Part 01, Chapters 11-20
Part 1, Chapter 11
„Und allmählich, je mehr ich las und je wunderlicher und fremder mich das Hinunterblicken auf Dächer, Gassen und Alltag ergriff, tauchte des Öfteren zaghaft und beklemmend das Gefühl in mir auf, auch ich sei vielleicht ein Seher und die vor mir ausgebreitete Welt warte auf mich, dass ich einen Teil ihrer Schätze höbe, den Schleier des Zufälligen und Gemeinen davon löse und das Entdeckte durch Dichterkraft dem Untergang entreiße und verewige“.
“And gradually, the more I read and the more strangely and wonderfully the sight of roofs, lanes, and ordinary things seized me, the feeling often rose up in me, timidly and oppressively, that perhaps I too might be one of those who really sees. I thought that the wide world was waiting for me to bring up a portion of its treasures and to lift the veil of what was random and common. I thought a poet’s power would enable me to save from destruction what I had discovered and to render it eternal.”
On that first visit to Ann and Clayton’s house, he felt almost as shy as he always did whenever he met new people, and he was sure his behavior must have seemed extremely awkward to them. He wanted to think, though, that if they saw him as awkward, they understood at the same time that he could hardly keep himself from giving in to a sense of grateful surprise at everything he saw in their home: the signs of intelligence in everything they did and in the way they lived, the evidence of their ability to appreciate beautiful things. The furnishings of the room they were in — so simple, but filled with the grace and beauty of splendid works of art — made him feel almost a kind of awe, one that was so great that at times he could hardly concentrate on the conversation.
He was drawn in particular to one painting that appeared to offer a kind of opening into a world of intense color and depth and unusual form. Ann asked him if he liked it.
“Yes,” he said, smiling, “I think the colors have a quality I haven’t seen in a very long time. There’s a kind of life and movement there — I don’t know how to explain it very well.”
Ann glanced at the logs burning in the fireplace and then smiled at Clayton. “Clay’s always admired paintings too,” she said. “That’s why we have so many – and why I’m very grateful to him.”
David wanted to go on and tell them what he was really thinking and feeling, but he didn’t know how to do it. He felt awkward and afraid. He’d just met them, and he didn’t want to say anything stupid. At the same time, though, he wanted them to know as much as possible about himself. Perhaps he sensed even then that the more he told them, the more he would learn about himself. Uppermost in his mind, however, was simply the need to speak about something that was for him important, even urgent.
“I hardly noticed paintings at all before my last year in high school,” he said. “I could never understand what people saw in them.”
“And what happened that year?” Clayton asked.
David leaned forward a little, glancing around this room they were in, so modern, so filled with light and color, so warm and welcoming. He looked around as if he might be able to see the answer there somewhere in front of him. In the background, the complexities of Bach were being spun out softly from a recording. “That summer,” he began, his voice sounding husky to him, “I went to Europe with some of my friends in school. Near the end of the trip, we went to Paris. And of course, to the Louvre.”
Suddenly it seemed very quiet in that room — he was concentrating so much on his thoughts, and perhaps Clay and Ann were too. What really mattered to him at that moment, though — at every moment like that — was releasing the flood of ideas that had been held back until then by something in his own mind, or by the absence of someone he could really talk to. As he spoke, these thoughts gradually acquired a life of their own, and that life had only one imperative: the need to be articulated, to be expressed, to blaze for a moment and perhaps be caught up into another mind, another consciousness.
Naturally, the more he was carried away with these thoughts, the more apprehensive he felt. It was as if he were gripped by a kind of stage fright. He even imagined that he could feel his heart pounding and that he was short of breath.
“The impressionist paintings were in the Jeu de Paume. One afternoon, when it was raining, and all of Paris seemed grey and dreary and — I know, it sounds stupid to say it — Paris also seemed kind of enchanted to me, I went there alone — to the Jeu de Paume — I was always going off somewhere alone, even then.
“Anyway, I went to the Jeu de Paume — kind of by accident, I guess — and there they were: these amazing paintings. I’d never even seen paintings like that before. Great cascades — whirlwinds — of color and form that were so bright, so clear, with an intensity that seemed to take hold of me like nothing else ever had. I understood for the first time why great paintings were great and why people thought they were so important.”
He went on like that. He couldn’t stop. He didn’t really care about anything — about what Ann and Clay might think or about how ridiculous he might sound.
He stared into the fire as he talked, looking back into that shining moment in the past. “I felt as if the whole world had somehow shifted slightly on its axis, as if there had been some fundamental change in the order of things.”
Then all at once even he was afraid he might have gone too far. He paused again and leaned back on the enormous white sofa. Suddenly, though, he was convinced Ann and Clay must have understood, or he wanted to believe they’d understood, and he went on, “You see, after I’d looked at these paintings for a while, I was almost afraid that if I went outside, everything would be different somehow, everything would look different. But then I thought to myself that this must be the way everybody sees those paintings, and that’s why they’re there.”
The light from the fireplace danced and flowed across the room, infusing everything with its glow — the beige carpeting and the furniture, the jewelled colors of the art on the walls, the long, gentle folds of the draperies. And somewhere the music of Bach was elaborating a vision that was not quite that of another world or another time, but – David thought – really part of every world and every time.
“And do you believe that now? I mean, do you still think everyone sees those paintings the way you see them?” Ann said quietly.
That was something he did not want to think about, something that had disturbing implications for him. “Well, of course not everybody sees that way,” he said, trying to sound as casual as possible. “But I’m sure most people do. I mean, most intelligent or educated people.” Then he added, “Don’t they?”
Ann and Clay just glanced at each other.
Part 1, Chapter 12
„…der Konflikt zwischen Eliteschule und Elternhaus…, der manchem anderen von seiner Art die Jugendjahre belastet…und in manchen Fällen hochbegabte junge Menschen zu schwierigen und problematischen Charakteren macht”.
“…the conflict between elite school and parents’ house that weighs down on the young lives of many others of his kind…and often makes difficult and problematic characters out of highly gifted young men.”
The Glass Bead Game
When he was growing up, there was such a feeling of instability in the house, in the family, that it could almost make him ache. At first, of course, when he was a child, he couldn’t quite perceive it. He knew something seemed to be wrong somewhere, but he didn’t know what it was. He had no way of really comparing the family he was part of with any other family. He never really thought very much about other families.
As he grew up, though, went to school, made what friends he could and visited their homes, it began to seem that his family was not quite the same as other families. Other families seemed to live in homes where there was a constant sense of warmth, a feeling of solidarity, a kind of orderliness, and above all an atmosphere of what he could only call comprehensibility. All of that was missing in the house he lived in.
In that house, he began to realize, there was always an odd, unfocused sense of apprehension, a vague sort of confusion, as though nothing were quite what it seemed to be or was supposed to be. It was as though everything could easily become something else — at any moment — or it could become nothing at all.
He never felt any sense of material deprivation. The constant feeling, though, that he was growing up in a family structure that seemed always on the verge of collapse created in him a kind of continuous fear and loneliness and helplessness. As he entered his teens, these feelings became nearly overwhelming. He was desperate, and felt he had nowhere to go for help, except perhaps to God – to the degree that a boy like him could know anything of God. The problems that were confronting him seemed to be so enormous, so complex, and so nearly insoluble that he felt only God was powerful enough to deal with them. He saw no possibility of help at a purely human level. He was convinced, moreover, that any help God did offer him would come through a priest.
Sometimes he felt so desperate that he thought if he didn’t get some kind of help, he would simply dissolve into the ocean of his poor parents’ neurotic behavior. Turning to God just seemed to be the natural thing to do. He’d been raised a Catholic, at least in a formal sense, and he’d learned about God in much the same way any child might learn about him. His parents sent him to catechism classes every Saturday when he was a boy, and they saw to it that he made his first Communion and was confirmed, but within the family there was never any real encouragement to practice the faith. His parents took his brother and him to Mass on Sundays, at least until he was around ten or eleven, but that physical presence at Mass seemed to be the beginning and the end of any relationship they might have with God. As time went by, even that remote connection started to fade, at least for his parents, as their attendance at Mass became less and less frequent.
It did not fade completely for him, though. And as the ordinary fears and confusion and difficulties of adolescence were compounded by the inescapable feeling that his family was an extremely unhappy one — and that he was an extremely unhappy young boy — he continued to think that something disastrous would happen if he didn’t get some kind of help from someone, somewhere. At times he felt an absolutely desperate need for that help.
One reason for that need was the fact that the dominant force in the family, by far, was his poor mother. Perhaps that is true, in a way, of most families. If so, however, the family will be happy only if the mother uses her considerable power in order to encourage growth and nurture strength in her children and in her husband.
In his family, unfortunately, his mother did not use her power in that way, and the result was a kind of nightmare for those around her.
She was a complex and intelligent woman, and, in her own sad way, ruthless in trying to get what she wanted. Her intelligence, though, was restricted and confined and turned back in on itself. And it ultimately became enormously destructive — blasting, in one way or another, nearly everything it touched.
What or who had confined and restricted her? Society and its expectations? Maybe, at least in a way. Individual limitations are often the result of selfishness, and so society can perhaps impose limitations on certain tragic and pathetic women by encouraging the selfishness that all human beings may suffer from to some degree. Society can breed this selfishness to the point where there is almost nothing else in the poor woman’s heart except selfishness, a selfishness that disguises itself and expresses itself in a thousand ingenious ways, every one of them unfortunate for anyone the woman may come into contact with.
