Part 03, Chapters 01-10
Harvard — the Second and Third Years
Part 3, Chapter 1
“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods….”
–T. S. Eliot
Journey of the Magi
For the first few days after his return to his mother and stepfather’s house, David felt nothing but happiness. It felt good to him to be in his own country again, to hear his own language spoken everywhere, feel the life of America all around him, to see the people and surroundings that had been familiar to him since childhood.
He felt happy, too, because his relationship to the world around him appeared to have changed so much in ways that were very good. He felt that everything he’d accomplished, all the problems he’d solved in Africa, and all the ordeals he’d undergone entitled him to be treated as an adult by his mother and stepfather.
They, unfortunately, did not feel the same way.
For them, it seemed, the entire year he’d just spent was an aberration, something that should never have occurred. They would, apparently, behave as though it had in fact never occurred. They would ignore the whole year, and they would ignore him.
And they would make sure he knew he was being ignored.
They asked no questions about Africa. They had no interest in anything he did there. Whatever he’d gone through, whatever had happened to him in Africa meant nothing to them, certainly not to his poor mother.
That sad, suffering — in some ways even tortured — woman was so imbued with the odd values of some lost age that any success he may have had, anything he may have achieved or accomplished, was still perceived somehow as a threat to her own well-being, almost as though she were competing with him.
Nothing he did, it seemed, was anything she could take pride in as his mother. She appeared unable to feel that anything he did enhanced her identity or her sense of self-worth. This dear and in many ways miserable woman appeared to believe, rather oddly, that anything at all that increased his stature as a young man only served to diminish her, and so she felt driven to crush and destroy that “anything,” whatever it might be.
If David grew stronger in any way, she perceived that as a loss for herself, a decrease in her own strength. If his self-confidence increased, she believed her self-esteem was lowered. He was not a son to be cherished and nurtured, to be encouraged and urged on to greater achievements. She saw him as a competitor who threatened her, and anything he achieved was to be ridiculed or ignored, at least until she could achieve something better.
Very probably, she was simply a woman like many others at that rather sorry period in history. Her values and her personality had been shaped and twisted by the distortions of a barren time.
Of course the same thing might perhaps been said of David as well, and who is to say that the child is also not to blame in such a disastrous relationship? Perhaps it was David’s fault as much as hers, or largely his fault, or completely his fault, although a small, persistent voice within him protested at such ideas whenever they occurred to him.
However, if he could claim to have any religious faith at all, then he had to believe that “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will,” and that this divinity, for some inscrutable reason, permitted that parent-child relationship to develop the way it did.
David believed — had to believe — that the greatest good can be drawn from the greatest evil, and in the most mysterious and wonderful ways. Naturally such an idea sounds simple-minded in our sophisticated age, but David had nothing else to cling to, nothing else that would prevent his life from dissolving into chaos, or worse. He believed that that idea was related to what was called the wisdom of the cross, which he knew was always simple-minded, which he knew was in fact really quite stupid.
He’d heard often enough that the cross is foolish, that the cross was stupid, unless it was regarded from the perspective of eternity. From that viewpoint, David believed, it was the highest wisdom there was.
He believed that all of the suffering that his mother’s sad behavior caused, all the years of his life that seemed so wasted, at least from the perspective of this little world, had resulted in the unfolding of a surprising set of truths. They were truths that he thought he had at times blind to, truths that could hardly be communicated in words, because his perception of reality was normally too dull, too flat, and two-dimensional.
And yet at times he thought it might be possible to become aware of other ways of seeing: “No eye has seen nor ear heard . . . .” “There are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamed of . . . .” “Not only is the universe stranger than we suppose, it is stranger than we can suppose.”
He sometimes thought, though, that if he were to see things that way, he would have to understand better the meaning of hardship and pain in human existence, in his existence. He would have to understand the significance of difficult situations and persons, the ones most people naturally withdraw from.
Of course it seemed ridiculous to others, but David was convinced that hardship, pain, difficulties — the cross, in fact — all that was the way human beings participated in the shaping of the world, of the universe itself, perhaps.
It was of no consequence that others might regard him as stupid or ridiculous. It was even of little consequence if he regarded himself the same way sometimes, for believing such things, or for believing in the existence of God, even when God seemed to be utterly absent.
As David knew very well, it was often said that it was in exactly those circumstances where God appeared to be most absent, that human beings could discover a little more of who God really was.
That was something David knew. Or thought he knew.
Part 3, Chapter 2
“…What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry…
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes…
And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of the heart?”
David’s mother and stepfather — especially his mother — were determined never to let go of him again. He’d escaped from them for a year, but that was the last time, as far as they were concerned.
He’d been freer and more independent than ever before. He’d grown in ways that seemed to alarm them, apparently because they were convinced that any growth or development in him somehow diminished them. He had to be prevented from ever “escaping” again.
If he did escape, they seemed to think, there was no telling what he might achieve, or what kind of threat to their odd sense of self-esteem might arise from those achievements.
Of course they could not bring themselves to prevent his return to Harvard, but they could do everything they possibly could in order to undermine and nullify any influence Harvard might have on him, influence that other parents would have considered positive.
Negating Harvard’s impact on David presented no problem for his parents, because at Harvard, unlike in Africa, he was once again financially dependent on them. By using this dependence, by constantly stressing the unspoken threat of withholding money for his tuition, room, and board, they managed to make themselves — not Harvard — the center of his life, the object of practically all his thoughts, fears, and concerns. They also managed to inculcate in him a gnawing sense of insecurity that would prove to be inexorably overpowering.
Are there really parents who behave this way toward their children? David eventually came to think that anyone who has to ask such a question would ever believe the answer.
While he was at Harvard, though, he thought all parents probably behaved the way his did. He also thought that if he couldn’t survive such things, the way students around him obviously did, then that was simply one more proof that — in spite of what he’d experienced and done in Africa — he was not, after all, either very strong or very intelligent.
Part 3, Chapter 3
“…horrenda pestilentia…latissime pervagante….”
“…through the horrid and far-spreading infection….”
One day not long after David returned home, he was in the large kitchen of his stepfather’s house, a home that had been purchased when David’s mother and stepfather were married. David was having breakfast, and his mother was putting some dishes in the dishwasher.
Unable to put her ideas into words very well, unable to interact easily with him or others, she often communicated in torturedly indirect ways. She sometimes, for example, as on this day, would work noisily in the kitchen as a way of attracting attention, banging pots and pans together in a way that David supposed must have echoed some painful sense of conflict in her own mind, a conflict that seemed never to give her any peace.
David felt sorry for her, of course, and he always would, because he knew that whenever she behaved that way she was looking for more than simply attention, she was also looking for love. Like many people she both craved and feared love and attention, believing somehow that she was unworthy of it.
David didn’t know what to say or how to respond to what she was doing that day. If he spoke about what preoccupied him — his memories of Africa — she would immediately signal she was not interested. If he said anything that indicated maturity, intelligence, or growth, she would in turn indicate she was not interested in that, either. If he tried to talk about something that affected her, he knew from experience she would resent that as well — or she would simply not respond.
He wondered what in the world he could say to her. He surmised that he was expected to be a little boy again in order to communicate with her.
He sat at the kitchen table, trying to answer these questions in his mind, and he saw a pheasant walk out of the hedge around the property and out onto the lawn. He thought to himself how happy a poor, dumb creature like that must be, for he still often thought he could be happy only when there was an absence of pain and suffering. He could never have understood then that — at least for some people — suffering for some higher purpose could be a source of some joy, though again such a statement sounds absurd in the age we live in now, when pain and suffering are always to be avoided, never under any circumstances to be endured.
There were other things he couldn’t understand in those days, either. It was impossible for him to understand, for example, the kind of suffering his poor mother must have been undergoing, the kind of suffering that forced her to start a conversation by simply making random sounds. He couldn’t understand how painfully low her sense of self-esteem must have been. He could only think to himself, “Why doesn’t she just say something, if she has something she wants to say. Why does she have to keep making so much noise? And what does she expect me to say to her?”
He continued to look out the window, and then he heard one final crash as his mother shoved the rack of dishes into the machine and banged the box of soap powder and added the detergent. The door thudded shut and the machine was switched on. As water began sloshing around inside, she started wiping the countertop, and he still did not know what in the world he could say.
Somewhere in his mind he was convinced that if he said anything at all it would lead, as it always had, to some painful discussion, some complaint on her part, or some demand, and almost inevitably to some argument that his mother would feel compelled to win. Speaking to her could not possibly lead to any positive feelings — it never had. Her mind seemed to be so filled with conflict that the only way she could find any relief at all was to do everything she possibly could to try to start an argument, and then to keep on trying until the other person either reacted, or simply walked away out of the sheer boredom and meaninglessness of it all. On that particular morning he felt too tired for that.
“Your stepfather’s car has to go to the mechanic for servicing,” she said finally. “I’ll have to drive him to his office and then take the car in.”
He looked away from the window. “It’s a new car,” he said. “It’s too bad something’s wrong with it already.”
“I know,” she answered warily, “but he buys a new car every year. He’s bound to get a lemon once in a while.”
David leaned back in his chair and looked at her. She seemed older and more tired than he’d ever seen her, so worried about things that to him were either incomprehensible or monumentally unimportant. He thought how sad it was that she had to waste herself worrying about such things.
At the same time, though, he was afraid of her. She may often have appeared old and tired, but he felt she was still strong enough to somehow manipulate him into any mood she desired, if he wasn’t careful. He felt that whenever she wanted to, she could make him anxious or depressed or angry.
Worse than that, he felt that that was in fact what she almost always wanted to do. It seemed to put her in a more powerful position, and that appeared to be extremely important to her.
