“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
These words have been running through my mind the last weeks, thinking through ideas about metanarrative and narrative, about what we believe to be the Great Story of All of Life, and our own smaller stories. I have been reading Friedrich Nietzsche, Viktor Frankel, and Douglas Coupland, each one wrestling with the meaning of life in a world with or without God; and they have pushed at me, forcing me to think more deeply about questions that matter to all of us, whether we want them to, or not.
Last night in our local arts cinema, the words, “Why? Why am I here?” cried out through the theater. Spread out as we were supposed to be, the six of us were there to see the new film, “Land,” about a woman who left the urbanity of Chicago for the wilderness of Wyoming. Her anguish was heart-wrenching, and I only wish that I could communicate the passion of her tears— because her cry was from her heart of hearts. “Why? Why am I here?”
I won’t ruin the story, so will only say that she had her own reasons for being in pain. We all do. Every one of us. Just as Nietzsche did. As Frankel did. Even as Coupland does.
There is enough sorrow in the world to make us wonder at the weight of the wounds that we see and hear and feel all day long, every week of our lives. Be still for a moment and think about it.
Just this week I have lived with death day after day, and I don’t want to again tomorrow. I have been at the funeral of one of my longest friends, a Zoom-link as must be, but there were tears all around as we remembered with affection our long love for a good man. And then two days later I was shocked by the news of another dear friend who unexpectedly fell by the side as he skied through the snowy woods with his wife, minutes later dying in her arms. And then two days later another long and dear friend’s mother died, after a lifetime of tender intimacy. And then today I woke to the news of another friend’s daughter dying, out-of-the-blue, reacting to a medicine that did not heal. Sometimes it seems like it just doesn’t stop.
And if it isn’t the finality of death in its starkness that overwhelms us, then think again about the rest of life. The brokenness of the ordinary that everyone lives with, the disappointments and griefs that make us sigh, and sigh again, knowing our frailty as we do, knowing the frailty of the world all around us.
Lord, have mercy.
“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” These words are Nietzsche’s, believing and unbelieving as he was; certain that God was dead, and yet on page after page haunted by God, unable to leave God in the grave — in his own bones sure that if one has a why to live for he can bear with almost any how — while acknowledging that with the death of God we must be honest and leave behind any hope for meaning and morality, a “revaluation of all values” he called it.
Many assume that the words about why and how are Frankel’s, from his pain-filled reflections on the Holocaust in the death camps of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Dachau, poignantly remembered in his “Man’s Search for Meaning,” his day-after-day vocation of trying to hold the “why” of his life together with the “how” of his life. Not surprisingly at all, millions have read him, listening and learning from him. Far away as our experience is from his, his insight into what it means to be human has drawn the world at large to his writing, requiring of all of us a humility of heart, perhaps sensing more honestly than ever that the question of “a reason-for-being” is not for philosophers alone. It is a question that everyone everywhere faces in the ins-and-outs of life, in the very ordinary ways of life that all of us know.
Faraway from Europe and the experience of Nietzsche and Frankel, in the city of Vancouver, BC, so proudly secular, its most celebrated contemporary writer is Coupland, who evocatively wonders about the world in which he lives and moves. Necessarily Nietzschean as it is in every official way, pondering his own reason-for-being, he calls his novel, “Life After God,” a story of someone who cannot stop thinking about the why and the how of life.
The film we saw last night didn’t need to draw in Nietzsche, Frankel, or Coupland. Their thinking is my thinking these days. The story on screen was its own, and like the best stories always are, offered us someone who, for her own reasons, knew that some questions matter because they are the questions of Everyman and Everywoman. Questions of who we are, of why we are, of what we do with our lives. Her pilgrimage took her to a place without people so that she could find that it is a place with people that makes us human; not a small thing, in the end.
