The Journey Toward Hope
It’s risky and painful, relies on strangers, and there’s no escaping the limits of the real world—including death. But our congregations can be vessels for the journey.
By Linda Hansen
As a child, I thought the religious life meant giving up this world for God. Week after week, I trooped in and out of the little library of St. Isaac Jogues Elementary School borrowing yet another life of a saint. By thirteen, I was sure that God had chosen me to be a nun, and if I had answered truly the question of what I hoped to be when I grew up, I would have said a saint. Of course, a real saint would never admit to such an ambition, and neither did I—even to myself—but clearly it was my heart’s desire. The sorrows and joys of this world would fade, I thought, as I came to know this other-worldly reality more fully. I would give up this world in the hopes of glimpsing and eventually attaining a better one.
I never did join the convent, but I came to understand later in my life that I had distanced myself in some ways from the world. My study of philosophy, for example, was largely motivated by the hope of finding a more orderly, stable world beyond this one, and it’s not surprising that I felt a particular attraction to the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. In Plato’s “Parable of the Cave” (from Book vii of the Republic), he likens the human condition to that of prisoners in a cave who know no other reality beyond the shadows they see on the wall. One prisoner is dragged up the steep path into the world of the sun. The prisoner gradually comes to understand that this new world beyond the cave is the true one, and he returns to the cave only to try to convince the other prisoners to leave as well. This is just what Plato attempted in his own life: to teach others about the orderly and stable world of ideas that was more real to him than this shadowy and uncertain world in which we seem to live.
Plato grew up in Athens during the last part of the fifth century b.c.e. when Athens was engaged in a terrible war which it eventually lost to Sparta. Then, in his late twenties, he witnessed the newly restored Athenian democracy put his hero, Socrates, to death. Is it any wonder Plato withdrew from public life? Is it any wonder he sought a world beyond this one—a stable world of unchanging and perfect ideas, open to anyone willing to undertake the difficult work of detaching from the body and from this world?
Unitarian Universalists are sometimes dismissive of those who seek refuge in a world beyond this one. But wouldn’t we be more honest to admit that there is something of Plato in each of us: a desire to transcend our finite condition, to rise above errors, to escape from fragility and death, to insulate ourselves from the pain of relationships, to become self-sufficient, to become godlike? Put another way, the question we face is the question of hope. Is human hope to be found in transcending this world or in embracing it? Is hope to be found in self-sufficiency or in relationship?
Much of Western thought has found hope in worldviews that insist the essence of personhood is to be found in minds or souls separable from the material world, in worldviews that insist human persons are essentially individual rather than relational. I believe our fear of embracing our material nature and the fear of embracing our relational nature are related. To be material is to be vulnerable to death; to be relational is to be vulnerable to other people. It’s not surprising that so much of our culture seeks hope in escaping from, rather than embracing, vulnerability, and sees ourselves essentially as individual spirits or minds, finally not subject to the death of our bodies or the trustworthiness of other people.
We have all experienced something of the pain that comes with allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to other people. Just how deeply—how frighteningly—vulnerable we are is the message contemporary classicist and philosopher Martha Nussbaum takes from Euripides’ play Hecuba—a story, she tells Bill Moyers in a conversation in his book A World of Ideas, that sometimes wakes her up at night.
The story takes place at the end of the Trojan War. The Greeks have defeated the Trojans; they have killed the Trojan men and taken the women and children as slaves. Hecuba, once the celebrated Queen of Troy, is now a slave. Her husband and most of her children are dead. As the play begins, Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena is taken from her and sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles.
In spite of these terrible losses, Hecuba remains the good person she has been and even argues that good character cannot be changed by adversity. But there is further loss to come. Hecuba’s one remaining hope is that her youngest son has been kept safe by her closest friend, Polymestor, to whom her son’s care had been entrusted just before the war. But when she and her captors arrive at the island where her son had been living, they discover his nearly unrecognizable body washed up on the shore. The man Hecuba thought was her dearest friend has killed her son for his money.
Now this once strong and good woman finally loses her moral center. Nussbaum writes in The Fragility of Goodness: “What [Hecuba now] sees is that the deepest trust was not trustworthy. What is firmest is, can be, heedlessly set aside. . . . If this best and deepest case of human social value has proven . . . ‘untrustworthy,’ then nothing is ever entirely deserving of my trust. It is a dislocation, a rending of the world.” Having lost her moral compass, Hecuba plots and carries out her revenge: She murders Polymestor’s children and blinds him. When Polymestor predicts that Hecuba will turn into a dog, he is in a sense only noting what has already happened: Hecuba has ceased to be human.
