Hints Half Guessed: T. S. Eliot and Life in a Day

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This past weekend I watched a documentary that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. It’s a sign of a good movie when I’m still thinking about it three days later. It’s an even better sign when I’m still mulling it over in bed at night after reading T. S. Eliot (though I suspect one could mull over just about anything after reading T. S. Eliot and make a good argument for doing so).

The movie was called Life in a Day. We watched it on a whim and I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was what I’d read about it a few months ago when it was making the festival rounds. The story goes that on July 24th 2010, nearly 80,000 people in over 190 countries, individually shot 4500 hours of video documenting a single day in their lives. After what must have been a small eternity in the editing room, the result is a 90 minute film that builds a sort of quiet epic out of the most ordinary thing in the world: us.

Every shot was made by an ordinary person with an ordinary camera and most of them were submitted via YouTube. To ensure that the entire world was represented, the team behind the project also sent out over 400 cameras by mail to parts of the world too far flung for internet access—or even electricity for that matter. People were free to film anything they wished of themselves and their lives, but the filmmakers asked them to answer a few simple questions: What’s in your pocket? What do you love the most? What do you fear the most?

The film flows from the pre-dawn quiet of city streets and back country moonscapes through the entire cycle of a day here on earth, encompassing our joys, faults, fears, and hopes from cradle to grave. The moments captured are honest, funny, and overwhelmingly ordinary. Not boring, mind you, merely ordinary—moments we’ve all known and cherished or dreaded or forgotten. A child wonders and fears what it would mean if God wasn’t real. A group of eastern European farmers laugh together while they milk their goats. A “Love Parade” turns deadly and selfish. An elderly couple renew their vows after fifty years of marriage. A man professes love for his refrigerator. A crowd of faces animate with joy over a thing as simple as light in darkness. An old woman stands before the camera, spreads her arms and proclaims: “This is me. This is what I look like. This is what I’m most afraid of.” It’s a snapshot of a single moment in time, a portrait of a world, a family photo of our entire human race.

As I watched, my mind kept circling back to the idea that what I was seeing was only a single day. One. One day plucked out of a continuum of millions, and since the beginning each and every one of them has been filled with the same sense of struggle, joy, love, pain, and loneliness. This is what God sees of us—and what more besides? As I watched Life in a Day roll by, I felt like I was catching, however slightly, a brief glimpse of divine perspective. And the smallness of that glimpse hinted at the vast wideness available to the eye of God for, as T.S. Eliot says, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

I’ve been reading Eliot’s Four Quartets lately and I won’t dare profess understanding of half of what I’ve read. But I do have glimpses of understanding. And in the context of Life in a Day, I think those glimpses have, at times, lengthened into meaningful stares (though amiable nods of recognition are, I fear, still years off).

Eliot talks of the “still point” where past, present, and future come together, and of the futility of dwelling anywhere other than in the eternal stillness, the ever-present dance at the intersection around which the cosmos spins. If he could see a film like Life in a Day, if he could see humanity caught in its wondrous, scandalous swirl for one, brief fleeting moment of presence, I wonder if Eliot might not have thought of a passage like this from his poem Burnt Norton:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the hanging body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure.

July 24th, 2010, captured on film. There the dance is. Everywhere. Around us always, at all times. And the incredible present-ness of the film urged me onward, of course, toward the further hope of the dance’s resolution. Again, as Eliot puts it:

These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled. . .

Life in a Day is a snapshot, a guess, a whole picture partially seen, a partial picture wholly present. And, hallelujah, Christ, the Incarnation, is the intersection of all things, the resolution of past, present, future. In him the beginning and end are made one. Every loneliness uttered in the flickering light of a laptop screen on July 24, 2010, and every day before and since, is answered. In his stillness, love and companionship are given. Every joy is rejoined and given substance beyond mere apparition. War is made safety. Sickness: health. Each life, in each day, exists most fully at its intersection with the Incarnation. In the words of Abraham Kuyper:

. . . there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!