And then selfishness breeds other qualities in the personality as well: greed, for example, and a tendency to try to dominate everything and everyone within reach.
He thought it would be wrong, however, to hold women like his mother accountable for their behavior. He told himself that if their actions are a result of the limitations that society imposes, society should be blamed. Men are expected to transcend the limitations placed on them, but women should not be. Whatever faults society may inculcate in them, the faults should be overlooked; they should not have to take the initiative in correcting them, and should not be blamed for them.
He did not believe his poor mother should be blamed for anything. She should be pitied, forgiven, prayed for, but not blamed. He, for one, certainly did not blame her, and when he talked to others about her behavior, he did it only in order to try to explain his own life, not to blame her for — and certainly not to accuse her of — anything. More than that, he would never use her behavior to try to justify the mistakes he made in life or the things he may have done wrong. He knew that it was he who was responsible for everything he did, and no one else.
She had been born in an industrial city in Britain, but she often said her family had migrated from Lithuania, like his father’s family. He often wondered if perhaps her family had been Jews who tried to assimilate. In any case, like many Americans, he’d always felt a very great affinity for Jews, he believed there would probably never cease to be an intimate connection between the destiny of Americans and the destiny of the Jewish people.
His mother’s family was certainly not rich. She used to say that they lived somewhere in Pennsylvania and that his grandfather had been a coal miner. She grew up in the period between the world wars, when having money and doing the right thing and being in the right places with the right people were the most important things in the world. Not having or doing or being those things was for her a kind of burning shame that she seemed to feel in the very depths of her mind, perhaps — if it’s possible to put it this way — even down to the secret places of her heart.
She seemed to have been ashamed of nearly everything in her life: ashamed of her parents, ashamed of her background, and ashamed of her whole family, which she considered crude and uneducated. The poor woman was apparently ashamed of everything about herself as well, but she also had a streak of indomitable pride that made her determined to overcome what she saw as defects, no matter what it might cost. She seemed driven by a relentless ambition that was combined with that instinct she had for control and domination.
Her instincts and ambitions, however, dark as they may have been, seem to have been oddly blocked by certain sadly twisted elements in her personality that were even darker, elements that David could not have even guessed at. She was also blocked by a fear of failure, and of course by her ever-present fear of being shamed or embarrassed.
Despite all that, if she had tried to live out her ambitions alone, unmarried, as many women of even her generation managed to do, she might have been able at least to achieve some of the things she thought she wanted. Unfortunately, when she did marry, her marriage became the embodiment of one more impossible contradictions in her life.
She may have at first had some vague idea of realizing her ambitions vicariously, through her husband, since that was the way most women of her generation had been trained to think. In the end, though, by marrying, she wound up placing herself in an impossible position. She wanted wealth and status and a husband who could get them for her. That kind of husband, though, would have had to possess a driving, aggressive personality; he would have had to be the kind of man who dominated and controlled his entire family, including his wife. David’s mother of course could never have allowed herself to marry such a man, to be subordinate to such a man, or to any man. It was she who had to run the family. It was she — not her husband — who always had to be at the center of things. It was she — not her husband — who had to see to it that everyone else in the family remained in a dependent position.
Naturally the only kind of man who would marry such a woman was definitely not the ambitious, career-driven sort, one who could achieve the goals of money and social position that were so central to her idea of happiness. The only kind of man David’s mother could possibly marry was a gentle and kind man, one she could easily manage and manipulate, one who was satisfied with an ordinary, middle-class American lifestyle.
This terrible contradiction at the heart of her life and her marriage seemed at times almost to have torn David’s mother apart. It must have been the main cause of the terrible suffering she had to endure, and the cause of the suffering she felt compelled to inflict on others.
Part 1, Chapter 13
„Ach, das weiß ich heute: nichts auf der Welt ist dem Menschen mehr zuwider, als den Weg zu gehen, der ihn zu sich selber führt!“
“I realize now that nothing in the world is more repugnant to a human being than to follow the way that leads him to know who he is.”
If his mother’s marriage was impossible for her, it was impossible for his father as well. As time passed, the situation for them and for David became almost unendurable.
Even as a child David had a sense of wanting to escape from the family. Once in school, when he was about nine years old, the whole class had to do a written exercise in which they were supposed to complete a number of sentences. One of them began, “I wish . . . .” Although there may have been other children who felt as he did, he was probably the only one who finished the sentence by writing, “I wish I had nerve enough to run away from home.”
The teacher never returned the exercise to him, but a few days later his mother — who, after all, in her own possessive way, did perhaps love him — asked him if there was anything that was making him unhappy. Of course he said no. What else could he have said? When a child is confronted by a vast universe of nearly overwhelming woe, a feeling of great and general distress that is impossible for him even to grasp intellectually, much less articulate, what else can he say? How can he possibly answer such a question, especially when the one who asks it is the very person who looms — in his limited vision of things — as the originator of what in an adult would be a great sense of despair, like an enormous spider waiting at the center of a web?
A child in such a situation, after all, experiences a general feeling of dread, a vision of blackness extending in all directions around him, as though he were convinced that all his life he would be able to do nothing but grieve.
In this case, what exactly was the source of so much sorrow for such a little boy? It was a boundless sense of grief and sadness that he felt seemed to flow from his poor mother: the general blackness and often sheer craziness of her own vision of things. Later, as a man, he could feel compassion for her suffering and for whatever caused it, but that little boy he was could not understand exactly what was happening. The boy did not hate his mother or really fear her, but he did know that she was causing him pain, and he wanted to get away from the almost palpable feeling of instability she generated. Her nervousness, her insecurity, the constant changes in her mood and personality, all this was overwhelming for a child. Again, she was by far the most dominant force in the family unit.
She was also unquestionably the source of the tension and ill-will between herself and his father, and as David entered his early teens, the tension seemed to increase exponentially. There were more arguments between them, alternating with periods of coldness toward each other. His mother’s behavior became almost hysterical at times. He would later often remember one particular incident when she locked herself in the basement and cried there, poor woman, for hours.
So more than anything else, he eventually came to see her as immensely unhappy woman. At the time though, her actions were confusing for him, bewildering, and often even a little disorienting. If he had been a different kind of child, perhaps his mother’s erratic behavior would have made hardly any impression on him. However, whether or not she knew what she was doing, she had gradually cut him off from friends his own age, subtly discouraging him and sometimes openly forbidding him to have anything to do with them. As a result, he became withdrawn, isolated, self-conscious, someone who lived in a world of books, and it was his poor mother, of course, who became, by default, the one significant person in his life, at least during a formative and impressionable period when he had only the tightly enclosed and stifling family unit surrounding him.
It had not always been like that. There had been times when he was very young — perhaps six or seven — when he seemed to have always been outside playing and exploring. He behaved as wildly as a boy that age can behave, until one day when he came home his mother terrified him by telling him that if he went outside alone again, the police would come after him and do something terrible — exactly what they would do was not specified. From that point on he became more and more frightened and shy in any situation outside of the family, and in most situations within it.
So later, when this central figure in his little world, his mother, began acting in an unstable manner, there seemed to be nothing around him that could provide any sense of stability; every event and every person appeared to be filled with dangerous uncertainties and to arouse in him a constant feeling of anxiety. He didn’t know where to turn.
Although he had always been a good student, and somehow continued to be as he went on in school, he felt that the problems he was confronting were too large and complex, too deep and troubling for any of his teachers to understand. He could not bring himself even to try to discuss with any of them the fears, questions, and uncertainties within him.
It all seemed so hopeless.
Yet he needed to talk to someone. He sometimes felt that if he didn’t talk to someone he would reach some ultimate stage of disorientation, from which there would be return. But who could he turn to? He felt absolutely helpless. He was desperate to find a place where there were people who could give meaning to his existence, who could help him make sense of a world that every day seemed more and more to be making no sense at all.
When he looked around, however, it seemed that the place he was looking for was not really very far away at all. It was in fact his mother who had unwittingly showed him the way to it.
In spite of all her instability, one of the things she seems to have been certain of was her desire to raise him — somehow — as a Catholic. It was this desire that ultimately enabled him to find the place he was looking for, the place where he thought — at least for a time — that he would find a meaning for his existence, the place where he would find, he believed, the only real meaning of his existence.
Part 1, Chapter 14
„ ‚Dann gib dir Mühe’, fuhr jener fort, ‚dass du so gut seist, wie alle Welt von dir glaubt! Denn viele haben großes Vertrauen zu dir. Darum möchte ich dir sagen: Achte, dass in dir nichts anderes sei, als was die Leute von dir erwarten!’ “
–Franz von Assisi
Legenden und Laude
“ ‘So make an effort,’ he went on, ‘to be as good as all the world believes you to be, because many people have put their trust in you. Be sure that there is nothing in you but what people expect from you.’ “
–Francis of Assisi
Legenden und Laude
David’s father was not particularly religious, but the family was Catholic, and so it was decided that David’s father and mother would be married in the Catholic Church.
However, since David’s mother was not a Catholic, she had to be formally instructed and received into the Church before the couple could be married.
