Homily for a Troubled Time

Woman’s Day, January 1951

Six hundred years ago the plague we now call the Black Death swept over Europe, and at least twenty-five million people died of it, or something more than a fourth of the population of the Continent.  In all history there has been no other disaster so great.

There has been no terror so great, either, for nobody could understand what the pestilence was.  There was no way to cure it, no way to prevent it or escape it, and men lived in a nightmare of paralyzing panic.

The Black Death has always been the greatest symbol of human helplessness and of universal fear.  Until the present moment and the atom bomb.

In 1348 the plague struck the great Italian city of Florence and killed at least sixty per cent of the inhabitants.  One whom it spared was a writer named Giovanni Boccaccio, and a few years later he wrote a great book.  Called the Decameron, it has often been in disrepute because of the robust Latin humor that shocks our more delicate sensibilities.  But many scholars have called it the first modern book, and certainly it is the first one that shows the reawakening sunlight which we call the Renaissance, the warmth that means respect for and delight in the human experience.  It was written in the shadow of an almost universal fear of imminent death, with the end of the world at hand.

Its hundred stories are set in an extremely significant framework.  When the plague breaks out in Florence, a small group of people flee to Fiesole, in the hills above the city, and there in a great villa wait for the terror to pass.  They are rich, and all the luxuries of the medieval world are at their command.  But in the first place they must crowd the fear of the plague out of their minds, and in the second place life on their mountaintop above the stricken city is intolerably barren and empty.  So they determine to fill the vacuum by taking turns telling stories.

And what were the stories about?  They were about the common, hearty, exuberant, tragic life of Italy.  They were stories of adventure , of fortitude, of humor, of youth and age, faith and despair, love and grief — of the daily round of human experience from which the storytellers have fled.

On their sterile promontory, the life they had left behind in Florence preoccupied them — they could no more escape from it than from fear of the plague.  If you try to escape from death, you lose life.  That is the moral — and the danger — of our obsessive fear today.

At the beginning of the recent depression, a man I knew suddenly became rich.  He bought a large estate in a remote but fertile farming country and set out to make it self-sufficient.  It was to provide everything necessary for life, flour from his own wheat, meat from his own herds, fish from his own ponds, electricity from his own power plant.  All this was because the revolution (the paralyzing but never specifically defined terror of those days) might break out any moment.

His plan was entirely unworkable.  His power plant would stop operating as soon as the gasoline trucks stopped making deliveries.  The mobs he envisioned would overrun his place like locusts.  And so on.  It was a panic dream, a nightmare.  But I wondered, even if his dream of safety could be realized, what his life would be worth to him.  Just beyond his high fences his fellow countrymen would be meeting their destiny, warring horribly perhaps, and dying by the thousands — but grappling with the problems of the real world and working out some way of going on.  They would be alive.  My friend, digesting his dinner in safety, would have no part in their experience.  He would be withdrawn from human destiny, and so, while he walked his peaceful fields, he would be dead.

His dream of escape was widespread in those depression days.  We all knew people who bought places in the mountains or up the farthest creeks, so they could live untouched by the revolution.  One of the most publicized was a man who bought a canyon in the Oregon wilderness and over some years spent a fortune making it, so he thought, an impregnable fortress and an inexhaustible storehouse.  Heaven knows how many thousands of gallons of gasoline he stored in underground tanks, how many hundreds of tons of canned and dried and concentrated food he hid in camouflaged vaults, how many motor trucks he bought, how many spare parts, radio tubes, socks, rifles, medical supplies, refrigerators.  He thought of everything and bought a hundred of it.  Well, someday while he was stalking a revolutionist after the charge had broken against his wall, one whom he had not seen would get a bead on him, or his humble hired hands would take the place from him.  And even if that didn’t happen, what would be precious about sleeping warm and eating a good meal in a canyon while the nation worked out its fate?  An alimentary canal would be preserved for a while; but from the day he set in place the last massive stone of his guard wall, a man would be dead.

