“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
- Matthew 25: 37-39
Two books reviewed here, both highly recommended, are made up of stories about human relationships that are becoming increasingly uncommon or threatened. In my review of Awake in the Night Lands, by John C. Wright, I said:
In the first story, we are presented with the true love of friends; in the second, the true love of brother and sister, in the third, the true love of father and son. In this fourth story, we get, finally, to the true love of man and wife. Using the horrors of the Night Land, and the honor and humanity of the people of the Last Redoubt, Wright explores love – and everything that can go wrong with it, even among those who love truly.
At last, he touches, like Dante in the last cantos of the Paradiso, upon the love of God for Man.
In a similar way, in Captive Dreams, reviewed briefly here (I want to do a more detailed review, but this may have to do), Mike Flynn builds his first story, Melodies of the Heart, around a doctor’s (eventual) love for an old lady, parents’s love of their dying child and the child’s love for them, a caregiver’s love for that same child, and the old lady’s memories of all the loves gone by in her long life. Each successive story has, at its core, human relationships: The title story, Captive Dreams, hinges on difficult mother-child relationships across three generations; Hopeful Monsters investigates another, different but not so different mother-child relationship; Places Where the Roads Don’t Go is about a difficult lifelong friendship; Remember’d Kisses explores a widow’s devastation at the loss of his wife; and finally Buried Hopes is about a crew member’s love of crew, captain and home. (1)
Wright and Flynn write very different stories in very different styles – Wright is shooting for myth-making of epic proportions, and so his heroes, heroines and villains are much more heroic or villainous than mundane life generally allows, while Flynn’s characters are painfully flawed and realistic. Yet I was struck by how much both sets of stories are built around relationships that were once much more common and generally deeper than they are now.
In Captive Dreams, all the stories are set in a single neighborhood. From what he’s written on his blog, we know that Flynn grew up in a classic neighborhood, where everybody knew everybody else on the block (and were generally related to each other), which, in turn, is a reflection of the sort of village life 90% of people would have grown up in up until the last century or so.
Such neighborhoods these days seem to be unusual. I’ve lived in the same house for 21 years, and I know well exactly 2 of my neighbors, and even know the names of only 2 more. More than one house away might as well be in the next state. I wish this were just a symptom of modern California suburbia, but it seems to be a much more general phenomenon. The neighborhood Flynn describes in Captive Dreams seems to be much more like mine than the one Flynn grew up in.
So, in the background against which all the flawed relationships of all the perfectly human and therefore damaged characters are set, we already see a larger social effect of this damage. With few exceptions, the characters in the stories do not turn to their neighbors for comfort, support, or advice. In what sort of world are the people you live with in the most direct geographical sense not your tribe or clan or, really, neighbors? Who fills that cultural role in your life? Sadly, the answer is clear, both in the stories and in real life: no one, or the first snake oil salesman that comes along. (2)
Man was not meant to be alone.
Wright’s stories take an opposite approach, in a way: his relationships – his friendships, families and marriages are, if anything, too strong, too good for the world. Instead of the flaws of a tragically tiny soul which lead a woman to have her own child euthanized because he is not likely to make her happy as in Flynn’s stories, we have men and women willing to risk death and worse than death just for a chance to redeem a relationship. The flaws governing (if that’s the right word) the characters in Flynn’s stories seem small, but are life and death; the flaws in Wright’s characters are epic, but boil down to the utterly personal love of son for father or brother for sister.
The scripture quotation with which I began is that list of things by which, we are told, we shall be judged worthy of everlasting life. Note that only the first three are, strictly, the providing of material things to those who need them. food, drink and clothing. The last three are much, much harder, at least these days: establishing a relationship. We need to welcome the stranger, and comfort the sick and imprisoned.
Human life is built – I almost wrote used to be built – on natural human relationships. And everybody knew it. Government and society and culture all, in a way, were understood to flow from these relationships and to aim toward them. Those relationships would have stood as water to a fish: we hardly notice it, because that’s where we live our lives.
An extended family and its family friends would have contained all the relationships upon which human life rests and toward the realization of which it moves. Everyone except the tragically deprived would know first or second hand what being a son, brother and father or daughter, sister and mother looked like. Spinster aunts and unmarried uncles would not be viewed as flawed, necessarily – no more than anyone else, at least. Friendships would be cultivated and treasured.
