Reflections on Reflection

This Friday marks fall term’s last full week of class, leaving little standing between students and winter break. The first Christmas lights have come out; the shops have stocked their shelves with peppermint bark and gingerbread men. The holidays storm in, and 2010 shuffles out. Just like that, another semester—and another year with it—comes to a close.

For some Harvard students, winter break too often means only another opportunity to take no break at all, to seek out an internship or otherwise augment their career prospects and cultural currency. For my part, I take breaks seriously—if you want to find me this January, my couch is a good place to start. But it’s not just the lounging I like; for me breaks are a chance to slow down and reflect.

Reflection is a tough word to pin down, but for me it means thinking about my life the same way I think about a story or a poem, sifting through scenes or stanzas to find threads of meaning. Breaks allow time for reading outside the syllabi, and these stories and poems themselves can represent and provoke the reflection that comes at the end of an epoch. Art about endings has helped me define my reflections on great lengths of time and isolate the moments that mattered.

Thomas Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” is one such poem about an ending. Dated December 31, 1900, Hardy’s poem packs reflection on a century gone by and anticipation of a century to come into a few brief stanzas. It’s a winter poem, of course, with the speaker leaning on a gate “When Frost was spectre-gray.” It’s no happy ending, either: “every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervourless as I,” says the speaker as he looks out on the wintry dusk.

But the poem’s reflection on the century gone by doesn’t end with the speaker’s glum solitude; an old thrush breaks through the evening gloom, soaring through the winter cold “In full hearted evensong / Of joy illimited.” The bird comes as an unexpected sign of an incomprehensible joy, as a harbinger of “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware.” He flies with the force of grace.

That’s the force that should drive reflection. Some might warn of the threat of nostalgia, of doing a disservice to the past by imagining it as we wish it had been—and indeed wistfulness can be abused to help us avoid confronting the unsavory, particularly about ourselves. But the idea that emotional, time-restricted responses to events as they’re occurring is somehow preferable to later reflections on those events is flawed. Now is the present, and now is when we choose what to make of the past. Expecting to understand best what’s happening as it occurs is the same as expecting to understand a book best as when reading it for the first time.

Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” speaks to the force reflection on the past can bring to bear on the present. The novella tracks an old fisherman through a long, grueling trip in which he catches a huge marlin—the biggest catch of his life. On his way back to harbor he is forced to watch as sharks gradually pick all the meat from the fish’s bones. By the time he returns home he has nothing but his memories, nothing but his story.

Yet it is not the bleak story of the lost fish that the old man remembers when he lies down at the end of his voyage, finally home after fighting a long battle with an insuperable enemy. He remembers instead a scene he saw long ago when he was a boy, of lions playing on a long golden African beach: “He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them.” In his moments of rest the old man recovers what it was that really mattered to him: not the trips at sea, not the women of his past, not even the fish. It was a single scene, a singular perception of untamed beauty, that mattered.

We can’t force those moments, but we can be ready to receive them, not just to remember them fondly once they’ve passed but to greet them as they come. This winter break is a time to savor this year’s story before flipping forward to the next chapter. I won’t expect to understand it all but in the end, sometimes it takes turning the final page to realize what really mattered.

—Columnist Adam T. Horn can be reached at adamhorn@college.harvard.edu.

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