Now the fear is of the Bomb.  Soon after Hiroshima, a famous scientist arranged to buy an abandoned mineshaft in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  He and his family would be safe there, he thought, from the destruction that was to befall the United States.  Maybe they would, but they would no longer be a part of the United States or even of humankind.  His was an extreme form of a fantasy that is all about us.  Real-estate firms in Washington, Pittsburgh, New York, and other metropolises advertise suburban property as being distant enough from industrial and military targets to be beyond the bomb’s blast and radiation.  Many people have bought houses or shacks in remote locations they think safe.  Many others are working out ingenious plans to preserve themselves through the atomic war and enable them to survive when it ends.

The atomic bomb is real.  The war we are engaged in, whether or not we call it war, is real.  Terrible possibilities are real: that we may be led into a world-wide war, whose duration or even whose outcome we cannot foretell.  It is true and real that, if the big war does not come, at best the United States must expect an indefinite period of armament for war, constant vigilance, and a national effort that will forever change and harden the way we live.  Fear of these dangers in an age as desperate and precarious as any the world has ever seen is sane, logical, and justified.  Fear of real danger is always intelligent and always a valuable weapon with which to combat danger.

But unreal fear is a greater danger than any real danger.  We know this very well; but panic tugs at our minds, and the panic is worse than any horror it conjures up.  For it could paralyze our thinking and our action.

The essence of our modern despair is that the twentieth century has seen two world wars, after a century in which there were only little wars.  But take a thoughtful man when that peaceful century began just after Waterloo, which marked the downfall of Napoleon.  Such a man would remember that the eighteenth century fought four world wars, all of them, comparatively, as destructive and as full of agony as ours.  The seventeenth century fought three world wars, and each of them, like ours, changed forever everyone’s expectations and way of life.  The sixteenth century was a whirlpool of almost unceasing war, national, civil, religious.  Our philosopher of 1815, looking back through the twenty-five years of world-wide war ended by Waterloo, across the three preceding centuries, on to the ancient world and beyond it to the savagery from which civilization arose — the philosopher might well have believed that war is an inescapable part of the way men live together in society.

Suppose for a moment (though I do not believe it is true) that periodic war is an inescapable part of society, and that we are headed toward our worst world war.  Well, China’s Great Wall could not keep the invading armies out, any more than the stone walls Londoners built in Samuel Pepys’ time could keep the plague out.  No nation can live at the bottom of a mine.  It would not be a nation but only a cluster of fearbound and paralyzed polyps.

Yet we are not correctly interpreting this panic if we think of it as national.  It is individual, personal, private.  If you scrutinize it with care, it turns out to be an abnormal manifestation of a normal fear which is so fundamental a part of life that everyone normally disregards it — the fear of death.

It is every human being’s tragic hypochondria.  Civilization has increased our expectation of life, but the terms of individual life have not been changed, and any infant born today may die day after tomorrow.  Any time one crosses a street, the thin envelope of flesh may be obliterated by an automobile or a falling tile.  There is no safety, and our private fear of the atomic bomb is merely a denial that we must keep our final appointment.

Actually, the fear is not of tomorrow but of the day after, and that is its danger — for the fear of death can keep us from living.  There is the old question: If you knew you were to die day after tomorrow, what would you do tomorrow?  Only one answer has ever been sensible: Just what I would do if I did not know — go to the office, take the children to the park, go on with the job, get married, buy the house, have a baby.  All other answers would be folly, and the most foolish of all would be: I would spend my last twenty-four hours at the bottom of an abandoned mine.

We can never surely instill in our children what we have learned from our experience as we can bequeath them money we have saved.  But suppose we could, and suppose, too, that there were no threat of war.  What would you say to a son or daughter who intended to get married?

You might tell your children that many marriages lead to failure and divorce, anguish they could escape by staying single.  You might say that all marriages are full of deprivation, disappointment, and sorrow — husbands lose their jobs, savings are used up, homes have to be sold, children are crippled or they die or they grow up and break your heart.  How foolish it is to risk all this when all of it can be avoided.  But you never do say this.  However you phrase it, what you say means that the decency and dignity of life lie not in evading it but in experiencing it as fully as possible.  No one, you say, can promise anything surely or foretell what will happen.  But you make your cast, and no matter what happens, you will have affirmed life.  Whatever the bitterness, failure, or tragedy, to act positively and in belief is to be alive, whereas to refrain from acting is to be dead while you still breathe.

