February 1st, 2007

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EXITS EVERYWHERE

Undoubtedly it is the pressure of an uncomfort-able destiny of basic insecurities which thrusts us back upon human frailty until we seek some kind of escape. We resort to all kinds of rationalizing, all kinds of spurious excitement, all kinds of self-deception in order to avoid our own uneasiness and the world`s nightmare of change. It is as if all the street names were changed by the hour, and our friends and neigh-bors took new names each day and never slept in the same house twice. It is a world of bewildering change.
Two features rise out of the simple lines of the first psalm. The righteous man is depicted as “a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season,” and con-trasted with the chaff blown hither and yon by every passing wind. One sees the same picture in the New Testament where Jesus sets his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem, only to meet three men who, in turn, despite their avowels to follow him, plead excuses of various sorts to delay. In both instances we are confronted by a radical contrast between an individual deeply and strongly rooted and the scattered, slippery, human tendency to find an easy escape.
In our time this tension is plain to us all. If the ancient preacher of Ecclesiastes complained that everything ended up in “vanity and vexation of spirit,” so we, caught up and whirled about in the frenzy of our world, feel at times as if we had no roots, and in our restless activity are neither sus-tained nor sustaining. Certainly that bored and cynical ob-server, were he to awaken in our century, would be bewildered by the rich, kaleidoscopic variety of our fabulous achievements and possibilities. Who could number the beckoning opportuni-ties of these days-in every direction, on all levels, with every conceivable reward? If John Smith, of explorer fame, could cry out in sheer delight that he had been born in the most favored of all ages, what would he say now-with doors opening into the powerful storehouses of atomic energy or into interstellar space, or exciting dimensions of a new technologi-cally united world, or the fantastic discoveries which seem to lie at our fingertips in the biological sciences? If men thought it was a thing of glory to explore the continents geographically, what shall we name it as we stand today in a world of many dimensions, breaking open at a hundred levels with unprece-dented speed and significance? William James, in a letter of 1908, said, “The world is getting democratic and socialistic faster and faster, and out of it all will emerge a new civiliza-tion. Will it ever simplify or solidify itself again? Or will it get more and more like and infinite pack of firecrackers ex-ploding?”
Yes, I must remind you, as Dickens does at the very begin-ning of his Tale of Two Cities, that this time, like all times is “the best of times, the worst of times.” It is a stupendious world, but very stupid; it is a creative world, but it can be terribly cruel; it is a daring world, but quite pathetic; it is on the march, but unsure of its goal; it is full of energy, but empty of faith; it is excited with innumerable dreams, but harried by night-mares.
To be sure, there are a thousand doors opening on all sides, vistas opening up, paths leading in all directions. The truth of it is that one might change Sartre`s title and write a new play and call it Exits Everywhere. On all sides of us civiliza-tion has developed a veritable multi-exited environment-exits of all sizes and shapes, of all kinds and quality, at every level of hope and fear. If Karl Marx worried about religion being an escape, he would be astonished at the way almost every-thing has become an escape in our time.
If we do not like everyday reality-common, ordinary rou-tine, the drudgery of work, and the humdrum tenor of exis-tence-there is an escape hatch, an exit, very close at hand. At every hour of the day and night, by turning a dial, we can take our choice of sudsy soap operas in which the human heart drips its sticky sentiment in a uninterrupted drizzle, or a man-filled western where we can get our crops filled with gore and see virtue win with the fastest draw; and in between and around the edges we can glue our eyes to beer cans, smokes, and aspirin, with long stretches of hipped-up guessing games in which the American dream comes to its climax in getting something for next to nothing. It is a large exit and very crowded. Practically everybody uses it, and there are some who live in it.
Or look at the exit which Karl Jaspers calls “the technical apparatus” of our time. It has great speed, remarkable in-genuity, and extraordinary power. It not only fascinates uis, it obsesses us, Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say, as Jaspers does, it absorbs us. We becomes its servants, spending our energy and time in devotion to its multitude of instruments, gadgets, conveniences, and machines. We believe in it. T.T. Lawrence, the Lawrence of Arabia, once he was disillusioned with his fabulous life with the Arab nomads in the war, re-turned to what he called the “technological Nirvana,” dis-appearing into the anonymity of a machine culture. There is an educational Nirvana also, and an ecclesiastical Nirvana.