These relationships were carried on for a lifetime, and sometimes longer! Just look at the letters that have come down to us, exchanged by Abigail and John Adams, or Paul and his companions, or even soldier in the field with their loved ones back home. These give evidence, if any is needed, that the state of these basic human relationships has declined over time. Talking with old folks (3) often gets back to these relationships – they are what lasts. In Flynn’s Melodies of the Heart, part of the tragedy is that this old lady has cut herself off not only from relationships she might have now, but from the ones she really had in the past.
Chesterton observes the insane reversal of modern life: we seem to insist these days that freedom is somehow a public right to be guaranteed by the state (and goodness, would Chesterton’s jaw drop to see how that’s played out over the last 75 years since he wrote) instead of freedom being something we exercise in our private lives. We want government at best to help us resist efforts to take that quiet enjoyment away from us, and at worst to at least stay out of our lives itself. Because we are human and therefore social, our freedom is best, perhaps only, expressed within our circle of family and friends. I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating:
If the Duchess does want to play leap frog, she must not start suddenly leaping in the manner of a frog across the ballroom of the Babylon Hotel, when it is crowded with the fifty best couples professionally practising the very latest dance, for the instruction of society. The Duchess will find it easier to practise leap frog to the admiration of her intimate friends in the old oak-panelled hall of Fitzdragon Castle. If the Dean must stand on his head, he will do it with more ease and grace in the calm atmosphere of the Deanery than by attempting to interrupt the programme of some social entertainment already organised for philanthropic purposes.
But the hospitality of a house will always be different from the hospitality of a hotel. And it will be different in being more individual, more independent, more interesting than the hospitality of a hotel. It is perfectly right that the young Browns and the young Robinsons should meet and mix and dance and make asses of themselves, according to the design of their Creator. But there will always be some difference between the Browns entertaining the Robinsons and the Robinsons entertaining the Browns. And it will be a difference to the advantage of variety, of personality, of the potentialities of the mind of man; or, in other words, of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Chesterton, THE DRIFT FROM DOMESTICITY, The Thing
We need these relationships to not only show us how to welcome the stranger, but to give us something to welcome the stranger into. We need to visit the sick and imprisoned from someplace. If we, together with the sick and the imprisoned, understand our chief relationship to be with the state, we all already share that place – I may have a different role from the sick and imprisoned, but we are already part of the one family the state has longed to pretend to become. From what, to use modern semi-gibberish, have the sick man or imprisoned criminal, been alienated from? If we all are already part of one big state family, playing our different parts, what cause do I have to visit?
Instead, if the state is, as it historically has often been, a creature of families for families, that those already in relationships with their loved ones and neighbors set up with them to protect and foster those relationships, then a sick or imprisoned person has something to go back to, some place to be visited from. I’ve read over the years about the problems of recidivism in released prisoners, how those who do not have loved ones to go back to are almost certain to end up back in prison very shortly. How could it be otherwise? The prison is, or might as well be, their family, if they have no other. Similarly, it is not just cost control that motivates hospitals to get people out and back home – people really do heal better when among their loved ones.
So, as a primarily spiritual effort with inevitable Incarnational effects in the social world, we – meaning me, first of all, I’m not pretending I’ve gotten even an inch down this path so far – have got to cultivate family, support relationships, build friendships, support each other, provide that place where true freedom can be expressed. The path we are on, and have been on for 200 years, is to think that rights primarily mean public rights, like voting or assembly. But those are clearly secondary – we demand those rights for the sake of other, more important and human rights – the right to be ourselves with those we love.
Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and clothing the naked are things the state can do, however well or badly. In this day, those needs can be easily addressed – we are not likely to go hungry or naked ourselves if we give to someone in need. But the simple mechanical provision of these goods to those who need them is not enough to gain eternal life – that would be too easy. Instead, we need to do the personal part, loving our neighbor (and our enemy – as Chesterton said, they are usually the same people), creating and nurturing relationships. We must love the unloveable.
One last thought: our efforts in this direction will almost certainly be a disaster. So? As Mother Teresa put it: we are called to be faithful, not successful.
- In the best Sci Fi tradition, in Captive Dreams the technological advances are examined from the perspective of how they affect human relationships. That’s what makes stories as different as Canticle for Leibowitz and Starship Troopers, for example, so memorable – not the cool tech, but how people deal with it. And why otherwise great stories such as The Neuromancer are not quite as good.
- The reader is of course free to speculate on political snake oil salesmen, and the substitution of politics and political identity for culture and clan. I’m taking the day off from that.
- Defined as 75+ to handily exclude me