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If He Can Hope, So Can We


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.

It sounds to me as if you are overstating words he may have uttered, to the effect that he was disappointed in their passivity under a nascent tyranny. He was surely too wise not to have realised that Christ's precept that we should be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves was more honoured in the breach than in the observance; and that the general public would have 'erred' on the side of innocence. Certainly, historically, the monied folk in every country have favoured the notion of a division of labour: "Tell you what, God, we'll oppress the unworldy poor, and you can deliver and rescue them, just like you promise in the Psalms." Marx once remarked that the tragedy of the poor was the poverty of their desires, a belief, oddly enough, which he seems to have shared with M Thatcher, although in his case, seemingly from compassion, rather than a wish that they could be driven to ever greater endeavour in the service of ever more perverse consumerism. I was once told by a quantity surveyor who had worked on a sports complex in one of the mega rich middle-eastern oil states that they paid the building workers overtime, since they wanted the project speeded up. Instead, they took more time off, to enjoy life. A willingness to defer pleasure for reasons of ambition and status may constitute a natural virtue, but it is not a supernatural one, and is as alien to the Anawin today as it was in Jesus' day. I'm much more inclined to believe Solzhenitzyn's reaction would have been one of sorrow. Just as I lament the political gulliblity of many poorer folk in the UK. Unless, he was talking about the aspirational(!), Russian, middle class. Certainly, Solzheninzyn lamented in one of his books that some centuries ago, the only legitimate ambition recognised by the Russian people was to lead a devout life. Axel
You know that Solzhenitsyn blamed the Russian people even more than the Communists, right? Because they did nothing and allowed themselves to be mistreated. tragic mishap
"There is no political solution." Truer words were never spoken. Barry Arrington
After following the GOP primaries until this point, I have pretty much given up on the hope that there is a political solution to the many problems facing us as a nation. No politician is going to solve them. Some would be better than others, for sure. The situation, however, shouldn't be seen as a reason for despair, but as confirmation of the human condition. A condition who's solution is above us. Solzhenitsyn was right, and although I read that book many years ago, it still rings true. CannuckianYankee

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