David’s mother never talked very much about her family, and certainly not much about their religious beliefs. That was a subject she seemed particularly reluctant to discuss. He really had no idea what religion they practiced, or what part religion may have played in his mother’s thinking before she became a Catholic.
Because she was always so silent on the subject, he often wondered if there was something she wanted to hide. He wondered, for example, if the family could possibly have been Jewish. As time went by, it seemed obvious to him that they had at some point — perhaps when they emigrated to America around the time of the First World War — made the decision to assimilate. The only support for such an idea was the kind of support that was somewhat tenuous but that at the same time can lead to a definite conclusion. It was the tendency of his mother’s family to favor certain kinds of food, their membership in an American religious group that observed its Sabbath on Saturday, and the fact that many Jews left Lithuania because of religious persecution. There was also his own tendency to feel so comfortable talking with Jews, to feel that they understood him and he understood them in some deep way. On the other hand, it is of course possible that one or both of David’s maternal grandparents were involved in some sort of dissident political activity and decided they had to leave the country.
It is also possible that both eventualities were true: they were Jews involved in dissident political activity who had to leave the country.
Whatever the case, David’s maternal grandparents were poor immigrants who seem not to have taken religion very seriously, either because they had lost whatever religious faith they’d had, or because they didn’t have either the time or the resources to concern themselves with such things. Their main religion, so to speak, may have been simply the effort to survive.
When David’s mother became a Catholic, though, she appears to have been sincere and even devout. In fact, it often seemed to him that she perhaps struggled in her own way to follow the teachings of the Church as best she could during much of her life. If she failed, it may have been only because she was overwhelmed by the materialism and selfishness of the society she lived in. However, she seemed determined to try to raise her children as Catholics, no matter what changes or upheavals might occur in her own life. Perhaps she did this out of sincere religious conviction or perhaps she did it because, like many Jews who have converted (if she in fact had been Jewish), she saw the Catholic Church as a powerful force, and she wanted to be on the side of that force.
When it came time for David to go to kindergarten, he was sent to an expensive Catholic school, where the nuns were, as he later remembered them, always gentle and kind. One of them in particular seemed very fond of him, and he later wanted to think that she was one of the people whose prayers somehow prevented him from wasting himself and his life completely, one of those who may have helped him survive in the end.
Although he knew it was a commonplace idea, when he thought of that nun, he remembered that some of the greatest saints may have been like her – or rather she like them. They may have been those people we know little or nothing about, those who have left no really visible trace of their existence, whose lives and impact have been hidden and obscure. He knew he was probably idealizing her, but he wanted to think she was like that, because then there was the possibility that she would be praying for him all his life. Right up to the end. And he felt he would need that.
Naturally, as a child, though, he thought about none of those things. As a child, if he gave much thought to religion at all, he must have regarded it in much the same way other children did. When his parents took him and his brother to Mass at the Church located next to the school where he went to kindergarten, he saw the Mass only through a child’s uncomprehending eyes. He was — he later supposed — often restless during Mass, the way children usually are. However, there was one part of the ceremony that he looked forward to every week, and he considered it a kind of reward for having to wait through the long and apparently uneventful parts. What he looked forward to — he learned later — was the reading of the Gospel. At the age of five or six, he was certainly not able to grasp the significance of what he heard. He knew it only as a kind of interesting story, something that commanded his attention, because it was somehow engaging and entertaining.
In spite of everything, there was one gospel reading in particular that he never forgot in all the years that followed. Whether he really grasped the meaning the first time he heard it, or whether he began to comprehend it only after many readings, he cannot know now, of course. Still, he always thought that the memory might be important. It was the passage about the parable of the sower. A man went out to sow some seed; and as he sowed, the seed fell on different kinds of soil, but it was only the seed that fell on good soil that grew and bore fruit.
He never knew exactly how old he was when he really understood that, but whether he was six or ten or twelve, what he understood was that he wanted so much to be like that good soil. He wanted the seed to fall on his soul and flourish.
He remembered that in the long years that came after, he used to think to himself, “If not now, Lord, when?” And he would hope the nun was still praying for him.
Part 1, Chapter 15
“Ich habe so ein unbestimmtes Gefühl, dass alles gut ausgehen wird. Ich freue mich maßlos auf den Tag, da alles vergessen sein wird und ich wieder ein anderer Mensch sein werde. Mein ganzer Körper, jede Sehne, jede Ader sehnt sich nach Leben, ich muss meine Kraft ausnutzen”.
Briefe und Aufzeichnungen
“I have a kind of vague feeling that everything will be all right. I’m looking forward – more than I can say – to the day when everything will be forgotten, and I’ll become a different person. My whole body, every fiber of it, every vein in it, longs for life; I have to use all my strength.”
–Hans Scholl (Member of the German resistance, executed 1943, age 24.)
Briefe und Aufzeichnungen
After kindergarten, there was a period of several years when just about the only thing he was aware of was turmoil and upheaval in the relations among his mother and father, his brother, and himself.
In later years, he didn’t remember being at Mass during that period, although he almost certainly was; he didn’t remember anything at all having to do with the Church at that period of his life. He remembered only conflict and pain.
His memories were fragmentary: his mother shouting and arguing with a neighbor, the family having to leave the warm and comfortable home they had, because — as he learned later — his father no longer had any work, then the family moving to a tiny, broken-down house in a poor community on the edge of Cleveland, near the shore of Lake Erie, where it always seemed to be winter, and where his mother seemed always very sad. He remembered being left alone in the house and waiting for his mother to come home, and he remembered being sad himself and crying, because she was not there.
He remembered too a set of books on the shelves of the tiny living room. Somewhere his parents had acquired a complete set of the works of Mark Twain, and long before he was able to read those books, he used to look at the illustrations in them and ponder the strange and wonderful possibilities that they seemed so full of. He understood the stories well enough, though, to envy the lives of boys like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, lives that for him represented freedom and the mystery of adventure. He wished he too could live that sort of life; he wished he could explore a cave or sail down a long and seemingly endless river.
In a way, he did in the end lead that sort of life, and he lived it from the time he was quite young. The caves, though, turned out to be deeper and more terrifying, and the river longer and stranger than any that Mark Twain’s young heroes experienced.
After he’d begun to actually read Twain’s works, he began reading other books as well, some of them in simpler children’s versions, books like Robinson Crusoe, which may in a way have helped him make some sense of the world and the way he was experiencing it: the loneliness of a human being stranded on a desert island, or the desert of the family he was part of, or the desert of the human heart. Even then he had had almost no friends. He felt awkward and shy — two characteristics he acquired early in childhood and found it impossible to rid himself of, characteristics that in one way or another he will probably carry with him to the grave.
The shyness came from the sense of worthlessness that his mother had already unwittingly communicated to him even when he was a boy.
The awkwardness came from his poor father, who had himself been made to feel inadequate by life in general and by David’s mother in particular, for the only source of self-esteem that David’s father had came from being able to feel superior to David: David had so few friends, David was so awkward, David was often bullied by other children, and sometimes even by his teachers.
The need that David’s poor father had for self-esteem and his need to feel superior to David were revealed in a number of different ways: in coldness, in outbursts of anger, in the ridicule he directed at David, especially when David showed how clumsy he could be.
The poor man was so wounded that instead of helping David develop some kind of athletic skill, or at least encouraging him to do so, most of the time all he could do was to make fun of David. Apparently it was the only way he could deal with his own sense of worthlessness.
At the same time, David’s inability to play any sport very well — and therefore his inability to acquire all the important social and psychological skills that sports offer — was carefully nurtured by his poor mother, who communicated to him in a thousand ways that sports were, after all, really a waste of time. In this way, whether or not she knew what she was doing, she was able to cut him off from friends his own age, while at the same time feeding her own sad hunger for affection and letting it develop into a consuming possessiveness.
She too, like his father, continued to have serious problems with her self-esteem, but she dealt with those problems in a more subtle fashion. Instead of directly attacking David’s sense of self-worth, the way his father did, she undermined it by beginning an endless series of competitions with him. It became her aim to show him over and over again how much smarter, stronger, more successful, and finally wealthier she was than he could ever even hope to be. She wound up becoming one of those poor, sad women who devour anyone within their reach — especially if he were male — in a futile attempt to satisfy her infinite — and infinitely sorrowful and selfish — hunger for importance. And because David was all too easily within her reach, he was all but destroyed by those blind impulses she was helpless to resist.
Years afterward he would ask himself if she or David’s father understood the full implications of what they were doing, and he concluded, of course, that they did not. He came to see that they were only acting the way most human beings act when they suffer pain: they very often try to inflict that same pain on others, usually those who are closest to them and most vulnerable, their own children.
However, it is possible for those children to survive, even to flourish, and to become people whose lives are of great value, despite the most horrendous childhoods.
When David eventually tried to write down the story of his life, he supposed that the reason for writing was to try to tell anyone who might read that story, anyone who might have suffered as he suffered, that you can survive and you can forgive the terrible destruction that others — even your own mother and father — may have brought about in your life.
He even came to think it was possible that when you do survive, it may be because God does exist somewhere and has perhaps helped, whether anyone realizes it or not, whether anyone believes it or not.
David ultimately came to the not very surprising conclusion that many people have come to: that it might be a mistake for human beings to limit their view of the universe only to what can be demonstrated by science and reason.
