Monday, April 22, 2013

Finding The Light Amidst Despair

During my teaching days, in the aftermath of 9/11 a student came to see me to discuss her feelings of helplessness and despair in the face of such monumental evil. While I had no special wisdom to offer her, I did say that although I had been witness to some terrible world events in my lifetime, I had never lost complete hope for one particular reason: if evil truly prevailed in this world, we would have destroyed ourselves by now. The fact that we haven't attests to something that the truly vile and depraved amongst us never acknowledge or admit to themselves – the human capacity for goodness, selflessness, and resilience.

I reminded her of the literature we had studied that attests to those qualities. John Steinbeck, in his best-known novel, The Grapes of Wrath, explored the concept of Manself, his term for the human spirit, a spirit that may certainly suffer setbacks, whether through violence in its many forms, beaten strikes or economic injustice, but remains alive, even in defeat, as long as people continue taking the steps necessary to oppose oppression in its many forms:

... Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live- for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live – for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken.

And this you can know- fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.

During the recent bombings in Boston, that spirit was very much in evidence. People, despite not knowing where or when the next bomb might go off, instead of fleeing to the safety of shelter, tended to those who had sustained such grievous injuries. Whether doctors, passersby or marathon watchers, they thought of others before themselves:

This is why, whether we are talking about evil on a large or small scale, whether we are talking about suffering that seems to arbitrarily visit us either collectively or individually, hope remains alive, reminding all of us that every one of these moments of grace point the way to something greater, something that some would call transcendent, or to paraphrase Steinbeck, distinctive in the animal kingdom.

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