Marriage, education, job, career — about none of these can one say anything else.  The risk of failure is great, and death in the end is certain.  But to refrain from action because of the risk is worse than folly: it is a premature form of the death it envisions.  To anyone calculating the odds of life, one of the epitaphs in the Greek Anthology said three thousand years ago all that wisdom can ever say:

    A shipwrecked sailor on this coast
      Bids you set sail;
    Full many a ship, when ours was lost,
       Weathered the gale.

Now abandon the supposition that no war or disaster threatens us; face the reality of the world today.  What should you do tomorrow if you knew that war was going to break out the day after?  Precisely what you would do if you did not know.  Go to the office, take the children to the park, get on with the job, get married, buy the house.  No one can foretell how much fulfillment you will have, but you will have at least some; whereas you will have none at all if you refrain.  To withhold action through fear is to deny life, which is the blackest sin.

It is also simple foolishness.  For as you start down the abandoned mine shaft toward your twenty-four hours of safety, the ladder may break under your feet.

Life makes out its own price tag.  To everyone, the cost of being alive is just what he may be called upon to pay.  You pay the amount printed on the tag, and it is a waste of emotion to lament that someone else seems to have got off for less.  You cultivate your garden and take whatever crop it produces.  Do you think, because fear keeps you from trying for what you want, your neighbors will not take from life whatever it may hold for them?  Stop on the sidewalk transfixed by a horrible vision of the Third World War breaking out; all around you people are doing their jobs, shopping, going home to the family, making a date for dinner or the movies.  If you pack your family off to the bottom of the mine, it will be the same: the world and its work will be going on.  But you will not be part of it.

It will be the same if, while you watch your children playing with the pretty chunks of ore at the bottom of the shaft, the cloud of atomic fire mushrooms over the city from which you have fled.  Thousands will be dying there — in pain that is just like any other pain.  The rest will be working at the debris, patching up some sort of society, keeping the race going — getting married, begetting children, taking such fulfillment from life as they can, meeting their destiny.  You will be meeting yours, too, but with the difference that you will be alone.

“Fellow countrymen, we cannot escape history.”  Lincoln said that, and at a moment as dark as ours; some would call it darker, for war was here, and the nation seemed likely to die of self-inflicted wounds.  Now, as then, we cannot as a people escape destiny, any more than as individuals we can escape death.  The United States must pay the sum printed on the tag.  If this is an era of darkness, insecurity, and fear, that is the asking price for life, national and personal, in the days of our particular years, and there is no way of not paying the price.  There is no Fiesole to which we may flee from the Florence we live in.  It may be too bad — but it will be worse if fear of the day after tomorrow paralyzes us in the twenty-four hours that come between.

Fortunately, it will not paralyze the nation or many of us who, as individuals, compose the nation.  The panic is private and of the upper levels of the mind, but the deeper levels are wiser.  At the base of personality, sheer animal faith in life makes us affirm life.  There is always a pistol or a bottle of sleeping pills, but we vote to wake tomorrow and cultivate our garden.  Indeed, the affirmation is deeper than personality, for body has a wisdom that resides in the nerves, the muscles, the very cells.  They go on performing their function till death comes.  Their function is the maintenance and renewal of human life.  So is ours.

What does the asking price buy?  At worst it will buy, day after tomorrow, the knowledge that we have lived an additional day — and if fear has not paralyzed us, that we got from it what we could, and did what could.  The knowledge that the United States went out to meet its destiny, acting positively, not refraining from action in panic.  That we acted as a sound, sane, resolute people.  That as a people we affirmed the life which is in us and were members of one another; and that as individuals we have lived in a decisive time and not shrunk from our part in it.  That we stood for the dignity of human experience.

That, at worst.  But it is possible that the affirmation of life will be the renewal of life, and that to meet destiny squarely will be to master destiny.  We know down to the nerves and cells of our bodies that this is possible, that to act on faith may be to hold off the big war, prevent the cloud of atomic fire, and usher in an age greater than any we have known before.