Yesterday I had lunch with someone who has just returned from the Middle East. Since I have known him, a recent college graduate working in his first job, he has had an unusual passion for that place and its people– living in several countries, learning its language and history so that someday his passion would become his vocation. And now he is back in the States, setting off on a PhD, focused on what the years of war in Iraq have meant for the treatment of disease. Yes, PhDs have to have a particular question to answer!
In the strange wonder of the website world, he read Byron Borger‘s early review of the book I have written, “Visions of Vocation,” and wanted to ask me a question. So we went to one of my favorite places for a lunchtime conversation, Elevation Burger—“Burgers the way they’re meant to be!” –and talked.
My young friend has seen a lot, more than most of us ever will, and it has been hard. How even to talk about it with those he most loves? By conviction and character, he resists cynicism, as he ought. But that is hard, very hard. Like stoicism, cynicism allows us to protect our hearts from the implications of what we know. We “stuff” things, pressing them down so that we don’t have to deal with them, because to acknowledge their reality would mean misery, for a while at least. Truth is like that.
“Can we know the world, and still love the world?”
He gave my question back to me, wondering about himself. Now that I know what I know, what I am going to do?
There is no more perennial question than this. From our first recorded memories as human beings, we have asked, and asked again this same question. What do we know and what we will do with what we know? Only a casual and shallow reading allows us to think that this is merely theoretical. It is the question of life, all day long for everyone everywhere.
But knowing is more complicating than we might imagine. In Lord Byron’s poetic meditation on the strangely named Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he muses, “He who knows the most mourns the deepest.” Contrary to the age-old promise that knowledge is power—to know more is to be more powerful, to be more in control of my life and the world around me –the reality is that, for most of us, to know more is to be more burdened. We feel in our bones the responsibility of knowledge.
When we finished our burgers, all the questions of life had not been answered. We talked about ideas, but words have to become flesh for us to understand them. So I offered stories of friends who have lived in and loved the Middle East, messy as it is, historic as it is, fascinating as it is, complex as it is, important as it is. I suppose I was offering an apprenticeship in knowledge, giving him windows into the possibility that honest people have known what he has known, and still choose to keep at it– for love’s sake, choosing to be responsible for the way the world turns out.
The great temptations of stoicism and cynicism are always there, lurking around the corners of every heart, calling us, seducing us. Lord, please deliver us from our temptations.