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Far From the Madding Crowd

Posted on Friday, August 18, 2023
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by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
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Train platform with crowd

The modern world – call it the crowd – fills us with frustration and anxiety, pushing us to hurry, miss nothing, and push others, which in turn unsettles us more, causing a rethink. So, here it is.

Many years ago, I commuted into New York City, a young lawyer. The train in was fine, sidewalks outside were fine, tight elevators were fine, but that stretch between train doors opening below Grand Central Station and finding light above was always a messy, crowded, and an uneasy affair.

While I never liked it, one day was particularly bad. Perhaps foul weather or too few trains, but everyone was cross, late, and cranky. When doors opened, masses poured out, and began to push.

That feeling was instantly unnerving. I was not fond of being pushed, and less fond of pushing others. I decided to be the one who held the line, held back the crowd, and did not push ahead into others.

This was a noble sentiment, but hard to implement. Perhaps many others felt the same, but a surging, sardine-like mob seems almost alive, possesses a mind of its own, and is hard to hold.

As the push mounted, my resolve grew – and so did the mob’s capacity to outmuscle one commuter, even one stubbornly resolved not to join the beast, the madness, the big push.

This lasted several minutes, people shoving, letting the crowd control them, and surging past me. Still, I tried to hold the line. Eventually, the human river became nearly uncontainable.

A single man walked before me, briefcase in his hand, back to me, and in no hurry. I liked that. Quietly, he made his way, at his pace, in his space, maybe glad for respite, albeit slow.

At first, his slowness did not bother me. It seemed endearing – a like mind. But as pressure grew, pressing on me, I wondered at his nonchalance, indifference to the current, and deliberate slowness.

Adversity plays tricks on a weakened soul, and mine must have been that because for all my resolve not to join the river, not to push when pushed, I eventually gave into the surging current.

As we approached the stairs up, out into the light, I let the crowd control my pace – pushed the man. He did not fall, complain, shriek, or speak. Seconds more, and we were climbing, pressure over, a banister to hold; the moment had passed, no bind. That is when I noticed – he was blind.

The reality struck me hard, and I teared up. “There but for the grace of God …” How could I have done that? Here was a man unable to see, stick tapping, braving that river, grateful for the chance, and I had pushed him. My apology earned a nod, no rebuke, nothing more, nothing new.

I never saw him again, and I assume he forgave this kind of thing daily, part of his life, rising above humanity’s small-mindedness, braving mobs made of commuters struggling for their feet.

He reminded me that we can be “in it and not of it,” part of the world but not mentally or emotionally, psychologically or spiritually defined by – or beholden to – the maddening mob.

He reminded me of the famous line, “far from the madding crowd,” drawn from an epic poem, one that implies we can be both physically and spiritually beyond “the madding crowd.”

The poem, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in Country Churchyard,” is a two-level affair, on one level about being physically removed from the world, on the other finding peace in peaceless times, serenity in a black night, quiet amid the noise, and a way to settle the troubled heart.

Grays’ poem speaks of keeping the “madding crowd” at bay. “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, Their sober wishes never learned to stray; Along the cool sequestered vale of life, they kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”

We are pushed to do as others would have us do, become part of the beast, feed it and be fed by it, and not to be ourselves – not to reserve that little place “far from the madding crowd.”

What did Ralph Waldo Emerson say? That earthy American who believed peace lay in self-reliance, another way of being “far from the madding crowd”? “Be yourself, no base imitator of another, but your best self.”

To this, he added nuggets akin to Gray’s phrase. “I cannot sell my liberty and power to save the sensibility of others,” “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” and “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” How true – in his time already and in ours.

When the modern world – that crowd – politicians, media, social media, all try to force their frustration and anxieties on you, just forget it, laugh at their poop loop, and say, “No, not today.” 

Today, I hold the line, am content within myself, unwilling to be pushed or to push others, happy as I am with what I am, peaceful and proud to be “far from the madding crowd.” On such days, as my blind friend taught me, and as I try to recall over time, things will turn out just fine.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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SusanW
SusanW
9 months ago

Thank you, BC! On any given day in today’s world we need to hear encouraging and spiritual experiences that will remind us to “just be ourselves”. Life is overwhelming for most Americans. So many are struggling every new day just to put food on the table, pay the bills, and stay optimistic for their families. Our political leaders sadly don’t feel our pain nor our daily anxiety, so I am very thankful for faithful and insightful leaders like yourself, who help us remember how important our integrity, patience, and our personal faith in God is. Thank you again, for always trying to be your best.

Rik
Rik
9 months ago

“He who hesitates is lost!” Is just 1 example of the behavior of the majority of Republicans! The Communist wannabe Democrats are aggressive in just acting as they please and the Republican politicians just cry but do nothing. That’s why the Communist wannabe Democrats FEAR TRUMP because He’s a SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS MAN and Running the Country is like Running a Business! Democrats don’t want to Serve the People, they want the People to SERVE THEM!

LauraC
LauraC
9 months ago

Thanks, Mr. Charles. It’s hard to keep one’s self together nowadays, but we can…and must.

Greg Rorabaugh
Greg Rorabaugh
9 months ago

Mr. Charles,
Thank you for your piece on finding peace wherever and however we are. That was a touching story. It was almost a satori-like experience. And those experiences, for me, are too few but always so clarifying and helpful.
You have reminded me to dig up my copy of Emerson’s essays and sit with some of that wisdom he provides.

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