My father has a story about hitting two ptarmigan with one shot, while hunting from a snowmobile with my grandmother. She was most impressed with his ability to hit two birds with one stone. One action: several good results. An action that ‘stacks’.
We can do this with the soul as well. I have a long list of things I want to learn for a combination of personal interest and what I call ‘story research’ — a catch-all term for the things that I have no earthly use for needing to know how to do but really want to learn anyway.
Learning to use a sextant, item 1 on yesterday’s list, is a fine example of this.
— Do I sail? No.
— Is there any conceivable reason I need to know how to calculate longitude? No. The odds of me being adrift at sea with no modern forms of navigational tools while yet still having a sextant to hand seem mighty unlikely. (But if it ever happens, I shall know how to use that nautical objet d’art on the cabin wall.)
— Might I one day write a story about a sailing ship that involves a sextant? — Yes! Story research!
But the thing is, it’s so much more than that. By learning this, I will be entering in to the history of navigation and trade, the romance of the sea; I will understand Shackleton’s extraordinary journey a little better once I know how hard it is to determine longitude, why that was a great accomplishment in the history of seafaring. I will know more about how to guide my path in life: and that is something. I will have added to the breadth of my knowledge, the height of my imagination, the depth of my understanding of the world and its ways.
I study Latin. I can read Virgil, which is useful for my scholarship. I can read Virgil, which is delightful for my soul. I can read Virgil, which helps me understand heroism and fate and duty; the appeal of gardening and beekeeping; the love Dante had for poetry and for the Aeneid in particular. I can read Virgil, and that places me in a tradition of two thousand years of scholars and schoolchildren. I can read Virgil, and understand my own language better. I can read Virgil, and enter better into the grand old game of literary allusions. I can read Virgil, and learn how someone else thought and lived and imagined. I can read Virgil, and understand the world.
This world is full of richness, and I am trying, in my own way, to take part in that. There are dimensions to the soul that we forget about, that far too often our lives leave out. Making bread is far more than making bread: it is entering into the whole tradition of life. The world is full of symbols and significance, and it’s much more fun to do things that ‘stack’, that hit two birds with one stone, that deepen life.