That horizon stretches out. You know the one. It lies on the far side of a vast, unknowable plain punctuated by our dreams and fears and fantasies of what might be. The horizon retreats as we tread upon that plain, as we encounter the figures and actions of our passage. We watch the horizon, we wonder about it, we follow our footsteps along an indistinct line that meanders in that direction. Call this line destiny, or fate, or the labyrinth, or whatever you like. It is the path that we take.
This is the landscape of our lives: the path upon the plain, and the horizon, far off, yet always in view. We tend not to think in metaphors like these anymore. Nowadays we talk about choice and chance and a myriad of modern forces that render us into a given shape. Genetic and social and environmental factors have become our means of grappling with the trajectories upon which we find ourselves. And we tend to look forward as we move: the future is ahead of us, we reach toward signposts as we try to find the track.
But our modern approaches, our increasingly quantified measures, our notion that we are, indeed, in the vanguard of human progress: these convictions mask a fundamental truth, which is this: the horizon encircles us.
Ancient peoples knew this. They did not perceive time and progress as lines marching forward but rather as curves, as long trammelled tracks that lead both forward and back. For them, time was a circle. The future was also the past. The path ahead was already festooned with the tracks of previous travelers: gods, heroes, wanderers like themselves. Upon that plain stretching toward the horizon the ancients saw their own histories, their own stories lost and found again. They were, in this sense, never alone.
But we’re different. We’ve made fresh tracks and new paths. We have, for the most part, left behind our ancient beliefs and ancestral values. Typically we find them to be a bit antiquated, not quite suited to the complexities and contradictions of modern life. We choose instead to move forward along new paths, trying to make sense of the things we can do and the trouble we’ve caused: to the earth, to our own cultures, to the welfare of all humanity. Every culture tells an old story about our sacred task of guardianship, and we have not honored that sacred trust as well as we might have.
Every culture also tells a story about the return. In this story, people with vision and purpose find the buried bones of wisdom. In some stories that wisdom is symbolized by a treasure; in others it is a sacred book; sometimes it is a human or a god who returns from the horizon with gifts of learning and transformation. In all such stories, the return is the moment we rediscover ourselves. It is a hinge, a crack between the worlds, a brilliant flash of illumination across a field of rumour and wreckage.
The myth of return is not a fable, or a fantasy, or the wishful thinking of lost cultures. It is, rather, the mark of our human powers. It’s an old myth, one that has been preserved and retold for millennia — because, eventually, it comes to pass. As we move forward, we return to discover and re-affirm who we are.
We are living now in an age of return. We’ve begun to unearth and remember the gifts of the past. Within the energetic clamor of the environmental movement, within bootstrapped communities and reinvigorated cultures, beneath the hum and hustle of educational renewal: we’ve started to understand that in many ways, the ancients have gone before us, have laid tracks that intertwine with our own, have left signposts for us to find. They’ve come back from that far-off horizon to offer clues about our own future.
The age of return might be defined by a single theme: the growth of the power of the individual. And we are seeing this now in many ways: the worldwide increase in the rights of women; the global effort of individual entrepreneurs to reduce disease and poverty; the ability of young people to seize a social cause, create a foundation, make real change. This, after all, is the essence of the myth of return. It is not, at heart, a story of being rescued by the gods. Rather, it is a narrative of individual empowerment and social transformation. In the recent history of humanity — and by recent, I mean roughly the last five thousand years — there have been three other moments of return. They don’t come along very often.
The cultures of the ancients are dead, gone, vanished. They cannot come back, they cannot survive in this modern, global meta-culture that we have constructed. But the signposts they have left for us do remain, and will continue to shape our journey. There are three such signposts. One reminds us to care for the earth. Another reminds us to care for one another. The third embraces the other two, and says this: preserve and nurture the sacred, however we define it and wherever we find it.
We are now, for the first time in many centuries, in a position to change the world in fundamental ways. And we’ve discovered, of course, that we cannot accomplish our aims alone. We need those signposts, that ancient wisdom, the hardscrabble knowledge of the archaic peoples we sought to leave behind. We recognize now that the horizon is behind as well as in front. We are, finally, moving beyond the precocious arrogance of our modernity. As one ancient story says, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Many people will follow the ancient signposts and participate in the fundamental reinvigoration of our age. They won’t be heroes or gods or exalted beings. They will stand at the center of the circular horizon, will forge paths that embody ancient wisdom in a modern guise. They will be our guardians and our guides. They will be you.