Though he came to think this way as an adult, none of it was clear to him as a child.
In his childhood, he was preoccupied with other matters. He understood that there was something terribly wrong with the way his parents were behaving, but he felt helpless to do anything about it. For years afterward, for example, he would remember the almost blinding clarity of one afternoon when he watched in a kind of horror as some actors in a television docu-drama portrayed a family situation similar to the one he found himself in. He could not have been more than ten or twelve, and he watched with a sort of terrified fascination as the mother on the television screen displayed the same aggressive, domineering personality and the intensely possessive attitude toward her children that his own poor mother displayed. The father on the other hand, like David’s, was meek and submissive toward the wife.
The program made the point that sons in such a family would grow up to be either excessively passive individuals or wildly aggressive ones, and as David sat looking at the program, he had the feeling that his whole present — and perhaps his future as well — was being acted out before his eyes.
The whole experience was even more frightening because he was only a child, and he could think of nothing to do when the program was over except to run to his poor mother and try to say to her frantically, over and over again, “That is what is going to happen. That is how miserable I am going to be.”
Naturally, however, he could not do that. For one thing he did not even know how to find the words to explain what he had just seen. Long afterward, he came to think that even if he had found the words, there was no way she could have listened to him and understood.
Thus, at the age of ten or so, he felt nearly overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all.
Part 1, Chapter 16
„Doch besonders bezeichnend ist es, dass der Rückschlag, der die Wiederherstellung, die Rettung zur Folge hat, immer ernster ist als der erste Stoß, der ihn zur Verneinung und Selbstvernichtung treibt. Jene erste Anwandlung ist eben immer eine Art kleinmütiger Erschlaffung, während der Rückschlag mit der Wiederherstellung und Rettung aus eigener Kraft immer etwas Großes ist, dem sich der…Mensch mit der größten, gewaltigsten und ernstesten Anstrengung hingibt“.
Tagebuch eine Schriftstellers
“But it is especially significant that the setback that has recovery and complete restoration as its consequence is always more serious than the first jolt that drives a man to negation and self-destruction. That first fitful change is always a kind of timid weakening. However, there is real greatness in a setback that is followed by recovery and restoration, achieved with one’s own strength. That is something to which the…human being gives himself with the greatest, most powerful and most earnest effort.”
Diary of a Writer
It was about that same time that the odd desire that David’s mother had — odd, because of everything that later happened — it was about this time that his mother’s odd desire to have him raised a Catholic caused her to enroll him in a Saturday catechism class so that he could prepare for his First Communion and Confirmation.
The more David thought about that in later life, the more it surprised him that she had enough religious faith to want him to do that, because eventually, some years later, she seemed to have hardly any faith at all. Perhaps she was trying to bargain with God: “I’ll raise him a Catholic if you’ll do what I ask.”
On the other hand, her reason for sending him to those classes may have been based on some simple belief that was in fact related to the teachings of the Catholic Church. David’s mother may have had some dim awareness that he would need all the help he could get in facing the difficulties life would inevitably present him with. Perhaps she sensed somehow — at least unconsciously — how much blackness and confusion were looming ahead for him, and she felt she had to provide some possibility for finding a way out. When he thought about it in later life, he knew that all of that was pretty unlikely, but somehow he wanted to think it could be true.
Anyway, if in the end, anything saved him from all of the havoc that flowed from the poor woman’s attempts to possess and control him, it would be that one small decision that she herself had made to send him to catechism classes.
It seems occasionally to happen that way: those who do us the greatest harm very often — whether they know it or not — leave us a way out, allow us to avoid their attempts to hurt us. We may need a certain intelligence in order to find that way and a lot of courage to take it, but it may be that what we call providence will supply us with whatever we need to survive.
The most dramatic thing about those weekly periods of religious instruction was that nothing very dramatic seemed to happen at all. He learned from the nuns, though, that it is usually such times — when nothing important appears to be taking place — that God chooses as the time to bring about some particularly great change in our lives.
And so it was for David then.
As the months went by, what was slowly impressed on his mind in those classes altered him forever. For without quite knowing what was happening, he began — even with the eyes of a child — to see in his religious faith, a spiritual and psychological “place” of stability and security, a “place” where everything made sense, where even suffering made sense.
Though he had the mind of a child — or perhaps because he had the mind of a child — he could begin to understand something of what the nuns taught him and the other children about the sufferings of Christ. In later life, he would always remember, for example, one afternoon in class when quite suddenly he felt how painful it must have been to have iron nails pounded through your hands and feet. And just as suddenly, he had to admit, he felt a great sense of relief in the certainty that he would not have to suffer in that way.
Teresa of Avila wrote — in a passage that one of the greatest of English novelists has impressed on our literature forever — Teresa of Avila wrote that as a child she longed to suffer martyrdom. David, though, longed to avoid it, and he would have to admit he always did. He always liked to think, though, that it was through Teresa’s prayers that he at least came to understand the fact that the little martyrdoms we suffer every day can be a source of some joy. Of course such an idea sounds really quite stupid in the world we live in today. Eventually, though, he came to believe, for better or worse, that it was at those moments that the longing for meaning in our existence can be satisfied, because it is at those moments, it seemed to him, that we are all one, in a mysterious way, with each other and with our ultimate destiny.
Whether the nuns were somehow able convey that idea to the children they taught, or whether David learned it afterwards, he believed that there was no other long-term goal or meaning for his existence that really made any sense. He would always have to admit, though, that he was not — at least not in a sustained way — really able to think in the long term.
When he felt his childish sense of relief that he would not have to suffer as Christ suffered, it was perhaps also a kind of intuition that someday he in fact would have to suffer something that would cause him very great pain. He eventually came to believe, however, that no matter what that suffering might ultimately turn out to be, it would have some purpose, even though he himself might not really be able to discern that purpose.
When it did finally seem to dawn on him that suffering could have some purpose, in the context of a belief that transcends what we can know of the material world, it was at a time when everything around him seemed to have no purpose, when life itself was starting to seem purposeless. He was able to prevent this feeling of pointlessness from destroying him, because he had somehow acquired the certainty that the answer to the question, “Why do I exist?” was almost mindlessly simple, though at the same time impenetrably mysterious. It was the answer that the nuns had taught, the answer that took him years to feel he understood: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.”
Of course that sounds simple, and it is simple, and to many people it will even sound simple-minded. That didn’t matter to David, though; he always thought that the greatest truths are like that. They seem simple, even too simple, and if we can’t understand what they imply — or can’t try to live out their implications — they can sound extremely stupid: “I am who am.” “Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.” “All men are created equal.” “We may know the velocity of an electron and the position of an electron, but we cannot with any certainty know both at the same time.”
David believed – and he was laughed at for this – that if we bring no insight to bear, or no imagination, then the richness of meaning everywhere is invisible, whether in life, in literature, in science or in anything else. And where religious belief and the meaning of life are concerned, what if we have insight, and still find it impossible to believe in anything? The nuns taught David what St. Augustine said — and this could be the most simple-minded truth of all — if we ask for faith, God will give it.
He sometimes wondered if that was only self-deception, and he knew that possibly it was. Except that he knew that the nuns would say that there are those who speak from experience, and they tell us that prayer can be answered in such a way that precludes — transcends — any possible self-deception.
He learned all that much later, though. As a child and a – perhaps naïve – young man, it was enough for him to remember, again, what the nuns had said: “God made us to know, love, and serve him in this life, and to be happy with him forever in the next.” Eventually, David came to feel, rightly or not, that he would never — in spite of everything, even despite all of the things he had done wrong in life — exhaust the implications of that statement, or find stability and strength anywhere else. He eventually believed that this statement was an expression, even an embodiment, of the idea that if we try to do what is right, no matter what may happen, we can feel secure, in the deepest part of our consciousness. He could not, of course, always live out that belief, no matter how much of an effort he made.
But he still believed it.
When David was very young, before he was in high school, and when it was easier for him to believe such things, the sense of security he found in the faith the nuns had taught was crucial to his survival. Without it he could never have gone on to achieve even the quite modest academic success he did achieve at Harvard. He could never have even begun to understand anything at all about the intellectual life. The storm of his parents’ deteriorating marriage and the turmoil of his own adolescence would have carried him away and destroyed him completely.
Whatever innate intelligence he may have possessed in late adolescence would have been made useless, would have been blasted before he could even think of going to a place like Harvard, if he had not been able to put all the pain and difficulties into some perspective.
He believed that his mind could never have even begun to develop if he had not been able to cling to the idea that the nuns had indirectly embedded deep in his conscious and unconscious mind. It was the idea he must and would survive, no matter what happened, not for himself — that wasn’t enough — but because he was convinced that God wanted him to survive – an idea that seems eccentric today, to put it mildly. And God wanted him to survive, the nuns taught him, so that the outpouring of goodness and happiness that is God’s nature could be David’s nature, too — David’s and everyone else’s. He believed that if God wanted him to endure, if in a sense the universe itself in some blind way willed his survival, and if David too wanted to endure, then he would, quite simply, do exactly that.