He looked out the window again, feeling he had to appease her somehow and not knowing what to say or do, but trying desperately to think of something.
“By the way,” he heard her say, “what are you going to do for spending money this summer?”
“I don’t know,” he said in a neutral tone, knowing now that a blow was about to land and feeling powerless to stop it.
“Well, if you wanted to do some work around the house, Keith would pay you. The kitchen needs to be painted, and the lawn has to be mowed.”
“All right,” he said with a sinking feeling, convinced he had little choice, and wishing – after everything he’d done in Africa – that he could find some more responsible job.
Then all at once he was overpowered by a feeling that he was utterly insignificant and that finding a more responsible job was completely beyond him. He suddenly wondered how in the world he could have been so stupid as to get himself into such a situation. Why hadn’t he stayed in Africa, he asked himself, at least until the summer was over? He knew the answer to that, of course. His mother had written letters begging him to come home, telling him how wonderful it would be to see him again. He thought to himself now that what she seemed to have meant, poor woman, was that it would be wonderful to have him under her control again. In her letters she never mentioned what he might spend the summer doing. She just wanted him there.
Later in life, of course, he often wondered how much he himself might have contributed to the unhappiness of the situation. He eventually came to blame himself for the way the relationship between him and his mother and stepfather developed. Wasn’t it perhaps his fault, after all, that the relationship among the three of them was such a disaster?
He even thought something like that at that time, after his return from Africa, and then he would try to take upon himself the responsibility for changing the situation.
Whenever he tried to do that, though, he felt he was trying to lift an impossible burden.
In the end, years later, after going on and on in his thoughts, back into time and trying to find where the fault lay, trying to solve the riddle, he started to believe it was really no one’s fault at all. He went farther and farther back until he started to believe the only answer must in the end actually be something like original sin, something that distorted the frame of the universe itself. Sometimes there seemed to be no other possible explanation.
Part 3, Chapter 4
“It took me time to find it out: but I write down what I have found out at last, so that anyone who is now in the position that I was in then may read it and know what to do to save himself from great peril and unhappiness.”
The Seven Storey Mountain
At the beginning of that summer, when his world seemed to be coming apart and dissolving all around him, when he himself often felt the tears hard to hold back, his mind too was crying out, as always, for some intellectual work, for some more responsible work, for something that seemed more meaningful to him than painting his parents’ kitchen or mowing the lawn.
His mother and stepfather, and many others, would have said that such a desire was an indication that he lacked humility, that he was proud and ambitious.
Perhaps he was. Perhaps if he’d really had the kind of spiritual orientation he thought he had, he would have done any kind of work gladly, instead of feeling sorry for himself. Apparently that was too much to expect, though.
On the other hand, perhaps what he really lacked was understanding. Or perhaps he was simply selfish. He felt he’d been cheated, though, tricked by his mother and stepfather or by life itself into returning to a situation in which he was miserable. His mother had begged him to leave what was for him the excitement and responsibility of the work he was doing in Africa. She wanted him home, and when he did what she wanted, what was the result? Entrapment in boredom and meaninglessness.
After everything he thought he’d achieved in Africa, he was now in a position where his mother and stepfather were compelling him to do work that seemed utterly meaningless to him. All the energy and life of his hungry mind was revolted by the prospect of what lay ahead of him that summer.
What he should have done, of course — instead of feeling so self-pity, instead of feeling so miserable — was find a job on his own that was more meaningful and satisfying than the work he was doing for his mother and stepfather. By the time he understood that, however, he’d allowed his self-confidence to be so undermined that such a thing was impossible. He felt paralyzed, surrounded by obstacles that prevented him from doing anything he really wanted to do. After the spacious freedom of Africa, he was locked in a tiny prison cell.
He was in a cage, and he began to feel more bitter with every day that passed. Many will say that his bitterness grew out of his selfishness. He selfishly envied his younger brother for never having to work at the kind of boring, mindless job his mother and stepfather expected him to work at. His brother was allowed to go to summer classes at his prep school. His brother was able to travel and enjoy himself with his friends, while David felt he was forced to be isolated and alone, in the confining atmosphere of his mother and stepfather’s house. The unfairness of the treatment was at time almost overwhelming.
Perhaps selfishness and pride really can be seen in such an attitude, and in that selfishness David noticed another significant — and enviable — difference between his brother’s situation and his own. My mother seemed to have yielded responsibility for his brother to his stepfather, and his stepfather seemed to understand his brother in ways even his own mother could not.
Even though David was not particularly fond of his stepfather, he envied his brother for having that kind of father figure in his life. David’s stepfather seemed to understand how his brother thought and felt. He seemed to understand what would cause him frustration and harm, and he protected his brother from that. David, on the other hand, seemed to have been claimed by his mother, who apparently chose to give free rein to her all-consuming possessiveness.
It was as though some agreement had been worked out between his mother and his stepfather, and not only was there no one to protect him from frustration and harm, his mother seemed bent on doing everything she could to frustrate and harm him in every possible way.
To punish him in every possible way — and perhaps that whole situation, the difference in the way he was treated and his brother was treated, had something to do with their very different attitudes toward religion.
David’s attitude could only be regarded by his parents as judgmental, whether he really felt that way or not. His brother had no such attitude. He had, in fact, no belief in religion at all. His brother’s attitude enhanced the possibility that he would have the kind of success most people have in life, whereas David’s attitude destroyed that possibility for him.
Of course David knew he should not envy his brother for that, but he had to admit there were times when he did envy him. David had never been able to give up his belief and his ideals the way his brother had. David had never really even wanted to, since it really formed the whole basis of his existence. It gave his life a meaning it would not otherwise have had. It was the foundation of everything for him: all his thinking, his activities, his desires and goals, his ideas of right and wrong.
And so, of course, for his mother and stepfather, every time David went to Mass, every time he even entered their house, his actions and his presence were an implied criticism of the fact that they had divorced their spouses and married each other. Of course he never uttered a word about that element in their lives. He didn’t have to. It was always there, if not for him, then for his mother and stepfather. It was like the monster in the room that no one talks about, that everyone tries to ignore.
The question naturally arises: if, in his own mind, consciously, David was critical of them — and he may not have been — then why he did he go on living with them? Why didn’t he just go to live with his father?
After all, David had remained with his father for a time when his parents were divorced, even though he felt closer to his mother. He stayed with his father because he thought his father was the one who had been wronged and who was trying to do the right thing. However, when his father eventually decided to remarry too, David saw no reason to stay with him any longer. Given a choice, he preferred to be with his mother.
David’s mother never really understood that, though, and this is where that difficulty arose that greatly — many would say disastrously —affected the remaining part of his life.
Before David went to live with his mother and stepfather, his mother had been trying in every possible way to encourage him to do just that. She made repeated promises that she would give him anything he wanted, if only he came to live with her and his stepfather. When he finally did that, she never understood that he did it because he loved her and wanted to be with her, not because he wanted the things she had been offering. And so, forever after, perhaps, she felt compelled repeatedly and obsessively to test his love for her, to try to prove to herself that he loved her, to try to possess him, but never succeeding.
These tests of hers, if that is what they were, only served to exhaust him and to make him want to get as far away from her as he could.
Again, it was also perhaps his attitude toward religion that made her constantly preoccupied with the question of whether or not he was as devoted to her as she wanted him to be. She had not reckoned with the fact that his religion would continue to be such an important factor in his life. She could not understand that he believed that without it, he would be lost. She could not understand that he believed that with it, he might have to suffer, but at least along with the suffering he had a kind of certainty about life and about himself. He had that intellectual and spiritual frame of reference that he could use to orient himself in a world that made no sense to him otherwise. It was a world shaped by his mother’s wildly changing emotional states, her contradictory demands and desires, the odd idea she seemed to have that the truth was whatever she said it was.
Naturally as the spiritual frame of reference became more important to David, he explored it more carefully and became more deeply involved with it. In addition, what formed an even stronger bond between himself and that faith he had was that even when he was very young, it had seemed to him that the teachings of Catholicism were filled with an infinite, complex beauty. As for the often all too human element in the Catholic Church, even when he was young he thought the only thing to do was to disregard it.
Because of all his thinking and all the reading he did, especially during his high school years, he became more convinced than ever that for him the only point of living was God. If he was often easily distracted from that idea so that he was unable to live up to it, he told himself that when he was older, surely he would understand its full implications.
Even in later life he would never understand those implications, but he was never able to completely give up the belief — which seems so quaint in the world of today — that every human being is made for God, in the end, made for loving God, made for Love. This idea had been imprinted on his mind by what he had been able to read of Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, and others. This idea became so deeply embedded in his consciousness that he would never really lose it in later life — though he would at times seem to have forgotten it.
Quite probably, though, without that one idea — that human beings were created for God — an idea that really does seem so absurd and ridiculous today, his life would have been a complete disaster. It is also probably true that everything he would later do wrong in life would in the end have been much more wrong than it turned out to be, so wrong that it is frightening to contemplate.
Even at the age of twenty-one, though, when some people have become very much aware of the larger truths of existence, David’s own awareness of them was so superficial that later he would be ashamed to think about it. His awareness was superficial because he lacked the courage to act on his ideals, to really confront things he thought were wrong, or to sacrifice things he knew it was necessary to sacrifice. Yet somewhere deep in the core of his personality and his mind there was always, in spite of everything, the belief that the purpose of life was something greater, infinitely greater than human beings can ordinarily imagine or understand.
David hoped that there really is no such thing as an unnecessarily long expanse of time or waste of time. He was convinced that if human beings arrive at their ultimate goal at the end of their lives, or in the middle, it is all the same. He thought the important thing was at least to go on trying to achieve that goal as well as possible. As for the wrong that people do, he continued to believe it’s possible that much good can be drawn even from that.
