by Christina Carson
I recently finished reading Beyond the Black Stump by Nevil Shute, a book written in 1956. The allure of Shute's novels appear as a conundrum in current time where writers are instructed to grab their reader’s interest and keep a pace in their work that drives and pounds its way to the end of the story. Shute wrote simple stories about people and their interactions in the face of human dilemmas. And the “thrill” of each story is the recurring awareness of the protagonist to understand and then proceed by doing the right thing. Sound prosaic? Well, Nevil Shute was a not a prosaic individual, but a brilliant man, a visionary even and someone who grew to deeply understand the human condition. I always come away from his novels with something to chew on and Beyond the Black Stump was no exception.
The action in the story takes place in both a remote piece of Australia called the Lunatic and a quaint small town in Oregon. What was masterfully presented is what this blog is about, what you can learn about yourself when you cross cultures, for there is no better way to understand your culture than by seeing it through the eyes of another culture. The Australians viewed the Americans in this story as a people with enormous drive, a restless energy that created a powerful belief in and need for industry at the personal as well as societal level. We were the worker bees of the world, and we got rich for our efforts…but at a price. This story investigates that price at that period of time. I then reflected on what it is costing us now.
I see a society that is tired. Have you noticed how even young people list as one of their favorite activities, sleeping? As well, we seem to believe that we have completely run out of time, time to sit down and enjoy each other, time to consider fully decisions put in front of us, time to be together - just together interacting as a family not traipsing about on holidays, time to stop and help one another. We are a driven people and no matter what we turn to for relief, inspiration, relaxation, or rest, we do it as a timed contest. We want life fast, convenient and boxed. We rarely have adventures or deep moments of peace. And we drive our children in this same fashion. We don’t realize what the Aussies in Beyond the Black Stump understood about what encourages and nourishes the human spirit versus what dulls it, imprisons it and causes it to feel constantly fatigued.
What if we were, even if only in a small part of our lives, to live more gently, to touch the world, those around us, and especially our children more gently? And what, to you writers out there, would it be like if you approached your art with a sense of gentle faith that you will succeed rather than driving yourself to meet yet another schedule.
I have had opportunities to live in several places where people lived by a different set of priorities, and I remember thinking, both as the 16 year old in Medellin, Colombia and the young adult in northern Alberta, these people get everything done in the end and yet it is so humane here. My American father visited me once on my farm in northern Alberta. Farms were large acreages there, multiple square miles in many cases, and since my father hadn't seen one person working in the fields as he drove the miles to my place, the first words out of his mouth were, “Man, Canadians are lazy.” I didn't even grace his statement with a reply for it had been raining for a week right at harvest and, even if we were in the fields, they could be miles from the nearest road. But he was demonstrating what I am talking about in terms of how we Americans have been conditioned to see the world, and I’m here to suggest, it may be time to understand the indisputable strength in gentleness and what a wise choice it is.
Just as an old man learns other ways to live life as his physical strength wanes - cleverer, more perceptive ways - we too as a culture are now old enough to begin to realize the wisdom and power that comes with gentleness. As well, we could watch the tension, frustration and fatigue melt away. For the price we’re paying for believing "never-say-die" as the only way to accomplish great acts is increasing, and the returns diminishing.
Like a person, a culture also matures, and a wise culture will understand how its choices of the past might no longer serve it. Gentle, as a verb, means to tame, to render tractable, to calm. But let us not miss the fact that it also means to ennoble and dignify.
With all due respect to Dylan Thomas, I think it would have been better had he written, “Do not got compliantly into that dark night,” for gentle is not the opposite of raging but rather the choice of those who would use their life-given energy in a most efficient and prudent way.