Updated: Nov 25, 2019
“And so, at daybreak on the morning of my first flight with the mails, I went through the sacred rites of the craft, and I felt the self-confidence oozing out of me as I stared through the windows at the macadam shining and reflecting back the street lights. Over the pools of water I could see great palms of wind running. And I thought: ‘My first flight with the mails! Really, this is not my lucky day.’
I raised my eyes and looked at the inspector. ‘Would you call this bad weather?’ I asked.
He threw a weary glance out of the window. ‘Doesn't prove anything,’ he growled finally.
And I wondered how one could tell bad weather. The night before, with a single smile Guillaumet had wiped out all the evil omens with which the veterans overwhelmed us, but they came back into my memory. ‘I feel sorry for the man who doesn't know the whole line pebble by pebble, if he runs into a snow-storm. Oh, yes, I pity the fellow.’ Our elders, who had their prestige to think of, had all bobbed their heads solemnly and looked at us with embarrassing sympathy, as if they were pitying a flock of condemned sheep.
For how many of us had this old omnibus served as refuge in its day? Sixty? Eighty? I looked about me. Luminous points glowed in the darkness. Cigarettes punctuated the humble meditations of worn old clerks. How many of us had they escorted through the rain on a journey from which there was no coming back?
I heard them talking to one another in murmurs and whispers. They talked about illness, money, shabby domestic cares. Their talk painted the walls of the dismal prison in which these men had locked themselves up. And suddenly I had a vision of the face of destiny.
Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you to escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers. You are a petty bourgeois of Toulouse. Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.
The squall has ceased to be a cause of my complaint. The magic of the craft has opened for me a world in which I shall confront, within two hours, the black dragons and the crowned crests of a coma of blue lightnings, and when night has fallen I, delivered, shall read my course in the stars.”
It is an erroneous cliché that we humans have more in common than we have differences. There are innumerable things separating us, and only a handful that unite us. It just so happens that the experiences we have in common are the only ones that matter. It is one of these common human experiences that Antoine de Saint-Exupery describes in the above passage from his book, Wind, Sand and Stars.
In the above account of the preparation for his first mail flight, and the powerful emotions at play, he describes the sudden realization of a powerful choice he is making that will change his life forever. It is a choice and a change that is of capital importance to us all, because it is the fundamental choice that every person makes at some point in his life.
For Saint-Exupery, it is in the crowded old bus, shuttling him within striking distance of death, that he sees “a vision of the face of destiny.” In that moment, he understands the full meaning of the difference between the resigned boredom of the drab mail clerks and his own fear and excitement in the face of his mission in the perilous storm. He realizes that this dichotomy is really a divide between two types of men, between two choices: between the soul of a man and its shadow; between a life which is lived and a life which is endured. Saint-Exupery has here arrived at the fundamental conflict of human existence, the decision to be what we are. It is the idea expressed in Hamlet’s question “to be or not to be?”. Should one tackle the problems of the human condition manfully, or recoil from that difficulty to take refuge in the mediocrity of comfort and distractions, or even other, more violent means of self-destruction? In his mind’s eye, he sees that most pitiable of creatures, one of the nameless and faceless legions of men who have lost their purpose, given up their dreams, and surrendered their agency. He sees the Bureaucrat, the man he might have been. In forcefully eloquent terms he imagines the life of this “petty bourgeois” in all its dismal detail.
Out of the fear of pain and loss and difficulty, the Bureaucrat has sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, embracing safety, security and comfort, while gradually suffocating the native wonder of his soul. In his fear he has squelched his appetite for adventure and his passion for living. Thoreau says that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” One can see such desperation written on the face of Saint-Exupery’s Bureaucrat, who is the perfect representation of the modern man. In his flight from the difficulty of real happiness, he finds himself mired in the dull misery of comfort, security and boredom.
Saint-Exupery then sees that he has made the better choice. He has determined that, cost what it may, he will live out his natural destiny with courage and vitality. He knows that he is meant to fly, and he has achieved a natural peace of heart by looking directly at the danger and difficulty of his calling and understanding that it is not only worth submitting to the danger and pain, but that doing so is a precondition for happiness. He is at peace, because he realizes that it is only through facing danger and difficulty that he will acquire the courage to live out his destiny and be truly free. His fear and anxiety have dissolved so that he can say: “The squall has ceased to be a cause of my complaint.”
Although the author’s story and insight occur on the purely natural plane, they point to a deeper supernatural truth about the fundamental struggle of human existence: the decision to be what we are. Every man is given a charge in this life to fulfill the nature, the being, which God has given to him. If the modern man can only appreciate the world insofar as it offers him security, comfort, and pleasure, how will he ever rise, as indeed he must, from the contemplation of the naturally true and good and beautiful, to that divine contemplation afforded by supernatural grace, which is man’s ultimate purpose?
And this is really the crux of the matter. If we accept the debilitating norms of a mechanized, commercial and consumerist society, which sap us of the will to live out our proper human nature, how can we expect to operate on an even higher plane in the practice of our Faith? It is imperative then, if we are to live as men, that we reject the pathological attitudes of the modern world. We must reject the gravitational pull toward comfort and mediocrity and the compulsive distractions of a thousand screens, which dampen the receptivity and creativity of the soul. Such compromises gradually rob us of our desire for higher things; over time they form the invisible walls of a prison in which our only sensation is the dull misery of an insatiable appetite for self-indulgence.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery was an apostate Catholic and an agnostic who, so far as we know, never repented. Nevertheless, his writings offer us valuable insight into the spiritual malaise of the modern person. More importantly, his reflections point us to the first step in remedying this illness, which is to acknowledge what we are as man, and to embrace it. If we can take this step, and surpass Saint-Exupery by climbing the ladder of the natural to the divine, we will develop a love for God’s will and the basic nature of things, even seeing the beauty in suffering and difficulty. It is through such acceptance and trust that we will finally acquire that fearless approbation of the universe which is freedom.