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Living Life Between Two Melvill(e)s

“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“Ye cannot live for yourselves; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men, and along those fibres, as along sympathetic threads, run your actions as causes, and return to you as effects.” — Henry Melvill, from “Partaking in Other Men’s Sins”

(As an aside: Henry lived between 1798–1871, Herman between 1819 – 1891, meaning they were tenants on the planets at the same time for 52 years. I doubt they ever met, but they’re forever linked by the latter quote, often associated with Herman Melville because of the similarities in their names and because people simply grab quotes online and use them without doing basic research beforehand.)

We each live our lives somewhere between responsibility and adventure, don’t we? It’s like our moralist angel is named Henry, while our adventurous devil is named Herman. But life isn’t lived at the extremes? Most of us find ourselves somewhere in between. Our souls want to dance with a calling all its own, and we ought to find the tune that suits us best.

Yet a thousand fibres connect us. Think about the hundreds of thousands of souls called to war just this year in Ukraine and Russia, simply because of the decision of one man. I imagine most of them would say their best life would be living the normal life they had before the world turned upside down. We choose to be who we are within the social and political fabric we exist in, and ought to celebrate the relative freedom to choose.

You might think of Henry as a wet blanket, tossing out themes of cause and effect with such authority, but the reason it resonates is because the truth is woven into his sermon. But so too are the words of Herman. We all hear the tormented call to the coasts of our imagination, those places we’d be but for this other thing we must do first. For some it’s a tropical beach, for some it’s filled with icebergs and polar bears, but it calls just the same. Barbarous is in the eye of the beholder.

Most of us don’t have to live a life mutually exclusive of adventure or responsible productivity. We get to decide what to be and do our best to be it. We’ll each hear calls from the other side, beckoning us to be more adventurous or more responsible. That’s the sound of freedom of choice in a world that doesn’t always offer it in equal shares. We’re privileged to have such options in our brief dance with life. Ultimately, we choose what we lean into to find our balance, and what we let drift away. We ought to be at peace with that.

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