A race I will always remember
Not too long ago, when I was still a little boy, I found myself running from my father’s village to my mother’s, and from my mother’s to another and to another, in the hope of catching up with something that was neither a ball, some other toy, nor a bird, but rather the point, the line where the sky seemed to touch the earth. We call it the “horizon.” That line, that “place,” first presented itself to me hiding right behind the trees to the left of my father’s house. I started out that day walking rather leisurely because the distance between me and the horizon seemed so short. When I observed that the sky had moved, or rather seemed to have moved further away, I hastened my steps. Then I noticed that the sky moved further and further away. Well, being determined to reach the place where the sky certainly touched the ground, I kept walking faster and faster until I found myself running.
I ran for quite a while until I realized that “there”, where the sky and the earth met, was still further away, that it would take me more time and effort than I had thought. I went back—I had to go back—to my father’s village, back to my usual village life because I saw that perhaps much more was involved, that maybe much more effort was called for in order to achieve what I desired, namely, to get to the point where I could touch the sky, where I could climb the sky. I went back to the ordinary, the normal life and experience of the village and of my people. But I did not tell anyone, I did not discuss the experience with anyone, even though I did not stop and could not stop thinking about it. I thought to myself that perhaps a week, a month, maybe a year would suffice for me to reach the place where the sky and the earth embraced. I was absolutely certain that right there in front of me, over there, not too far away, the sky touched the ground. And I thought that perhaps all I needed to do was keep walking, keep running, and keep racing forward, without stopping, without interruptions, without distractions in order to get to where the sky kissed the ground.
Today, thirty-five years later, I have realized that I was not wrong. I was right. The sky did touch the ground. It touches the ground all the time. You may ask “but where and how?” The sky touches the ground in our perception. Look across from your window into the distance. What do you see? Or, go outside and look in the distance. What do you see? The sky is right there, over there, touching the ground, the road, the houses, the trees, the mountains, the sea, and remaining there. But keep in mind that this is all happening in our perception. In perception, things are the way they appear, the way they seem. No rigorous, critical thinking is involved. And this happens so many times, and in fact is happening now; it happens every time that we are not thinking deeply, with attention and effort. It happens every time we fail to allow other perspectives, other possibilities and other possible interpretations to emerge.
The sky touches the earth, embraces and kisses the ground, right there in a fixed position, as long as you do not move. Once you move, it moves. And when you run after it, it too runs, not towards you though, but rather away from you. If you stand still, it stands still. If you stay where you are, it remains where it is. If you move even an inch, it will move. It will never allow you to catch up with it, to touch it; it will never allow you to possess it, to tame it; it will never allow you to take possession of it. And yet, it is always there, “putting everything into perspective.” By that I mean the horizon enables us to see, for without horizon one cannot see much of anything. Think about it! Everything presents itself in horizon. Everything dwells in the horizon, everything is within the confines of the horizon, and depends more or less on this phenomenon. And if I may borrow an expression from Saint Paul’s speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17:28) and be at liberty to use it as I see fit in this context (just as some scholars say he himself was at liberty to do with the same expression from the writing of Epimenides of Knossos (6th Century B.C.)), one can say that “that in which we live and move and have our being” is the horizon.
Standing still, remaining in one fixed position is not in the nature of the horizon. Its every stop (or what appears to be its end, its boundary) is temporary and transitory, like a pilgrim’s stop on a journey whose destination is still far away. It keeps moving, and it invites us to keep moving too, keep working, keep meeting people, keep exploring, keep digging, keep sowing, keep cultivating, keep harvesting, keep looking, keep reading, keep writing, keep thinking, keep talking, keep wondering.
We hear, not infrequently, the expression, “on the horizon/in the horizon.” What does it mean? It means in view, in the possible future, in sight. That which is in or on the horizon appears close, and seems to be approaching; it is as if it’s right there among the things that one hopes to do soon, as something squarely within one’s reach, among the things that one’s abilities can handle. What is in the horizon, then, is something that appears “present” and seems quite achievable.
What is a horizon? And what does it do?
A horizon is inseparable from a living, perceiving human being who is in the open or in the frontier of the open. There are no horizons in closed spaces, closed places. The distance between a living human being and the line where the sky and the earth meet is very wide. It is infinite. It is far, far away. You can only measure it with your eyes, your mind and your soul. You can figure out how long it is only to the extent that your eyes, your mind and your soul can go. An application of any other measuring device will only frustrate you because the moment you start going after it to measure it, it will recede. But the truth is that what you are actually seeing of the horizon is only a small part of it. The bigger part is on the other side of the horizon. Every horizon has at least two parts: a front and a back. The front of the horizon consists of the part you are seeing, and its back consists of the part hidden from you because of the hills and mountains, the earth, the road, the trees, the sea. In fact, the line where the sky seems to touch the earth is really only a perceived curve or a perceived point of contact, but the horizon really goes far and farther away, without end: it stretches into infinity.
All the things we are seeing are in fact standing in the way of the horizon. Similarly, all the things we are thinking right now, all our thoughts and ideas, everything that is presently on our minds can be an obstacle to a deeper and fuller understanding and appreciation of the horizon. We have to let go of all of these things in order to begin to have an idea of the depth and richness of the horizon.
