03 October 2012

One Use of Adversity

Perhaps it is a blindness on my part. Or a jealousy. And perhaps it is that there are those who do not have a need to leak, or have even a capacity to do so. Or perhaps it is, as I sometimes suspect, that there are people who have known no hardship and they assume a stance in the world of invincibility and self-righteousness that lately I find insufferable. They carry about them an air of superiority for having never experienced honest hardship.  Oh, I think such individuals have felt discomfort and have, at times, even come up against either the rock or the hard place, but have never found themselves stuck between them. They come to think themselves too smart to be so caught, and look, perhaps, at those so stuck as merely pitiable. Of course, I appreciate that my own vulnerability to suffering leads me here to put on a cloak of self-righteousness, but nonetheless, I find myself more tolerant of the (self-righteous) leakers than I am of the (self-righteous) smug; I prefer the ones who know enough at times to put on an antic disposition.
Because without the experience of adversity, the ability to express sympathy seems illogical. Oh, one can yet engage in charitable activities, but attending such events of formal dinners in formal clothes seems to me to contradict the very nature of the necessary work that changes the world. Money helps, I know, but the metaphorical back-breaking work necessary for change comes with it a knowledge that money masks. Money permits forgetfulness. Isaiah says, “Surely, this is the fast I choose: To break open the shackles of wickedness, to undo the bonds of injustice, and to let the oppressed go free, and annul all perversion. Surely you should break your bread for the hungry, and bring the moaning poor to your home; when you see a naked person, clothe him; and do not hide yourself from your kin.” It strikes me that this effort would require some willingness to be drawn down into the muck and mire, and one cannot engage in such effort without getting one’s hands and clothes dirty enough. I think of Robert Frost’s poem “Love and a Question,” in which a Stranger arrives at the home of the newly-wed bride and groom and asks for the night’s shelter:”
The bridegroom thought it little to give
  A dole of bread, a purse,
A heartfelt prayer for the poor of God
   Or for the rich a curse;
But whether or not a man was asked
   To mar the love of two
By harboring woe in the bridal house,
   The bridegroom wished he knew.
It changes the entire world when grief and affliction enters it. And without some acknowledgement of that Stranger in our midst one can only partially engage in the world.
Perhaps one rises for some respite from the toil entailed not clean or even cleansed, but instead, exhausted from the work and in despair at how little effect one has ultimately had on the situation. It seems preferable to wash one’s hands clear, to turn one’s back on the unhappiness, to resolve one’s own sadness, and to find a more pleasant patch of earth to till. One rises from the effort dejected, fatigued and anxious: I could have done more. I have had no effect. I am without use.
It is a cliché, I believe, that what doesn’t kill us makes us strong. It is not strength that the experience of adversity offers but sympathy and even patience. Tolstoy writes that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Everyone’s suffering is particular, and there is no way to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes: I will never understand the experience of another. But acknowledging how to me it seems that I’ve had the load put right on me, and how my own life makes me complicit with injustice and cruelty that plagues the world humbles and keeps me in and of that world.


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