On Response and Responsibility

“I am coming to see that it is not so much a question of finding the right place, the right time, the ideal marriage. Neither life nor happiness hinges upon such things. It is wholly within. It is response to what is given. It is choice.”

So reflects Anne Delaney in the novel, Strangers and Sojourners by Michael O’Brien, the book at my bed-table these midsummer weeks. I have read thousands of pages of his over the last few years, each one a very different story with very different people. This one is set in British Columbia during the middle years of the 20th-century, and is told from the mind and heart of Anne who spent her first years in England, immigrating to Canada following her experience of World War I, finding her way to a cross-roads in the middle of great forests and mountains hours north of Vancouver, where she becomes the teacher in a one-room school house.

Over the next hundreds of pages we see and hear the world as she does, from her early days knowing and being known in Swiftcreek, on through the years of marriage and family, of hope and heartbreak, of suffering and love, of work and more work. If anything, O’Brien is a writer who probes the deepest places in his characters, but then of course— if we have eyes to see —our deepest places too.

Most weeks of my life I am somewhere where I make an argument for the importance of responsibility, an apologetic for our ability to respond. We make choices, and that we do matters immensely; its possibility is the very reason that vocation is a reality. As my intellectual mentor Vaclav Havel put it, “The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility.” At the very heart of our humanity is our responsibility; we are made able to respond to the world around us, able to respond to the pushes-and-shoves of life, and profoundly, even if very mysteriously, able to respond to God who is there and who is not silent.

Last week I was in Los Angeles for a couple of days, and made a presentation one morning in which I brought both John Steinbeck and Mumford and Sons into the story. The former wrote, East of Eden, a 20th-century tale of a family in the Salinas Valley of California for whom the word “timshel” comes to mean everything; simply said, the word means “thou mayest,” coming from the conversation between God and Cain, “Thou mayest choose something other than killing your brother,” i.e. you don’t have to murder him. It is not fated, not in-the-cards of the cosmos. You can choose. It is the line-in-the-sand for Steinbeck’s story. And then the latter wrote a very good song titled, “Timshel,” which is its own musical meditation on Steinbeck’s story, artfully arguing that, “timshel” is “our ladder to the stars,” it is what “makes man great.” For a thousand complex reasons, good art always tells the truth about the human condition.

The karmas of the East and the West miss this tragically, in their different ways insisting that everyone and everything is already decided, that choice is a fiction, that we are “beyond freedom and dignity.” In the strangest ways, Hinduism and evolutionary materialism kiss each other at this very point.

But our humanness cries out for something more. In our very bones, we know better. For Anne, the girl who slowly, slowly becomes a woman in O’Brien’s novel, it takes years of longing and love for her to begin to see the truth about herself and her world, “Neither life nor happiness hinges upon such things.”

Sometimes I am asked to give wedding homilies, and before the summer is done, I will do that again. While I make every effort to think with great creativity about each wedding, the particular couple and their histories and hopes, I know that somehow I will fix on the reality that there are no “ideal marriages.” Finding perfection is a fantasy in this now-but-not-yet world. But can we make peace with something, with something honest and true, wonderful and good— even if it is not perfect?

I will try again to say that in a few weeks, certain to draw in Anne and her wisdom as a way of making the point that we live in response to what is given, knowing that it is in our choices that we are most human. The secret of man and woman is the secret of our responsibility. How will we respond to what is given? Will we love? How will we respond to the hurts and wounds that come with intimacy? Will we learn to love to love?

The painful pilgrimage that is Anne Delaney’s is the long story of Strangers and Sojourners, and as I read I am drawn as I must be into the aches of her heart, the sorrows of her soul, as that is the life she lives for most of her life, even as I listen more carefully to the hard-won wisdom that she slowly comes to, offering to us the reality of her life and ours… “It is a choice.”

(Photo of British Columbia, looking north from Vancouver.)

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