In the end, though, what it really came down to was that God always gets what he wants, one way or another. That’s what the nuns had taught him. “Heisenberg was right,” one of the nuns remarked once to her class, laughing, “and Einstein was wrong in one respect.” She brushed the long black veil over her shoulder. “God does indeed play dice. What Einstein, even with all his genius, may not have seen, though, is that the game is fixed, in a sense. The universe is set up so that God always wins. Maybe not right away, and maybe not in the way we think he should win, but he always does win, eventually. And for God, ‘eventually’ might be a day, a week, or a thousand or a million years. It’s all the same to him, you know.”
Then she paused and added, “And perhaps it should be to us as well.”
Part 1, Chapter 17
„Ich war damals noch ein Kind, aber es war die Rede davon, dass die guten Tage den verständigen Leuten zufielen, die besten Tage aber jenen, die unklug zu sein wagten“.
“I was still a child then, but people used to say that good days were the reward of those who were sensible. The best days, though, the best days went to those who dared to be unwise.”
When David was twelve or thirteen, life was so confusing that it seemed hopeless for him even to try to understand it.
He spoke of this to Ann and Clayton one Sunday afternoon, some months after he first visited them. He was leaning forward on the sofa, gripping his coffee cup and speaking with his head down, as if he were burdened with some weight, as if he thought he didn’t really deserve to be heard.
“Of course,” he said, “what really made me think that only God could be a solution to the problems I faced was the fact that all my fears and my feelings of insecurity seemed so overwhelming. And there was no one I could turn to for help. At least I didn’t know of anybody. I couldn’t turn to my mother because she seemed lost in her own problems. And I had no relationship at all with my father — my mother had nurtured in me the idea that my father didn’t like me, and even if he did like me, I thought there was no way he could help me, because my poor mother had taught me to see him as so incompetent. It never occurred to me to even try to talk to my father.”
He stared down into his coffee cup and tried to hold back the tears that he knew were childish. When he finally looked up, Ann was turning toward Clayton with an uneasy expression on her face. “Darling, why don’t we take the children and all drive out to Walden Pond?’
“It may be crowded. It’s Sunday afternoon.”
“Then we could just take a walk around Concord,” said Ann, her voice rising slightly. “You know how beautiful it is there now. We don’t have to take the children; they’re old enough to look after themselves. Later, we could have dinner out there.”
He looked at them apprehensively. “There’s no need to drive to Concord,” he said, feeling stupid the instant the words were out of his mouth. After all, he thought to himself, wasn’t it stupid of him to assume that this sudden decision to drive to Concord had been made because of him? “I’d really like to talk to both of you,” he managed to say. “These past few weeks I’ve really needed someone to talk to. I’ve really wanted to try to tell someone — to tell you — something about myself.”
“All right,” said Clay quietly, “we can stay here if you want to.”
“Or perhaps you’d like to talk to Clay alone,” said Ann. “I’ll run upstairs and see how the boys are doing.”
“No, please stay,” he told her, “or at least, come right back. I’d really like both of you to be here.”
Ann sat back in her chair, and he saw her look at Clay with an expression he couldn’t understand. As happens so often with adolescents, it never occurred to him that perhaps they weren’t really as interested in his ideas as he was. He only knew that he needed to speak to them, and surely, he thought, they would be willing to listen. He was certain they were two of those “instinctively kind” people he’d been looking for.
Of course that sort of thinking would be selfish in an adult, but David was in many respects not a real adult. He was still immature in so many ways, and because he’d never had parents he could talk to and confide in, there was so much he wanted to say. He needed people who had a sense of wisdom, who would listen to what he had to say and who would help him make sense of life.
“When I was twelve or thirteen,” he told them, “life seemed so confusing, and I felt it was hopeless for me even to try to understand it. And yet I thought I needed to make sense of it somehow, or I’d go crazy.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ann quietly. “How did life seem confusing?” She looked at him for a moment. “What was it that made you feel that way?”
He looked up at both of them in time to see Clayton glance at Ann. What was Clay trying to tell her, David thought. To be careful?
He was silent for what seemed to him a very long time. How could he ever make them understand?
“I know this may not mean very much,” he said finally, “because I don’t know how to express it. I don’t know at all how to put it into words — there are so many things I don’t know how to put into words.” He stopped again, not knowing how he could possibly tell them what he was thinking — suddenly it seemed that perhaps they really weren’t capable of understanding after all. The longer he sat there in silence, the harder it was to speak. He felt he was searching for something deep inside himself, and the world of words and other people was slipping farther away with every passing moment.
“You don’t have to tell us now,” said Ann.
“But I want to tell you. I need to tell you.” There was silence. The words were locked inside and he couldn’t seem to free them. “But I don’t know how,” he said finally.
“When you’re ready,” said Clay with almost too much simplicity, “you’ll know how.”
Maybe, he thought to himself, but it would never be easy.
Suddenly he blurted out, “It’s about .goodness.” And as soon as he said the word he could feel how ridiculous it sounded, and how far away it was from what he really wanted to say.
“Goodness?” He heard Ann say, and he thought he heard something like disappointment in her voice.
“Yes,” he shrugged. “I know how dumb it sounds. But the thing is, at the age of twelve, I really wanted to be good. Was it such a dumb way to think?” He put his coffee cup down and held his head in both hands. He felt that what he was saying would make no sense at all, mainly because it was not what he really wanted to say. He felt as if every idea he tried to express was somehow being garbled as he spoke, as if something in his brain was distorting everything he tried to utter, encoding it in such a way that it was impossible to understand without the key to the cipher.
“No,” answered Clay in a very low voice, “there’s nothing wrong with thinking like that.”
He looked at him hopefully. “All I wanted was to be a good person. It was so important to me to be good.”
“But David,” said Ann, “what makes you think you’re not good?”
“I don’t know exactly. But at that age — twelve or thirteen — you know, the world is sometimes so bewildering, and I was afraid — things happen at that age — you know — and I was afraid I wouldn’t be good, or couldn’t be good.”
“Maybe you were just becoming aware of the existence of evil — in yourself and in other people,” said Clay. “That’s not really such an unusual thing, you know. It’s something that has to happen to everybody.”
David was gripping his hands tight together now. “I know that, or at least I think he know it. But it seemed to be so much worse for me than for other people. I’ve never known anyone else who’s had as much trouble figuring things out or who seemed to find so much unending pain in growing up — if that’s what I’m doing.”
He didn’t look at Ann, but when she spoke, he knew she was smiling — but kindly. “David, people don’t usually talk very openly about these things. Everyone suffers, but not everyone suffers in quite the same way — and people don’t usually make one another aware of the really deep kind of suffering.”
“I guess not.” He looked up her. “I know you’re probably right, but that part of my life was so frightening, and I was so alone. I guess that’s what the real problem was. I was so alone. I couldn’t talk to my parents or relatives. I had no close friends. There wasn’t anyone at all. I felt as if I were going to be destroyed, and there was no one I could go to for help.”
“Destroyed?” asked Clay.
“Well, not literally destroyed, but I felt as if my life was going to come apart. I felt as if I might be destroyed morally or psychologically. I felt this terrible kind of confusion, in addition to everything else. I was just losing control of myself. I started to be afraid that maybe I wouldn’t be able to function at all — that I wouldn’t be able to study in school, that I wouldn’t be able to do anything at all. I really felt as if I would just go insane. I felt I had to do something, but I just didn’t know what.”
There was silence, and when he looked up, they both seemed to be trying to smile helpfully, as if they were hoping to show him they understood. He felt they would have really wanted to help him, if only they’d known how.
Then Clay became more serious. “So it was then that you started thinking about God?” he said.
“One day when I was twelve or so, I went to see a priest at our local parish church. I wanted to go to confession, because I hadn’t gone in a long time, but of course I also wanted something more. I wanted some final answer to all my problems.”
Then he told them about that bright, cool morning in early summer when he rode his bicycle over to the church near his home. He couldn’t remember any other time when he had ever felt so alone, or when there had been such a cloud of confusion filling his mind.
His family lived only a mile or so from the church, but it seemed much farther away that day. He was terrified of speaking to the priest, but he was more terrified that if he did not speak to him, everything would be lost. He wanted so much to lead a good life, but in all the overwhelming disorientation of early adolescence, leading a good life and being good seemed almost impossible to him — he just didn’t know how he could possibly do those things. He felt he’d done things that were very wrong, though, and he wanted at least to go to confession and have all that wrong corrected. He needed to have things set right.
He arrived at the rectory, a solid brick building, a refuge with a heavy gothic door and diamond-paned windows. The freshly mowed lawn smelled clean and sweet in the breeze of a summer morning.
His limbs felt dull and heavy as he walked up to the door and rang the bell. There was a part of his mind that did not want to go on, did not want to enter that building, but he had already come this far, he thought. He couldn’t turn back now.
He also knew that in a little while it would be over; there would be an end to it. That terrible weight of heaviness and grief and pain would soon be cut away, and he would be able to walk out into the bright, fresh summer morning with a sense of lightness and freedom and peace. He would be able to look at a world that shone with newness. He would be free of guilt and fear, free of the dead weight that seemed to be dragging him down, the dead weight of all the things he was convinced he’d done wrong in his young life.
That had always been the effect on him. It had always meant a new beginning: all sins forgiven, the marks of sin erased, a kind of — and even as a boy he know most people would laugh at this — a kind of miraculous restoration of innocence. That’s what he’d been taught, though, and that’s what he knew with every fiber of his being. That’s what he’d always believed in his heart of hearts, no matter what else he may have thought from time to time.
