Striving to Achieve
“Man’s reach should exceed his grasp
Or what’s a heaven for.”
Robert Browning was protesting impatience with easily attained targets, and urging that one should strive to achieve that which appears not to be immediately obtainable. As in the prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola – “fight and not to heed the wounds” – human dignity is enhanced when one is not content with the easily obtained, but endeavour to struggle towards more difficult targets.
Uniquely in the animal kingdom, the human race is able to consider, to plan, to learn from the experience of others, to recall over time and to reflect upon past achievements. But unless these skills are used, then this unique power wastes, and men and women become less distinguishable from the rest of the animal state.
It is this reaching for that which is beyond the grasp which is an essential component of much joy and much sorrow, of the comedy of life as well as its tragedy, the source of satisfaction and the bitterness of disappointment.
Recently two short stories came to mind which, on the face of it, are stories of failure. I cannot recollect the author of the first, except he was a Russian whose tale I read a long time ago in a book of short stories. Nor do I recall the exact details of the narrative, but the theme has stayed with me over the passage of years.
The story is of a poor Russian peasant who had the opportunity to gain wealth by acquiring land of his own. The task set was to plough a furrow between sunrise and sunset so as to enclose a piece of land on the wide steppes of the Russian plains. The furrow had to start and finish at the same spot, and then all the land within the ribbon of gouged earth would be his.
The story describes the day of the assignment. At sunrise the peasant sets off with his oxen dragging the plough. The sun rises to its zenith and beats down on the man as he presses on, determined to encompass the maximum amount of ground – just a little further and then further. The circumference grew. As the day passes, he realises that he must complete the circle before nightfall or his journey will have failed. He whips on his tiring oxen and drags his weary legs behind the plough, and, just as the sun is sinking behind the horizon, he reaches his starting point and completes the circle.
But the triumph is short-lived, for the task has exhausted him. His body has been pushed beyond its limit of endurance, and, in the moment of triumph, his heart fails and he dies. The land he has gained is thus limited to the plot in which he is buried.
One can interpret the story in a number of ways. Perhaps it is a story of greed for which a price is paid. Or is it a comedy, for comedy is so often dependent upon the fall, whether caused by the banana skin, or when the misfortunes of life snatch the carrot from the clutching hand. Or it could be an illustration that material gains are transitory and illusory. But I like to regard the story as an account of the triumph of human endeavour. The reach was beyond the grasp, but so it should be. True failure is not lack of success; it is lack of the will to strive towards success.
I am told that there is an Olympic oath which athletes are offered, and which reads:-
Let me win,
But if I cannot win
Let me be
Brave in the attempt.
Amen to that.
The other story which came to my mind was one which hovers between the long short story, and the short novel. It is Ernest Hemingway’s, “The Old Man and the Sea”. Many of you perhaps know the story, which is of an old fisherman, again, like the Russian peasant, living in poverty, in this case somewhere on the shores fringing the Caribbean Sea. For many days he has fished unsuccessfully, but decides to go out to sea once more. With the help of a boy the boat is launched, and once at sea he sets his line to catch the large fish, marlin I think they were, which inhabit the warm, tropical seas, and upon which his livelihood depends.
A fish takes the bait and the old man realises that he has hooked the largest fish of his life. So strong is it that it drags the boat far from the land. After long hours of struggle, which drains the strength of the old man, though he will not abandon the chase, the fish is brought alongside and killed with the gaff. So large is the fish that the old man is unable to bring it into the boat. He lashes it to the side, and starts the long, slow journey back to the land, by now two or three days sailing away.
During the journey, sharks attack the fish, in spite of the efforts of the fisherman to drive them off. By the time the boat reaches the shore his catch is destroyed, and the triumph is no more. The Old Man returns, exhausted, to his destitution.
Again, at one level this is a story of failure. But not a failure to reach, merely an inability to grasp, in spite of an herculean effort. But at another level, it is a story of success, in the words of the Olympic oath, a story of accepting the challenge and “being brave in the attempt”.
True living is a complex, complicated art. It is a drawing together of many things. It is about a relationship with an unseen force, the spiritual dimension which we call variously the life force, the creative power or simply God. It is about a relationship with others, of practising tolerance, understanding, forgiveness, compassion, and exercising judgement as how and when these are appropriate. What to tolerate and what to denounce, for instance; when to be condemnatory, and when to forgive.
Life is variously given to quiet reflection or frantic activity. As we mature, hopefully we become better at judging the appropriate moment for each. All these aspects of living, and more, make us greater than mere advanced members of an animal kingdom. They give us the unique status of membership of the human race. If we live as we should, we are constantly challenged, often uncertain, frequently wrong, but gloriously alive. But not the least importance component of a full life is the effort to achieve that which extends us to the limit, or even beyond the limit.
In the stories I have mentioned, those limits were physical, the goals referred to gaining material reward. And physical goals are not to be idly dismissed – they are real challenges. In exerting ourselves fully in a physical sense, we can and do develop a spiritual stature. But physical targets are not the only marks whose reach may be beyond the grasp, but for which we should strive. Targets there are, surely the most important targets, which are less tangible but real.
There are targets for the whole nation or large communities, like world peace, abolition of poverty, social justice, racial harmony, equality before the law, and so one can go on. There are lesser targets, though lesser only in the sense that they involve smaller groups, like tolerance in our own neighbourhood, or understanding in our immediate communities.
There are individual targets which deal with our relationship in a family, in the work-place, or with the next door neighbour. We should not despise a target simply because it is readily attainable. If reaching it improves the lot of fellow beings, then it is worth doing. We should seek always to do those things.
But if we, either as individuals or as a community, fail to try, for example, to bring about peace simply because we see no way of early success, then we demean ourselves. Dignified failure, bravery in the attempt, is infinitely to be preferred to defeatist effort.
There is a rather derogatory expression that is used about those who attempt and fail. It is “to bite off more than one can chew”. Of course there are occasions when this can legitimately be used, as when personal greed or avarice is the motivation for our behaviour. But if one is over-ambitious because the need is great and the cause is good, then the expression is surely at best ungenerous, and at worst malicious.
Many of the great social reforms ultimately came about because of the willingness of individuals and groups to bite off more than contemporaries thought was reasonable or wise. Slavery would be still a pattern of life, women wouldn’t vote, child labour would be tolerated, and a host of other injustices would remain, if brave men and women had not grasped beyond their reach. And if this is thought not to be a particularly religious matter, one need only to recall a myriad of people whose social conscience grew out of deeply held religious conviction.
There is a truism that states that education should be aimed at developing the whole person. Developing into a whole person, through education, through living, and through self-development, involves developing the spiritual side of life also. This will be stunted unless the growth of ambition to achieve beyond the immediately attainable is a part of that development.
I recently preached about wishing on stars. Wishing on stars, reaching beyond the grasp, striving to win, but being at least brave in the attempt, are all aspects of the same coin.
Like John Bunyan’s pilgrim, there must be
That shall make us once relent
Our first avow’d intent…”
C.J. Rosling 23 April 1994
Fulwood 24 April 1994
Upper 24 July 1994
Mexborough 11 December 1994