Part 3, Chapter 5
“Metaphysical poetry…has been inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and the rôle assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence. These poems were written because…Spinoza’s vision of life sub specie aeternitatis…laid hold on the mind and the imagination…unified and illumined (the poet’s) comprehension of life, intensified and heightened his personal consciousness of joy and sorrow….”
–Herbert J.C. Grierson
Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century, Introduction
That summer after his twenty-first birthday, if David grasped anything at all about the deeper purpose his life might have, it was really only on an intellectual level. If he understood anything with his heart, as someone like Saint-Exupéry might have said, it was with a heart full of adolescent emotion. He certainly had no adult, experiential knowledge of anything deeper, anything transcendent in his life or in the world. And since he didn’t have that kind of knowledge, he didn’t comprehend much about what his response — as an adult — ought to be to any ultimate reality outside himself and outside the world as he usually perceived it.
If, that is, it’s possible to speak of something like “ultimate reality.”
That summer, at any rate, he saw himself as too mired in the miseries of life to consider anything like that. He didn’t understand that it is in the midst of the miseries of life that we can learn the most about the “deeper purpose” of our life or about “ultimate reality.”
Many will say that the reason he understood so little was that he was selfish and proud and even petty. Perhaps he was, and so he could not help being aware of the fact that his mother and stepfather could buy an expensive new car every year, that his mother could pay as much for a single piece of furniture as many people earn in a month, and that she seemed never to lose an opportunity of reminding him of these things. These things made him bitter.
Worse than that, in David’s eyes, was the fact that not only did his mother constantly remind him of the money she had and the things she was able to buy, she could not allow him to pursue what he really wanted, or thought he wanted: the intellectual life. His poor mother seemed to interrupt him constantly, whenever he tried to read or study. He thought there were even times when she and his stepfather seemed to be doing everything they possibly could, not only to prevent him from using his mind, but even to force him to waste it.
Young and naive as he was, he could not understand that it must have been his mind, more than anything else, that they perceived as the greatest threat, in some bizarre way. It was his mind, after all, that harbored the implicit criticism of them and their marriage; it was his mind that must have aroused guilt feelings in them over the way they had each disposed of their previous spouses and married each other. It was his mind that also created criticisms — unspoken but ever-present — of the social and political values his stepfather lived by. As for his mother, in her view apparently, it was his mind that had led him to Africa and caused him to abandon her for a year. That mind had therefore to be neutralized, at all costs. It had to be controlled.
And so began, or continued, the struggle between them, a situation that seemed to become more impossible for him with every day that went by that summer. There seemed to be no way out. Even though he was twenty-one, and should have been able to act independently, he couldn’t. He didn’t know how. All the self-confidence he thought he’d gained in Africa seemed to have evaporated the moment he walked through the door of his parents’ house and put himself under their influence and control again.
The fact that he thought he needed a Harvard degree in order to survive in the world gave his parents their hold over him. How could he ever abandon Harvard simply in order to be free of his mother and stepfather? Such a thought never even crossed his mind, at least not at that point. He was becoming more and more disillusioned with the intellectual life at Harvard, and he wondered sometimes what in the world he would ever do with a Harvard degree, but he was told it was necessary for survival, and so he was more and more determined to remain at Harvard merely to get a degree, if for no other reason. Under these circumstances, he saw no way of being independent of his mother and stepfather that summer or for many summers to come.
He felt locked into a vicious circle. The longer he was in their house, the more he felt his self-confidence being undermined and destroyed; but the more his self-confidence was destroyed, the less ability he thought he had to escape from the situation.
When he first realized how depressed and inadequate he felt, it came almost as a shock. At first, he was only dimly aware of the part his mother and stepfather seemed to be playing in shaping his attitudes and feelings. He knew they were treating him like a child, and that was painful, but it took him some time to comprehend the connection between that pain and the more generalized despondency he was experiencing.
Perhaps it might also be accurate to say that at first he did not want to comprehend these things. With an innocence that in some ways was dangerous for him, and for which many people would blame him, he still wanted to believe — and still usually did believe — that in spite of everything his mother and stepfather had his best interests at heart, that they somehow understood him perfectly, that everything they asked him to do was for his own good. At one level of consciousness, he sincerely believed that if anything about them made him sad, then it was his own fault; it was because something was wrong with him.
In a way, perhaps he was right. For one thing, if his mother and stepfather did or said things that made him feel inadequate, worthless, and incompetent, things that made him feel completely dependent on them, and things that ultimately made him feel sad, there was a way he could have eased his suffering. He could perhaps have tried to see such suffering as part of a larger context, as something that had a greater purpose in his life and in the lives of others, a purpose that was impossible for him to fully comprehend then.
Given the prevailing views of most people, though, that was extremely difficult to do. It made no sense in the modern world to think that way. Still, it seemed to him long afterward that he might have tried. In later life, in fact, he often blamed himself for not having tried. He came to think that if he’d really had as much insight as he believed he had, he could even have seen suffering as something to be glad about, as an expression of “the most just and most lovable will of God.” Such an idea seems ridiculous to most people of course, but that is the way David thought.
Perhaps even more ridiculous in the eyes of most other individuals was another idea he had. He believed that if he really had been able to see everything in his life sub specie aeternitatis, he might even have tried to understand that anyone who believes in the existence of God – quaint though that belief may be to many people now – must also believe that for some mysterious reason the suffering we experience is permitted by that same God, who has an infinite love for us. Certainly such thinking borders on absurdity in the intellectual climate of the modern world. David felt he had no alternative but to cling to such an idea, however. He experienced what to him seemed nearly intolerable suffering sometimes, and he had to believe that this is suffering could in fact be a kind of gift, a means of separating him from everything that was not God. He knew, at any rate, that in the past such an idea was widespread in the world.
But to really think that way, to believe really deeply in such ideas, instead of having a merely superficial believe, was impossible for him then, unfortunately. It was barely possible for him in later life.
That summer before returning to Harvard, all he could do was understand such ideas on a fairly abstract level, where such an attitude toward suffering seemed logically to be quite reasonable, where it seemed to be a truth easily recognized by the intellect.
In many ways, David can be accused of living in what many regard as the unenlightened past. He knew that his idealized attitude toward suffering was, for example, one of the bases of the philosophy of the Spanish mystic, John of the Cross. David could not, though, really internalize that kind of thinking and make it a part of his life, no matter how much he wanted to, or no matter how much he needed to in order to make sense of his life and the suffering he thought it contained. David could not really base his own thought and behavior on such ideas. He could not — as some people have, and as he wanted so much to do — experience them as a driving force in everything he thought and did.
It was difficult enough for him to try to do that later in life. It was impossible when he was twenty-one, except in the most superficial way. Later, for better or for worse, he thought he understood that if human beings want to, they may be able to discover a kind of joy in enduring the suffering of life and in dealing with its difficulties.
He came more and more often to believe that suffering for someone we love, welcoming whatever is hard and unpleasant for the sake of love, can bring a joy that is at once lighter and more profound than any other kind of happiness we can know. Again, he knew such an idea was utterly absurd for most people — and it did at times seem absurd to him as well. Nothing else in the end made sense for him, though.
David even eventually believed in an idea that would make most people shake there heads in dismay at his stupidity and naiveté. It was the idea that it’s in the “crucible of suffering” — to use an odd term — that we encounter love. This seemed clear to him when he considered that the greatest love in the universe — a love that encompasses the universe — proved itself for humankind in just such a “crucible” first. Individuals he admired — individuals that most people will certainly consider quite odd —knew about this “crucible of suffering.” Thérèse of Lisieux knew about it, and Maximilian Kolbe as well. So did Rupert Mayer, and others. David really believed that because of the love that filled their lives, they were able to radiate joy wherever they found themselves — in Carmel, in Auschwitz, in a cloister in wartime.
In the more enlightened world of today, of course, such thinking is more than absurd, more than merely stupid, but David would nevertheless in later years always regret that he did not understand such things better when he was twenty-one. Despite this regret, he believed it was never too late for such things.
He believed, again, that if one maintains what most people call his quaint belief in the existence of God, then even the last moment of life may not be too late. He thought to himself that if such a moment at the end can redeem all that has gone before, what could such a moment do in the middle of our lives, or at whatever other point it may occur?
Even if no one ever quite attains that goal, David believed, the striving was everything. David remembered that Paul rejoiced in his weaknesses and imperfections, and Thérèse of Lisieux on her deathbed did as well. They and all the others like them had a deep understanding of the paradox of grace: it is precisely at the moment of our greatest weakness that we are — if we want to be — the strongest.
But in the present age of great insight and wisdom, that is, to be sure, the message of a fool.
Part 3, Chapter 6
“And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”
–T. S. Eliot
At the age of twenty-one, David really was too naive to understand very much about suffering. As far as the suffering that his parents seemed to cause him was concerned, the only thing he could think of doing was to try to find some way of resisting them.
However, that seemed a hopeless thing to do. They were so powerful. He felt they had complete control over him and could make him do or feel anything they wanted. He thought he had no choice except to yield to them and to the suffering that they caused him. Later he would think — and many will of course again say that he was being idiotic in this — that he should really somehow have tried to remember suffering might be a source of joy and strength, in the traditional spiritual sense. For him, though, the only thing suffering really represented then was depression and near despair.
Despite his age, he began feeling more and more like a depressed schoolboy. The question repeated itself again and again in his mind: after all he’d done in Africa, after all he’d gone through, how could it be that the only result was that he was placed under his poor mother’s ironfisted control again, with his stepfather giving curt, threatening orders in the background?
He simply did not know how to find his way out of such a situation. He dimly sensed that as far as his mother and stepfather were concerned, he’d been out of control for a year, and they had to see to it that nothing like that would ever happen again.
