‘But enough was not enough. Who ever saw the limit in the given anyhow?’ (1991:46)
These words, written by Seamus Heaney come from a poem called Wheels within Wheels, included in his book titled ‘Seeing Things’, made me start thinking about what we accept in life and what it is we search for in our desire for a better life; one with more meaning, with more integrity and authenticity.
The distaste and often frequent contempt we feel when we see the sort of behaviour being displayed by some of our leaders in the public square, such as bankers, politicians, business people and leaders of significant institutions including the churches, is shocking. The depth of rejection and vilification of those who fail in our society, community and nation in some way, is brutal and profoundly shattering. There is no generosity left in the swift rush to call out poor behaviour, dishonesty, hypocrisy and downright corruption.
Equally, there is no compassion left over to be shared with those who are pilloried at the other end of the social scale when they are perceived as having access to benefits that we might want or need out of our fear for our own futures. There is hatred and rejection and scapegoating to such a degree that it has become pathological. We have seen this in our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, those who are poor and unemployed and in receipt of welfare; all those scraping a living as the crumbs fall off the table. Most tellingly, it is always those we have decided are different from us and we have determined with fear and judgement that the difference is their fault, it is their burden and they are shoved to their death on a daily basis for daring to live and breathing our air.
It is worth remembering the surplus powerlessness experienced by those without anything to lose will always find an outlet in violence and hatred. Those with surplus power who are nervous of the crowds and fearful of their own wealth and comfort being lessened, are turning more visibly and with more deliberation to the recipe outlined in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is the moment in the story when O’Brien is discussing Winston’s torture with him:
‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’ Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said. ‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? […] A world of fear and treachery and torment […] Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilisations claimed they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy – everything.’ (1976:897-898).
It is a bleak and despairing vision of the future and how we desire to live is crushed and squandered in such a narrative. We have come close to this and fallen over this precipice many times in our human existence.
Richard Fidler had the tone of it when he described the characteristics of such a bleak way of living when he said:
Death demands more death, and a moral threshold is crossed. […] In such moments, death becomes as commonplace as eating and drinking. Passionless political killing mutates into casual murder for pleasure, and something unravels as the sight of helpless people invokes not pity, but its opposite, a kind of smiling contempt. The killing picks up momentum and corpses pile up until death has had its fill and can consume no more (2016: 212).
In my reflections it seems to me that such a description fits the multiple deaths we are experiencing at the moment, the death of honesty and the uprising of hypocrisy, the death of compassion overwhelmed and swallowed up by the overflow of bile, vomiting its own vilification, cruelty and violence. Hatred holds its sway and anything goes. The consumption of hatred, cruelty, violence and its justification is on the increase and is obscuring all in its path.
The fact people can still see such behaviour and words should not be like this, has caused ‘a spectacle and outrage in the marketplace’; but such a spectacle has simply become the purchased entertainment for the media outlets and on social networks; and instead, causes ridicule and false witness to be given in such a tsunami of vitriol, such that discerning the truth has become a meaningless exercise. Just one more story in the litany of death and pain on a daily basis.
We are in the third week of Lent steadily working its way towards Good Friday and Easter Sunday, walking into death and resurrection. It is a curious experience that is generally ignored by those whose knowledge of God is merely neighbourly and linguistic, perhaps a passing nod to values claimed and hastily ditched when inconvenient. God, faith and Lent have been consigned as an anachronistic language telling an ancient story which has lost its moorings and relevance over millennia.
It has now apparently become a mockery and point of exquisite scorn in the marketplace, a story for selling and consuming to help rake in the profits; and has become all-consuming as death piles up upon death and humanity seems bloated and stinking in its waste and consumption.
We mourn in the marketplace as we watch helplessly the rise in corruption and dishonesty as the new normal, the pain signifying life suffered; and, the loss of kindness, generosity and compassion are as empty words spoken to the wind.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart within my breast is like melting wax. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd: and my tongue clings to my gums. My hands and my feet are withered: and you lay me in the dust of death. For many dogs are come about me: and a band of evildoers hem me in. I can count all my bones: they stand staring and gazing upon me (Psalm 22:14-18).
For others, Lent is time of reconnection, of holding fast and clearing out the non-essentials in life; of being able to focus on what matters and reconnect to people, behaviour, language and actions that make a difference in a way that cannot be dismissed.
Hannah Arendt reminded us that it was not possible for anything to be lost forever.
The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. […] Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation’ (1992:232-233).
However, I think it’s possible to go beyond Arendt’s pragmatism and instead, look towards an understanding of creation and life that gives hope and offers a meaningful purpose for living and a way of finding beauty in life even in the most difficult places and seasons of despair, and it need not simply be a matter of arithmetic and philosophy. It is Lent, you see. In John’s Gospel, the opening verses are a paean of praise and hope:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:1-5).
It is such a simple thing really, and like all simple things, the simplicity and hope offered in these words are breathtaking and life-changing. It is worth remembering the darkness cannot overcome the light. Where the light shines, there cannot be darkness. However hard people try to put out the lights, the light is always shining; and, it is always possible to bring our own experience of the light to shine and share in ways that are meaningful, truthful and honest, and to give courage and hope to those around us. There is never a point when the light cannot be seen. We simply have to look.
This is the point of Lent, I think, to make sure we can once again see the light shining and not to give up. The light is there for all people, not simply corralled by a chosen few hidden away from sight from those less worthy; it is not only for those who think they are privileged, or better or wealthy, but for all people, all races, all genders and all who are broken and all who are seeking, for all those without power. Whatever dystopic view was described in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the O’Briens of this world will not prevail.
As Seamus Heaney wrote, ‘who ever saw the limit in the given anyhow?’ It is worth taking a moment to reflect instead on the words in John’s Gospel and instead of accepting what the worldview must be by those who want to control you, the world and impose suffering; and instead of taking someone else’s word on the matter, let us go beyond the limit of the given, and see what the light of all people looks like instead!
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, my strength and my redeemer (Psalm 19:14).
Hannah Arendt. 1992. Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin Group, London.
Bible. 2008. New Revised Standard Version. The Discipleship Study Bible. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.
Richard Fidler. 2016. Ghost Empire. HarperCollins Publishers Australia Pty Ltd., Sydney.
Seamus Heaney: 1991. Seeing Things. Faber and Faber Ltd., London.
George Orwell. 1976. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., London.