Of endings and beginnings
In St. Andrew's Church in Hopkinton, N.H., are carved upon the pulpit words from Ecclesiastes: "Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof." I could not but think, when I passed there recently, that this text was a not-so-subtle warning to preachers. The fact that the benefactor, who gave the pulpit, often held forth there himself suggested to me that he was either a man with no sense of humor -- or with a very shrewd one. The temptation to preach endlessly seems to have diminised; but one can imagine how good men and women in the past longed for the end of a sermon and how, when it came, it seemed a blessing indeed.
I have been thinking, in any case, about endings and beginnings. A new year, a new college term, a new administration in Washington, can put a man or woman in mind of great possibilities as well as great hazards. I have myself, at this season, been weighing the start of a work that will engage me deeply for at least four years. On the whole, and with all due respect to the prophet, I would reverse his order. The beginning of a thing seems to me at this point to be pretty wonderful and to surpass everything else.
An end, when it comes, may bring relaxation and even -- through the mere fct of survival -- a sense of victory. But with what inevitable disappointments the result is viewed by anyone truly candid with himself. What to others may look well enough appears to him who conceived the work, who dreamed to an empire or even of a great book, as falling woefully short of the mark. Perhaps readers may have had my experience of coming long afterward upon something they have written on wrought, and being surprised that contrary to their earlier judgment it appeared passably well done. This was because the original vision had faded and they could see the work and without relating it to their first intent. The pangs that accompanied the end of the task had now been replaced by a disinterested judgment; the ideal had been replaced by reality.
The start of a venture, on the other hand, has no such bittersweet emotions. Then everything is ahead; nothing seems impossible. For a moment, as we set forth, the ache of parting may possess us, but for the brave man or woman this is insignificant beside the hope that new horizons inspire. The longest part of a journey, it has been said, is the passing of the gate. Once upon the road, a man finds the landscape opening before him in challenging vistas; friends and companions walk along with him before the first evening falls.
A lad I know set out a few months ago, with little cash, little command of the language, and with no knowledge as to where he might lodge, to explore the vast city of Paris. He had been brought up on a Maine island in a village of a few hundred souls. He had been to Bangor, it is true; but he had never been to Boston, and New York was to him an unknown land. Yet he had no trouble in finding his way about, and when I met with him a month or so later he was thorougly at home in the whirling French capital -- a man of the world and an experienced wayfarer.
I could cite the example of another young friend who at the same time was leaving the same island to spend eight weeks canoeing with a companion in the Maine woods. Autumn storms gave way to the frigid airs of winter; ice-encrusted waters threatened to stay the course of their frail vessel before they turned homeward. In all that time they had lived upon the resources they found within themselves and on the supplies they were carrying with them at the start. How dull it was to come back to civilization, and with what sweet intensity they recalled the joys of setting forth!
The rest of us, with our more prosaic undertakings, should be able to feel equally liberated and secure at the beginning of a year or a season. As for this old country of ours having seen so much both of good and bad in recent history, it can hope for the best as a new group of leaders takes over. For us who are still innocents at heart, the beginning of a thing will alw ays seem better than the end thereof.