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An essay by Hamilton Wright Mabie

The Year Of Wandering

Title:     The Year Of Wandering
Author: Hamilton Wright Mabie [More Titles by Mabie]

Goethe prefaces Wilhelm Meister's travels with some lines full of that sagacity which was so closely related to his insight:

What shap'st thou here at the world? 't is shapen long ago;
The Maker shaped it, he thought it best even so;
Thy lot is appointed, go follow its hest;
Thy way is begun, thou must walk, and not rest;
For sorrow and care cannot alter the case;
And running, not raging, will win thee the race.

My inheritance, how wide and fair!
Time is my estate: to time I'm heir.

Between the preparation and the work, the apprenticeship and the actual dealing with a task or an art, there comes, in the experience of many young men, a period of uncertainty and wandering which is often misunderstood and counted as time wasted, when it is, in fact, a period rich in full and free development. In the days when Wilhelm Meister was written, the _Wanderjahr_ or year of travel was a recognised part of student life, and was held in high regard as contributing a valuable element to a complete education. "The Europe of the Renaissance," writes M. Wagner, "was fairly furrowed in every direction by students, who often travelled afoot and barefoot to save their shoes." These wayfarers were light-hearted and often empty-handed; they were in quest of knowledge, but the intensity of the search was tempered by gaiety and ease of mood. Under a mask of frivolity, however, youth often wears a serious face, and behind apparent aimlessness there is often a steady and final turning of the whole nature towards its goal.

Uncertainty breeds impatience; and in youth, before the will is firmly seated and the goal clearly seen, impatience often manifests itself in the relaxation of all forms of restraint. The richer the nature the greater the reaction which sometimes sets in at this period; the more varied and powerful the elements to be harmonised in a man's character and life, the greater the ferment and agitation which often precede the final discernment and acceptance of one's work. If the pressure of uncertainty with regard to one's gifts and their uses ought to call out patience and sympathy, so ought that experience of spiritual and intellectual agitation which often intervenes between the training for life and the process of actual living. This experience is a true year of wandering, and there is nothing of which the wanderer stands in such need as the friendly hand and the door which stands hospitably open.

It is the born drudge alone who is content to go from the school to the office or the shop without so much as asking the elementary questions about life. The aspiring want to know what is behind the occupation; they must discover the spiritual necessity of work before they are ready to bend to the inevitable yoke. Strong natures are driven by the Very momentum of their own moral impulse to explore the world before they build in it and unite themselves with it; the imagination must be fed with beauty and truth before they are content to choose their task and tools. It is often a sign of greatness in a man that he does not quickly fit into his place or easily find his work. Let him look well at the stars before he bends to his task; he will need to remember them when the days of toil come, as they must come, at times, to every man. Let him see the world with his own eyes before he gives to fortune those hostages which hold him henceforth fast-bound in one place.

It is as natural for ardent and courageous youth to wish to know what is in life, what it means, and what it holds for its children, as for a child to reach for and search the things that surround and attract it. Behind every real worker in the world is a real man, and a man has a right to know the conditions under which he must live, and the choices of knowledge, power, and activity which are offered him. In the education of many men and women, therefore, there comes the year of wandering; the experience of travelling from knowledge to knowledge and from occupation to occupation. There are men and women, it is true, who are born under conditions so free and prosperous that the choice of work is made almost instinctively and unconsciously, and apprenticeship merges into mastery without any intervening agitation or uncertainty. At long intervals Nature not only sends a great talent into the world, but provides in advance for its training and for its steady direction and unfolding; but Nature is not often so minute in her provision for her children. Those who receive most generously from her hand are, for the most part, compelled to discover their gifts and find their places in the general order as the result of much searching, and often of many failures.

And even in the most harmonious natures the elements of agitation and ferment are rarely absent. The forces which go to the making of a powerful man can rarely be adjusted and blended without some disturbance of relations and conditions. This disturbance is sometimes injurious, because it affects the moral foundations upon which character rests; and for this reason the significance of the experience in its relation to development ought to be sympathetically studied. The birth of the imagination and of the passions, the perception of the richness of life, and the consciousness of the possession of the power to master and use that wealth, create a critical moment in the history of youth,--a moment richer in possibilities of all kinds than comes at any later period. Agitation and ferment of soul are inevitable in that wonderful moment. It is as idle to ask youth to be calm and contented in that supreme moment as to ask the discoverer who is catching his first glimpse of a new continent to avoid excitement. There are times when agitation is as normal as is self-control at other and less critical times. There are days in June when Nature seems to betray an almost riotous prodigality of energy; but that prodigality is always well within the limits of order. In youth that which is to be feared is not the explosive force of vitality, but its wrong direction; and it is at this crisis that youth so often makes its mute and unavailing appeal to maturity. The man who has left his year of wandering behind him forgets its joys and perils, and regards it as a deflection from a course which is now perfectly plain, although it may once have been confused and uncertain. He is critical and condemnatory where he ought to be sympathetic and helpful. If he reflects and comprehends, he will hold out the hand of fellowship; for he will understand that the year of wandering is not a manifestation of aimlessness, but of aspiration, and that in its ferment and uncertainty youth is often guided to and finally prepared for its task.

[The end]
Hamilton Wright Mabie's essay: The Year Of Wandering