Life in a Day is a tattered corner of the map of that domain, filled with ordinary miracles, regrets, failures, laughter, violence, hate, love, and beauty. But hallelujah, the Ancient of Days knows and keeps them every one, ever since the dance began. And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, because the tale is not over until its end is again its beginning, all things intersecting, all things beheld, from first to present to final, in the eye of the One.

We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

–from Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


24 Comments

  1. Lorilie

    Have you read Dove Descending: a Journey into T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets by Thomas Howard? He really helped me grapple with the sheer depth and density of Eliot’s poetry.

    Thanks for your reflections. I look forward to seeing this movie.

  2. Chris

    I can’t understand half of what T.S. Eliot writes either. I just know he’s saying something amazing. And “Little Gidding” is one of my favorite poems ever, so kudos for that quote.

  3. Autumn

    I lurk around the Rabbit Room a bit but this compelled me to comment. I love T.S. Elliot and the Four Quartets especially. To juxtapose that with the dance of one day and the Maker and Director of the dance. I am moved. (And also, apparently, I need to see this film.)

  4. Becca

    I’ve been wanting to see this film. My only fear now is that it will pale in comparison to the depth and brilliance of this essay. Geez, o’Pete.

    Heading off to reread…

  5. Jim

    Now on my must watch list. I have not seen the film but your response and impressions – especially the words of Eliot’s – is why I return to nature, again and again. Thank you.

  6. Fellow Traveler

    I worked through the _Four Quartets_ and other stuff of Eliot’s in highschool (including _Murder In the Cathedral_). Special thanks are due to dear old mom for taking me through it slowly and explaining it all so clearly as only she could. I still remember the gigantic Eliot test she gave me where I had to write a whole bunch of short essays on every concept we covered.

  7. Chris Whitler

    This is so good that me saying so diminishes it a bit…but, wowy, thanks. My son and I almost participated in this film project but we couldn’t get the traction in our schedules that we needed. Once I watch it, I will probably be sorry that we didn’t try.

    But your description put me in mind of one of my favorite films called Baraka. It may be something Rabbity folks would like. Here’s the IMDB link… http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103767/

    Thanks again. I’ll be chewing these Elliot excerpts while I try to go to sleep tonight.

  8. Fellow Traveler

    As for the film, it was interesting. See it if only for some of the truly glorious shots that were captured.

  9. Loren

    I’m with Becca: time for a reread…and maybe a few more. Suddenly more of T. S. Eliot is making sense. I’ll say it’s due to your crystalization here, Pete, not my advancing years. Thanks. Timing on this was God-given.

  10. Fellow Traveler

    Also, while this is an interesting way to compare the film with Eliot’s poetry, I’m not entirely sure if it’s exactly what he had in mind. It seems that Eliot intends to convey a sense of absolute peace and stillness—if anything, a withdrawal from the swirling kaleidoscope of humanity to a place where there is nobody present but God. Look again at this bit:

    The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
    And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
    By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
    Erhebung without motion, concentration
    Without elimination…

    Eliot is reaching for a place that is outside of time, AWAY from the teeming mass of humanity. It is a sentiment that is much better complemented by your brother’s song “The Magic Hour.” Absolute stillness:

    Here at the magic hour, time and eternity
    Mingle a moment in chorus
    Could this beauty be for us?

    Again, your connection is natural, but it just doesn’t seem to fit with Eliot’s intended meaning.

  11. Kristen Peterson

    Pete, thank you for these words. I’ve loved the Kuyper quote for years, and reading it embedded in these reflections made it all the more meaningful.

    “But hallelujah, the Ancient of Days knows and keeps them every one, ever since the dance began. And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, because the tale is not over until its end is again its beginning, all things intersecting, all things beheld, from first to present to final, in the eye of the One.” – this perspective on our omniscient God is indeed humbling and freeing at the same time. Thank you.

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