Go and Stand on Hallowed Ground
I suppose it is a contradiction that someone like me who so firmly guards against the narrative fallacy would be such a deep believer in hallowed ground. But I am. See, those who ascribe to this school of thought simply believe that there is something to be gained from going to old places, places where people died or where great things happened. And that by standing on this ground are transformed by it.
There you can experience what Hadot calls the “oceaniac feeling.” A sense of belonging to something larger, to realize that “human things are an infinitesimal point in the immensity.” It is in this instance, that you can ask yourself the important questions: Who am I? What am I doing? What is my role in this world?
The battlefield at Vicksburg. The canals and palazzos of Venice. The forum in Rome. The streets of Tombstone. Old South Meeting House in Boston, the grounds of Harvard. The Hangman’s Elm in Washington Square Park. I’ve spent a lot of time in the American South. Part of the reason I like it is for its hallowed ground potential. Huey Long trained at the gym where I work out. As far as I know, the heavy bag I hit is still in the same place he learned to box. The building I write this in is 200 years old. How many people have passed through it? Wasted time? Enjoyed themselves?
I don’t always even need to physically step in these places or, if I do, spend more than just a few moments. I’ve driven slowly through the streets of old Birmingham, I didn’t really see why I needed to get out of the car. The thoughts are the same.
Violence. Money. Death. Politics. Sex. These are the themes of humanity. Nothing makes this clearer than hallowed ground of every era. To see your face in a statue and understand how little has changed since then—since before and as it will be forever after. Here a great man once stood. Here another one died. Here a cruel rich man lived in this palatial home…
Yet where are they now? Nowhere. Their works? Mostly gone. As William Alexander Percy wrote, even most extraordinary individuals like his father, “who warmed and led and lighted our people,” are barely remembered. Their name and deeds will be soon forgotten. And ours, which pale in comparison to theirs, will too. What does it matter if “soon” means tomorrow or 1,000 years from now? This is what hallowed ground can teach us.
We are left only with first principals: be a good person; do what you love. Contribute your little bit to the universe before it swallows you up and be happy with that. On hallowed ground, we can channel the energy of the accomplishments of the people who came before it, the passage of time having long stripped them of their vanity, and direct it properly in our own lives.
Of course, it is possible to take the wrong lesson from hallowed ground. Like Caesar, weeping at the sight of a statue of Alexander, that’d he’d conquered fewer nations in the same amount of time. It should not spur our ambition, but chasten it. It is a flash lesson in humility. We are put in our place, and yet at the same time, left with a sense of the magnitude of possibilities.
We read the biographies of great men and see similarities in ourselves. We see a plaque for a division that fought and was slaughtered, and it might pain us to know that we’ll likely never warrant even a generalized marker like that. We fail to realize all of these events are just blips on the larger radar of life. The difference in posthumous recognition between Ulysses S. Grant and an infantryman means nothing to either of them. And in turn between Grant and a greater general—Ghenghis Khan, let’s say—matters less still, even though one’s achievements echo louder and have for longer than the other. All dead. All trod upon by you and I today.
Take comfort in that fact. That decade earlier, a century earlier, a millennia earlier, someone just like you stood right where you are and felt the same things you feel, struggled with the same thoughts. They have no idea that you exist, but you know that they did. Embrace the power of this position and learn from it. It is an exhilarating moment, let it propel you.
Go and put yourself in touch with the infinite, because it helps you reconcile yourself a bit better with the mundane. Realize how much came before you, and how only wisps of it remain today, and that anyone can go and—to quote Murakami—breath death into their lungs like a fine dust. Breath it in so it becomes a part of you. Do it as often as you can, whenever you can: go and stand on hallowed ground.