Open to Experience

Some years ago I heard a young man — actually, he was a teenager at that time — remark that he wanted to be “open to all experience.”

I am pretty sure that I know what he meant. He was an intelligent fellow and eager to distinguish himself from people whose minds were, he felt, narrow. He saw various sorts of religious people about him who were not as sure as he was that the direction in which civilization was headed was altogether a promising one. They might wonder, for example, whether the much-praised “sexual revolution” was a movement forward in the annals of the human race, or whether it might be the beginning of the Gadarene Slide. For heaven’s sake (he was thinking), we’re grown up now (“man come of age,” a popular theologian had suggested): Surely we do not need moral busybodies hampering our right to make our own decisions in such a matter as this? Has the human race not lumbered ahead for long enough under the strictures imposed on us by pinched moral codes that treat us all as children?

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But I think my young friend was not speaking solely of matters entailing the big moral questions. His was a generation that looked back on the preceding generations as having been somewhat disfranchised by the mere lack of the chance to enjoy all this “experience” that he felt was the very precondition to full and authentic adulthood. Modern travel and communications had, it seemed to him, opened up whole vistas of “experience” to everyone. You could find out all about wine now by visiting endless chateaux, vineyards, and cellars as you frolicked across Europe with your knapsack on your back. You could climb Kilimanjaro or Chimborazo with your friends now, not merely read wistfully about it in the pages of Ernest Hemingway as your fathers had done.

And music: Technology was making the entire universe of music instantly available, from Praetorius to U2, so that you could enter knowledgeably into high-level discussions on the matter, whereas your fathers had had to scrape along with their paltry collections of 78’s or 33’s. And food — my word. Now we had rare sauces drizzled on our arugula and endive, whereas our forebears had to make do with iceberg lettuce and creamy ranch dressing. Or so it all seemed at any rate to my friend.

The great thing was to be “open to all experience.” Why were one’s elders forever hesitating before taking the plunge into that which was new and exciting? When a revolution announces itself, why dawdle on the sidelines? The Bastille in 1789, the Barricades in 1858, Chicago in 1968 — get into it! Or, after World War l, go-ahead types took up martinis, twelve-inch cigarette holders, short skirts, cerise lipstick, marcelled hair, and cloche hats: hey nonny! Free love! Aldous Huxley with his peyote and Timothy Leary with his LSD: Hurrah for heightened awareness! One was in a race to gain sheer quantity and variety of “experience.” Who will carp?


Presently I found myself wanting to put a question to my young friend: All of experience, you say? All? Well, let’s see. What about the experience of living your whole life in penury on a drab street at the edge of an industrial city? That would be experience, surely? Or shall we consider paraplegia; or blindness; or MS; or ALS? These certainly would qualify as experience, would they not?

Or again: finding oneself betrayed by one’s spouse, or jilted by one’s beloved, or sacked from one’s job, or refused entry to the university of one’s fondest hopes? Or (yet again) — how about starvation? Half the world seems to live perilously close to that. Or life in a Marxist state? There’s experience for you, if that’s what you are so eager to savor. . .

Perhaps we need to modify the word “experience.” Would “pleasure” be closer to the mark? Or diversion? Or ecstasy?

What constitutes experience, actually? To find an answer to that, we might consult a sampling of people from across the human scene and ask what their experience of life has been. An old Berber sitting at the door of his tent; or a coolie dragging scows up the Yellow River; or a mother of ten ragged children; or a London cabbie, or a shopkeeper in Guayaquil. Here’s a wrinkled crone in black stockings, black dress, and black babushka. She will have missed quite a few of life’s “experiences.” But what do all these people know of this mortal life of ours? Poverty? Yes. Unremitting toil? Certainly. Endurance? Sacrifice? Motherhood? Small pleasures in local wine, home-baked bread, greens, tea? No doubt. Laughter over the antics of children? Surely.

At this point, of course, we have steered perilously near the bog of sentimentalism. Summoning this parade of people from all across history and the globe could easily regale us with mere emotion, the way candlelight and plaintive violins can play on our emotions. We do not have to go so far afield to consider inner-city school teachers, mechanics, salesmen, clerks, housewives, secretaries, managers, executives, and a host of others whose range of “experience,” to a casual glance, might look less than thrilling.

Are they cut off from the experiences that offer us all the chance to grow into the wisdom, virtue, charity, courage, and endurance that alone mark the authentically human man or woman? A vast breadth of pleasures and diversions may or may not have come their way. But what will they have missed in missing such pleasures? Nothing, surely, that pertains to the dignity that crowns our true humanity.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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