The right balance

IN the end, the sunset said it. I had asked the question, innocently enough, only hours earlier. ``Is it possible in our society to have equality and individuality at the same time?''

The two teen-agers paused, the question hanging there in front of them. From the window, the light of a drizzling morning glowed faintly on the table-top. We were talking about their high school - and about affection and snobbery, kindness and aloofness, the shiftings of social groupings that seemed to come out of nowhere and envelope them like a mist. We weren't talking about Greek philosophy - although the autumn sun must have shone centuries ago on that same question. We weren't even talking about abstractions. We were talking about daily life in America.

And the great American tenet, then, that all men were created equal - was it true? Or were some students superior to others - in acumen, in sensibility, in all the admirable graces and favors? Could there be, given the differences that separated them, any real basis for equality?

But just suppose, despite appearances, all people really are equal. Then what becomes of individuality? Does equality reduce everything to a dead level? And what about that age-old inner voice that says ``I am'' - that voice echoing from the stones of ancient Athens to the medieval cloisters, ringing from Luther's Wittenberg up the steps of the open-topped Globe Theatre and out into the jet-trailed sky? If everyone's equal, what's so special about the I?

``Barter,'' said one of the teen-agers.

``Barter?'' I repeated, puzzled.

We'd been trying to think of examples of things that were equal and yet individual. Trinkets for gunpowder, he said. The goods were traded on an equal basis but retained their individuality: The gunpowder never became the trinkets.

``Or how about,'' I said, ``the idea of twoness.'' I was groping toward the concept that different pairs of things - a pair of shoes and a pair of acorns, say - were equal in number but wholly unique in identity.

Our conversation drifted to other things, and the light shifted imperceptibly on the table, and we said goodbye. But the question stayed with me. Intuitively, I knew what the answer ought to be: I couldn't quite imagine a world in which equality could not coexist with individuality. I could say it. And I could reason it out. But even hours later I still couldn't quite feel it.

And then the sunset spoke. My wife and I had gone out to walk the dog. It had been a chill day: The golf course was deserted, and back in the woods the leaves lay limp on damp paths. Where the trail rejoined the road, a lone cow stared at us from the pasture in front of her ramshackle barn. Here and there we glimpsed the sky, lifting into blue as the wind moved through bare trees. But for the most part we kept our eyes on the ground ahead and on the tree trunks beside us and the sea that now lay at low tide below the cliff. We talked idly together, and now and then we called the dog. But we let the sky alone.

And all the while, without our knowing, it was building - high clouds and sinking sunlight and the infinite, still blueness. It was building itself of nothing but water hauled up from the ocean and condensed into just the right balance of cloud and clearness - and of sunlight sifting up in just the proper hue from behind the hills across the harbor. And it was all being prepared to spread itself out for us - for the man and the woman and the dog who, neither too soon nor too early, stepped onto the far edge of the golf course just as the sunset said, ``Now!''

There was no crash, no pealing of the brasses. We couldn't have said when it began. But as we watched - looking over our shoulders, stopping now and then to stare, even walking backwards - it built to a crescendo that drove us from exclamation into silence. It came at us like an artwork centuries in the making and executed in an instant - the spun orange to the right, the magenta trailing into gold-gray puffs on the left, and the innumerable delfts and azures in between.

There it was, the sun doing equally what it had done on every other day since the beginning. Yet there it was, too, a sunset so wholly individual that it was like no other ever created and would never be repeated.

And there, at last, were we. Far away, along the road at the edge of the golf course, another couple walked. It was theirs, too, equally. They walked on up the road and out of sight, bound in their own individual direction. Back at the car, we took a last, lingering look and drove home.

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