Winter in England. The cold air hanging on me, chilling my body the way metal conducts heat from a hand. We were on vacation, visiting my wife’s family in the country, and I needed some time alone. Bundled in coat, sweater, and hat, I headed into town—quieter now for the lack of tourists and the ratcheting of small cars shifting gears.
I walked down the narrow sidewalk, past closed storefronts—only a cafe here or there lit within—until I reached a park, tree-lined with a view overlooking fields of Dorset landscape. Across the horizon, endless hills pressed their foreheads into the clear blue—the morning’s powder-mist burned off by the bright near-noon sun. Directly below, chimneys exhaled atop houses along a cobblestoned road.
I sat soaking in the tranquility of it all until a biplane droned into view, cutting a line across the expanse. I watched as it darkened to silhouette, while the whir of its engine dwindled beneath the low murmur of trees. And then I saw another—a plane I hadn’t noticed—a long, slender glider rising and falling with the thermals, as if carefully stitching an invisible script into the atmosphere.
I stood there awhile watching, not realizing how cold I was. Just ahead, a gate opened to a zigzag of stairs that led down the hill to the road. Nestled among the houses, a little white-and-green restaurant sat puffing wood smoke. I decided it would be good to warm up.
We ought to take more seriously the need to retreat, and enjoy the abundant gift of existence as being enough in itself.
Inside the restaurant, I peeled off my coat and gloves and looked around the place—empty but for a man of about 20 at the counter, reading a book. He looked at me, said hello, and went back to reading. I set my things down near the fireplace and dug into my pockets for cash.
As is often the case, the weeks leading up to this vacation had been fraught with busyness, perilous for the soul, as I prepared for the hours away from both home and office. Yet it’s not typically the workload I need to escape in these situations, but rather the all-consuming importance it takes on—my happiness and sense of worth contingent upon the outcomes of career, ambition, task execution. It’s a condition that sometimes requires physical removal of many miles, and the more the better.
I sat down near the fire with a cup of coffee and thought about the two planes: the one deaf in its own noise, intent on a destination, and the other quietly soaring above the countryside. Both experiences are pleasurable in their own way, I imagine. But for all the appeal of “getting somewhere,” it was the second plane that impressed itself upon my imagination: the image of its playful flight, concerned not with arriving but soaring.
So much of life in contemporary society is about the drive to become something or someone. Yet the destination—that elusive final arrival—is rarely as clear as we want it to be. We may have an idea of where we’re headed, but life has taught us that we should not, cannot, be too certain. Circumstances change. Hearts turn.
Perhaps what we really need, then, is some combination of two approaches: we should move forward in the faith and freedom we’ve been given, determined, with goals grounded in the person the Lord would have us be. But also, we should endeavor to take time away from all our strivings, when the pride of life and longing for more begin to overpower a right sense of self. Maybe we ought to take more seriously the need to retreat, even if only for hours at a time, and enjoy the abundant gift of existence as being enough in itself—like a glider contentedly aloft in the afternoon sky. To be reminded, for just a little while, that we are more than our ambition and desires. I’d wager that in so doing, we would find the capacity to move forward with ears that hear and eyes that see with greater acuity.
That afternoon, I must have sat there by the fire quite a while—I don’t know for how long. But when my cup was dry, it was time to go. I began the walk back uphill, down the road, past the shops and homes. The sun was bright on my face, warm on my cheekbones, even as winter held me.
I was at peace, for the moment, having found myself again—having found myself a little stronger to keep moving.