An Unexpected Journey
Here’s a familiar story many of us learned in our American history classes. The main characters are pioneer explorers Lewis and Clark. Their task was to find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean. Their journey begins on the Mississippi River. The journey ends where the Columbia River, which now forms part of the border between Oregon and Washington, meets the saltwater of the ocean.
The explorers were 15 months into their journey. Portaging their canoes, they were about to crest the highest ridge they had yet encountered. Having made camp for the night, the explorers dreamed with excitement about what they believed they would discover the next day. Flowing down from the crest of the ridge would be a gentle descent toward the shores of the Pacific. Or so they thought. The next morning revealed a surprising and unexpected reality.
Keep in mind that Lewis and Clark, along with their fellow explorers, only knew the lands of the Eastern United States. Broad, flat plains. Navigable waterways. Unintimidating mountain ranges. As they departed for their journey West, there was no reason not to expect more of the same.
So they were unprepared for what they did see. And it terrified them. Ahead was no gentle plain, no ocean shores. Instead, they faced the Eastern foothills of one of the most terrifying and deadly mountain ranges in the Western world: the Rockies. Yet rather than turn back, they leaned into their charge to find a way to the Pacific. Abandoning the assumption about waterways leading to the nation’s Western shore, they left behind their canoes, knowing they could later make more. They made friends with those they met—natives for whom this new frontier was nothing other than home—who would lead and guide them toward their ultimate destination.
Suddenly making it up as they went, negotiating each new circumstance one at a time, the leadership writer Tod Bolsinger says Lewis and Clark learned how to “canoe the mountains.”
Facing New Frontiers, but Unprepared
Like me, if you grew up playing Oregon Trail, you too are unprepared for the terrain you face today. Yet ours is not navigating the formidable frontiers of new territory. Ours is a social frontier, one we never expected and for which we lack the training to navigate. In fact, we might even say the training we did receive has in many ways been detrimental.
By “training,” I mean something simple. Playing Oregon Trail, we learned not just about geography but also, however subtly, about independence and a kind of rugged individualism. To make your way in the world, you had to look out for yourself. Much of the formation we experienced in our education encouraged this too. “Think for yourself,” we were told. In the present time, we say to one another with a hint of vivifying encouragement in our voices, “you do you” (implying that we will do the same). We may have heard from time to time about the vice of selfishness, but it’s difficult to deny that many of our experiences in life emphasized and even taught us habits of self-focus. The number one person you need to be concerned about is yourself. Your own success should be your primary goal.
Life in the midst of a what feels like a never-ending social crisis is difficult to navigate if we simply seek to serve ourselves and meet our own needs.
The COVID19 pandemic requires us to navigate a world full of other people who may or may not carry the virus (any of us could have it, too), and so we seek to prevent further transmission by wearing masks, washing our hands, socially distancing, and staying home. Well, some of us do. And this presents a challenge. There’s vast disagreement about how to behave, inconsistent observance of medical guidance, disagreement about whether the guidance is valid, and deep suspicion and mistrust of others, perhaps most especially the so-called authorities and experts. If “you do you” and so does everyone else, how do we move forward united?
There’s more than a pandemic shaping our social frontier. Think of the unrest over racial tensions. An election year characterized by vitriol. Contempt and anger fueled by the “outrage-industrial complex” of the 24hr news cycle and bots that capitalize on social media algorithms. The loss of work, the loneliness of isolation, anxiety about the present and the future, the fog and the boredom of working from home, the longing for a hug from loved ones who are frail or far away, and so much more.
Formation Gone Wrong
Our training was not for this kind of world. Ironically, perhaps our own formation has created it. Living solely for oneself, we might say, has produced the conditions we now experience. Autonomous individualism pits me against you, us against them, and leaves us at a loss for how to move forward with a sense of togetherness that is derived from anything more than anger and a wandering eye looking for whoever is to blame for this hell in which we feel trapped and hopeless.
Even seeking to blame others, whether people, systems, or institutions, is indicative of just how difficult it is for us not to think first of ourselves—someone did this to me; it cannot be my fault.
If we are to find any help out of this self-myopia, it might be found in the most unlikely place. The mirror. How, you might ask, can a mirror, with all of its self-referential power, help me to escape the grip of an exclusive interest in my own needs, my own concerns, my own self?