So the downward spiral continued: the more trapped he felt, the more depressed he became. And the more depressed he became, the more impossible it seemed that he would ever be able to free himself.
He would look back on all of that, though, after an interval of many years, and more than anything else he would feel a sense of puzzlement over the behavior that his mother and stepfather displayed that summer. He had never wanted to manipulate other people, but because of his mother and stepfather, he was always curious about people who do manipulate others. He would wonder how much of their attempt at influencing others is consciously worked out, how much is simply the result of a deformed kind of instinct, and how much is a sort of compulsion, driven by their own suffering and their feelings of unhappiness? Perhaps, he though, it was a mixture of all these things.
In the case of his mother and stepfather, he would have to admit that there was a kind of intelligence — conscious, instinctual or otherwise — that was clearly at work in their efforts to break down the self-confidence and self-esteem he had managed to acquire in Africa. They cut him down so relentlessly and with such skill that he didn’t understand at the time what was happening. He only knew that during that long summer, it became more and more difficult for him to feel that he had any worth at all as an individual, or any existence independent of the one his mother and stepfather defined for him.
Certainly many will say — many have said — that David was imagining all this, that this interpretation of his parents’ behavior was merely the product of his own sick mind. He would have said, yes, perhaps that’s true, but he didn’t really think so. There would come a time when even people at Harvard would agree with his view of his parents’ behavior. By that time, though, it would be too late.
In later life, David would often think that those two tortured people could hardly have created any more cunning mechanisms for destroying every trace of maturity and self-reliance he possessed, in that summer after Africa.. Having him work at home, enclosing him in their house — which was so clearly an extension of their personality and was surrounded by a piece of property landscaped so that no neighbor’s house was visible — and at the same time cutting him off from friends and acquaintances in such a way that no confirmation of his abilities or achievements was possible for him: all this seemed to indicate the workings of a kind of perverted brilliance.
Again and again he wondered how much of his poor mother’s behavior was an unconscious result of her possessive attitude and much was consciously planned. Perhaps it was both. At any rate, the effect on him was relentless: his strength and independence and self-confidence were almost completely undermined. And yet at the time, he could not always face the truth. At one level of his consciousness, he continued to blame himself, and he continued almost desperately to try to believe that his parents had his best interests at heart.
Even later in life, he often believed that in the final analysis he could blame only himself for his unhappiness and misery. He blamed himself for spending too much time feeling sorry for himself instead of at least desperately doing what little he might have been able to do to alter and improve his situation. That summer, he spent inordinate amounts of time remembering Africa, remembering that he had worked as a district officer in an exotic part of the world, doing a job that was for him exciting, responsible, and worthwhile — and remembering that now he was nothing.
In a confused and disoriented way, he tried to deal with his situation in the context of the spiritual and religious teachings he had absorbed when he was younger. He told himself that it was a virtue to accept humiliation, wherever he might encounter it, and that everything he was suffering was good for his soul. He may have used those ideas, though, merely as a way of justifying the feelings of sadness and depression that after a while he may have started to enjoy. He may actually have used all the teachings on humility that he had ever read about not to make himself more humble, but rather to allow himself to feel a kind selfish pleasure in his feelings of desperation and helplessness.
He couldn’t understand then that if humility really is a virtue — and of course humility is an imbecilic concept in today’s world — one of the main purposes of that virtue is to allow us to find — not a sick sort of pleasure — but a real kind of joy. At the age of twenty-one, David had no hope of ever understanding — perhaps he would never completely grasp it — that one of the results of humility may be to allow human beings to find happiness — and again this is an outrageous today — in being close to God.
David even came to believe eventually, in his perhaps unbalanced way, in the ancient idea that if God exists, then he is in a sense more humble than human beings could ever hope to be. David also later believed in the idea that humility might just possibly enable human beings to establish a relationship with the divine – with God – that is intensely real and deeply intimate.
Many will certainly consider such thinking an example of pathology, and it may very well be, but it cannot obscure the fact that the way he perceived his parents’ behavior and attitude toward was, sadly, quite accurate.
During that summer after Africa and during the years at Harvard that followed, however, it would probably be true to say that in way he did not really want to know any more about God at that point in his life. Of course he thought he did, but all he really wanted was to be able to be free of his parents so that he could somehow maintain the image of himself that he’d had when he returned from Africa, an image he believed constituted the reality of who he was.
He believed that if he could be free to be the kind of man he’d been when he worked in Africa, he could accomplish a great deal, not only during that summer and during the rest of his university career, but for the rest of his life as well. His mother and stepfather, though, seemed simply not to want that. Again, many will say he was being overly suspicious, but he absolutely could not escape the recurring feeling they his mother and stepfather were doing all they could to exploit his weak points and in a sense destroy him.
Many will say he was attributing to his mother and stepfather evil intentions that they never had. Many will also say he was simply looking for a way to blame them for his own failures. Of course it would be reasonable to believe that, for how could any mother and stepfather want to destroy their own son? How could they be so unnatural?
How could they?
In this sometimes twisted period of history, the purpose that many human beings have seems to be the purpose of living for their own desires. Under these circumstances, David’s perception of his mother and stepfather’s behavior was possibly quite correct. If a couple has a son whose very existence makes them feel guilty, whose existence — without his realizing it — calls into question his parents’ strongest political and social beliefs, whose existence is an unspoken criticism of the whole framework of thought and prejudice that supports his parents’ world view, then such a modern set of parents will no alternative but to destroy him.
At that time, though, during that summer so long ago, David was really too young and — and possibly too stupid — to understand very clearly how his mother and stepfather really felt about him — or how he was making them feel. He was completely blind to the fact that he was arousing feelings of guilt in them, and that his words and ideas were an implicit threat to everything that was important to them.
Because they seemed to ignore him most of the time, they were in his eyes just too strong and too secure ever to pay any attention to him. How would it have occurred to him then that he was threatening them in any way?
Certainly he should have tried to understand his situation better. His problem, though, was that he could hardly even understand himself then, much less anyone else. Anyway, how could he have understood two people who were bent on hiding all their feelings, all their fears from him, whatever it might cost them?
Even if he had understood, what could he have done? Could he have changed them? Would anything have changed them? Would anything have made him less vulnerable to them? Could he have done anything except what he finally did do — simply go away from them and from everything else and try to pursue his own course in life, no matter what price he would have to pay?
Many will argue that as young as he was, he should have tried harder to understand his situation. He should not have been so naive. He was incapable of that. Even much later, and for a long time, when he began to see that his mother and stepfather were not exactly doing everything they could to help him become a strong, independent adult, he did his best not to see it.
By the time he finally did see it, it was perhaps too late.
Certainly in one sense it may have been too late. In another sense, though, it is perhaps never really too late for anything. Out of the greatest errors and the most awful catastrophes — the longest stretches of wasted time — in the end something wonderful can be created. And if it seems too absurd to think that there is a God who can arrange such things, then perhaps human beings ought to believe they can always find a way, in spite of everything, of arranging it themselves.
Life never really repeats itself, of course, but in later life David often thought that if he ever met someone who was in the kind of situation he was in when he was very young, someone who was also part of a family that seemed to do nothing but contribute to his confusion and destruction and to his own self-destructive tendencies, he would do everything in his power to help. It might be impossible, of course, to extricate such a person from the situation he was in — though that might be the ideal solution — but he would at least try to encourage the kind of insight and self-confidence that would enable such a person to survive his situation.
Perhaps David never quite recognized it, but there may have been people in his own life who helped him to survive the machinations of his poor mother and stepfather. However, that won’t be known, of course, until the end of David’s life, when it will be clear whether or not he did in fact survive with his ideals and his integrity intact.
Actually, David himself would in later life come to believe in an even more outrageous idea: that it is not completely unlikely that many of the people who helped him survive were people he would never know until he was in a much better world than this one, a world no one can know who hasn’t left this one forever.
Such a quaint idea, one that was really believable only in the Middle Ages. Certainly now, at the present time, such an idea is, if not insane, certainly quite bizarre.
Part 3, Chapter 7
“They, looking back, all th’ eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat….”
As the summer passed without finding any satisfying work or any recognition for what he felt he’d achieved in Africa, David — given the sort of person he was — could only become more deeply depressed.
He remembered, again and again, with painful immediacy, how different he’d felt in Africa.
And as Africa receded into the past with each day that went by, it became more and more of a lost paradise for him. In Africa he hadn’t had the sensation of being hemmed in and enclosed. In Africa the world responded to him in a way he could comprehend, not in the confusing way his mother and stepfather seemed to respond — for they had made themselves his world now.
In Africa he’d had work that interested him, made demands on him, gave him a feeling of worth and satisfaction. At home with his parents he had only the boring routine of following a lawnmower back and forth over their property or sweeping a paint roller in long rows over their kitchen and ceiling and walls. He seemed unable to bring himself to do anything else.
In Africa he’d felt he could live his life with a clear conscience. In America, for some reason, he had the inescapable feeling that the environment around him was hardly ever free of dirt. Certainly there was something pathological in that idea, because his mother, and the succession of maids she kept hiring and then firing for one reason or another, kept the house spotless.
Again: his poor mother. She really had done her work very well, as he would later be told. Her possessiveness, her domineering attitude, her manipulative qualities, and her ability to find and exploit any weaknesses and undermine any confidence that anyone possessed — all that seemed to come out of the depths of her own tortured mind and soul. She had a feel for the jugular, and went straight for it.
The poor woman seems to have constructed a trap that he could never escape from, because he would never quite understand — at least not until it was too late — that he had been caught.
