Christopher Columbus isn't what he used to be. In grade school I was one of the faithful, willing to bet all my baseball cards that the voyage of 1492 led to the initial discovery of America. If it hadn't been for the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, there wouldn't be a World Series, presidential debates or a Statue of Liberty today. We wouldn't be here, and the Olympics would be minus an entry from the United States.
As we near the 500-year milestone of Columbus' crossing, infidels present a rash of other adventurers who arrived long beforehand, virtually setting up condominiums and convenience stores in every hamlet. Although schoolchildren these days are more in tune with historical accuracy, we would do them and ourselves a disservice if we didn't at least hail his voyage as a metaphor for boldness and defiance.In poetry, William Carlos Williams referred to Columbus: "Everything that is holy, brave, or whatever worth there is in a person, was contained in that body." Williams spoke of Columbus' voyage as "human purity of purpose."
I enjoy the spirit of that phrase. When I consider the vastness of the universe, cautious living seems preferable to taking risks. I admit to lacking a "purity of purpose" - the "bravery" that compels people to play at life less safely. Never having been particularly daring, I fear I may have robbed myself of the precious joy of discovery.
Whether Columbus was the first or the last to stumble upon the New World seems irrelevant. Furthermore, historians now agree that navigators were generally convinced that the world was round at the time of Columbus. The problem entailed a reticence in proving the point. Nobody had any idea what was out there, a deterrent for even many a drunken sailor, but obviously a goad for Columbus.
Perhaps our recognition of Columbus ought to lean more to the philosophical, giving us clues as to how to live that "human purity of purpose." I have always lived it pretty safe in life, and am forced to wonder how cautious living may have held me back from the joy of breaking new ground. Is it possible to lead a cautious life and still unwrap surprises awaiting us in new worlds? Or, does a cautious life become a life unlived?
There are many built-in rewards for playing it safe and following rules without questioning. I will never have to worry that something terrible might happen if I stray. People will view me as a good person if I chart my course along predictable patterns.
But it seems to me that predictably safe patterns will never tap the hidden treasures that become accessible only through boldness and defiance. Henry James rendered a classic image of the unlived life in "The Beast in the Jungle." It tells the story of a man convinced that fate has something momentous in store for him, and he sits around carefully waiting for it to arrive. Consequently, his fate turns out to be that of a man to whom nothing ever happens.
Cautious lives are rooted in fear; the unthinkable can happen wandering off onto terra incognito. Yet staying the course does not exactly hold much allure. No one said it better than William Faulkner, describing our prosaic routines as "The same frantic steeplechase towards nothing."
Columbus Day merits its holiday status. The particulars of his trip recede in significance, like where he landed, when he landed, and who might have been there before him. Instead of the hoopla surrounding possible historical misinformation, we would do well this day just thinking about our own voyage. Is it getting a bit stale and in need of a pinch of daring? Am I going to steer toward new worlds or remain the cautious creature of habit?
The unlived life and the joy of discovery are forever held in tension. On Columbus Day, we might begin charting our journeys.