For now, let us focus on the part of the horizon that is visible to us. It is a world, the world that we live in or would like to live in. Normally, it consists of people, people of different religions and/or of no religion at all, people of different languages and cultures, different experiences, different states and walks of life, different situations and aspirations, people driven by different desires, values and visions, people of very deep opinions, inspirations, beliefs and deep convictions other than our own, people heading in a thousand and one directions. This world, this visible side of the horizon also includes animals of many different types and habitats, which eat different kinds of food and have different spans of life. It also includes many different trees, bushes and flowers, and different types of grasses, etc. Mountains and hills and valleys too, rivers and big oceans, streams and creeks, are all part of this side of the horizon. Small and big houses, low and high buildings, shelters and palaces, mud houses and ghettoes are all part of this side of the horizon that we are seeing. But we do not actually see everything that we know is out there, that is all around us, that is over there in front of us…
How do we even know that there is anything out there, that other people are out there? A long walk, travels, meeting people, doing business with people, education, etc. confirm that there are other people out there, other lifestyles, other ways of thinking, other ways of doing things, other attractions, other things that people consider as very precious and worth dying for. We read about these things, have actually met and seen them with our own eyes, have lived with people of different orientations and values, have had some great opportunities to exchange ideas with them. But neither our reading and studying nor our investigative and explorative eyes can exhaust the visible side of the horizon because even the visible side has its own invisible aspects and invisible faces. Let us take for example persons, situations and objects.
From time to time, a person whom I have known for many years, not only surprises me, but also seems to be a surprise to herself/himself whenever s/he says something or does something I could never have thought or imagined her or him doing. And people of this nature are not uncommon.
How about situations? They are similar. Even the most familiar situations often have aspects that are new and different, which we can see if and when we look with more attention and care. And the moment we become used to these, even newer different aspects of the same situation emerge. The same goes for things such as books, clocks, chairs, doors, and so on. A book often presents us with information that we did not see the first time we read it. And if you read it again, you will again see something you missed the second time you read it. If you wish, you can read it again and again, and you will see something new every time. The book will never fail to make you see something new and/or think something new.
Can a chair or a door do something similar? That is, can a chair or a door make you see something new or think something new every time you encounter them? Let us see. A chair, unlike a book, seems to have no generative power. It seems mute and sterile. But can a chair speak and make us think? The answer is yes, it can speak and make us think. No one would disagree that the chair of Pontius Pilate, the chair of a Court Judge, the chair of Saint Peter, and so forth do have a powerful message. Although these chairs I have cited are special, every chair can say something to us and really make us think. For example, chairs for children and for adults make us think different thoughts, which by the way, make us give children appropriate chairs and to adults what is suitable for them. If we did not think differently of these chairs, chances are we would give adults the chairs meant for children and vice-versa, or give the same kind of chairs to everybody, children and adults alike, seriously compromising comfort. And some chairs would even fall apart (that is, if children’s chairs are given to heavy people like me to sit on).
Doors too make us think. For example, the Door of No Return in Goree Island in Dakar, Senegal, and the Door of Hope in Johannesburg, South Africa, makes every visitor think. But again, although these specific references are special, every door, including those that may seem unimposing and insignificant, can really make us think. Every door has a message.
The bottom line is that even the most visible side of the horizon can have aspects that may not be totally obvious and immediately accessible. Therefore, the visible, that which seems completely clear can still make us think because it often has layers, folds, dimensions, messages that lie beneath its surface. There are always other meanings, other messages behind the obvious. And the moment we finish harvesting one message, the moment we finish reading one meaning, the horizon presents us another one, and yet another, and so on and so forth. Inexhaustible indeed, this horizon can constantly give new meaning, hope, color, shape, style, texture, depth, taste and strength to our lives for endless joy and delight, even under very difficult circumstances. Why? Because the horizon has power to liberate us from the present, the immediate, the obvious. As it draws back, so to speak, that is, when we attempt to respond to its invitation into the open, when we dare to go after it, go with it into the deep, when we allow ourselves to move with it and flow with it, then it can open new doors, generate new ideas, launch new beginnings, reveal inroads, illuminate new bridges, disclose exits, uncover new faces, make terrains of other possibilities visible, make cooperation and collaboration possible, make teamwork possible, bring along other solutions, other fertile soils. With the horizon, there are no closed doors, no human being is a finished project, no done deal, no finished once-and-for-all discussions, no insurmountable barriers. The horizon’s open field stretches into infinity.
All of this is but an invitation to read between the lines, i.e., “to resist simplistic interpretations that dogmatically ascribe fixed significations to [things]” (G. Weiss, Refiguring the Ordinary, Indiana University, Bloomington, 2008, p.58).
It is about the need to go on researching other possible meanings and interpretations of a text, to go on searching for other possible answers to certain problems, to appreciate the expanding limits, and to devote more time and energy to the lifelong project of exploration of self and of the world (and of God) (see P. Okogie’s “Horizon: the birthing world” in the Journal of Horizons of Horizons, Vol. 1, no. 1, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, 2012, p.10).
Rev. Dr. Okogie is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Bioethics, University of Saint Anselm, Rome, Italy.