“You are spending much of your life metabolizing time”
A new year is upon us, and that means an enhanced focus on time. We learn to write the year 2022. We consider the possibility of a fresh start. We set resolutions. We hope to begin anew and for something better.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Ritual is important. Starting fresh sounds great.
But the reality is that at midnight as we cheer in that new year and a fresh start, we likely brought along checked baggage from 11:59 p.m. on December 31, 2021. We brought along our habit energy.
No better example of dragging along the past exists in literature than the nameless ancient mariner of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” first published in 1798.
When we meet the ancient mariner, he has stumbled upon a group going into a church to witness a wedding. He stops one of the wedding guests to tell him the story of his arctic expedition.
The “grey-beard loon,” as the unwilling listener calls him, describes his dangerous voyage, for “The ice was here, the ice was there,/The ice was all around” until an albatross appeared, flying alongside the ship and seemingly bringing good luck as “The ice did split with a thunder-fit;/ The helmsman steer’d us through!”
Yet the mariner shoots the albatross with his crossbow for reasons he cannot explain.
At first, it all seems fine with the good weather continuing, but then the breeze stops altogether, for which his fellow sailors blame the mariner so that: “Ah! well a-day! what evil looks/ Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross/About my neck was hung.”
Eventually, the mariner finds himself the lone survivor on the ship.
There’s much more at play in the poem, including an appearance by Death, Life-in-Death, and the sailors becoming a rather benign zombie crew.
When the mariner is rescued, he immediately meets a hermit. Upon seeing the hermit, the mariner begs, “‘O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!’” Wishing to confess and to be forgiven his sins so that he can begin anew, the mariner tells his story, “And then it left me free.”
But, of course, it didn’t, for the very next stanza has the mariner telling the wedding guest: “Since then, at an uncertain hour,/That agony returns:/And till my ghastly tale is told,/ This heart within me burns.”
And this explains the mariner grabbing the wedding guest and forcing him to miss the ceremony so that the mariner can repeat his tale — yet again.
The albatross fell off of his neck long ago while upon the sea when he blessed the sea snakes, but the mariner carries the story with him endlessly never truly able to make a fresh start because he is carrying his past.
We all have an albatross, maybe two. The point is not to escape the past but to accept it, to forgive ourselves and perhaps others whom we feel have harmed us.
But we don’t reach the freedom the mariner seeks by repeating the same storyline over and over.
As we move into the new year and contemplate resolutions, we might resolve to live in the present moment, dropping the albatross, or as Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön puts it “our very important stories.”
We can live mindfully, which means no more albatross — from the past or in the future.
Happy new year!