Still making my way through John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” and of course these words caught me. One of the deepest beliefs I have about anything and everything is that we are a lot alike, human beings that we are. We are perennial people: the same questions and concerns keep coming up, year after year, century after century. And while there are honest differences between generations and cultures— World War II veterans and Generation X, for example, or the Scottish and the English —on a deeper level, in our very bones, we are the same. The contours of our existence do not change, and the cosmos itself does not change.
So we keep asking the same questions, because the same concerns keep pressing their way into our hearts. We want to understand certain things, because they matter— whether we are 21st-century people living in cosmopolitan New York City or 15th-century people living in provincial Yorkshire.
We all want to know what the “the world’s story is about”— at least on some level we do, conscious or not, articulate or not. Is the best we have simply many narratives, many different stories, or is there a metanarrative, a story that makes sense of every story?
Some people in some places wonder if “the world’s story” is about anything, and we give names like “nihilism” to try to make sense of what doesn’t make sense. Some decide that the world’s story is my story, and that the world begins and ends with me, myself and I. Some believe that the truest truth is that everything is an illusion, and that “enlightenment” will finally give us eyes to see that. Some choose to sum it all up with “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Some simply plod on through, sure that just getting by one more day is enough. And some come to believe that the world is about something more, and that by strange grace we have eyes to see a universe full of transcendence and truth.
Strange grace it is. The differences in how we see what we see have nothing to do with intellectual ability. Equally brilliant people can believe very different things about life and the world. Why we see what we see is always rooted in the heart— because we see from our hearts. In the Hebrew world and worldview, the heart is the very center of life— out of it everything else comes.
I know that in my conversations with the people who come in and out of my life, I always assume that we are the same, basically. We have the same hopes and the same fears. We have the same longings, the same questions. And so I am always trying to find a way in, wondering if we will be able to talk about the things that matter to both of us.
And then sometimes, on some days, we come to the question of all questions: “What is the world’s story about?” And from that question other questions come, tumbling forth: who am I in the story? does the story really make sense? does it make sense of my longings for meaning, for significance? does my life matter to anyone anywhere? And then because we all live in light of an end, a “telos,” we want to know what the end is. Is it just a sigh? a final breath? Or is there something more that then requires something more?
Steinbeck weaves the questions through his story, as they must be— and the reality is that they are woven into every story, the story of everyone everywhere.
(The golden hills of California, both east and west of Eden, I suppose.)