings of accomplishment. “Our reach must always exceed our grasp,” as Robert Browning wrote.
While the outcome or destination is an important consideration in our lives, it cannot be the only one. If our happiness or self-worth is solely dependant upon the outcomes achieved, we have a problem. Once we achieve one goal. there will always be another goal, a next promotion or an additional project. If we postpone happiness until we reach a certain destination, we may postpone it again until the next one. If we keep doing that over and over, we’ll find that we’ve postponed joy or fulfillment until our final destination and, therefore, have lived a life without it.
Moreover, we may not always achieve the goals or outcomes that we want or that we think we want. Everyone experiences failure, either due to forces outside of their control, their own demons or limitations or even the fact that others may be better than them. Despite our best efforts, we may still fall short and not achieve the outcomes we sought.
If we really want joy, we have to be able to be able to find happiness and peace in our efforts as opposed to their result.
Recently, as I was pondering this message, I realized that one of my favorite television episodes, “Vincent and the Doctor” from the British science fiction television show, “Doctor Who,”was making this point all along.
At this point, I can already sense some of you retreating. Not this sci-fi silliness again.
Well, this is a Nerdy Dad post. I have to do something sillingly nerdy.
I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll keep the science fiction portions to a minimum. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the parts of the episode that could appear in any “realistic” drama.
As you may know, “Doctor Who” was created over fifty years ago and features the adventures of “the Doctor,” an alien “Time Lord” who travels through time and space in a craft that is possibly infinite on the inside but, on the outside, looks like a blue box that the English police used a hundred years ago.
The Doctor travels with one or more “companions,” usually humans who assist him and provide friendship. At the time of “Vincent and The Doctor,” the Doctor is traveling with Amy Pond, a woman whose fiancée, Rory, died in the previous episode. To further the tragedy, Amy does not consciously remember Rory, as he had been wiped from existence as if he had never been born (similar to what occurred in the comic book story “The Nearness of You,” that I wrote about last month). As we’ll see, though, deep down, Amy mourns for him.
The Doctor does remember Rory and has been taking Amy to special times and places to help her. In this episode, the Doctor and Amy travel to southern France in 1890 to meet Vincent Van Gogh, Amy’s favorite artist, who painted, among other things, the beautiful “Starry Night.”
In France, Amy and the Doctor seek to protect Vincent from an alien creature responsible for several local deaths. In the end, they succeed and defeat the monster, but the heart, the point, of the episode is the interaction between the three people, especially between Vincent and Amy, both red-heads, who flirt and bond. At one point, Vincent proposes to Amy, who declines but jokes about how their kids would have very, very red hair).
Amy and Vincent also bond through their shared pain. Vincent senses that Amy is mourning a loved one; he hears “the song of sadness” in her heart. When Amy denies that she lost anyone, Vincent asks why she is crying. She discovers that she is and she doesn’t know why.
The Doctor and Amy witness Vincent tormented by mental illness, which is portrayed honestly as Vincent experiences several depressive and manic episodes. He is disliked by the townspeople, who see him as a drunk (true), crazy (somewhat) and as horrible painter (absolutely false). Through it all, the Doctor and Amy know that Vincent is set to kill himself in less than a year.
They also see beauty through Vincent’s eyes as they look at the various colors present in the night sky.
After defeating the monster, the Doctor decides to give Vincent a gift. He takes him into the Tardis where they travel to an art museum in present day England. This scene, where a man suffering from doubt, depression, and a degree of self-loathing learns a Truth about himself and his art, is one of my favorite all-time scenes, in any medium.
When the three return to 1890, Vincent is ecstatic. He thanks the Doctor for helping him become a changed man. The Doctor and Amy part ways with Vincent, and, excited by Vincent’s attitude, Amy convinces the Doctor to travel back to the museum, thinking that they have changed the course of history. Vincent has now lived a long life, Amy believes, and there will be hundreds of new paintings. The Doctor isn’t sure.
When they arrive at the exhibit, however, they see that they did not changed Vincent’s fate. He still committed suicide on the same date. Sad and crying, Amy turns to the Doctor and, focussing on the destination of Vincent’s life, says “we didn’t make a difference at all.”
The Doctor, concentrating on the journey, wisely responds with one of my favorite quotes of all time:
I wouldn’t say that. The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. Hey, the good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant. And we definintely added to his pile of good things.
The Doctor’s words remind Amy not only of the happiness, the good things, they brought to Vincent, but also, the happiness and beautiful sights that they themselves experienced when they were with him. These things don’t take away the pain from Vincent’s death, but they are important as well.
In his words, the Doctor is also speaking about his efforts for Amy. He cannot rid her of her sadness. He is a Time Lord, but only Time itself can change her sadness. Instead, he’s focussing on adding to her pile of good things to add some peace and joy.
In the end, we cannot ignore our goals, our destinations. We need to be aware of them and strive for them. But in so doing, we must also be aware of our journey there and pay attention to the good things piling up as we go.
They make a difference.