Thursday, March 25, 2010


In Czarist Russia c. 1861, an agitator for Polish freedom was sent into exile, escorted by a functionary of the court. On the journey the man's infant son took ill. He pleaded with the official that they might stop and nurse it. Don't bother. What is one baby among so many thousands? If it's dying, leave it to die. But that proved unnecessary. The child recovered.

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, who as an adult learned English and became a novelist. Joseph Conrad, one of the true masters. Does his life matter because he became famous?

The official was correct, of course. Statistically speaking, everyone dies. From a theological perspective, we're all foreordained anyway. All babies go to heaven. Not all adults do. Better to let them all die, then, from the very most and eternally practical point of view. And if there is no God, no heaven, then life is meaningless, strictly speaking. It is meaningful subjectively, as a phenomenon, something experienced, like a mood or a sunset, but its nature is by definition arbitrary, and the arbitrary has no meaning. So either way, God or emptiness, the man is most right who is too cynical even to be cruel.

Yet we know there's something wrong with such reasoning. Even when we embrace it, we know that in doing so we become somehow ignoble, and excuse ourselves by scoffing at the idea of nobility. But we know.

Sometimes we live only because someone else is willing to take a stand, make a sacrifice, risk torment and death itself, out of stubbornness perhaps -- that stubbornness without which righteousness cannot exist. There's only one thing that counteracts the philosophical law of entropy that is the embracing of the arbitrary. It is the decision, often without evidence, that a thing, some thing matters. Call it faith, itself a sort of evidence.

Yes. Conrad. Who gave us a glimpse into the heart of an immense darkness, and encapsulated the experience with a word. Horror. What is that darkness? It is cynical, and practical, implacable and indifferent, scornful and impatient and arbitrary. It is the absence of faith. Faith is the coin of fools. Wise men trust money. But we know there's something wrong in such reasoning.

I once stopped on the road and saved some children. Saved them for a time. Then I lost them to darkness. I still weep when I speak of it. But we cannot let kindness fail just because it brings its own volume of pain. There are many things I would do differently in my life. But the things that have brought me the greatest pain I would do again. I loathe myself for that. But it's what's best in me.

It's not about statistics. Life is not an average. Life is infinitely important.


1 comment:

Jack H said...

This, from a year and a half ago. I don't weep so much anymore. Hardly at all. Healing seems to have occurred. It helps that my son is back, and that friendship has entered my life. Loss should be replaced. It feels disloyal, perhaps, the way very cold water feels hot. But emotion is the best liar of all.