Samuel Johnson

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Who wants the world?‘ asked The Stranglers in a 1980s song. The great Samuel Johnson would have replied ‘I do!’ He once wrote: “The world is not yet exhausted; let me see something tomorrow which I never saw before.”

Although this is not a particularly clever observation compared to many of his others, I like it nonetheless. There is a tendency as you grow older to retreat into yourself and to believe, especially if you are famous and respected as Samuel Johnson was, that you have pretty much seen all there is to see. Admitting inexperience and ignorance of anything takes a certain amount of humility. You need to be quite modest to remember that all you have seen is not necessarily all there is to see. Maybe Buddhists would call this Beginner’s Mind, an attitude characterised by openness and an eagerness to learn.

Dr. Johnson’s statement shows that his gaze was still fixed mainly on the outside world and not on himself. Most people would have said, ‘I am not yet tired of the world’ but Johnson says that, ‘the world is not yet exhausted’. This is an odd way of putting it but perhaps expressive of his concentration on the world rather than himself.

Though many people today are interested in the world, I sometimes wonder if it isn’t more as a backdrop to their own activities than as a thing worth seeing in itself. The world is the stage on which they perform. They are more interested in doing than in seeing something new.

You just need to compare Wimbledon now with how it used to be. When I was young people used to watch Wimbledon in hushed silence, with the occasional involuntary intake of breath as two top stars battled it out on court. Nowadays the crowd feel that they are part of the action and consequently join in as loudly as they can, as if they were somehow on a par with the two players. I like to think that Samuel Johnson would have disliked this modern trend to be part of the action rather than simply looking and appreciating.

In spring each year I see Japanese people, young and old, staring up at the cherry blossom. I simply can’t imagine many western teenagers doing the same. What is there to see in a tree? After all, they are not in it.

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