Now let us turn to the exit of education; for all its august dignity and essential validity in our lives, it can easily be-come an exit from the real world. Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that in some instances it is little more than a postponed infancy, an extension of irresponsibil-ity. Because knowledge is power and the consequence is a certain economic advantage, a certain lust for courses, data, and degrees has all but obliterated the basic reason for educa-tion. If the government has stockpiled too much strategic material, then under the present passion for research I wonder what can be said for the groaning shelves of a myriad of libraries where scholars have counted again and again the grains of rice that should go into a pudding. Knowledge without reflection, data without wisdom, research without concern-all an exit, an escape, a deception, and a fraud.
Should I speak of church and religion as an exit? Certainly I cannot hide the fact, that I have no desire to do so, that a great deal of religion is nothing but a soft escape from the hard facts of human existence. There is a kind of religion often passed off as Christian, which is the world`s worst hum-bug. It turns its back on the unexplainable tragedies of this world, and acts like a simpering Pollyanna sucking a large lump of sugar (in this case it`s synthetic sugar!). It is good for nothing except Sunday morning and then only good for the eleven o`clock service. It smoothes out all the wrinkles, denies the terror of despair, resolves all the unanswered ques-tions much too easily by magic words. Well, that exit is crowded, too. The easy believers fill it; and along with them are many whose hunger demands the real thing.
Exits everywhere-TV westerns and soap operas, speed cars, interstellar spacecraft, movies, planes, education, research, violence, business, church, gambling, drugs, paperbacks, early marriage. No end of exits-all kinds, good, bad, and indiffer-ent. But why should we be so driven? We are restless, rootless, forever on the move. Everybody seems going everywhere in all directions. Nobody stands still or even wants to. The spirit of the age is mobility-find an exit and run fast.
A long time ago, de Tocqueville, observing the American people, spoke of “a small distressing motion, a sort of incessant jostling of men, which annoys and disturbs the mind. . . . His curiosity is at once insatiable and cheaply satisfied. . . . The habit of inattention must be considered as the greatest defect of the democratic character.”
We do not want to look at anything very long-observe the hop-skip-and-jup kind of ticaroo in our movies. We change our styles faster and things wear out. In the Roman Empire furniture styles changed every four hundred years; today they change every fifteen. We believe in built-in obsolescence, so that everything is made to not last long. Our philosophy is that what exists now should perish, and the sooner the better. Exits for people, and exits for all things.
What is it which drives us? Fundamentally, I think, the pressure of reality itself. There may have been ages or epochs when the world was more comfortable and its raw realities hidden or forgotten. Today that is not so. We have not lived through two world wars, with their saturation bombing and gas chambers and political insanity, without seeing something we cannot altogether forget. We have been x-rayed, so to speak, by the clinical experiments of Sigmund Freud and cannot escape the ruthless and embarrassing realities of our nature. We have torn the lid off the primal powers of creation and found ourselves with enough power to annihilate the human race and not enough moral strength to be sure we would not do it. We have been catapaulted by the force of this technological revolution into the intimacies of one world and found ourselves totally unprepared politically, emo-tionally, and morally to sustain it.
The simple and awful truth is that we are face to face with realities of such austere and critical dimensions that we are frightened. We are running away, diverting our attention, taking any exit that may be at hand, less by direct confrona-tion we discover our inadequacy and perhaps collapse under the weight of reality. Better to run away and play at the game of being in a different kind of world-foolproof, absolutely safe, untragic; then maybe the horror, the nightmare, the dreadful reality, will go away of itself. Such nonsense, of course, only leads on to worse disasters.
The positive side of the problem is to find roots in reality, to grow up and face the world as mature persons, to refuse the temptation of the soft sops of spurious exits. Where can we anchor ourselves in a world as terrifyingly mad and be-wilderingly diverse as ours? Are there places where we can learn to put our lives into the sioil and such depths that, when the storms come and the winds blow, the tree will stand firm?
Let me suggest the first step by which we begin the long process of rooting ourselves into something firm. Deitrich Bon-hoeffer, the young German theologian whom we have come to know as one of the creative minds of our era, while in prison wrote some very significant letters which have been published. One of the contains the passage:

