Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Shangri-la And Where To Find It

     Rufus goes for his first oncology treatment today. In consequence, I’m both pressed for time and in a rather detached frame of mind. Please read what follows in that light. Consider it an expansion of this essay, but of a more personal sort.

     The night before last, I saw Lost Horizon for the very first time. It’s eighty years old and its wrinkles are unconcealed – to make the movie watchable, the restorers had to substitute still shots for several badly damaged segments – but the spirit of the movie is powerfully affecting, especially when placed in its historical context.

     If you haven’t seen it, a plane crash deposits a group of unsuspecting travelers, including a world-weary British diplomat, in a village hidden in the Himalayas called Shangri-la. The community is rich in everything but material wealth and strife. The travelers are at first stunned by the quasi-pastoral peace of the place, the contentment of the quietly industrious villagers, and the unconcern with the things that animate and trouble the world beyond the mountains. Over time, all but one of the group decide to make their stay permanent.

     The community, insofar as it’s “ruled” in any sense, is under the hand of a man called the High Lama. This proves to be an ancient Belgian priest, Father Perreault, who has labored to gather in Shangri-la as many as possible of the great cultural treasures of Mankind. He hopes that Shangri-la will prove to be a redoubt for what is best in Man – a survival bunker, if you will, for the best that has been thought, said, and done, to which the survivors of the wars to come will have ultimate recourse. Here is how he expresses his intent to protagonist Robert Conway:

     It came to me in a vision, long, long ago. I saw all the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in the vulgar passions and the will to destroy. I saw the machine power multiplying, until a single weaponed man might match a whole army. I foresaw a time when man, exalting in the technique of murder, would rage so hotly over the world, that every book, every treasure, would be doomed to destruction. This vision was so vivid and so moving, that I determined to gather together all things of beauty and of culture that I could, and preserve them here, against the doom toward which the world is rushing. Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! What unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity, crashing headlong against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. A time must come, my friend, when this orgy will spend itself. When brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword. Against that time, is why I avoided death, and am here. And why you were brought here. For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here. For here, we shall be with their books and their music, and a way of life based on one simple rule: Be Kind! When that day comes, it is our hope that the brotherly love of Shangri-La will spread throughout the world. Yes, my son; When the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled and the meek shall inherit the earth.

     It’s a vision beautiful enough to compel tears from a statue.

     Many have yearned for a place like Shangri-la. Its appeal derives in part from its dreamlike, completely static nature. It doesn’t progress or regress; it simply is, enduring and ageless. That’s a required attribute for perfection. As I’ve said before, perfect really means finished, and that which is finished must not change.

     Shangri-la, as a human society of any size, is impossible. Men aren’t like that. The best of us yearn to advance, to achieve, to prosper, to build the better mousetrap. The worst of us – and don’t kid yourself; as long as there are human beings, there’ll be evil ones – whether from envy or power-lust, yearn to set us at one another’s throats.

     But that doesn’t make the essence of Shangri-la – the character that gives it its beauty – unattainable.

     The central figure of the film isn’t protagonist Robert Conway. It’s the High Lama a.k.a. Father Perreault, who has less screen time than any of the other named characters. Shangri-la is what it is because of him: because of his vision, his ethic, and his determination that it should prevail. The spirit of moderation and contentment that dominates Shangri-la is an extension of Father Perreault himself: a man who wants nothing but the good of all those gathered around him.

     As I wrote above, a human society of any size would contain at least a few “immoderate elements.” These would disturb whatever pattern of life the rest might choose to follow. Yet there are micro-societies which do attain – very nearly, at least – a Shangri-la-kind of serenity. I’ve known at least two such micro-societies. Their peace and harmony are evident to any who care to observe them. They’re disturbed only when their members must interact with the “world outside”...a necessity they strive to minimize.

     Where I’ve written “micro-societies,” I now invite my Gentle Readers to substitute a more familiar term.

     These final years of life are proving highly educational for me. They’ve put me ever more often in mind of something Sir Edward Grey, England’s Foreign Secretary during World War I, wrote in his biography: that happiness consists not merely in having what one wants, but equally so in not having what one does not want.

     The combination is essential. Much human misery arises from affliction by “what one does not want,” whether it’s ungratifying labor, fatigue, disease, disability, nuisances of various kinds, or what-have-you. All the riches of the world could not complete one’s happiness were he unable to expel what he does not want from his life.

     Many struggle to become satisfied with what they have. Some never manage it. But anyone can contrive to eject from his surroundings the things and influences that worry or upset him. (It might require turning off the television once and for all, but I know a few people who’ve managed that minor miracle.) The key is limiting one’s domain to that which is entirely within one’s control, and venturing out of it only when absolutely necessary.

     Yes, there’s a terminus approaching. Yes, it’s likely that it will be preceded by disease, pain, and fear. But I thank God each day for my blessings, and this one above the rest: that He has granted me an interval in which I could learn what it means to be contented. I can only wish that every man who ever lives will know such an interval before he passes on.

     Yes, and every dog, too.

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?"—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.

-- Leigh Hunt --

     May God bless and keep you all.


Christian Mountaineer said...

The apostle Paul:
"I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).

Bob T. said...

I have been fortunate enough to be forced to consider the abandonment of virtually all my "stuff", short of what I might be wearing and/or able to carry. In a less urgent context, nearly all who reach retirement age will earnestly consider downsizing at some point. My planned retirement domicile will in no way accommodate two lifetime's accumulation of material goods, and as might be expected, the spouse's "stuff" of an archival nature will take precedence over mine since the property we'll move to is nominally hers (currently held in trust by her father's family), *and* there are many more young relatives on her side of the family to which items might reasonably be given. I find myself welcoming the coming simplification of my lifestyle, and dreading less with each passing day what might be done with what must be left behind. I have no children or other immediate family that might assign any value to the things associated with my early decades, and people outside the tribe would value such things even less than my extended family. So much time and money, ultimately wasted... Don't misinterpret that as an expression of regret. I'm pleased to have come to that realization before my earthly end (hopefully *well* before), so that I might focus on what truly matters in whatever time I've got left. I thank God for allowing me to live long enough to be humbled and accumulate such wisdom as might be gained from my experiences. I also thank Him for not seriously putting me to the test, as I expect I would fail miserably.