The HBJ Reader includes so many great essays, by Eudora Welty, Langston Hughes, Barry Lopez, Isak Dinesen, Lewis Thomas, George Orwell, Alice Walker, William Styron, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Jay Gould, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Bertrand Russell, Barbara Tuchman, Loren Eiseley, and Paul Tillich
I recently took it off the shelf to reread a couple of long - time favorites: "Salvation" by Langston Hughes and "The Riddle of Inequality" by Paul Tillich. Despite Tillich's inconsistent use of inclusive pronouns [see my note below*], his observations have always helped me to appreciate how I take my mental health for granted, how, even in the worst of times, I don't know my own strength.
final paragraphs from
"The Riddle of Inequality"
Chapter 3 in Tillich's book
The Eternal Now
We cannot tell somebody who comes to us in great distress about himself -- "Make use of what was given you," for he may have come to us precisely because he is unable to do so! And we cannot tell those in despair because of what they are -- "Be something else," for the inability to get rid of oneself is the exact meaning of despair. We cannot tell those who failed to conquer the destructive influences of their surroundings and thence were driven into crime and misery --"You should have been stronger," for it was just this strength of which they were deprived by heritage or environment. Certainly they are all men, and freedom is given to them all. But they are also all subject to destiny. It is not for us to condemn others because they were free, as it is also not for us to excuse them because of the burden of their destiny. We cannot judge them. And when we judge ourselves, we must keep in mind that even this judgment has no finality, because we, like them, stand under an ultimate judgment. In it the riddle of inequality is eternally answered. But the answer is not ours. It is our predicament that we must ask the question, and we ask with an uneasy conscience -- why are they in such misery? Why not we? Thinking of those near to us, we ask --are we partly responsible? But even though we are, the riddle of inequality is not solved. The uneasy conscience asks also about those most distant from us -- why they, why not we? [You can see here why I was reminded of Bertrand Russell's "Three Passions."]
Why did my child, or any one of millions of children, die before he had the chance to grow out of infancy? Why was my child, or any child, born crippled in mind or body? Why has my friend or relative, or anyone’s friend or relative, disintegrated in his mind, and thus lost both his freedom and his destiny? Why has my son or daughter, gifted as they were with many talents, wasted them and been deprived of them? Why do such things happen to any parent at all? And why have the creative powers of this boy or that girl been broken by a tyrannical father or a possessive mother?
None of these questions concern our own misery. At present, we are not asking -- why did this happen to me? It is not Job’s question that God answered by humiliating him and then elevating him into communion with Him. It is not the old and urgent question -- where is divine justice, where is divine love, for me? It is almost an opposite question -- why did this not happen to me, while it did happen to another, to innumerable other ones, to whom not even Job’s power to accept the divine answer was given? Why, Jesus asks also, are many called but few elected? He does not answer the question, but states simply that this is the human predicament. Shall we therefore cease to ask, and humbly accept a divine judgment that would hurl most human beings out of community with the divine and condemn them to despair and self-destruction? Can we accept the eternal victory of judgment over love? We can not, nor can any human being, though he may preach and threaten in such terms. As long as he is unable to visualize himself with absolute certainty as eternally rejected, his preaching and threats are self-deceptive. For who can see himself eternally rejected?
But if this is not the solution of the riddle of inequality at its deepest level, may we go outside the boundaries of Christian tradition to listen to those who would tell us that this life does not determine our eternal destiny? There will be other lives, they would say, predicated, like our present life, on previous ones and what we wasted or achieved in them. This is a serious doctrine and not completely strange to Christianity. But since we don’t know and never shall know what each of us was in a previous existence, or will be in a future one it is not really our destiny developing from life to life, but in each life, the destiny of someone else. Therefore, this doctrine also fails to solve the riddle of inequality. [My note: As I've always suspected, what is the use of learning the lessons taught by time, if we have no consciousness of our accruing knowledge and no ability to carry it on to the next life?]