Something which puzzles me and seems to many others as well is, how quickly we forget about a night`s bombing. Even a few minutes after the all clear, everything we were thinking about while the raid was on seems to vanish into thin air. With Luther a flash of lighting was enough to alter the whole course of his life for years to come. What has happened to this kind of me memory to-day? Does it not explain why we sit so lightly to the ties of love and marriage, of friendship and loyalty? Nothing holds us, nothing is firm. Everything is here to-day and gone to-morrow.1

1 Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, and trans. Reginald H. Fuller (New York: Macmillan Paperback, 1962), p. 131.

Obviously Luther was rooter in that lightning-flash experi-ence; he put his roots deep into it, reflected on it, reflected on it until it sustained him, directed him, marked him.
One of America`s great musicians found his life deep cen-tered in the moment when he heard Vachel Lindsey recite his poem on William Jennings Bryan and saw, as in a vision, the vast sweep of America and its people. That lightning flash opened up the creative springs in his own life and eventuated, not in poetry, but in music. In the larger places of history one may see it in Buber`s reminder that every people have at the outset of their history a revelation which deter-mines the life and memory of the nation with its Passover and the Law. A great lightning flash, for a nation or an individual, centers life and gives it direction and stability.
Whether we are restless because we have no roots, or have no roots because we are restless, I do not know. But one this is sure: this kind of disengaged living leads to what Musil the novelist has called the “law of diminishing responsibility.” The characters of Hemingway`s early novels are built on this pattern of rootless wandering.
Essentially you must find where life is rooted most deeply in you, if you are to root yourself deeply in life. Where is the lightning flash which opens depth for your roots? Turning a page of Chaucer, catching a glimpse of meaning in the mys-teries of the subatomic world, putting your hand to work in the vast ingenious world of medicine, shaping word in poetry or sounds in music or color in art-each man must recognize his own flash of lightning. It is not what you would know, or how much you would know, but how deeply you know it which counts.
There is another place where I believe a man may put down his roots to provide support for meaning in his life. Man is an unstable animal at best. The more he seeks to prove him-self self-sufficient, the clearer it becomes that he is profoundly dependant at every level of his being and behaviour on the complex web of social relationships of which he is part. As excess of individualism can topple him with frightening abruptness into a totalitarian society which robs him of every vestige of freedom, as we have seen all too clearly. Men must find some way to put his roots down in society is he is to be poised, free, and stable.
Man is a social being, whose integrity can be fulfilled only when his relationships with his fellow men grow out of basic realities and not from superficial or accidental aspects of the world. One of the great illusions of our time is that com-munity can be manufactured by building a network of tech-nical systems, transportation, and communication, and then pouring in enough human beings to fill it up to crowding, or even overcrowding. The fact is, as we know all, only an increase of lonliness and a sense of vacuity result.
A second illusion is that community is ready-made and one needs only to be born to be the recipient of it. There may have been times when this was true, but there are living in an age when society has been precariously balanced at the edge of disintegration, and its order has been precariously balanced at the edge of disintegration, and its order has been temporarilty maintained by totalitarian authority. If you want a community, you simply have to contribute something of yourself to achieve it. It is not a foregone gift of our world.
Community is determined by the relationships of persons. If persons are related by the primary realities of human exis-tence, that is one thing; if they are merely brought together in contacts arranged by organizing them for social purposes-in committees, councils, cities, or churches-then that is another thing. In the first type of relationship, the individual is supported at his inmost being and fulfilled in every social need; in the latter, he is betrayed, his substance denied, and his social meaning abrogated. Both the individual and the society are evacuated of true meaning and their activity multiplied in direct proportion to its worthlessness, until it all ends in a frightful frenzy of neurotic sterility.
Where Sartre says in No Exit that hell is other people, this is a perfectly legitimate description of a world where people have lost their substantive relationships and are unable to trust one another. Thrust together by the need for communal roots, they are thrust apart by an inner disability to find sufficient depth for a common ground of relationship. Our literature is full of carefully described examples of this tragic impasse of contemporary life. As Girandoux, in the Mad Woman of Chaillot, makes the ragpicker say, “We are capable, even geniuses, at making corporations but we do not know how to make a community.” Faulkner has shown us the Compson family in The Sound and the Fury where, although the are all tied together most intimately, none is supported by the other but each destroyed by all. Or there is Mann`s Magic Mountain, which epitomizes the modern world, where each one is so individualized that no real breakthrough is ever achieved, and they all fall separately and alone under the acid action of modernity. The Magic Mountain is a sanitary-ium where the well become sick; the contemporary world may not be altogether different.
There two things are necessary if a man is to be well and to avoid the neurotic escapes afforded by our culture-namely, an inner integrity of self and social community of organic substance. Perhaps at this juncture you are amazed that I have not spoken of God! Actually, however, have I spoken of anything else? Is there any way to pull together the vast diversity of life and experience except by reference to the final unity of all things in god? Is God not the image of the reality which is both ultimately and intimately the resolu-tion of all issues? Can any society gather itself together except it probe to the very foundation of reality in God? That which is strung on the production of things, the accumulation of prosperity, on systems of radar, air travel, and ICBM`s, will scarcely hold man`s life together, at those depths from whence the demons rise and atonement is necessary.
Simone Weil puts the matter well when she says that most people forget that the tree is as deeply rooted in the sun as in the earth; mans is as deeply rooted in God as in economics or biology. Indeed at his most essentially human level, he is more concerned with making some kind of sense our of life and relating himself meaningfully to his fellows than he is with money or even physical health.
Certainly, if these things are true, then the burden of this kind of world is severe in two ways-it is most alluring, deceptive, and neurotic in the multitude of exits and it offers any man to get away from reality; and the challenge of the open-ness and freedom of ma-turity that many people cannot accept it. They prefer the closed system of a tight orthodoxy to authoritative science or a conventional morality.
As Oppenheimer said so well several years ago, we shall have a rugged time of it “to keep our minds open and to keep them deep.” Whe shall be tempted on all sides to run to the exits, to allow ourselves to be distracted, to rise to the surface and spend ourselves in frenzied, thoughless, energetic confusion. To pull the world together, to bind science and religion and art and politics into one heart, one faith, one mind, will not be easy,; but it is inevitable if we are to achieve integrity and at the same time some semblance of society. There are exit everywhere, but reality itself is not to be found easily, and without reality the exits only lead to boredom and the abyss.