…that men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.
But who shall so forecast the years
And find in loss a gain to match…
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson
One of the most fascinating Biblical themes, striking in its relevance to our own day, is the image of the man being freed from jail to become king. This is the story of Joseph in Genesis, of Moses in Exodus (although he escaped), of David in the Book of Samuel (although he avoided arrest as a fugitive) and it is remarked by Solomon in Ecclesiastes (4:14): “From the prison he emerged to rule as king, so even in kingship he is of common birth.” The idea is that the humble beginnings, the brutal setbacks, the brittle fate, will imprint the mark of humility on the revenant monarch.
We see this script played out again and again, with Gandhi, with Havel, with Walesa, with Mandela, even Martin Luther King in a way. Their ideas earn them first confinement or exile and then the throne.
The Talmud adds an interesting twist by reporting the tradition that Joseph was freed and coronated on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (celebrated this year on September 19 and 20). Somehow the image of the prisoner-turned-prince becomes a metaphor for the experience of the New Year.
It seems we are being asked to evaluate the process of turning the calendar page in a more profound way. The level we attained in the past year, in all the past years, must be viewed as intolerable, much too limiting. To be locked in that place in future years would be imprisonment. We must burst out of the shackles, chafing at the boundaries of that lesser person, demanding of ourselves that we become more.
We can be more, so we must be more. The possibility of growth breeds the responsibility of growth. The window of opportunity opens to the horizon of obligation. Last year’s formula, last year’s lifestyle, last year’s agenda, was lovely… for last year. Last year it was a groove, but if we stay there this year then we are in a rut.
Looking around at the friends and classmates of my youth, I see them dividing into two categories: the floaters and the swimmers. The floaters are content to lock into a small niche, family-wise, career-wise, community-wise and politically, and let the gentle currents wash them out to sea. As long as no great waves wash over them, they can keep on floating until they hit China, or Death, as the case may be. The swimmers are constantly moving forward, prodding themselves, always retouching their education, improving their character, broadening their perspectives. They consistently amaze me in just how much qualitative enhancement they can import into their lives.
One of the most powerful elements of the classic book, Witness by Whittaker Chambers, is the author’s unending quest for betterment of self, even at the price of complete reinvention, of declaring the last imagined kingdom to be yet another prison. Fittingly, Chambers was back in college at age sixty, filling blanks in his bibliography alongside fresh-faced sophomores and sophist freshmen at the University of Maryland. As this year becomes next year, this version of me must give way to the next.
We have to learn from such people, from the William Buckleys, the Milton Friedmans, the Ronald Reagans, the Irving Kristols, people who reinvigorate themselves each year to meet ever greater challenges, to raise the bar in their lives. In my own personal history, I have surprised myself by exceeding what I thought were the maximums of my potential. Now I am happily retracing the outlines of my ambition, and painting them in bolder colors.
This is a moment in the history of mankind which demands a powerful commitment to truth. It requires steady navigation in an ironclad vessel, the ability to stand in courage and loneliness as an individual. What we accomplished last year is a focus of pride, but what we must accomplish next year is a locus of drive. The world needs you and me next year, the new you, the new me. Happy New Year.
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