Integrity isn’t just a matter of moral uprightness. The word speaks to a life that holds together as one, a wholeness that integrates the various callings, obligations, and passions woven together in a life lived well. That is no mean feat, given the tendency of our fragmented world to pull us apart, tempting us to serve different gods. But perhaps most frustrating to me is the well-meant piety that excellence is unattainable across a life—that you have to choose between faithfulness and academic excellence, for example; or between profit and stewardship; or between work and family. On this account, excellence is a jealous god within each sphere.
In the introduction to his latest essay collection, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, novelist Michael Chabon recalls an encounter with an older writer he admired. “I’m going to give you some advice,” he said, and the young Chabon, still awaiting the publication of his first novel, snapped to attention.
“Don’t have children,” he warned. “That’s it. . . . You can write great books,” he continued, “or you can have kids. It’s up to you.” The man paraphrased the math he learned from Richard Yates: “You lose a book for every child.”
Faced with this dichotomy, one should congratulate Chabon on the choice he made:
If none of my books turns out to be among that bright remnant because I allowed my children to steal my time, narrow my compass, and curtail my freedom, I’m all right with that. Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back.
Of course. But one might also have wished Chabon had refused the old man’s math, the zero-sum game his alleged wisdom assumed.
Suffering and Dignity
I have been thinking a lot about the nature of dignity of late, as our culture marches confidently toward the baseline reduction of select human beings to inconveniences to be either prevented or eliminated. The politics of abortion, euthanasia, and now gene “editing” promise us a glorious future predicated on amnesia about dignity.
But there is an opportunity here: In a society that has lost the story of what it means to be human, we have an opportunity to articulate and embody a rich, complex answer to the question. We can offer wisdom to a society drowning in information and data (an opportunity we forfeit if we trade dignity for political power, by the way, or treat children as pawns in partisan negotiation, for example). But we need to speak from the specificity of our religious understandings (and I say “religious” here because I think Jews, Christians, and Muslims share much in common on these matters and can speak in solidarity to a secular society).
What does that biblical story have to say? It is, of course, a story of unconditional dignity: that human beings are valued not because of what they can do, and not only because they are made by God, but because they are loved by God (as Nick Wolterstorff argues in Justice: Rights and Wrongs). But we also need to see it as an account of our creatureliness: that our finitude is a gift precisely because it makes us dependent. I realize this is scandalous to a society that has come to prize autonomy above all else. But I think that story is wearing itself out.
And here I want to try to articulate something very carefully: if our dignity stems from being loved by God, and our humanity manifests itself in dependence, then that means relations of dependence are at the heart of being human. This entails a difficult truth: suffering is sometimes how we learn both how to be dependent and how we answer the call to care. Of course we are called to alleviate and respond to suffering; but that is different from the pretension of eliminating it. Indeed, too often our desire to eliminate suffering is a manifestation of our desire to not be needy, or needed. And even more frightening: too often the desire to eliminate suffering becomes a project of eliminating needy people. What we construe as dis-abilities too often simply reflect the world we’ve made that won’t accommodate those who are suffering. It’s not just a question of who gets to decide what counts as a “dis”-ability, or what is “edit-able” about human nature; it’s a question of whether we could be less human without our neediness, dependence, and care.
This makes me think of Don DeLillo’s most recent novel, Zero K, which is relevant to contemporary debates. The first line of the book is jarringly direct: “Everybody wants to own the end of the world.” The story that unfolds is one of technological hubris, a naturalistic quest for immortality on our terms, as a feat of our scientific achievement. DeLillo’s skepticism and caution about this is a sign of the cultural opening and opportunity I’m talking about (and seeing DeLillo resort to religious language to try to get at this is an indicator, I think, of another “crack” in the secular).
But there is a curious coda at the end of the novel: the narrator is on a bus in midtown Manhattan. The timing and angle of the bus in the fjord of midtown skyscrapers has become a cinema for a phenomenon that happens only once or twice a year, where “the sun’s rays align with the local street grid” and cast a divine glow on commuters. Hearing a “wail” of glee and fascination, he turns to see a boy looking at the sun, enraptured.
I left my seat and went to stand nearby. His hands were curled at his chest, half fists, soft and trembling. His mother sat quietly, watching with him. The boy bounced slightly in accord with the cries and they were unceasing and also exhilarating, they were prelinguistic grunts. I hated to think that he was impaired in some way, macrocephalic, mentally deficient, but these howls of awe were far more suitable than words.
What would we lose if we “edited” this boy out of existence? In what way is he the palimpsest of what we are made for—a testimony of our nature as creatures made to worship, to delight in awe, to care and be cared for, to be loved by a God with scars?
Rules for Living
There seems to be a new hunger for sages today. From Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life to Chris Pratt’s surprising (and surprisingly Christian) proverbs cloaked as an acceptance speech at the MTV Awards, people seem to prize aphoristic wisdom offered by would-be Solomons. I’m no sage, and don’t have much wisdom, but if someone asked, I’d suggest these twelve rules as a place to start:
- If your hotel room has a robe, wear it.
- Stop for bird calls.
- Listen to the love stories of old people.
- Go to church with old people.
- Go to church.
- Use orange bitters in your Manhattan. (You’re welcome.)
- Memorize poetry. And the catechism.
- Have books in every room of the house; read many at the same time; start new ones before finishing others; refuse to feel guilty.
- Learn to name things (flowers, clouds, birds, French wine, wood grains—you pick). Attend to the world.
- For the rest of your life, try things you could fail at.
Build Don’t Break
One of the highlights of my summer was a long weekend in the Texas Hill Country in the enchanted environs of Laity Lodge. In my personal spiritual topographical map of the cosmos, Laity Lodge is a high point alongside L’Abri in Switzerland, Yorkminster Cathedral, and back patio of our friends’ home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Laity Lodge is perched on the cliffside of a canyon, hanging out over the lazy, emerald Frio River. Out of reach of cellphone reception, Laity is a respite from the world in so many ways, but mostly because of the unparalleled hospitality of the place. Steven Purcell, the veritable abbot of this pilgrim community, is a spiritual curator who not only brings together thinkers and seekers and artists but also seems to know exactly what each person needs, attentive to their heartbreak and hopes.
One of the things that distinguishes a Laity retreat is how much of the time is unscheduled. It’s the wisdom of the community that knows silence and rest are as transformative as learning and prayer. And situated as it is in a charmed wilderness, nature calls: whether the refreshment of the river or the trials of the trails in Texas heat. One afternoon, I enjoyed a solitary hike through the canyon, the sweat a catharsis. I picked my way through Box Canyon, past the Devil’s Bathtub, and then began to scramble up the rocks in a climb to the top of the hill. The trail lost its distinction and I enjoyed the safe exhilaration of briefly losing my way, later rejoining a more definable path, still strewn with ankle-twisting rocks and dotted with juniper berries. The trail ascended to astounding views of the canyon and I paused, awed, grateful.
But as I began winding my way down, noting turf stirred up by rutting hogs and accompanied by cardinals flitting along the way, I came across two stone cairns in a vast clearing. The little towers of rocks were a sign of those who’d gone before me. I picked up two stones and made my own contribution to this ongoing creation in the wilderness. Always add a stone to the cairn.