Poetry and songs have a reflective quality; we find meaning in them based on where we are and what is happening around us. While I’m not sure where I first found it, the following Stephen Crane poem has been the most reflective series of lines I have ever encountered:
I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never —”
“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.
When I read this poem in high school, I was the narrator, the pragmatist, the rational observer. I saw the world for what it was, is, and always would be. Surrounded by silliness in high school, I worked minimum wage jobs with coworkers at various points on the path to self destruction or mediocrity. To high school Sam, the narrator was the sympathetic party; his insight into reality could prevent the pointless tribulations of others if only they’d listen.
When I read this poem as I was applying to law school, I was the horizon pursuer, the poet, the irrational chaser. I rejected the nihilism of my early patent office days. Sitting in a comfortable chair and nitpicking everyone else’s achievements and delusions was no way to experience the world. To future law student Sam, the chaser was the sympathetic party. Even if all you did was chase, that was a source of meaning in and of itself. Happiness is doing, not getting what you want.
When I read this poem more recently, I was both. Everyone was both. In every direction, people chasing and others rationally tearing them down. Every decision had consequences. Nothing was clear cut. Move to the suburbs and raise a family? You’re crazy to give up your independence. Stay in the city and dive into your career? You’ll look back and regret the life you never started. Drop it all and give in to the wanderlust? You’ll give up your friends, your career, and your life for a handful of expensive stories. Cling to your reality with all of your strength? It’ll change anyway, and those stories you’ll never have are cheaper than the regret of not having them. Everyone searching for an adventure, a challenge, a dream. And everyone else out to validate their dream, their challenge, their adventure. None of it wrong, and yet none of it right.
Each of these readings was a reflection of a moment. In high school I was slowly realizing that I did not belong in rural Pennsylvania. In considering law school I was realizing that my career path was no longer exciting. More recently, the post law school expanse of opportunities stretches out before me with countless options. All of them with upsides. And all of them with downsides.
Some days I chase the horizon. Some days I stand my ground. And some days the world is too big to fit inside my head.