What do we do with Hecuba’s loss of humanity? What does she have to teach us? The lesson Nussbaum offers Bill Moyers is one that sometimes wakes me up at night:
This is not a lesson easy to hear. Bill Moyers’ immediate response to Nussbaum was to invoke Victor Frankl. Moyers argued that we can always refuse to become the beast, the non-human, others may try to make of us. But Nussbaum argues that good human character depends on the ability to trust something; when that which we most deeply trust—that which is “the basis of [our] connectedness to the world”—becomes untrustworthy, we may be unable to help becoming more like a beast than a human. Human goodness is fragile. It needs nurture and support.
To be of this world is to live with the certainty of pain and death and to live with the risk of losing that which makes our integrity, our moral life, possible at all. Is it any wonder that many philosophical worldviews and religious traditions insist that we are in exile here and that the truly human quest is escape from this world’s limitations? Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, is given the opportunity to achieve that quest. Fated to spend ten difficult years attempting to reach his home and his family following the victory of the Greeks in the Trojan War, Odysseus enjoys a pleasant sojourn with the goddess Calypso. Calypso, finding pleasure with Odysseus, offers to make him a god like herself. Odysseus gently turns her down, eager to return to his finite human life and his finite human wife, Penelope:
Odysseus chooses the life of a human being rather than a god. In doing so, Nussbaum points out in “Transcending Humanity,” he also chooses aging and death. More than that, he chooses either to suffer the pain of the death of the person he loves most, his wife Penelope, if she dies before him, or to cause her such pain if he dies first.
“He is choosing the whole human package,” Nussbaum says: “mortal life, dangerous voyage, imperfect mortal aging woman. He is choosing, quite simply, what is his: his own history, the form of a human life and the possibilities of excellence, love, and achievement that inhabit that form.”
The very meaning of virtues like courage, moderation, and justice is bound up in human difficulty and limitation. In what sense could Odysseus, whose character has been so largely defined by cunning and courage, be courageous on Calypso’s island where there would no longer be anything to struggle against or for? What need would there be for justice among beings who have no need of one another, what possibility for compassion?
And what about human love? What can Penelope offer Odysseus that Calypso cannot? A story, Nussbaum responds. All that can be said about Odysseus’ and Calypso’s lovemaking is that they take pleasure in it. But Homer’s account of Odysseus’ and Penelope’s lovemaking includes the stories they tell one another about their lives. Without conversation, without sharing the adventures of each other’s lives, sexuality is boring.
National Public Radio reporter Frank Brown visited a center in California where Dr. Rachel Remen works with cancer patients to help them face their disease. Remen described a woman who had a mastectomy for cancer and was terribly afraid afterwards to let her husband see the scar. When he finally caught a glimpse of it accidentally, his wife was astonished to discover that it strengthened rather than weakened his desire for her. Brown ended his February 2000 “Weekend Edition” report in this way: “The erotic body, the sensual body, the real body is a scarred body—a body which, by betraying its flaws and its frailties, also reveals its spirit.”
Surely Odysseus would have understood Brown’s conclusion. Penelope’s aging body was no match for Calypso’s, and yet Odysseus ultimately prefers Penelope who, with all of her flaws and frailties, also has a spirit, a story, a reality, the goddess Calypso could never match.
In his 1987 film, Wings of Desire, German filmmaker Wim Wenders gives us a glimpse of what a life not of or in this world might look like. The central characters in Wings of Desire are not gods, but angels—pure spirits who do not know pain or loss or death. Here would seem to be the ideal life.
Wenders’ angels seem to care about us humans, but it would be more accurate to say that they watch us rather than watch out for us. Their job is to “preserve, collect, testify to” human existence. They wander through the city of Berlin, into and out of houses and apartments, buses and cars, circuses and film sets, libraries and laundromats. They hear the inner voices of the men and women they encounter; at times the cacophany of these voices is overwhelming. But they cannot touch us—literally or metaphorically—a gap made wrenchingly clear when one of the angels is unable to stop a man intent on suicide.
Most of the film is in black-and-white. Remaining outside of human experience means never experiencing this world fully. Ironically, because living in eternity would seem to mean having all the time in the world, it’s as if the angels don’t have time to experience the world in color. And that’s exactly the point: They don’t literally have time; they don’t live in time. Eternity is, in fact, a very limiting perspective; it offers not the “big picture” of the world, but no real picture at all.
One of the angels, Damiel, tells another, “[S]ometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above, I’d like to feel there’s some weight to me to end my eternity and bind me to earth.” He adds:
Some of Wenders’ angels envy us the concreteness, the weight, the “now,” the color of human existence. Just as in the Odyssey, what we humans have that gods and angels do not have is a story. The library in Wings of Desire is packed with angels: It’s the one place we see lots of them—leaning over people’s shoulders, sitting on the ledges. Angels are as hungry for stories as we are, but we have the advantage of being able to create stories, to live stories, while angels can only observe them.
