I admit that I am given to bouts of despair about the condition of Western Civilization. We find ourselves in the proverbial hand basket and it is getting warmer and warmer. Recently a friend asked if I thought he should get involved in politics. Eeyore has nothing on me, and I replied in a somewhat gloomy tone, “Of course, but don’t expect to win any more than you should expect to stand on the seashore and hold back the tide.”
“Why even try if we can’t win,” he replied. In response I appealed to the somewhat fatalistic Norse ethos which holds that even in the face of overwhelming odds we should continue to fight until the inevitable end, and when we go down at least we will have the dignity of having gone down with our sword in our hand.
Then I read Axel’s comment to my last post and it made tingles run up and down my spine. Axel quoted Solzhenitsyn’s anecdote in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, based on an experience in his own life in the Gulag Archipelago. I reproduce that quote here:
Along with other prisoners, he worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His life appeared to be nothing more than backbreaking labor and slow starvation. The intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair.
On one particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much for him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up.
Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners.
As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead, he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.
As Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.
Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope.
If I could have a “do over” in responding to my friend’s question, I would no longer appeal to a pagan ethos. I would use Solzhenitsyn as an example. If anyone had reason to despair it was Solzhenitsyn, but he shows us that despair is vanquished at the cross. He got up and continued to dig. And so should we.