The other day, my professor shared this striking and evocative quotation by Maurice Blanchot, who was good friends with Levinas. (Levinas described him as “a man without opportunism, that’s the moral touch with him.)
Here’s the quotation:
What does it mean to be Jewish? Why does it exist? It exists so that the idea of the road as a just movement exists; it exists so that in and through the road the experience of strangeness asserts itself to us in an irreducible relationship; it exists so that, through the authority of this experience, we learn to speak. To be a “man of the road” is at all times to be ready to set out on the road, a demand for uprooting, an affirmation of nomadic truth. Thus the Jewish being is opposed to the pagan being. To be a pagan is to be fixed, to be rooted to the ground in a way, to establish oneself by a pact with the permanence which authorises the stay and which is certified by the certainty of the ground. The journey, nomadism, responds to a relationship that possession does not satisfy. To set out on the road, to be on the road, is already the meaning of the words heard by Abraham: “Go away from your native place, from your kinship, from your home”.
“Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: Bishvili nivra ha-olam “The world was created for me.” (BT Sanhedrin 37B) But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: V’anochi afar v’efer “I am but dust and ashes.” (Gen. 18:27)
To be a young person and, especially, to be a student is to be continually asked by others about what you hope and plan to do in the future.
Many years ago, I read this excerpt in Henri Nouwen’s book Aging: the Fulfillment of Life that has remained with me:
Not too long ago a thirty-two-year-old, good-looking, intelligent man, full of desire to live a creative life, was asked: “Jim, what are your plans for the future?” And when he answered: “I want to work with he elderly and I am reading and studying to make myself ready for the task,” they looked at him with amazement and puzzlement. Someone said, “But Jim, don’t you have anything else to do?” Another suggested, “Why don’t you work with the young? You’ll really be great with them.” Another excused him more or less, saying: “Well, I guess you have a problem which prevents you from pursuing your own career.” Reflecting on these responses, Jim said: “Some people make me feel like I have become interested in a lost cause, but I wonder if my interest and concern do not touch off in others a fear they are not ready to confront, the fear of becoming an old stranger themselves.”
I recently came across this intriguing excerpt from David Velleman’s paper, “Against the Right to Die.”
Once a person is given the choice between life and death, he will rightly be perceived as the agent of his own survival. Whereas his existence is ordinarily viewed as a given for him – as a fixed condition with which he must cope – formally offering him the option of euthanasia will cause his existence thereafter to be viewed as his doing.
The problem with this perception is that if others regard you as choosing a state of affairs, they will hold you responsible for it; and if they hold you responsible for a state of affairs, they can ask you to justify it. Hence if people ever come to regard you as existing by choice, they may expect you to justify your continued existence. If your daily arrival in the office is interpreted as meaning that you have once again declined to kill yourself, you may feel obliged to arrive with an answer to the question ‘Why not?’.
The other day, a friend of mine shared this extraordinary quotation by one of my heroes – Fr. Alfred Delp:
A community that gets rid of someone—a community that is allowed to, and can, and wants to get rid of someone when he no longer is able to run around as the same attractive or useful member—has thoroughly misunderstood itself. Even if all of a person’s organs have given out, and he no longer can speak for himself, he nevertheless remains a human being. Moreover, to those who live around him, he remains an ongoing appeal to their inner nobility, to their inner capacity to love, and to their sacrificial strength. Take away people’s capacity to care for their sick and to heal them, and you make the human being into a predator, an egotistical predator that really only thinks of his own nice existence.
Fr. Delp was a German Jesuit and those words were his response upon viewing a 1941 Nazi propaganda film.
Who, in our lives, is appealing to our inner nobility?
Who is drawing us out of ourselves and our “own nice existence”?
To whom do we let ourselves to explode our inner capacity to love?
For whom do we let our sacrificial strength be tested?
These may not be the most natural questions to ask ourselves, which is why luminaries like Fr. Delp are so important.
Photo: My mom visiting her brother-in-law’s mother Mrs. Hall. My mom’s care for Mrs. Hall in her final years is one example among many of my mom’s inner nobility and sacrificial strength.
In James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, he wrote: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
This is a startling diagnosis of how racism betrays a person’s own existential insecurity.
Extending beyond the issue of racism, there is this fascinating insight that another’s suffering can actually intimidate us because, in some ultimate sense, we know that it could just as well be us.
There is a verse in the Book of Sirach that has always resonated with me profoundly that says, “If you see an intelligent person, rise early to visit him; let your foot wear out his doorstep.” (Sirach 6:36)
Likewise, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has been an example to me of applying this principle concretely.
When he was a university student, he decided to travel throughout America to meet the leading rabbis of the day. All of them insisted he had to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Upon requesting the meeting, Sacks was initially laughed at for his audacity. However, some days later he got a phone call informing him, “The Rebbe will see you on Thursday.”
In the last chapter, Rule XII: Be grateful in spite of your suffering, Peterson mentions that he has repeatedly suggested to his various audiences “that strength at the funeral of someone dear and close is a worthy goal” and he notes that “people have indicated to me that they took heart in desperate times as a consequence.”
After a worldwide book tour and many other public appearances, Peterson has had the opportunity to test and play with his ideas with many audiences. And it is interesting to read his thoughtful reflections based on his careful observation of the reactions of persons in the audience.
Earlier in the book, he mentions, as he has said elsewhere, that he sees people’s faces light up whenever he speaks about responsibility. Peterson is keenly aware that people have been raised with a greater emphasis on rights and the corresponding sense of entitlement that ensues with this focus. Yet, a sense of responsibility is what ennobles and fills persons with a sense of their proper dignity and capacity.
Accordingly, this challenge to have strength at funerals is an extension of his usual exhortation to responsibility.
A friend of mine recently shared with me about how the Roman poet Ovid described exile as a living death.
This friend has also written a splendid essay reflecting on her own experience of ostracization due to cancel culture in the light of the broader tradition of our civilization.
In it, she writes:
Yet, while I don’t mean to downplay the pain of the experience, this may also be the greatest blessing of exile: it is a social murder, a death within life, which forces us into confrontation with our own finitude. If the goal of philosophy is to learn how to die, then there is no better way to practice it. Stripped of all illusions and pretense, the petty dust of life can sometimes give way to a lucid clarity. In exile, we are made to remember our true homes, while we still have time make ourselves worthy of returning there.
This is one of the best pieces I have read on cancel culture and is an excellent example of empirical and existential political theory.
Go check out Caylan Ford’s piece “They Can’t Cancel Your Soul” in the American Mind by clicking here.