What he did not know that day, what he was too young to understand, was that this was also the beginning of what for him would be only a long — and he knew most people would laugh at this too — twilight struggle. He was convinced it was the first movement in what he thought of as the ancient struggle of our life in this world, the endless effort to do the right thing, or at least — if nothing else — to wish to do the right thing. He though of it as the first movement in the interior battle that he would read about one summer, many years later, when his life had taken him to a Carthusian monastery, in a cell flooded with the sunlight of Vermont. It was a fight he often recoiled from, but which he eventually knew he could never escape.
However, he understood nothing about all of that then, on that afternoon at the age of twelve or so, when the housekeeper came to the door of the rectory, the kind of housekeeper who seems to inhabit almost every Catholic rectory in the world: not very tall, impassive, and with a certain toughness, as if something in her had been battered about for a long time, and she’d learned to survive in spite of it all.
He wanted to see the priest, he told her. She glanced at him sharply, and then opened the door wide to let him in. She took him into an immaculate, austerely furnished waiting room, and he sat down. He could hear the birds in the trees just outside the window and see the curtains moving slowly back and forth in the summer breeze; they were familiar things, but all he could do was shiver from fear and apprehension, as though he were waiting to be executed.
He knew, though, that the only way to resolve the impossible dilemma that confronted him was to make a clean breast of things, to let it all pour out without keeping any of it back. He was certain everything would be easier after that.
What he was certain of, though, had no effect on what he felt. He sat there cold with fear in the summer warmth. He had been to confession before, of course, but this time it was different. There seemed to be so much more at stake that day. His life had reached a turning point, and that day would in a sense put a mark on him that could never be erased, because, young boy that he was, he had imprinted on his mind the decision once and for all to live the kind of life he had been taught he should live. From then on, in spite of years of what seemed to be failure, he would go on trying to live that kind of life, through all the years that sometimes appeared to be filled with little else except what he could only call — even though he know the words would sound ridiculous to many others — a sense of sin. However, he also had — and this he knew would sound even more ridiculous — an occasional sense of the hidden stirrings of grace.
If on that day he was like a boy waiting for his death sentence to be carried out, it was because there was a part of him that was in fact half-expecting to die, the selfish and greedy, materialistic part of him, the part where passions and disorder were beginning to flourish.
There was another element in him, though, an element that wanted to survive and to dominate all that was self-centered and grasping in his spirit. This other element longed for something more, something higher than the everyday world he saw around him. This other part of him would eventually find an adolescent — and some would say an illusory and idiotic — happiness in sitting in silence and thinking about some of the ancient phrases he had read, such as, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole soul and your whole mind and your whole strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”
He believed, even as a boy, that the selfish, greedy part of him would have to die, if the other part were going to live.
Of course, that smaller, meaner self didn’t die that day, or the next, or for many days and years after that. Perhaps it would never die until he did, but he hoped that the longer he lived the more moribund it would become.
He believed — or at least he hoped — that all the desires that are formed by the ugly part of ourselves inevitably tend toward death; they end only in one kind of death or another. Long years of struggle and suffering and failure may be necessary, though, before their end finally approaches.
As he was sitting there in that rectory parlor, lost little boy that he was, turning some of these ideas around in his mind as well as he could, the door opened and a priest walked into the room.
Part 1, Chapter 18
“Purity, we see in the object-lesson, is not the one thing needful; and it is better that a life should contract many a dirt-mark, than forfeit usefulness in its efforts to remain unspotted.”
The Varieties of Religious Experience
Father Cassidy was the assistant pastor of the parish, and though David had often seen him at Mass, he had never talked with him face to face before. From his perspective as a twelve-year-old, the priest seemed well into middle age, although he was probably hardly more than thirty, perhaps even younger.
Father Cassidy had always impressed David as rather stern, and David thought he was not at all the kind of priest who was likely to have much of an intuitive understanding of his problems or his personality. David had never, in fact, even seen him smile; he seemed always to have a very serious expression on his dark, pock-marked face.
David knew the priest had been an army officer before leaving the military and entering the seminary, and it seemed to David that that experience must have shaped him much more than the priesthood had so far. However, David had been taught to see all priests as Christ, especially in a situation where they administered the sacrament of penance, and he was glad he was able to see Father Cassidy that way. David knew even then, though, such an idea would amuse or, in some cases, perhaps scandalize many of the other people he knew who weren’t Catholic.
As soon as Father Cassidy had sat down, David abruptly blurted out what had been troubling him. The priest looked startled and said, “Excuse me for a moment,” stood up, and then practically darted from the room. David was so completely absorbed in his own fears and problems that this didn’t seem unusual. In fact, in the state of mind David was in, nothing the priest did would have seemed unusual. David simply continued to sit there, in a kind of daze, feeling a sense of relief that the worst was over, feeling sure that he was well on the way to becoming what he wanted to become — a good person. That process, naturally, would take very much longer than he expected it to that morning.
When Father Cassidy returned, he asked David — quite calm and self-assured now — why he thought that being good was such a difficult thing, and then he and David went on talking for what seemed to David like a very long time. Finally, when he went to confession and told the priest about all of the elements in his thinking and in his soul that he considered so dark, the man was much more understanding than David had expected. The priest responded to David with an honesty and a sincerity that intensified the meaning of his words and impressed them deeply on David’s mind. Father Cassidy spoke, of course, about the importance of prayer and the sacraments; priests always do. Ever since that day, though, whenever he heard that advice, it always had the same freshness and validity it had for him the moment he first heard it.
Father Cassidy told David that being good was not like receiving an academic degree or being accepted into a profession. It meant a long, tiring struggle that would last all his life. This thought was hard and bitter for David, but much later in life, he understood much better that being good is a struggle for everyone. Perhaps the better the person, the more terrible the struggle can be. David eventually came to understand that all that is true for every human being, certainly for every saint, but definitely for everyone who believes God and his goodness are what is most important in the universe.
David, though, had acquired the idea that life should mean happiness and contentment. It was certainly not supposed to be a hard and bitter struggle. Still, he thought he could accept that. What he didn’t know then was that the idea that such a struggle might itself bring happiness would seem nonsensical to most people.
David also didn’t understand then that no matter how much we may struggle, no matter how difficult the struggle may be, and no matter if we see a reason for happiness in that struggle, the final outcome may depend not on our own efforts and prayers, but on someone else’s. He would one day remember how the nuns kept talking about the way Monica prayed for Augustine’s conversion for twenty long years.
Fortunately for him, on that day when he was twelve he never asked himself how long he would have to pray. If he had asked that question, what would the answer have been? A year, ten years, twenty? How would he have felt if someone had told him then what he was told a long time afterward: that we should continue to pray until our prayer — one way or another — is heard and answered? That’s the kind of prayer God expects, the nuns had said. They were fond of repeating the idea that God doesn’t want us to let him off the hook, so to speak.
That day in the rectory, though, what would that desperate little boy have done if he’d known how many years of prayer would be demanded of him — and perhaps of the others who were praying for him? He might, it is true, have prepared himself, but on the other hand he might have nearly despaired.
He was probably better off not knowing. In any case, as he went on through life, how many people would say to him that that little boy put himself through really needless pain by going to see the priest that day? To David, of course, it always seemed that by suffering that pain, he became happier and more contented than he would have otherwise. He remained convinced all his life that if he had not spoken to the priest that day, his life would have continued on a downward spiral toward the worst kind of self-destruction. Perhaps not literally, but one way or another the existence of the person he was then would have ended. He would never have survived the long years of wandering that would come. He would never have managed to find any sense of purpose at all.
By talking to Father Cassidy about what seemed to be all of the darkness in his soul, by telling the priest about all of the things he’d done that he knew to be wrong, all of the confusion and disorder in David’s mind disappeared long enough for him to redirect his life along an entirely new and different path. He began to see that everything could make sense, that he could discover meaning in the world he saw around him. The meaning of life was simply to try to be a good man, no matter how often he might fail, no matter how great the odds against him might seem. Even more than that, life meant wanting to love goodness, knowing and loving God to whatever degree might be possible.
And it meant doing that in a world that considered such ideas to be absurd illusions.
As a boy of twelve or thirteen, David could not have articulated those ideas in quite the way he did as an adult. Still, that was the world he began to discover then, and that was the way he began to see himself, his life, and everything around him. Real understanding — or at least deeper understanding of everything would come much later.
On that summer day, though, when the little boy he was climbed back onto his bicycle and rode toward home under the bright, warm sun, everything began to be different in ways he had no conception of. Nothing would ever be quite the same for him again.
He might even have thought that the adventure had begun. He had no idea, though, what torment a real adventure could turn out to be.
Part 1, Chapter 19
“Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world,
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery….”
–T. S. Eliot
He didn’t know that no real adventure is ever easy, and one of the first hardships he encountered was that the religion he believed in made him feel that there was a part of himself he could not accept and should not accept: the part that was inclined to do what was wrong.
The idea of doing wrong or committing sin is a ridiculous idea for many people, because it is so hard for many individuals in our time to believe that something like sin exists. Yet when he looked at the world around him, when he considered the history of some of the monstrous centuries humankind has lived through, it wasn’t possible for him to doubt the reality of sin in the world.