Like Odysseus, what persuades Damiel to choose human existence is his love for a human woman, but what enables Damiel to take the risk of being human is not romantic love but the promise of friendship. Peter Falk has a wonderful role in this film as himself, having come to Berlin to film (what else?) a detective story. One evening, at an outdoor coffee stand, Falk detects Damiel’s presence and begins talking to him—to the amusement of the coffee vendor. Falk tells Damiel “how good it is to be here” and offers his hand in friendship. The suggestion is that Damiel—and we—cannot become truly human until we are offered and accept another’s hand in friendship. (A false friend could destroy Hecuba’s humanity only because a true friend is essential to it.) Only later do we learn that Falk is himself a former angel—a “fallen” angel—one who took the plunge into human existence thirty years earlier. “There’s a lot of us,” he tells Damiel after Damiel too has taken the plunge. “You’re not the only one.”
Becoming human is literally a plunge in this film; Damiel falls out of the sky to the ground. Will the risk be worth it? Part of the risk is that he cannot know for sure—an uncertainty every parent faces in bringing a child into this world. But we do know that without the risk, the joy of discovering and creating the stories of our lives is not possible either. In human life, there is risk and loss and death, but in human life there is also hope—the hope of achievement, virtue, love, and friendship.
Odysseus and Damiel ultimately find more hope in human relationships than in the self-sufficient life of gods or angels. They embrace their humanity by risking intimacy in the relationships of family and friendship. We can all attest to the courage intimacy demands, but is intimacy in love and friendship enough? What, if any, is the hope to be found in community? More to the point for us, what hope do religious communities, such as our Unitarian Universalist congregations, have to offer that love and friendship do not?
I would like to suggest that one answer is strangers.
There is, as many of you know, a growing trend in many religious movements, including the Unitarian Universalist Association, to pay renewed attention to our need to know and be known, to support and be supported, to love and be loved. Many people are pointing out that intimacy is among the major reasons people visit religious congregations, and we fail if we offer them only committee work. My own congregation, like many others, forms “covenant groups”—small, intentional groups that meet at least once a month—precisely to address this need for intimacy. I think this is an essential and wonderful project.
I am nervous, however, when I hear people say that what they seek in their religious communities is “family.” Small groups within a congregation may come to feel like families, but congregations as congregations cannot and should not be families; to seek to shape congregations in this way is necessarily to make strangers unwelcome. We human beings need intimacy, but we also need what Parker J. Palmer calls “the company of strangers.” A religious community ought to be a place to which we welcome strangers, in which we are eager to learn from strangers, and in which we learn to live peacefully and justly with those who are very different from ourselves.
The Rev. Terry Sweetser gave a powerful sermon at the First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, my home church, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving one year. He told us the familiar story of the Pilgrims coming to the New World in search of religious freedom, but he emphasized a dimension of the story unfamiliar to me. Not all of the passengers who sailed on the Mayflower were Pilgrims; in fact, only forty-one belonged to that group. In order to fill the ship and to bring people with skills the Pilgrims themselves didn’t have, the Pilgrims had to offer passage to sixty-one other men and women who had their own reasons for wanting to leave England. The Pilgrims called these people “Strangers.”
Relations between the Pilgrims and the Strangers were not easy. When the Mayflower landed far north of the Virginia territory for which it had been headed, some of the Strangers argued that they were now freed from any original agreements and could strike out on their own. The Mayflower Compact, an agreement to “covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic,” suggests that both the Pilgrims and the Strangers recognized that their chances of success, and even of survival, were better if they worked together than if they went their separate ways. At the end of his sermon, Sweetser acknowledged that parents are right to teach their children to be wary of strangers, but he cautioned us against taking and teaching our wariness too far. Some strangers are potential friends. And sometimes strangers even save our lives.
We need intimate relationships, but we need other kinds of relationships just as much. We need strangers, people whose value is more in their difference from us than their likeness to us, people who will shake us up and make us look at the world differently.
In our congregations at their best, strangers are viewed not as threats, but as having “inherent worth and dignity,” as being indispensable parts of the “interdependent web” to which we all belong. Our Principles don’t tell us that only our friends have inherent value; we insist everyone does. Our Principles call us to practice what the Rev. William Schulz calls “the fragile art of hospitality.”
All of this sounds so good in our Principles, but is so difficult to live out. Out of his own experience of community, Parker Palmer discovered this timeless truth: “Community is that place where the person you least want to live with always lives,” he writes in The Company of Strangers. “And when that person moves away, someone else arises to take his or her place!” Palmer reminds us that the person who most troubles us is likely to be the person who draws out what we least like about ourselves, an experience from which we can learn and grow if we have the courage to face it.