A Hard Look at Ourselves
There’s a lesson to be learned from the response given to an inquiry sent to British intellectuals in the early 20thcentury. G. K. Chesterton was a journalist and essayist. He was one of a number of distinguished thinkers to whom The Times, a British newspaper, sent this question: “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton is said to have written the shortest response, saying something like this: “Dear sirs, In response to your question, ‘What is Wrong with the World?,’ I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
What if we adopted Chesterton’s posture? What would it mean if we began not by pointing the finger of blame away from us, but, in a reasonable and humble manner, toward ourselves? What if we answered, “What is wrong with the world?” by thinking first of ourselves and our own self-seeking, instead of the problems of others?
Of course, in a time in which we prize positive mental health and self-care, this approach could be rejected as just too damaging and brutal. Why cause more harm by thinking about our failures? Yet, it is meant only to recognize, like St. Augustine, that just as there are parts of the world that we do not like but cannot do anything about, so also are there things about ourselves which we do not like but can do nothing about.
The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had good reasons to point the finger of blame. He was unjustly imprisoned for challenging an unjust social system. Yet, he looked first in the mirror, recognizing his weaknesses. His time in the Russian gulags generated deep reflection, after which he admitted, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Solzhenitsyn’s question is obviously rhetorical. None of us are willing to destroy a piece of our own heart. So we must turn elsewhere to deal with the evil we experience.
Moving Toward Selflessness
In his brief account of the life of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and often considered while she was alive one of the most radical activists in the American church, David Brooks suggestively wonders if Day was just a little crazy.
Day was unusual, maybe even perverse, in that she sometimes seemed to seek out suffering as a road to depth. She probably observed, as we all do, that people we call deep have almost always endured a season of suffering, or several such seasons. But she seemed to seek out those seasons, and to avoid some of the normal pleasures of life that would have brought simple earthly happiness. She often sought out occasions for moral heroism, occasions to serve others in acts of enduring hardship.
“Who would intentionally seek out suffering?,” we’re meant to wonder. Brooks’ account of her life seems remarkably out of place, especially in our time when suffering is usually treated as a problem to be solved, something in need of a cure. Yet Brooks continues, assuring us that Day is not out of her right mind, saying,
She was not a trapped animal compelled to suffer by circumstance; she ardently chose suffering. At each step along the way, when most people would have sought out comfort and ease—what economists call self-interest or what psychologists call happiness—she chose a different route, seeking discomfort and difficulty in order to satisfy her longing for holiness. She wasn’t just choosing to work at a nonprofit institution in order to have a big impact; she was seeking to live in accord with the Gospels, even if that meant sacrifice and suffering.
The way Day lived was grounded in a particular story, a mission.
Facing the frontier of the brutal West in search of the shores of the Pacific, driven by President Jefferson’s commissioning to seek a route for travel and commerce, Lewis and Clark “canoed the mountains” in part by seeking wisdom from those for whom that land was native territory, home. There is wisdom we can receive from others who’ve suffered difficult roads.
Dorothy Day, and the other figures about whom Brooks writes, offer images of wisdom for our time. We are not quick to choose suffering. Yet, in all our myopic concern for ourselves, there is a part of us—a part of our hearts as Solzhenitsyn would say—that longs to make a difference, that longs to live otherwise and meaningfully, to feel a part of something that connects us to others.
Day points us in that direction. She sought to live in accord with the Gospels. In those ancient accounts, we meet a man named Jesus who lived his life entirely for others, even to the extent that he let himself be killed that others might live. His followers recorded these words, which give us a sense of Jesus’s philosophy of life.
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. (Matthew 16:24–27)
This is far from our contemporary saying, “you do you.” Yet Jesus doesn’t merely leave these words for us as a command or some point of reference against which we judge ourselves as a failure. Rather, he calls to you and me and promises to help us do it. For those who follow Jesus, who reflect on their own lives realizing that there are things about themselves that they do not like but can do nothing about, Jesus gives grace, helping us to see that what we think is impossible, is very much possible.
These words of encouragement from one of Jesus’s greatest known followers, St. Paul of Tarsus, show us the way: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:3–5; 13).
Jesus invites us. Let us venture into our social frontier by taking stock of what we see in the mirror, asking God for help, and letting him use us to make a difference in the world, through the same care and compassion that drove him to give his life for us. Perhaps living our lives for others might truly be the wisdom (and revolution) we need.