When he puzzled over his situation in those days, though, and when with childish unhappiness he continued to wonder why evil and suffering existed at all, he usually failed to keep in mind the only answer he had ever found. He failed to remember the answer that perhaps cannot be repeated often enough, no matter how stupid it sounds in the modern world: evil and suffering are allowed to exist so that the one who created us all can bring out of that evil and suffering — impossible and incredible as it may seem — an even greater good and greater happiness than would otherwise have existed.
Perhaps only in the medieval period could anyone really think that the one who sustains our existence works like a supreme artist, subtly and with a vast number of complex themes, and sometimes seems to delight in leading human beings along the strangest and most hidden ways, before finally bringing out the capacity for good that has been placed in them.
David believed that. If it were not true, he thought to himself, wouldn’t all humankind still be living at the level of barbarism? Certainly anyone these days asking such a question or subscribing to such an idea has to be considered unbalanced — so in later life David would never admit that it almost always made perfect sense to him.
His suffering during that summer after Africa, though, and also for a long time after that, produced no greater good or greater happiness. There was only that vague but constant feeling that he seemed unable to stop turning over and over in his mind: the feeling he had of being trapped, confined, unfree. He felt like a bird might feel that is made to soar up into the limitless, open sky, but can only look longingly into that sky as it drags itself along the ground with a broken wing. He felt like an animal that has been created to race across infinite spaces, the plains of some lost continent, but whose world has shrunk to the confines of some small cage in a forgotten corner of a squalid town.
To make even matters worse — and he would later keep turning this too over and over in his mind — he could really confront the fact that the origin of these feelings lay in the way his mother and stepfather had tried to exercise absolute control over him. He was puzzled when one of his friends said to him once, “I don’t understand why your parents treat you the way they do.”
In later life, though, he would think to himself that he may have been a very selfish young man. He may not have done enough to show his mother and stepfather that he loved them, and it was perhaps for this reason that they felt driven to try to exercise that almost iron control over every aspect of his life. They — or at least his mother — may have believed it was impossible to win his love, so the alternative was to try to have as much power over him as possible.
At the time, though, he was able to understand almost nothing. What was perhaps even worse was that he tended to associate his sense of intellectual and social confinement not with his mother and stepfather, but with the entire society he lived in. Of course in this respect he was not very different from many other young Americans at that time. Though the reasons for their world view may have been somewhat different from David’s reasons, a very large number of them felt trapped, suppressed, stifled, and even threatened by forces that they saw at work in society. Many of them felt this way because they were compelled to serve in the military and fight in a war that they knew was a mistake. That conviction, of course, was eventually shared even by many of the leaders who carried on the war, but too late to save the thousands who had already died.
At that time, though, in that summer before he returned to Harvard, David began to feel that if he could only escape from the society he was a part of, he would be free. And so the thought slowly grew in his mind that if he could return to Africa, he could leave behind all the unhappiness that seemed to be overwhelming him. He would be free of depression, free of a sense of confinement, free to live in a country where there was nothing, he thought, that would ever tempt him to do anything that was wrong.
If he could return to Africa, he believed he would again be free to explore the world in all its freshness and beauty, as he had done before. And the more he thought along these lines, the more Tanganyika became for him still more of a paradise, more of a place where the people were friendly and the climate warm and inviting, the opposite of what his own country seemed to him to be. His own sad land in those years appeared every day to reflect the mood of his mother and stepfather’s house. It became more confusing, more painful, and colder, a place where almost nothing seemed to make much sense.
Again it has to be said that he would later be astonished that at that time, he couldn’t understand the reason for those feelings. No matter how much he was suffering, he could not clearly see — in his innocence and naiveté — that the only reasonable thing to conclude was that his mother and stepfather had drawn him into their closed and limited world. Whatever part he himself may have played in causing his unhappiness, he could not grasp that his mother and stepfather really did want to seal him off from the outside world and from anything that could influence him or lend support to any social, political, or ethical ideas that they did not approve of.
Another element in their thinking was that they saw the world as a rather dangerous place, one to be regarded with extreme suspicion. Isolated as he was and under their influence, David started to see the world this way as well, and he continued to see it that way even after he returned to Harvard.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that that should happen in any environment that his mother and stepfather controlled. It was an environment where, slowly and as if by instinct, like spiders spinning a web with great deliberation, and wrapping some poor creature that has been caught there, they went about their work. If they didn’t exactly consume David, they certainly went a long way toward transforming him into the kind of person who thought and acted as they did.
Naturally they too were victims of their own compulsions, victims of the other driving elements in their unconscious. They led extremely lonely and isolated lives. They saw very few people socially, and when they did see anyone, they saw only people who could never penetrate the sort of pretense they thought it was necessary to make. Their real selves, their most intimate selves, were never shown to anyone, and so they must both have become almost unbearably lonely, except for the fact that they did have each other.
They apparently thought that they may not have had many other people in their lives, but they did have him. And if they could keep him with them, and make him like them, then they would have at least one other person in their narrow world who could present no threat to them. They would not be so alone.
The problem for them was that in order to keep him, they would have to try to achieve two aims that were mutually exclusive and contradictory. On the one hand they would have to bind him to them so that he could never really get away, even when he returned to Harvard. On the other hand, however, they would have to destroy him as a source of what apparently was their own lingering feeling of guilt, guilt over their divorce and remarriage.
In later life, David would think again and again how true it must have been that he was a kind of living accusation in their minds, an embodiment of the guilt they may were made to feel in a small town, at a time when practically no couples were ever divorced.
On the other hand, perhaps their aims were not completely contradictory. David’s mother and stepfather seem to have eventually figured out that there is one way to destroy a person while at the same time not destroying him: you simply destroy his mind, undermine everything he has ever believed in or thought was important. And this — impossible as it may sound to anyone else — they appear to have decided to do, and to do it relentlessly.
Could he have understood any of that at the time? Only if he had been a different sort of person, one who did not continually suppress such ideas. How would he have felt if someone had pointed out some of these things to him then? He might not have been able to believe them, though if he could have, he would certainly have felt less confused, and perhaps less lonely. He would hardly have felt less depressed, though, for what could he have done to change the situation?
Perhaps it was better to have been largely blind to the reality of the circumstances he found himself in. Perhaps it was better for him to have remained in the dark. Perhaps it was better that no one could explain to him what the real causes of his depression and sense of confusion were. Perhaps it was much better not to have been able to figure everything out until much later, because later he could also begin to figure out an answer. At that time, during those years at Harvard, that might have been impossible.
The only problem is that the answer he eventually found does have that ring of the absurd, at least in the modern world. He eventually did come to the conclusion that the apparently destructive — even unwittingly evil — behavior of his parents could be reconciled with the existence of a being who was good, who created the world and everything in it, and who was supposed to love all human beings. David really believed that, although it does sound truly bizarre to most people. David really did come to believe that good could be brought forth from the apparent evil of his parents’ behavior, a good that was far greater than if they had given him all the love and support they were capable of. Or at least that’s what he had to keep telling himself over and over again, because he knew how laughable that would sound to almost everyone else.
At any rate, there is no reason for anyone to feel any sense of outrage that a young man who seemed gentle and promising should be subjected to the — to say the least — ambivalent attitude of his mother and stepfather, an attitude many would have said was really suppressed hatred and fury.
Much later, David would think that all that may almost have been in the nature of things. He would think that it perhaps happened all the time. Something like it might have been happening almost since the beginning of humankind, and yet somehow, incredibly, gentle and promising young men have survived. David would always cling, somewhat desperately perhaps, to the idea — certainly considered bizarre by many — that the most gentle and promising young man who ever walked the earth ultimately survived, even though it appeared that his life was cut brutally short.
Perhaps those who have much to contribute do manage, one way or another, to survive against the most incredible odds.
And some will be consoled by the idea that those who don’t survive may have had nothing to contribute in the first place.
Whatever the truth about that idea may be, during the Harvard years, especially during that summer after Africa, David could not know, fortunately, that his own struggle for survival had barely begun, and had begun badly.
By the end of that summer he was stunned, like a boxer who has taken too many punches in a fight. He was stunned by a loss of self-esteem and self-respect. He was stunned by being diminished and made to feel trapped. Most of all he was stunned by a sense of utter disbelief that he could ever have left Africa.
He wondered how he could have been so stupid. Much later he would realize that the main reason for returning to his mother and stepfather was that in Africa he had forgotten — or had wanted to forget —what they were really like. He wanted them to be different this time. He wanted to believe that his mother — begging him to come home to her from Africa, promising all kinds of things, and believing such promises were necessary to bring him back — would be different.
He simply could not foresee that once he was under her control again, she and David’s stepfather would do everything they could to strip him of all the things he had: his achievements, his self-confidence, even his sanity.
Of course he should have known how his mother and stepfather would behave when he returned from Africa. It is almost impossible to imagine that he really thought they would treat him any differently then than they had before. After he did return, in his darker moments, when he unfortunately could think of nothing beyond the pain of that present situation, he often asked himself bitterly how life could have played such an awful trick on him, placing him, after Africa, in the middle of a nightmare. He really did think very little then about the possibility that any good could be made to come of those circumstances.
In the end, what was so terrible for him was that he remembered, over and over again he remembered — it was like a brilliant, shining motion picture in his mind, one that was alive with color and emotion and a kind of music — he remembered how happy he’d been in Africa; he remembered Christmas in Dar es Salaam; he remembered how certain he’d been that that happiness was indestructible.
What he could not remember was the happiness itself; he could not feel it again.
There was no way back to Africa now, of course. If he’d had the money, he would have simply bought a ticket and flown back to Nairobi or Moshi or Dar es Salaam, and then gone on to Dodoma again.
He had no money, though. He could not go back.
