Yesterday I was in Atlanta, just for the day. The heart of my visit was to take part in an unusual conversation with people who represent various vocations, from the academy to the church to the marketplace. From beginning to end we talked about the ways we make sense of life, of what we do and why we do it.
One good friend, a businessman, brought me a gift, wonderfully wrapped with a kind note inside. A book, and a book that I prized! A first edition of Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. When I opened it, and saw that Percy had signed the book, I smiled– a very good gift to me from someone who knows me well, who knows what I would love.
What is it about Percy that keeps drawing me in? What is that requires that I tell anyone who needs to know that I am an apprentice to Percy? That he is honest about life. That he tells the truth about us, about the human condition, about who we are at our best, and at our worst. That is hard to come by in art, and truth to be told, in life. Mostly we don’t, for lots and lots of reasons.
Politics, for example, as most of us know it, is more often than not one more version of self-deception, which over time becomes a politics of self-deception, where we lie to ourselves about ourselves—and there are horrible consequences for the polis, socially, economically, educationally, and culturally. Election season gives us the worst window into this, and we all groan, often disengaging from the process along the way. The more we know, the more disinterested we become, sure as we are that no one is really telling the truth about what is required for a good life and a good society.
To write “The Last Self-Help Book,” which is Percy’s subtitle—at the dawn of the Age of the Therapeutic –gives us a window into his observations about who we are, and how we live. We want to be happy, everyone one of us, and yet we choose ways of thinking and acting that only and inevitably bring unhappiness, leading us to the despairing sense that we are “lost in the cosmos,” not really sure what to do about it, or why we should even try.
He begins with these words, “The Strange Case of the Self, your Self, the Ghost which Haunts the Cosmos,” and then asks:
“Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?” And this is only one of Percy’s questions, and the book is full of them, each in their own way probing the way we understand the world and our place in it.
So to have someone give us words that make sense of life is a good gift. We don’t have to be Eeyores, despairing of everything, and we don’t have to be Pollyannas either, insisting that there is a bright side to everything. An honest life is lived between worlds, between realities. Some things are awful, and we mourn, deeply—and some things are inexpressibly glorious, and we dance with body and mind, soul and spirit. Day by day, we live with stretched taut between remarkable grief and remarkable gladness. This is not new; in fact it is one of the truest truths of the universe, perhaps the most perennial of all truths.
The brilliant and good theologian, N.T. Wright, says that this was true of the vocation of Jesus, that he held together in his own heart both sorrow and joy; in fact that this was the heart of his vocation. The same will be true for each of us, living in imitation of Christ as we are and do– and that is why Walker Percy’s work and words matter.