“…when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11)

I wasn’t precocious as a kid, but I do remember reading some books as a “tween” that my peers may not have been interested in. One was Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. (I can’t remember a thing about it other than the title.) Another apparently was The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, which has continued to be a favorite. Judging from the copyright date on the edition I have, and the childish signature inside the front cover, I bought it when I was 11 or 12. It cost 45 cents.

I reread the story recently, and I wondered how I ever understood it as an early teen. Not only did it have words in it I had to look up even now, but the theme surely could not have been appreciated by someone with no life experience. Maybe I simply saw it as an adventure story.

Of course, it’s so much more. The Time Traveller is sorely disappointed to see that human civilization had progressed as he had expected it would by the year 800,000+. Instead, “the too perfect security of the Upperworlders had led them to a slow movement of degeneration, to a general dwindling in size, strength, and intelligence.” What can a kid know of having hopes dashed in such a fashion? And then of course, there’s the social commentary on the relationship between the idle rich and those in the laboring class who support them, at a horrific cost to both. Without a knowledge of history or an experience of working for a living, I could not have appreciated Wells’ point. And then there was the abject loneliness (a “horror of…great darkness”) of the Traveller as he sat on a beach near the end of Earth’s life. Well, maybe that a young teen can understand.

It’s one of the ironies of education that we read lofty works like Shakespeare and the Bible (for example, the Book of Job or Ecclesiastes) and yes, H.G. Wells, at a time when we can scarcely fathom what they’re saying. Then, when we grow older and can bring our experience to bear, we have little time for serious reading, the kind in which we savor the words.

I’m grateful that lately I have had some such time. As I reread the tale, two passages particularly struck me.  One was this, as the Traveller commented on the indolence of the Eloi, the dwellers in the upper world: “We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity, and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!” Without challenges to keep our skills sharp, to interest our minds, what are we? What would we become? We may indeed wish the “hateful grindstone” to stop turning, but once freed of need, would we not then eventually become the vapid, uncurious, uncaring people the Traveller encountered, an “idiocracy,” as a movie title has it?

The other is the comment of the storyteller in the epilogue. The Time Traveller has disappeared, apparently never to return. From the future world, he had brought back some flowers, given him by his friend Weena, whom he had rescued from drowning. His friend now reflects on the Traveller’s experiences and his own hopefulness: “And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.”

I could not have understood that passage or appreciated it without years and years of life and pastoral experience. You have to know pain and loss in order to be able to rejoice in the persistence of hope, in order to be able to affirm that in spite of everything, there is cause for thankfulness. And not only that, but love lives on, along with its companions faith and hope.

And that is timeless truth.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

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