Except in his mind. He could read about Africa, and he did. He could read Swahili every day and keep himself — as long as possible, anyway —from forgetting the language and the people and the places he’d known. He thought about how immensely sad he’d feel if he ever forgot a language he’d acquired with such difficulty. He thought how terrible it would be to return to Africa and not be able to speak to people who had meant so much to him. He thought about how painful it would be to allow a part of himself to die like that.
Fortunately he could not look into the future and see how many languages he would learn and then later forget — or how many countries he would visit a second time without being able to speak languages he had once learned.
It would become a recurring pattern in his life and of course he would be the one who was making it recur.
Perhaps he wanted to prove to himself, again and again, that the pain of loss and separation from people and places he loved didn’t really matter.
That summer before he returned to Harvard, though, he really began to be afraid that a part of him would die without Africa alive in his mind. He could not know, fortunately, that that part of him was already dying, and that nothing he could do would save it. He did not realize that no matter how much he studied Swahili or tried to continue learning about Africa, nothing could stop the changes that were taking place in himself and in Africa. Both Africa and he were changing and perhaps growing — certainly they were growing apart — slowly but inexorably.
He really understood nothing of such things then, though, and perhaps it was better that way. He certainly didn’t need any more pain in his life, whatever may have been causing that pain.
Part 3, Chapter 8
“The classical scholar Gilbert Murray one day encountered Einstein sitting in the quadrangle of Christ Church, Oxford. Einstein, alone, in exile, was deep in thought, with a serene and cheerful expression on his face. Murray asked him what he was thinking about. ‘I am thinking,’ Einstein answered, ‘that, after all, this is a very small star’.”
By the end of September that year, after the summer in his mother and stepfather’s house, David was in many ways so numb with grief and confusion that his return to Harvard meant very little to him. It was merely something he did now, without joy or enthusiasm, without the hunger for learning and even wisdom. Going back to Harvard was something he was supposed to do, something he did automatically without thinking about it, because nothing he really wanted to do seemed to matter to anyone in the world around him.
He thought to himself that if he couldn’t do what he really wanted to — and he thought all he really wanted to do was to return somehow to the kind of life he’d had in Africa — then he would have to do what he was expected to do, and make the best of it. He couldn’t make himself like it, though, he couldn’t make himself feel any enthusiasm for it.
From the vantage point of years, looking back on that period, it would seem to him that the number of ways he had of making himself miserable then were almost infinite. Yet all those paths to unhappiness appear to have had the same cause: his own selfishness and pride. If he’d really been as wise and noble as he thought he was, if his ideals of morality and transcendence had been as important to him as he thought they were, then surely he would have seen that clinging to Africa, clinging to what he thought he had achieved there, clinging to his self-esteem and apparently quite shallow self-confidence, was really no better than trying to cling to all the material things, including money, that he thought he scorned.
David could in fact have simply been practicing a different kind of greed, a greed that was really just as gross and just as corrupting as any other kind. He couldn’t understand then — and he wouldn’t always understand it later in life — but he somehow dimly believed that if human beings do have a destiny that includes what we think of as the divine or transcendent, then a desire for anything else will always be disappointed, will always bring with it at least a trace of sadness, if not outright despair, even if that desire is fulfilled. Sometimes especially if that desire is fulfilled.
Perhaps the reason he only dimly understood that was that such thinking is really meaningless and irrelevant for the modern world.
At any rate, when David arrived in Cambridge that autumn, it did not seem particularly good to be back, because he expected so little from Harvard now. He felt he’d been disappointed there before; he hadn’t really found the kind of place his adolescent ideals had led him to expect that he would find, and he was determined not to be disappointed again.
It could almost be said that he went from one extreme to the other — from the extreme of unrealizable ideals to the extreme of expecting nothing from Harvard.
At first, however, he was pleasantly surprised. The day he arrived at Adams House, where he would be living, the splendor of an autumn afternoon was pouring through Cambridge. He was startled by the freshness of it all. The geographical distance from his mother and stepfather’s house gave him a sense of freedom, at least for the moment. It was not the freedom he’d felt in Africa, because the dark thought of his mother and stepfather was never very far from his consciousness, but it was freedom nevertheless.
It gave him some hope for a new beginning.
He found the suite of rooms he’d been assigned to, knocked at the door and walked in. Don Rider – the friend who’d organized the living arrangements with their other roommate – looked up, saw him, and seemed to explode with that innate enthusiasm and gusto for life that David would always remember Don for. “Hey, man,” he almost shouted, “it is so good to see you.” The sheer, good-natured joy at seeing David seemed to shine in Don’s eyes, in the irrepressible smile on his face, and in the way he gripped David’s hand when he shook it.
David hardly knew how to respond. Before he left for Africa, he had the feeling they didn’t really know each other very well. It hadn’t even been his idea to room with Don and another friend of theirs, Ed Soames, but Don and Ed had wanted it, and they’d seemed tolerable future roommates, perhaps even compatible, so David had agreed.
The fact was that David liked both of them, especially Don, whom he also envied a little too. David was so self-centered, and so involved with his own sense of misery and helplessness that it always seemed to him that Don was almost constantly happy, so much so that sometimes David even felt a little in awe of that happiness. David wished he could experience something like that too. Even if he couldn’t, though, it made him glad to think that at least someone could, at least Don could.
It used to seem to David fantastic that Don’s parents not only could afford to give him everything they did — as David’s parents easily could have — but that they actually did give it to him: real love and affection, clothes, and an allowance that was generous enough so that he could concentrate on his studies without having to worry about earning money. It was astonishing to David that Don’s parents didn’t force him to work at a part-time job — the way David’s parents forced him to — as if he were being punished for some vague wrong he’d committed but which was never quite explained to him.
Don’s parents gave their son the sense of freedom that David thought his mother and stepfather were denying him, and he was amazed at this. He was amazed parents like that actually existed. They gave Don a sense that he could become whatever he wanted to, without being mindlessly, thoughtlessly, constantly interfered with, without having his life blunderingly supervised in areas he’d already learned to manage quite well, which of course was the way David perceived his relationship with his own parents. Don’s parents treated their son like an adult: they accepted the fact that he was becoming a man. It seemed almost incredible to David that Don’s parents didn’t try to bind Don to themselves and inculcate in him a childlike feeling of dependence. Could there really be people like that?
Of course Don did sometimes experience unhappiness, in his own way, but David wasn’t mature enough to see that then. David didn’t understand that Don very often considered himself to be a kind of outsider — though in some sense almost all Harvard students seemed to consider themselves to be outsiders; one way or another almost all of them sometimes felt that they “didn’t quite belong.”
Don had gone to a good prep school — and had even studied in England for a year, but he was from the Midwest and still had all of the typical Midwestern American personality traits: he was direct, open, boundlessly cheerful and friendly. These characteristics made him seem too brash and superficial to be accepted by the group he sometimes wanted to be a part of, Harvard’s eastern preppie crowd. They had in a sense rejected Don, but in his goodness and optimism, instead of becoming bitter and depressed — as David surely would have — Don sought instead to find his friends among people who had some vulnerable or wounded quality about them, people he could try to help — if only by giving them his friendship — people like David and Ed and the girl Don first loved at Harvard, Ann Bret.
Except for Don, each of us was lost, to a greater or lesser degree, and Don seemed to feel compelled to help us find our way.
Of course at the time David didn’t understand any of that, and probably Don didn’t either. Later, though, he must have understood it quite well. Eventually, after graduating from Harvard Medical School, Don would become a psychiatrist. By then he saw quite clearly, as he later told David, that his early choice of friends — conscious or unconscious as that choice may have been — had had a decisive impact on his choice of a profession.
Although David admired Don for the way he was able to live his life, perhaps it wasn’t quite true to say that he actually envied him. David knew it was wrong to envy anyone. More than that, despite his tremendous sense of unhappiness, even he didn’t really grasp just how miserable his situation really was. Envy would have meant that he could understand all that. Envy would have meant that he could see what it really was that his parents were forcing him into, and what a bitter future they seemed determined to map out for him.
He understood none of that. But he did perhaps understand something of what he would later consider an ultimate truth, or at least the possibility of an ultimate truth: that there may really be what Shakespeare called “a divinity” beyond us all or at the ground of our being that in the end does shape our lives.
If he could have understood that better, then in spite of everything he might have been able to find some joy in the idea that our lives and our futures are — in spite of everything and in some mysterious way — finer by far, in the end, than anything we could possibly dream of for ourselves.
But of course in the modern world, such ideas are the wildest of illusions.
Part 3, Chapter 9
“The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it.…Sometimes in afterlife, Adams debated whether in fact it had not ruined him and most of his companions, but disappointment apart, Harvard College was probably less hurtful than any other University then in existence.”
The Education of Henry Adams
“So, how was Africa?” was one of the first things Don said to David that autumn afternoon. David had just walked into their living room in Adams House for the first time, and the initial, boyishly enthusiastic greetings were over. “Here sit down,” Don said, clearing some clothes from a chair and putting them — throwing them — into one of the bedrooms. The living room was otherwise fairly neat. There was a working fireplace with a sofa opposite, and an armchair on either side of the sofa. The floor was carpeted and the built-in bookcases were loaded with books. Two large stereo speakers hung on the walls.
David smiled a little as he glanced around the room. “Africa was — Africa was fine,” he answered, turning back to Don. “Actually, I kind of miss it. I miss it a lot sometimes.”
There was silence for a moment as Don looked at him. With Don, though, there was never silence for very long. “Have you heard the one about the two Africans who meet in the bush?” he asked.
David smiled again, more than anything else at Don’s cheerfulness. It often seemed superficial, but somehow at the same time, beneath the surface, there also seemed to be a depth and a reality to it that people couldn’t help responding to. “No, I haven’t,” he said, though half-guessing what kind of a story it would probably be.