I used to teach philosophy at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, a college run by a Benedictine Abbey of monks. I have been moved by their stories of and their hopes for their community. The monks and nuns I have come to know are a far cry from the stereotyped images I had of them as a child. They do not idealize their communities; their communities offer no escape from the risks of genuinely human life. Monks are no easier to live with than Unitarian Universalists. And just like Unitarian Universalists, monks do not choose community expecting an easy harmony. As one monk told Kathleen Norris, author of The Cloister Walk, “The basis of community is not that we have all our personal needs met here, or that we find all our best friends in the monastery. What we have to struggle for, and to preserve, is a shared vision of the why, why we live together.”
Monasteries and religious communities exist because we need alternatives to the larger culture in which we live; we need to know—we need to live—an alternative vision. Our families and friendships provide one kind of alternative vision, but intimacy is not the only alternative vision we need. We need just as much a vision of how to live well with strangers—with lots of people we can never know intimately, and some we’d never want to. We need a community that is excited about, rather than scared by, the possibilities that strangers bring, a community that takes seriously the inherent value of each person and the fact that we are all in this interdependent web together.
But what a risk! In a world in which we can be betrayed, as Hecuba was, by our closest friends, isn’t it folly to open ourselves to strangers? I cannot help but wonder if some of the survivors of concentration camps might feel a particular sympathy for Hecuba—they who saw the almost total breakdown of human morality and decency. Not until Elie Wiesel’s fourth novel, The Town Beyond the Wall, does his main character, Michael—like Wiesel, a concentration camp survivor—open himself once again to the risk of relationship. His experience in the camps has left him without family or friends and without any hope for meaning in human life. In an exchange of life stories with a Spaniard named Pedro, who has also experienced profound loss, Michael begins to understand his own past and feels the need to return to his hometown, even though this town is now behind the Iron Curtain and Michael would be imprisoned if caught there. But more than that, Michael rediscovers the joy of friendship. Before they part, Pedro says to Michael, “From now on you can say, ‘I am Pedro,’ and I, ‘I am Michael.’”
The worst happens to Michael: He is imprisoned, tortured, left virtually alone. His cellmate is a young man—a stranger—so overwhelmed by his own suffering that he has sought escape from the world by completely withdrawing from it, by retreating to some psychic space seemingly oblivious to anyone or anything. Michael was once a stranger locked in his own suffering, and Pedro reached out to him. Michael decides to try to do the same for this young man. He tells this stranger that someday,
Instead of desiring the escape of mental withdrawal for himself, Michael instead reaches out in the hope of drawing this young man back into human life. We do not learn whether Michael succeeds. But we do know that he tries, that Michael—once a stranger himself—offers community to another stranger in turn. We do know that Michael, unlike Hecuba, has found his humanity again and therein has found meaning and hope.
In a world of greater and greater mistrust, people are desperate for the hope found in community—the hope that it is possible not just to tolerate, but to benefit from, to live fuller lives because of, “the company of strangers.” It may be that the greatest contribution our religious communities can make to the larger world is not our social justice projects—important as those are—but our modeling for the larger world an alternative reality to the mistrust, inequality, and narrow self-interest that is rampant there.
“The way to change the world,” contemporary Unitarian Universalist activist Betty Reid Soskin tells us, “is to be what we want to see.” What hope we might offer to the world the closer our congregations come to living out our Principles, the closer we come to being communities of genuine respect and democracy, genuinely celebrating difference.
We live in a world as frightened of community as it is of death. The truth is, we human beings are understandably frightened of the vulnerable, finite creatures we truly are. We seek escape from vulnerability and death by redefining ourselves in our philosophies and religions, or by hiding behind material wealth and power at the expense of others.
Unitarian Universalists—we who lay claim to a religious worldview that takes this world to be our true home, that takes this finite life to be our real life—have a tremendous contribution to offer our frightened world. We could help to show the world that the joys of embracing our finite lives are worth the risks and losses, that being limited human beings is a much richer prospect than being angels or even gods. We could help to show the world that it’s possible for human beings to live together justly and peacefully. We could help to work toward a world in which good people like Hecuba need never find themselves without someone—perhaps a stranger—to trust. What we have to offer the world is the possibility of genuine hope—hope in the world we have, hope in the finite interdependent creatures we are, hope in our relationships of love and friendship, hope in the communities we create not only with one another but with the strangers with whom we are lucky enough to be in company.
“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted,” writes Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon Days, “but getting what you have, which once you have it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.” It’s taken me most of my life to become smart enough to know how lucky I am to be a human being. Now I’m beginning to know how lucky I am to be risking community with friends and with strangers. May we—like Pedro to Michael, and Michael to the young man—pass the hope of community on to others. Then we too shall “know the taste of the most genuine of victories.”