He certainly could not doubt such a reality in his own existence; he could not doubt the need to reject that part of himself that was inclined to do what was wrong. He could not doubt it when he was very young, either.
However, what he could not accept about himself was no trivial, unimportant aspect of his personality. It was a powerful and volatile force that he was trying to reject, which meant that he had to endure years of repression and denial, alternating with years of expression and a sense of hopelessness. Because he could not describe them, they were years of nightmare that no one except himself was ever really aware of or cared very much about.
The nightmare was also a struggle, though, one that he was proud to have engaged in, and it began when he was twelve or so, that day when he talked with the priest. He know how many people there were who would say that all he did that day was to internalize feelings of guilt and shame and then reinforce those feelings by confessing the actions that caused them. He would suggest, however, that what really happened was quite the opposite: by confronting those feelings and acknowledging them and acknowledging that he had done wrong, he had began to achieve the only kind of real freedom there was, the freedom to be good and to do what was right, the freedom to be free of guilt and the sins that caused guilt.
Whether or not we believe in sin, whether or not we believe we have done something wrong, it may be that sin always causes guilt. And the guilt too is there, somewhere in our minds, whether we believe in it or not.
He began dealing with all of this, the — for him, anyway — never-ending and sometimes terrible struggle to be good and to do what was right, when he was very young, and it took the better part of his life even to begin to conclude the struggle, a struggle that he saw would go on in no other world than this.
He knew there were not many people who could understand that, but he believed that those who did understand it were people who could also see that without a belief in a reality and an ethic that transcends the material world around us, a man could descend slowly and inexorably down through a range of conditions, farther and farther away from all his ideals.
Naturally such thinking was not very fashionable in the world he lived in. Many people appeared to think every man should “accept himself” as he was; they believed there was nothing “wrong” with any of us, nothing “wrong” with any aspect of human behavior if it causes no apparent harm to others.
To disagree with that kind of thinking was to go against the accepted wisdom of most people, and such a thing was not at all easy for him to do. It was always so much easier to say “yes” to whatever most people thought.
In the end, though, he never was able to convince himself that we can simply accept ourselves as we are without trying to change, without trying to lead better lives. If we hadn’t been able try and succeed in doing that in the past, he thought to himself, we’d still be savages.
He was one of those people who believed that there are aspects of ourselves and our individual personalities that should be changed, should be rejected. He believed this to be true whether the aspect in question was something relatively unimportant, or whether it constituted something more powerful within himself. He still believed that there were elements in the human personality that had to be rejected, no matter what the cost.
If he continued to struggle, he thought, no matter how hopeless the struggle seemed, and if he asked for all the help that heaven could give, he would get all the help he needed, and in the end he would win. He would — in heaven’s own good time — redirect those elements in his personality that were unacceptable. He believed, however, that he should never stop asking for the help that could come only from outside himself.
The early forms of these ideas were impressed indelibly on his mind that day he spoke to the priest at the age of twelve. All his life he was glad he was never able to forget that idea. Otherwise, he believed, he would never have survived at all.
That day was the beginning of a long and in some ways violent struggle to be the kind of person he had learned he ought to be. It was a struggle carried on in his mind and heart and spirit, a struggle whose ultimate meaning, he was convinced, would become clear only in eternity.
Like many adolescents, he thought mainly in terms of winning the struggle with himself by means of repression, trying to choke and suffocate whatever it was in himself that he could not like. When he was very young, that was fairly easy to do, and the consequences of that repression were not very great. By the time he got to Harvard, however, the repression had produced a sense of loneliness and fear that threatened to become overwhelming.
Since repression had seemed to work up until then, though, and since he knew of nothing else he could do, he thought he could simply ignore the loneliness and continue the repression. Whenever possible, he also denied there was any element in himself that he disliked. He even denied that he was lonely and afraid. Naturally the more he did this — the more he tried to ignore some of the most powerful elements in his psyche — and the more he tried to tell himself that he was not really lonely and afraid, the more desperate his situation became.
However, he simply did not know any other way to live. He had never learned anything else. His mother and stepfather had always ignored aspects of his personality that were unpleasant for them — such as any indication of maturity, strength, and independence — and so he too seemed to acquire the idea that he could try to ignore anything that was unpleasant or inconvenient in himself. It was quite natural, he supposed, to do that.
Whatever the reason for his thinking and behavior, though, the more he tried to repress ideas that he found unacceptable, the more he became afraid of them and the more he became afraid of other aspects of life as well. In some respects, he even became afraid of the people around him at Harvard, who he imagined were trying to change him in some way he did not at all like.
Being afraid of other people means being lonely, and for David loneliness meant alternating periods of depression and happiness, anxiety and hope.
It was during the periods of happiness that he experienced the pleasant, dream-like aspects of reality so common among many adolescents and among those who never really outgrow their adolescence. It was at those times that all the world glowed with bright, intense color, when every person and every event in his life seemed to be conspiring to make him happy. Those periods, though, may also have been — quite simply — bad for him, because they increased his sense of isolation and, when he was sad, made him feel that sadness more intensely.
Of course he wanted someone to help him, but even this desire was colored by his childish view of things. He longed for some ideal world where people like Ann and Clayton could help him. What he was too selfish to understand, though, was that in an ideal world, he would have been of some help to them in return, but he was still too immature to be capable of anything like that. Incredibly, he was not even capable of understanding that Ann and Clayton might themselves have problems and difficulties in their lives, even though from time to time they tried to indicate that to him.
He realized long afterwards that whenever Ann and Clayton spoke with him, much of their attention must have been elsewhere, given over to their own difficulties and to those of their children. There was little else they could do except listen and ask questions they thought might be helpful for him to consider. They certainly didn’t know enough about him to advise him or to suggest very many ideas that might be useful.
They were also reluctant to interfere with his life. It was so important for everyone at Harvard to be “free.” Freedom was elevated practically to the status of a divine entity, and no one was supposed to advise or tell anyone to do anything. They might impinge on the other person’s “freedom.”
At the same time, though — and this was one of the things he found so strange about Harvard, though he later discovered it to be characteristic of nearly every human organization — there were so many people at the university who saw nothing at all wrong with trying to manipulate another person into doing anything they wanted him to do — or being anything they wanted him to be or thought he should be. Naturally they didn’t consider this an interference with another’s personal freedom. There seemed to be a widespread belief that no one could be manipulated into doing something he didn’t really want to do, at least unconsciously. So people thought there was no contradiction between that manipulation and the obsession they had with their concept of freedom — a concept that seemed more and more peculiar to David as time went on.
In all of the confusion he felt, he longed for someone who might at least try to explain things to him, who could at least try to help him make sense of his life, his dreams, his sometimes contradictory goals, and the often frightening forces within him. But there was no one. There was no one he could really think of and say to himself, “Yes, he will understand everything. All I have to do is try to speak.”
Among the people he knew outside of Harvard, there was no one he could think of who seemed really capable of understanding him. Harvard seemed to be a world to itself, with its own language, its own complicated culture, its own way of thinking, its own set of verbal and intellectual references that were comprehensible only within the convoluted context of Harvard. All of these things were impossible for anyone outside Harvard to understand, he thought to himself, so how could he ever explain to anyone outside Harvard what was bothering him? They simply couldn’t understand the language he would have to use.
To make matters worse, there was practically no one at Harvard in those days who would have ever dreamed of giving advice to anyone else. Manipulate, yes, but give advice, no. It was fashionable then to think that the only way to help another person was to be “non-directive.” That meant simply listening to the other person talk about his problems. The assumption was that if someone talked about his problems long enough, he would eventually find his own solution. Whether that solution was satisfactory or not was not the responsibility of the listener. The listener need take no responsibility for anything. He was freed from taking responsibility.
This way of giving advice was fine in theory, of course; the only difficulty with it was that no one can really be “non-directive.”
More than anything else, what was helpful to David at that time was really his dim awareness of dimension of life, with everything that that implies. For him it implied looking for advice in the context of the religious sacrament where he could discuss his difficulties, taking them out of the context of Harvard and recasting them in another context that was more comprehensible. This did not produce results in his life that he considered tangible until many years later. He believed, though, that most things that are really significant in life are like that: hidden and unobtrusive.
For a long time it had been intellectually fashionable to regard religion as the cause of so many of life’s difficulties. People liked to point to religion as a source of problems, rather than as a solution.
In one respect, it seemed, those people might be right. David thought it was true that it is always difficult to try to live according to the teachings of any of the world’s great religions. Any such attempt, it seemed to him, is bound to bring us into conflict with the worst in ourselves and in other people. The great religions encourage us to achieve the highest ideals, David thought, but those ideals were quite the opposite of what human nature strove for — human nature as he knew it, anyway. The great religions, as he understood them, made demands on human beings that are not at all easy to meet.
He wondered, though, what the alternative was. If a man of any age believed in those ideals and thought those demands were significant, then he felt bound to try to meet them, and if he did not, life could seem empty, mediocre, and hardly worth living. A man might then try to fill the emptiness of such a life with all of the ultimately pointless pleasures available in the world. He might try to compensate for a feeling of boredom and a sense of mediocrity by occupying himself with more or less dangerous pastimes.
Dealing with these questions might mean a lifetime of effort, David saw, but it was an effort that made life worthwhile for those who believed there was more to life than the visible, material world. David was convinced that this was especially true in an age such as the one he lived in, where human values were often replaced by values that seemed to be based more on economics and technology.