“’Ubangi?’ said the one. ‘You betcha!’ said the other.”
David laughed in spite of himself. In spite of the joke’s stupidity. Or maybe because of its stupidity. David knew it was a dumb joke, Don knew it was a dumb joke too, and each of them knew the other knew it was a dumb joke. And that made them laugh all the more.
They stopped laughing for a moment, but then looked at each other and exploded into laughter again. Don’s eagerness to talk to people and to make them laugh in a way hid the kind of real intelligence he had, but it would be many years before David understood what sort of a person Don really was.
At Harvard Don had seemed to him — he would be ashamed one day to remember this — only a happy and superficial plodder. Only later did David understand that Don’s easy friendliness must have often been a means of keeping depression and sadness at bay. Beneath Don’s surface charm, he later realized, was a mind deeply concerned about the meaning of things. It was mind as deeply concerned as David’s was, but freer and more able to search for answers.
They had dinner that evening in Boston with two girls Don knew, but David was still going through too much depression and reverse culture shock to really be able to enjoy anything. Probably Don and the others didn’t enjoy themselves much either, because of him. Don didn’t seem to be bothered by David’s state of mind, though. Don’s cheerfulness — and his sense of compassion toward David — seemed boundless.
Back in their rooms in Adams House that evening, Don talked about how great the living room was for entertaining. “It’s a great place in the winter,” he told him. “Last year we had a lot of people up here and we cooked dinner for them in the fireplace. Afterwards we sat around and talked for hours in front of the fire. It usually went pretty well.” “Except one time,” he laughed, “I brought a girl from Wellesley up here and she was unhappy because we didn’t all go to the Ritz in Boston.” He paused again, smiling thoughtfully. “It was the last I saw of her.”
“I think it’ll be good year,” David said, and turned to look out into the courtyard.
There was silence for a moment. “How are your parents?” Don asked.
“They’re all right. They’re still pretty much the same way they were before I left for Africa.”
Don looked at him but said nothing.
“They want me to get a part-time job,” he went on, “to earn money to pay for my books and to have some pocket money.”
Don shifted in the armchair, and the springs creaked. “Are you going to?” he asked.
“Well, I pretty much have to, don’t I?” David turned away from him again. He could feel his eyes moistening and he didn’t want Don to see that.
For the next few days David went around dreading the thought of having to look for a job. Shy as he was, just the idea of putting himself on the line that way seemed to send fear shooting through him. At the same time, he was so depressed that he was sure he’d never find anything better to do than wash dishes in the Freshman Union or become part of the toilet-cleaning crew.
Of course he was feeling very sorry for himself. Years later he would think that much of his self-pity was — and this made it all the worse — grounded in a fierce, hidden kind of pride. He was still a very long way from being able to feel any joy — as all his ideals should have made him feel — in dealing with hardships or difficulties or humiliation. Instead, it was his selfishness that dominated and made him feel sad, while his pride brought out his anger. He resented the fact that his mother and stepfather didn’t make his brother do the kind of work they made him do during the school year. They seemed to treat David’s brother the way Don’s parents treated Don. They seemed to give his brother everything he needed, and David envied him for that. He was also jealous, because they sometimes also seemed to give him not simply everything he needed, but everything he wanted as well.
Along with his self-pity, there was also resentment at what he felt was injustice, when he considered how differently his parents treated his brother, how much they gave him, how much they helped him, respected him as a young adult, and did everything to try to help him survive and prosper. David couldn’t understand at that point in his life that his brother had been able to establish a different relationship with their mother and stepfather, that he and his stepfather understood one another in almost every way and that it was therefore natural for his parents to want to help him. David couldn’t understand that he — especially in comparison with his brother — was like an alien creature in the midst of the family. He couldn’t understand that there was no way his stepfather — or even his mother — would ever go out of their way to help someone like him to survive. David’s brother did not represent the unconscious, living embodiment of guilt for his parents that David represented.
All David knew — as he indulged his self-pity — was that he had tried to do the right thing, to live the kind of life he’d been taught he should live, and he was being punished for it. He couldn’t even comprehend that even if all that were true, even if he was in fact being punished, even if he really was suffering in that way, then he should be happy at the opportunity to undergo such suffering, certainly if he wanted to think and behave in a way that was consistent with his ideals.
It still did not occur to David to think that if he really had loved God as much as he imagined he did — and of course he had no idea what such a thing really meant — if he really had been as morally good as he thought he was, he ought to have been glad for the chance to deepen his understanding of his ideals. He didn’t at all grasp that he ought to have been glad to try to become a better person by enduring circumstances he found bitter and distasteful.
Perhaps one of the things that saved him from complete disaster that autumn was the fact that the people at the student employment office understood that the year he had spent in Africa should be recognized and given some consideration in offering him a part-time job on campus. He was given the chance to work with people at the university who were involved in African affairs.
Unfortunately, the summer with his mother and stepfather had had its effect. He was so involved with his psychic losses — the loss of everything he thought he’d gained in Africa — that he could not free himself from a kind of endless grieving, and he could not see that the university was actually offering him something of the recognition and reward that he craved.
Some people have said to him he shouldn’t really blame himself too much. His parents’ attitude had been too strong for him to resist, they said, and it had exerted too great an influence over him. He simply didn’t have the psychological resources or the stamina to struggle against them. Perhaps there’s some truth to that, he would never really know. He would sometimes believe in later life that if he’d really wanted to, or if he’d really tried to figure out how to do it, he could have found the strength he needed in order to resist what his parents were doing to him. And contrary to the image he had of himself, he didn’t even really look for any strength in the one other source where it might have been found — besides Harvard itself of course, or the people at Harvard.
Perhaps without realizing it, he too had unconsciously started to acquire the idea that any sort of spiritual belief or ideals were to be regarded as something to be eradicated, not supported or encouraged. He tried to struggle against that kind of thinking. To manage that struggle, though, while also struggling against his parents’ ideas and behavior, was beyond him. He was too weak a person to really struggle very successfully against anything. He simply went on doing the best he could, which any objective observer would have to agree wasn’t really very much in the end.
The interviewer at the student employment office was an intelligent, enthusiastic and likable graduate student; he looked like someone who’d probably played rugby at his prep school. “There are really two good possibilities for you,” he said to David, “if you want to work at something that keeps you in contact with Africa — and I assume you’re interested in that.”
“Yes,” he said, starting to feel a little more optimistic than he had in weeks. “I’d like that very much.”
“Well the first possibility is working as a research assistant for Bill Jameston — he’s Senior Tutor in Adams House, and he’s getting involved in African studies. I think he’s planning on spending some time in Africa starting next summer. He wants to do some research on a book. The second possibility would be working as a staff assistant to one of the university administrators. You’d have your own office and a great deal of freedom — it would be a very open-ended and unstructured position. You’d have the chance to do some fairly creative work developing your own projects involving Africa. You could go around to the dining halls, meet other students, talk to them about your experience in Africa, and even hold informal courses and lead discussion groups dealing with Africa”
That second opportunity, under other circumstances, would have been golden. After the summer with his mother and stepfather, though, he had so little self-confidence that the thought of speaking and dealing with large numbers of other students, filled him with a kind of cold fear, definitely not with any kind of joy.
That second job of course could have led to many other opportunities, or at least it would seem that way to David much later. The work would have given him all of the freedom and responsibility and sense of adventure that he thought could be found only in Africa. However, he felt as though all summer long his poor mother and stepfather had had a chance to give him a good going over. Now he felt worried about literally everything, he felt frightened and insecure in a way that was vague enough, but hugely debilitating. That second position was the one he would have really wanted to take, but it only frightened him and made him feel hopelessly inadequate.
The fact that the position was so unstructured also made him apprehensive. Since there had been so little stability and security in his life, especially since his parents’ divorce and remarriage, it was the very freedom that the work offered that made him afraid. It was not at all like the freedom he thought he had in Africa. Because he felt so lost, he unconsciously believed that whatever he did at Harvard would have to offer him some kind of structure, some outside definition of what was expected of him. His unconscious insisted on carefully defined limits to whatever freedom he might have. He didn’t understand it then, but in Africa that structure had been an important characteristic of the work he’d done, despite all his feelings of being free.
In addition, his innate shyness also seemed to make the second position, the administrative job impossible for him. In certain situations he might be capable of helping his friends share his enthusiasm for literature or art or for something he had experienced, but the idea that he could talk to complete strangers about Africa and make it as exciting for them as it had been for him was something that seemed impossible. Such a task required much more self-confidence than he possessed then. He felt as if all his self-confidence had been painfully bled away over the summer, and he didn’t see how he would ever be able to get any of it back.
He couldn’t meet strangers and make their acquaintance without feeling a sense of awkwardness and even pain. He was certainly no politician. The thought of having to go around to the other house dining halls at Harvard and talk to other students simply terrified him. His sense of self-esteem had been undermined too much through his mother and stepfather demonstrating to him quite clearly how worthless they considered his year in Africa. He may not have understood all that quite as clearly as he would in later life, but he was, in his adolescent way, so aware of all his faults, and he magnified them so much out of all proportion, that often he saw them as the only significant elements in his personality. And when he did see any of those faults, in spite of his pride, he blamed himself for them. Of course he was right to do so, but that didn’t help him get rid of them.
At the end of his discussion in the student employment office, it didn’t take him very long to decide on what he thought would be the “safer” job — working as a research assistant for the professor in African studies. “Let me go and talk to Jameston,” he said.
Part 3, Chapter 10
“In the successful sense, then, in the worldly sense, in the club sense, to be a college man, even a Harvard man, affords no sure guarantee for anything but a more educated cleverness in the service of popular idols and vulgar ends….But as a nursery for independent and lonely thinkers I do believe that Harvard still is in the van.”