The cinematography is gorgeous, full of the grand vistas of the great West, even as we are asked to pay attention to the silences in the script — the most important stories ask us to have eyes to see and ears to hear — and I found myself aware that the story was one I knew. For my own reasons of being, I have been asking the same question for most of life. Like me, she longed to make sense of the “telos” of her life, so that she could make sense of the “praxis” of her life— the why of her life shaping the how of her life, as it does for all of us.
(And truth be told, the filming was done in the Canadian Rockies.)
“Why are you helping me?”
“You were in my path.”
Words from, “Land”, between a woman in great need, and a man who helped. A few words, but they are the heart of the story, a remarkably good story about the world in which we live, and move, and have our being. A remarkably good story about being implicated, for love’s sake.
Wherever we are this day, we have all been watching Texas over the last week, either glad we are not in “the Republic of” right now, or groaning because we know folks that are, and we yearn with them, only imagining the weight of the world that has been theirs. In our very polarized political environment, even the question of “cold” became a culture war, with “It’s their fault!” And “No it’s not!” dominating the news of the day.
But whatever we think about why it happened, what was a proverbial “act of God” and what was less-than-that, yesterday I woke up to the good news of a company that sees itself implicated for love’s sake right in the midst of the state’s crisis. Not blaming anyone or anything, but instead choosing to be a neighbor, H-E-B knows something deeper about its identity, its vocation, and its mission, having spent more than a hundred years asking and answering the questions, “Who are we? Why are we? What are we going to do with our life?”
For most of America whose consumption of bread and milk, of apples and ice cream, of cereal and spices, comes from the Safeways, the Krogers, the Giants, the Publixes, the Wegmans, the Albertsons, the Trader Joes, the Harris Teeters, the Meijers, and more, the name H-E-B might sound strange. But not in Texas.
It is hometown from beginning to end. For literal generations Texans have been shopping at H-E-B, knowing that this was a company that was more than what the national chains could ever imagine being— and try as they do, they cannot compete. The loyalty is deep, and it goes both ways.
This past week H-E-B stepped into the complexity of the crisis of cold with characteristic grace, offering whatever was needed to whomever needed it. As the New York Times reported it Monday morning, “It’s like H-E-B is the moral center of Texas… There seems to be in our state a lack of real leadership, a lack of real efficiency, on the political level. But on the business level, when it comes to a grocery store, all of those things are in place.” Yes, H-E-B is that— a good business doing good work, and without a blush, a good neighbor.
For many good reasons I have been in Texas a lot over the years, and even know something about H-E-B, the unusual company brought into being by the entrepreneurial guts and gumption of the Butt family who had moved to Kerrville, west of San Antonio, because of troubles born of tuberculosis and the need for cleaner, drier air. A simple start, but over time their offerings grew, and their vision too. The rest is history.
Much more could be said. But here I will only note that several years ago the great American writer Wendell Berry called the country into more serious engagement with the moral meaning of the marketplace in an address at the Kennedy Center, “It All Turns on Affection.” Reflecting on his own family’s destitution at the hands of James B. Duke and the America Tobacco Company in the early 20th-century, and the sordid story of Duke University’s financial foundation— the cold capitalism of robber barons wherever they may be found —he called for another way to imagine our life together as Americans, a different way to see our citizenship. With his own prophetic wisdom, he argued for “affection” in and through our relationships and responsibilities, as if somehow we are members of a common life— a membership from sea-to-shining sea —where our commonwealth is born of our neighbor’s health, even as it is of our own.
Love. Care. Sympathy. Mercy. Forbearance. Respect. Reverence. Like most of the best words, affection is a complex word, and all of these words make it be so.
I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.
Eloquent, powerful, Berry was calling forth a different way to imagine the business of business— something like H-E-B, something very much like H-E-B. Because in reality our common good does “turn on affection,” whether we like it or not, in fact whether we believe it or not.
An economics of mutuality is crucial if we are to flourish, in Texas, in America and in the world. Written into our very bones as human beings is that we are implicated for love’s sake in the world that is, and in the world that could be, yes, even in the world that someday will be. If we have eyes that see.