David knew that those same people who believed that religion was the cause of difficulties for young people might also think that anyone who tried to live according to the teachings of religion was condemning himself to a life of tortured repression. David continued to believe, though, that what some might call repression could be the beginning of a struggle toward an ideal, and if that struggle sometimes meant pain and even a kind of terror and extreme anguish, could anyone really know enough to say that the struggle was not worthwhile? He certainly thought they were not.
As a young man — and all through his life, in fact — he remembered what a priest once said: “There is another world; there is a better world than this one. And in that other world we will have a finer and happier existence than we have here. We have to prepare ourselves for that existence, though. We have to be good and we have to do what is right — or at least always try to. More than that, and above all, we have to look for a way to love God; we have to try to find our way of loving God, and we have to follow wherever it takes us.”
Those words, he believed, marked him for life, because he remained convinced of the existence of the world the priest spoke of. Even as a boy he was already as convinced of its existence as he was of the material world he saw around him every day.
Part 1, Chapter 20
„Nur mein blinder Glaube an die Idee, die den Völkern der Welt Licht und Freundschaft bringt, gab mir die Kraft, auszuhalten. Konnte ich denn damals wissen, dass ich in einem Vakuum voller Parolen lebte, in dem kein einziges meiner Ideale zu verwirklichen war?“
–Michael Moshe Checinski
Der traurige Frühling
“Only my blind faith in an idea that would bring light and amity to all the peoples of the world gave me the strength to endure. So could I have known then that I was living in a vacuum of words, in which not one of my ideals could ever be realized?”
–Michael Moshe Checinski
Der traurige Frühling
His earliest convictions about the world and about morality grew out of beliefs that had been communicated to him by the adults who were most influential in his life: priests, teachers, and to some extent, his poor parents. Later, the books he read when he was young had an impact on his thinking and on his beliefs that he would remember all his life. Many of the people he knew would not have believed him — after all, how many young men read books that way, or read the kind of books David did? The authors that were important to him were an odd assortment: Plato, Augustine, François Mauriac, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh. They formed a strange group, and yet it often seemed to him that they formed his mind forever.
There was one important element that almost all of those writers shared. Every one of them except Plato was a Catholic.
His friends and teachers impressed on him the truth and the importance of his beliefs. The parents of some of his school classmates also reinforced his ideas, but in a negative way, so to speak. They were intelligent, upper middle-class American adults who were extremely skeptical about any kind of religion. The effect of their skepticism, though, was only to make him more certain of what he believed.
The convictions he had were strengthened still more by that sudden awareness that sometimes can overtake some young men when they are confronted with the almost overpowering beauty of the natural world and the world built by human beings. In his case this happened close to the end of his high school career, when he made his first trip to Europe, with some of the other students in his secondary school.
Things that at any other age might be prosaic are strange and exciting to a seventeen-year-old, and can leave a deep impression on his mind, especially if he has a mind like David had: a wild, midnight storm on the north Atlantic triggered feelings of awe and excitement in his mind; the magic of a sunny, early summer morning in London, when every street and building seemed to suggest mysteries to be explored; the splendor of the Austrian Alps, when simply looking at them seemed to David to be an adventure; and of course Rome, where he almost had the impression that time had stopped, or where so much time was simultaneously present — the empire that extended to the limits of the known world, the martyrdoms in the early centuries of our own era, the splendors of the Renaissance, and the sense of age and decay and renewal in the modern city.
And then of course there was Paris, where he thought the mind and intellect that anyone possessed must surely come alive.
He had never before seen such a place as Paris.
For him, the bookstores alone were dazzling. The only real bookstores he had ever seen until then were small and somehow isolated little shops in the American Midwest, away from the larger cities. Now here, in Paris, there were bookstores everywhere, bookstores of all kinds and sizes — and there were the stalls along the Seine, all of them filled with a bewildering variety of books. Each of them, he imagined, opened into a different universe, and all those universes were neatly arranged on the shelves that seemed to appear everywhere around him — the world according to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Hemingway, Mauriac, Aquinas. All he could do was let his mind move excitedly and at random from one to another. Then beyond the books there was also the Paris of the Louvre and the haunting new experience of art.
These perceptions of the world’s infinite possibilities of beauty were the first of many he was to have in those years. They began to come into his life and into his mind along with the conviction — that continually grew stronger — that the existence of God is real. In fact all those new perceptions tended to reinforce in his mind the idea that material beauty must be closely associated with the reality and the beauty of God.
Such awareness, however, became more and more of a handicap as he went from high school to Harvard. In the intellectual environment of Harvard at that time, there was no place for that kind of awareness.
So much for Harvard as a community where people took pride in their open-mindedness, he thought to himself. There, like everywhere, the accepted ways of seeing the world were based on shared preconceptions that exerted a great influence over everyone’s thought and behavior. People at Harvard were simply unaware, it seemed to him, of the way their supposed open-mindedness was in fact quite restricted.
Harvard students were supposed to be allowed the greatest freedom of thought and action, and everyone assumed that with this freedom they would eventually arrive at the same way of thinking about things that everyone else at Harvard had arrived at with their freedom. And if these students arrived at other ways of thinking, then there was something wrong with them.
Harvard’s famous respect for each person’s freedom was perhaps best shown not by the way ideas outside the commonly accepted Harvard world-view were tolerated — because, again, they were most certainly not tolerated — but rather by the way people were allowed the freedom to destroy themselves, if they wanted to. Naive as he was, David found this shocking, every time he saw it happen. He thought it was bad enough that really self-destructive people in the world should be given this freedom. It seemed to him even worse, though, that gifted friends at Harvard who wanted advice, who wanted some kind of direction in their lives, who needed answers to the larger questions of existence, could not get what they wanted and needed and were allowed to flounder and slip away — out of respect for their “freedom.”
What amazed David sometimes was that few people at Harvard seemed to understand that almost any young man — like some of the friends David had, or David himself, for that matter — is capable of giving himself some really bad advice, and just as capable of following it. This is especially true of a young man overwhelmed by self-doubt and confusion, one who will — if he is allowed to — destroy himself out of a conviction that his life is pointless and that he is not worthy of surviving. This is particularly sad, because in the case of a gifted young man, of course quite the opposite is true. David had seen some of the finest young men of his generation destroy themselves, either slowly or all at once, because they were allowed — in the name of some weird idea of “freedom” — to go on believing that they did not deserve to survive.
He thought that in the end, in spite of everything that happened in his life, he had been one of the lucky ones after all. In later years, he often thought of a conversation he once had with a friend who, it later turned out, needed help much more than David did but who at that time did what he could to try to help David. Perhaps it is, in a way partly because of Jonathan that David managed to survive at all. Jonathan did at least try to provide David with some sense of direction.
Jonathan was an extraordinarily intelligent young southerner whose father was the publisher of one of the country’s leading newspapers. He had a round, gentle face, and reddish blond hair that used to keep falling down over his forehead.
They were walking along the Charles River late one autumn afternoon in their first year at Harvard. The trees that lined the river stretched out ahead of them, from Boylston Street, past the Anglican monastery, and then on to the first bend in the river. They seemed to shine with the same color as the fire that the setting sun was throwing across the sky. It was the time of year when all New England seemed to be alive with that color, in the towns, along the rivers, and all over the mountains.
Jonathan had asked him about his family, and he’d answered, “I don’t know. Sometimes I think I don’t have any family.”
“What do you mean?” Jonathan asked.
David stopped and turned away and then looked out over the surface of the river. “My parents don’t know me, they don’t even want to,” he said. “When they talk to me, they seem to be talking to someone who exists only in their imagination. I feel I’m invisible to them.”
Jonathan looked at him thoughtfully. “And the rest of your family?”
David looked at him. “What do you mean, ‘the rest of my family’? That’s all the family I have.”
“Yeah, but Harvard’s a kind of family, isn’t it?”
“Well,” David replied, “it’s a kind of community.”
“Sure, but it’s more than that.” Jonathan looked at him with such self-assurance that he wanted to smile. David thought Jonathan’s ideas were a little strange sometimes, but he liked listening to him. “The people who’ve been here for a long time know one another,” Jonathan went on. “The same influences have shaped them, the same way of thinking. You could almost say that they’re related more closely through the intellect than some people are related by blood.” He glanced at David again, as if to try to see if what he was saying was having any effect.
David looked back at him without saying anything.
Jonathan smiled in his quiet, inward way and continued, “But this relationship isn’t confined to people who are here at Harvard now, at this moment in time. It includes people who’ve worked and studied here in the past as well.”
There was a kind of warmth and brightness about Jonathan now, something David often sensed, something he thought was almost real enough to see. “I often feel close to them in a way,” Jonathan said. “Sometimes I feel they could have almost known about someone like me, I almost feel that they could have imagined I’d exist. They seem so close. I mean, intellectually.”
“But who exactly are “they”? David asked him.
“People like T. S. Eliot, Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner, the young Henry Adams.” Jonathan looked away from him and squinted at a gull tracing patterns in the air above a racing shell on the river.
David turned, too, and saw the dome of the Statehouse hanging over Beacon Hill, shining like a drop of molten gold in the distant sky.
They walked back to the Square in silence.