Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Whole Duty of Man, Part II

“…his only reasonable transaction in that commodity would have been to buy it for as little as he could possibly give, and sell it for as much as he could possibly get; it having been clearly ascertained by philosophers that in this is comprised the whole duty of man — not a part of man's duty, but the whole.”
- Charles Dickens from Hard Times

My last post and this one were inspired by the powerful words of Dickens above. Just a lonely portion of a paragraph in a book that no one thinks is his best. And it is a sledgehammer of a thought. Pure death. And death is exactly what I want to talk about in light of this Christmas season.

We left off discussing our uncontrollable need to present ourselves as valuable. When our output is either deemed as worthless or trumped by another's output, so goes our identity. The very definition of who we are dies. It is the inner drive of "justification by works" that most theologians tend to gloss over as they pant after ethics.

Death, it must be said, is quite the liberator. "What would you do if you were to die tomorrow?", is the common question. The implication is that the doer would be free of all constraints. All of a sudden, things get complex. After being condemned for murder and coming to terms with it, the protagonist of The Stranger thinks:

"With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe."
- Albert Camus from The Stranger

Tragic words. Death (either the physical, final sense or society's pronouncement of obsolescence) can liberate in many ways. It can be anywhere from going to see Mother for the last time to entering into the narrative of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. It's the great void or the "vanity of vanities". "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose," says Kris Kristofferson.

And this brings us to Christmas. Despite what you see outside and on the television, this holiday brings a profoundly grown-up message. But, since I don't want to short-circuit the insight of Dickens and Camus, it will have to wait for another post.

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