Reconciling the Planetal and the Personal: Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Lessons from the Beach
November 24, 2012 § 2 Comments
That’s what Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in Gift from the Sea, calls an attentiveness to what is going on around the globe. In the last chapter of her bestselling book, she wonders how we can balance a “planetal point of view [which] has burst upon mankind” with a “search for outward simplicity, for inner integrity, for fuller relationship.”
Throughout Gift from the Sea, she examines shells that she finds during a respite by herself at the beach, finding lessons from them on how to escape the constant distractions and overwhelming demands of life. It is in the final chapter, entitled “The Beach at My Back,” that she discusses the need to return from the seashore while remembering what was learned there.
Lindbergh’s book was published in 1955, and it uses the language of her day (planetal has since given way to global, and the Internet has replaced “public print” as the dominant media), but it is striking how much her thoughts apply to our present world, with the flood of global information and news threatening to overwhelm our senses and our empathy. She writes,
The world is rumbling and erupting in ever-widening circles around us. The tensions, conflicts and sufferings even in the outermost circle touch us all, reverberate in all of us. We cannot avoid these vibrations.
But just how far can we implement this planetal awareness? We are asked today to feel compassionately for everyone in the world, to digest intellectually all the information spread out in public print, and to implement in action every ethical impulse aroused by our hearts and minds. The interrelatedness of the world links us constantly with more people than our hearts can hold. Or rather—for I believe the heart is infinite—modern communication loads us with more problems than the human frame can carry. It is good, I think, for our hearts, our minds, our imaginations to be stretched, but body, nerve, endurance and life-span are not as elastic. My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds. I cannot marry all of them, or bear them all as children, or care for them all as I would my parents in illness or old age. Our grandmothers, and even—with some scrambling—our mothers, lived in a circle small enough to let them implement in action most of the impulses of their hearts and minds. We were brought up in a tradition that has now become impossible, for we have extended our circle throughout space and time.
Faced with this dilemma what can we do? How can we adjust our planetal awareness to our Puritan conscience? We are forced to make some compromise. Because we cannot deal with the many as individuals, we sometimes try to simplify the many into an abstraction called the mass. Because we cannot deal with the complexity of the present, we often over-ride it and live in a simplified dream of the future. Because we cannot solve our own problems right here at home, we talk about problems out there in the world. An escape process goes on from the intolerable burden we have placed upon ourselves. But can one really feel deeply for an abstraction called the mass? Can one make the future a substitute for the present? And what guarantee have we that the future will be any better if we neglect the present? Can one solve world problems when one is unable to solve one’s own? Where have we arrived in this process? Have we been successful, working at the periphery of the circle and not at the center?
The answer, writes Lindbergh, is to affect the wider circles of the there, the future, and the mass by concentrating on—by enjoying—the centers of “the here, the now, [and] the individual and his relationships.” We must leave the beach, but we leave with our pockets full of shells, reminding us how to “find again some of the joy in the now, some of the peace in the here, some of the love in me and thee which go to make up the kingdom of heaven on earth.”
“It may be our special function to emphasize again these neglected realities,” writes Lindbergh, “not as a retreat from greater responsibilities but as a first real step toward a deeper understanding and solution of them.”
In 1929, Anne Morrow Lindbergh married Charles Lindbergh, already a worldwide celebrity, being the first person to fly from New York to Paris. They met when Charles visited Anne’s family in Mexico, where her father was serving as ambassador from the US. After their marriage, Anne learned to fly and became Charles’s copilot and navigator as the two flew the globe exploring and mapping out routes.
Though America’s “first couple of the air” seemed destined to live out a fairy tale, their life together was beset by turmoil. Tragedy struck their family in 1932 when the Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son was kidnapped and killed. A highly sensationalized trial resulted in the conviction of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was later executed for the murder. To escape the media and public attention, the Lindberghs moved secretly to Europe, living in England and France for over three years.
A theme through much of Anne’s writing is the struggle to find the right path in the face of outward pressures and distractions. In living out this struggle in her own life, she sometimes made regrettable decisions. As Hitler began his offensive in Europe, Anne wrote The Wave of the Future, declaring the inevitability of fascism and calling for America not to oppose the Nazis. Also, in a letter, she called Hitler “a very great man, like an inspired religious leader—and as such rather fanatical—but not scheming, not selfish, not greedy for power.” In her personal life, too, Anne had her failings, having an affair with her doctor shortly after writing Gift from the Sea. (Unknown to Anne, Charles was later unfaithful to her, fathering seven children by three women in Europe.)
Anne wrote more than a dozen books, with Gift from the Sea being her most popular. She died in Vermont in 2001, at the age of 94.
(Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, New York: Pantheon, 1955)