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The chambered nautilus
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Time being the precious commodity that it is, I find myself spending more and more of it on the simple little things which, in my own judgment, I've come to consider as having value. I've tried to stop spinning my wheels in order to put in appearances at functions or other activities just because it might be politically correct or, in some other selfish way, advantageous to do so.

In the process of intentionally separating myself from the rat race, I've discovered the unexpected benefit of being able to identify more clearly those individuals who are totally immersed in climbing ladders, be they political, business or social in nature.

More often than not, folks who are superficial are unmasked by their actions pretty quickly. No matter how elegant and charming they may appear to be at first blush, no matter how polished and poised, folks who are interested only in furthering their own ambition or social status prove to be fairly transparent.

And I'm amazed at myself, and a little more than disgusted, for having had to experience 56 years of this life to finally get to the point where I could discover the secret - for me, at least - of discerning with whom and with what I want to spend the last of this precious gift I have, the gift of time.

How much of these 56 years have I wasted? I shudder at the thought that perhaps all of it has been. But in the next instant I tell myself - though I may be rationalizing to keep from plummeting into a deep, dark, inescapable abyss - that all of this life experience has been necessary to bring me to this point. At least now I can differentiate between things that matter, and those that don't.

Or can I? Have I at last arrived at that long-hoped-for point toward which my parents and teachers pointed me with the admonishment to "grow up?" Or am I delusional? Have I still a long way to go? And how, pray tell, will I ever know?

Once upon a time, 35 years ago this year, it became necessary for the local school system to expand into what is now the norm for metropolitan/suburban school districts. The very first personnel director was a grand man who was the progenitor of the Newton County Association for the Arts, the late Dave Young. Dave had in his office a painting of a chambered nautilus and told me once how he believed that all of us mortals move through stages in our being much like that small sea creature. One day, as I visited in his office, he explained to me that as the nautilus outgrows its tiny shell, it builds a bigger room into which it can expand, and repeats this process over and again. In the process a lovely shell is created, marking the stages of growth in the life of the nautilus. When the precious commodity of time allotted to the creature expires, the shell remains - testimony to how much the nautilus grew in this lifetime.

Dave's lesson was not lost upon me. I sought, from that day in 1970-something, to grow into the next chamber of my existence. My teaching career took me into middle schools located in the neighboring counties Jasper and Rockdale as well as here in Newton; at each stop along the way folks who were similarly searching made indelible imprints upon, and contributions to, the construction of my own personal chambered nautilus.

Recognizable plateaus of growth came along the way. When our first child was born, then the second and the third, chambers to the shell were added. And as my wife and I experienced the joys, and some of the woes, of raising children in the late 20th century in Georgia, personal growth was a recognizable thing even as it occurred.

Still, through it all, while I tried to be a responsible daddy and faithful husband, decent human being, son, son-in-law and pillar for my church and community, in so many ways I just could never see the forest for the trees.

Construction of my own personal chambered Nautilus shell took me to a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at Notre Dame in 1989. There, 15 teachers from various points across the country came together to study French philosopher Blaise Pascal's thoughts on the matter of our existence. And while that singular summer served to crystallize a bedrock faith which had been nurtured in my own life from an early age, it had different meaning for each of the 15 who gathered there on "the Quad" at South Bend.

I wonder, from time to time, where the others in that group are in their search today. I count as close friends two of them who are alive today, and pray daily for the continued growth of one who has left us and experiences what I hope to be the next stage of existence in a dimension all of us hopes exists.

There are so many pluses and minuses in our daily experiences, aren't there? And so many choices in how to spend the time we have been granted.

At last, I feel some measure of freedom at having reached the point where I can pick and choose how to spend that time. And in the end, it's the most important lesson of all to be learned, and the one which should - in my view - be preached to every person, young or old. Spend your time pursuing your dream. Gravitate toward those who are worthy of your devotion and time. Eschew the superficial.

And therein lies the rub, does it not? Discerning between matters of consequence and the superficial is the key. Life experience, or the gift of intellectual brilliance, provides the only two avenues of which I'm aware which provide the way to make that discernment.

So I find myself today, in the early 21st century, spending my time with things that I think matter. And, most interestingly to me, is the point I'm at in the construction of my own chambered nautilus with regards spiritual development.

I feel that I've never been more attuned to my own spiritual relationship with my idea of God, yet I'm not attending church regularly anymore; I literally can't remember the last time I went to Sunday school. My daily prayers have never been more fervent, my concerns have never been so real, yet my dismay with the state of organized religion in America has brought me to the point where I'd rather take a walk around town leashed to my wife's dog than to attend a church service.

I get a lot of talking done to God on those walks with the dog, you see. And nobody admonishes me to give more money to pay off debt incurred by my church as it grows into what the established church corporation wants it to be.

And I wonder, as I seek to escape the abyss, just wherein doth the truth lie?

One of my Pascal buddies, retired and living near Las Vegas, tells me he considers himself now as a "secular humanist." Yet another, teaching English in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee - as any Georgia boy knows would be necessary, indeed - provides me with weekly insightful e-mails contributing to my personal growth. And every once in a great while, I hear from my professor from that 1989 Pascal seminar who helps me, even now, construct the next shell of my own chambered nautilus.

All of this comes down to today, in late October of 2007, when I can share with you that the most important thing you can be about any day is the analogy my late friend, Dave Young, shared with me lo these many years ago.

Be about building your own chambered nautilus, and go about it seriously. For therein lies the essence of our existence upon this good blue planet, within the framework of the zephyr of time we have allotted upon it. Eschew the superficial. Discard the unessential. Cling to the important. And love to the fullest.

Following this sage wisdom, we can then leave some semblance of a chambered nautilus for others to view as a testimony that we did grow into something, at least, worthy of the time we were allotted to live in this dimension.

That's where I am today, friend. I hope what I've learned gives you something to think about. Build a chambered nautilus of your own and make it something beautiful for whoever finds it on the beach years from now to behold.

Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.