The True Harvard
Before he did anything else at Harvard that fall, David had to go through the registration procedures for the coming academic year, which he did unthinkingly and automatically, simply going through the motions.
What did this place really have to do with him?
He’d decided to major in history, even though he’d come to Harvard wanting to study English literature and wasn’t really interested in history and didn’t have the mind for history. The English courses during his first year at Harvard had too often been boring, or had made him unhappy, and he compared them to courses in high school that had been taught by an English teacher who had made the subject at times completely absorbing, because of his own sense of enthusiasm. Before coming to Harvard it had never occurred to David to wonder how he would feel if he encountered a teacher who was bored by what he was teaching. He made the naïve mistake of thinking that all English courses everywhere must surely be exciting, especially at a place like Harvard. After all, he thought, if the teacher in a small high school had taught a course that had occupied his attention and captured so much of his interest, then surely at Harvard the English courses would have to be absolutely riveting.
But during his first year he had not found them riveting.
And so he’d made the decision to study history, with a special emphasis on African history. That way, he thought, if he couldn’t find a teacher who had a passion for literature, he could at least keep a distant connection with Africa. If he couldn’t go back there yet in person, if he could not relive the experiences he’d had there, then he would do everything he possibly could in order to return there in his mind.
Naturally he’d already been trying to do that with his continued reading in Swahili and with his attempts to get every possible piece of news about the political situation in East Africa, which wasn’t easy in those days, when there were hardly any satellites, much less satellite television, and when something like the Internet was not simply science fiction, it was beyond science fiction.
In whatever way he could, though, he intended to make Africa a full-time occupation, and he proceeded to carry out this intention with a general attitude toward life that was so grim and bitter that it must have been painful for others if they noticed it. It certainly was painful enough to experience, because his pre-occupation with Africa was nearly an obsession, an emotional tie, an unspeakable longing. Hardly the basis for academic study of the continent.
As he was then, David must have looked to others as though he were trying to punish himself for something. Perhaps his grim attitude also indicated a childish desire to punish the world around him, because it was not Africa. That grimness certainly indicated, it seems clear, the existence of a deep sense of anger.
It also indicates how superficial all his philosophical and spiritual ideals really were. As long as everything was going well in his life, as long as he had everything he wanted, he could happily believe in all those ideals and he could live the way such ideals demanded. As soon as there were any difficulties in his life, though, the selfishness and pride that lay just below the surface of his consciousness burst out into the open.
In other words, as soon as he encountered what some devout individuals have always referred to as the cross, he became unhappy and angry. Instead of seeing, as the best people always have, that he’d been given, in that cross, a kind of gift that he should have regarded as a precious possession, he tried to run away.
Of course now that he was back at Harvard, he knew he couldn’t run away to Africa again, not physically at any rate, but he could try, as much as possible, to return to Africa by every other conceivable means.
A friend once saw him sitting in the hallway of one of the administration buildings, outside an office where David apparently had an appointment. Somehow there was about him still some of the bright promise he’d had as a freshman, sitting there as he was, concentrating intently on a Swahili newspaper, leaning forward with his head bent down, the newspaper spread out in front of him. He was dressed, in the coat and tie that nearly every Harvard student wore in those days, but David was somehow neater, cleaner, preppier than the preppies — anyone looking at him could see that even his way of dressing showed how insecure he was.
“Hi,” his friend said to him, “what are you reading?”
David looked up, startled at having his thoughts suddenly brought back — from Africa — to the reality of where he was at that moment. “Oh, it’s a Swahili newspaper,” he answered. “I try to read a little everyday. I don’t want to forget.”
David stared into space for a moment, and the misery he felt showed on his face. “Swahili, Africa, everything,” he said slowly.
“How do your courses look this semester?”
David leaned back in the chair. “Really pretty good, really exciting,” he said, trying to sound as enthusiastic as possible and not succeeding at all. “It should be a really good year,” he went on in near despair, believing in his heart that it would be anything but that.
Years later, the friend said that he left David that day wondering what in the world could be done for him. Everything about David seemed to cry out for help, but his friend had no idea what he or anyone else could ever do for David; everything in his manner, the friend added, suggested disaster.
His friend hadn’t understood, he told David long afterwards, just how much his parents had been able to bring him to the edge of despair with the cruel sarcasm of their notes and letters. He hadn’t understood how well they’d been able to nurture a terrifying sense of uneasiness and insecurity in him. All they had to do was merely make sudden threats that he himself would have to pay for things at Harvard that they’d earlier indicated they would pay for. The state of his budget was so precarious, and he had so little money, that every time his parents demanded that he pay for something himself — an extra shirt, a necktie — it had the effect of shaking him, depressing him, breaking down the fragile structure of his self-confidence, his desire to study, his wish to be able to socialize more and to go out on dates the way his roommate could and did.
If the friend had understood any of this, he told David, he would have seen the reason for his depression, for his lethargy and sense of purposelessness, and for his indifference to almost everything around him that had no connection to Africa. He would have understood why David continued to long for Africa. Africa had been the only place in the world David had ever really been happy for sustained periods of time.
Years later, when his friend told him these things, David wondered why he couldn’t have made him or anyone else see how he felt and what he was enduring.
Perhaps the answer to that question may be easy for anyone to understand who has known those deep abysses of inner adolescent misery that can be impossible to communicate. It may be easy for anyone to understand who’s made the discovery that his unhappiness will never really be taken very seriously by his family — and therefore also discovered that it would be unreasonable to suggest that anyone else will take it very seriously either.
Perhaps, though, it is adolescents like David who are, in the end, at fault in such situations. Perhaps such young men are too stupid or proud — and stupidity and pride are often the same thing — to communicate their feelings of unhappiness, so no one ever really knows about those feelings.
Perhaps when David tries to communicate these things even now, even at this moment, he will fail. And yet he probably cannot give up the certainty, the belief, or at least the hope that at some future time, in spite of his own stupidity and the stupidity of what he writes or says, someone somewhere will be able to comprehend at least a small part of what he has to convey.
If so, if that happens, it won’t do him any good, of course, but it may help someone else. Perhaps at least one person can understand that there are times when vast adolescent unhappiness can exist in the mind and soul of a young man to such a degree that he comes to feel it is existentially impossible to communicate it.
In such a state of mind, a young man such as David was at Harvard may try, he may make gestures, he may articulate everything badly, but in the end he knows in his heart that the person he is talking to is grasping very little — perhaps nothing — of what he’s saying. Finally, he simply gives up. He feels that what he has to say is probably not worth very much, he comes to feel that he himself is probably not worth very much.
The less he’s able to make himself understood, the less he even tries to. Then his misery becomes even greater, until it’s more difficult than ever to communicate it — nearly impossible — which causes the misery to increase even more.
The vicious circle that ensues usually terminates in various kinds of self-destructive behavior, unless the young man has some higher values that he can cling to. These values, spiritual or intellectual or both, have to be held so strongly that they give him support and strength, even when he has nothing else he can depend on.
In purely natural terms, such a cycle of unhappiness that continually grows, feeds on itself, and grows even more, must almost inevitably end in the disaster of despair.
David later came to believe that at the level of the material world there is perhaps no way out of such despair. He eventually believed that it’s only in the dimension of a larger reality, where possibly the existence of God, for example, is a factor, that despair can be transformed, and there can be every reason for hope. David ultimately came to think that if a young man can see his life in that context, then all the inner and outer events of life — even the most terrible — may acquire some meaning. They may even, at least sub specie aeternitatis, acquire extraordinary significance.
And so David would in later life continue to try to communicate what had happened to him in Harvard, simply on the off-chance that it would help someone, somewhere, at some point in time, avoid what happened to him at Harvard.
David would one day come to see that confronted with an apparently all-encompassing evil — the death of loved ones in the Holocaust, incurable diseases that ravage children, the killing or wounding of innocent people in horrendous acts of violence — many people, young or old, lose hope. He would remember how he had lost hope himself at times, and he would want to do what he could to see to it that something like that might possibly avoided in the life of some other young man.
David would think how he had, in a universe where disasters must inevitably happen, often lost the ability to believe in any possibility at all that there could exist a dimension beyond this one, a dimension that might offer some small shred of hope. At such moments, the possibility that the record of his poor life might someday be of value provided the hope he couldn’t find anywhere else.
There would be many times when that was the only hope David had, because it would be impossible for him to believe in what he liked to think of as “some other dimension.” He would feel like someone deaf and blind from birth, or someone living in Plato’s cave with the shadows on the wall, really unable — even if he is told of it — to believe in the possibility of Beethoven’s late quartets or a painting by Van Gogh? Can such things even make any sense? Can eternity make any sense?
At other times, however, David would in later life believe that a man can come to a different conclusion. A world where evil and violence exist makes no sense without a belief in a God who himself — and many still think this, in spite of everything — chose to experience terrible suffering. The world makes no sense without a God who demonstrated, in the most significant way, at least for those who can credit such a demonstration, that the greatest good can be drawn from the greatest evil.
For much of David’s life, though, that idea would remain completely incomprehensible. His only hope would be to show what disasters had occurred in his life so that they might possibly be avoided in the life of someone else. For that was the only way he could really imagine that good can possibly come from evil.
Later, however, he would believe that good can come from evil in all sorts of ways. It would almost seem to be in the nature of the universe for that to happen. And then he would often think that when that does happen, what is really so weird is that it seems like the most natural thing in the world. People suddenly think, “But of course, it had to happen that way. It was supposed to happen that way.”
Then he would think to himself: yes, perhaps, in a sense, it was supposed to be that way.