Actually, there is no answer at all to our question concerning the temporal and eternal destiny of a single being separated from the destiny of the whole. Only in the unity of all beings in time and eternity can there be a humanly possible answer to the riddle of inequality. "Humanly possible" does not mean an answer that removes the riddle of inequality, but one with which we can live.
There is an ultimate unity of all beings, rooted in the divine life from which they emerge and to which they return. All beings, non-human as well as human, participate in it. And therefore they all participate in each other. And we participate in each other’s having and in each other’s not having. When we become aware of this unity of all beings, something happens to us. The fact that others do not have changes the character of our having: it undercuts our security and drives us beyond ourselves, to understand, to give, to share, to help. The fact that others fall into sin, crime and misery alters the character of the grace that is given us: it makes us recognize our own hidden guilt; it shows us that those who suffer for their sin and crime suffer also for us, for we are guilty of their guilt and ought to suffer as they suffer. Our becoming aware of the fact that others who could have developed into full human beings did not, changes our state of full humanity. Their early death, their early or late disintegration, brings to our own personal life and health a continuous risk, a dying that is not yet death, a disintegration that is not yet destruction. In every death we encounter, something of us dies, and in every disease, something of us tends towards disintegration. [My note: Precisely! Here is John Donne's message -- see below -- nearly word for word, but without the metaphor of clod, mainland, and sea.]
Can we live with this answer? We can to the degree to which we are liberated from seclusion in ourselves. But no one can be liberated from himself unless he is grasped by that power which is present in everyone and everything -- the eternal, from which we come and to which we go, and which gives us to ourselves and liberates us from ourselves. It is the greatness and heart of the Christian message that God, as manifest in the Christ on the Cross, totally participates in the dying of a child, in the condemnation of the criminal, in the disintegration of a mind, in starvation and famine, and even in the human rejection of Himself. There is no human condition into which the divine presence does not penetrate. This is what the Cross, the most extreme of all human conditions, tells us. The riddle of inequality cannot be solved on the level of our separation from each other. It is eternally solved through the divine participation in the life of all of us and every being. The certainty of divine participation gives us the courage to endure the riddle of inequality, although our finite minds cannot solve it.
This bell calls us all. . .When Donne says "man" does he mean women too? Hard to say. I rarely make that assumption, since I don't believe that most male writers, apart from a few exceptions, deserve that benefit of the doubt. Yet something inside me wants to embrace Donne's otherwise humane message.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
I still remember reading Donne's famous passage to Ben and Sam in their early teens and young Ben, bless his raised consciousness, saying, "Mom, those are sexist pronouns."
In despair and resignation, I answered him, "Yes, I know, but, lo, after all these centuries, dare I edit the Master John Donne?" Heaven knows I'd like to, and it wouldn't be hard to do. It we didn't live in such a broken world, those male writers would have done it right in the first place. Can the damage ever be undone? In my linguistic frustration, I have indeed taken the liberty of slyly editing whatever needs fixing: William Blake, D.H. Lawrence, The Holy Bible, numerous Psalms and Hymns. Bird by bird. Pronoun adjustment may not right all the wrongs of the world, but it's a place to start.
I know Donne and Tillich should have been able to do better, but even Martin Luther King, Jr. failed miserably when it came to the use of inclusive pronouns. Another learning experience for the boys and me was listening to recordings of King's speeches every year on MLK Day. I had to do a lot of oral editing for them: changing "men" to "people" and "brotherhood" to "humanity," and so forth. King never says "men and women," only "men." Once or twice, in reference to children, he says "little boys and little girls" but that's it; grown women weren't on his linguistic spectrum. I'd like to think that had he lived on, he would have sooner or later eliminated the sexism from his language. But so many others still haven't and apparently don't intend to, as if it doesn't matter. We need a constant reminder of that line from "The Spinx" by Muriel Rukeyser (another old favorite from teaching days): "When you say Man . . . / you include women too. Everyone knows that. / . . . That's what you think." It's certainly not what I think!