How I Met Andrew Sullivan

by Matthew Sitman

One of the first questions I get when a person finds out I work at the Dish, and that Andrew is not just my boss but my friend, is about how we met.

Unlike most of my generation, and probably most readers of this blog, I first encountered Andrew’s writing in his books. I read Virtually Normal with the thrill of genuine intellectual discovery when, as a young doctoral student at Georgetown University, I pulled it off the shelf during an afternoon haphazardly exploring the stacks. I turned to Love Undetectable and The Conservative Soul in quick succession, with the former, in my estimation, being Andrew’s best and most beautiful book. But perhaps most importantly, in early 2008, Andrew’s dissertation on Michael Oakeshott finally was published. During my graduate studies, Oakeshott had become an intellectual hero of mine, a thinker whose writing genuinely changed my life. So I scraped together the money to buy Intimations Pursued, read it slowly and deeply, and then sent Andrew an email asking if we could get coffee to discuss it.

I was a nobody – a poor graduate student in a city in which proximity to power or money is what gets people’s attention. I had nothing to offer Andrew in that regard. What I now realize, however, is that that was a good thing.

I wasn’t asking for anything other than an earnest conversation about a somewhat obscure English philosopher. I wasn’t seeking an internship, I wasn’t trying to secure a “connection,” I didn’t want Andrew to introduce me to anyone. I certainly never believed I’d work at the Dish. Andrew was just a writer who fascinated me, not a celebrity blogger. I wanted to ask him questions. That was all. And that’s why, I now feel certain, he wrote back to me suggesting we skip the coffee and just get dinner at the Duplex Diner.

That evening we shared what would be the first of many long meals together, with me awkwardly asking questions about his dissertation and trying not to seem as nervous as I really was. (Confession: I downed a beer on my way to dinner to help me relax.) I met Aaron that first night, too, and we all ended up going to listen to jazz at Blues Alley. We promised to do it again soon, and in short order we became friends – a title that he and I both revere.

Working together these last two years necessarily impinged on our friendship, with discussions of “business” always threatening to intervene. So while I will miss Andrew’s blogging, and now find myself considering what comes next in my own career, I am relieved that Andrew and I simply can be friends again. Because, after all, true friendship is entirely non-instrumental, and fits uneasily amidst the demands for productivity and performance. As Oakeshott puts it in “On Being Conservative” (pdf):

Friends are not concerned with what might be made of one another, but only with the enjoyment of one another; and the condition of this enjoyment is a ready acceptance of what is and the absence of any desire to change or to improve. A friend is not somebody one trusts to behave in a certain manner, who supplies certain wants, who has certain useful abilities, who possesses certain merely agreeable qualities, or who holds certain acceptable opinions…The relationship of friend to friend is dramatic, not utilitarian; the tie is one of familiarity, not usefulness; the disposition engaged is conservative, not ‘progressive.’

Andrew, to borrow Oakeshott’s phrasing, certainly does not always have acceptable opinions, nor is he always agreeable. Far from it, as readers of this blog certainly know. But Andrew, more than anyone else, has taught me that any genuine form of love, especially friendship, does not seek to change or improve the other person. Friendship is marked most of all by simple delight, by finding the world a slightly less lonely place because of another person’s proximity. It exists for no purpose beyond itself; it is “useless” in the very best sense of what that might mean. And so, it turns out, entering into an abiding friendship actually is the beginning of a more general wisdom: that striving must give way to acceptance, that present laughter should be valued over future reward, that life is not a series of “problems” to be “solved” but a mystery to enjoyed. I’m not sure I’d really understand these things, to the extent I do or in the same way, if Andrew hadn’t decided to answer my email that day.

I can’t help but feel joy that my friend is leaving blogging behind. His deepest interests are not political, as my own story of meeting and getting to know Andrew should indicate. The daily jousting on the web, however brilliantly he executed it, does not reveal the core of the Andrew I know. Instead, if asked to describe the man, what comes to mind is the time we talked about God hour after hour one sunny Spring day, or the eagerness with which he showed me Provincetown my first visit there. I look forward to the day, soon arriving, when reciting our favorite Philip Larkin poems supplants discussion of web traffic, and when, after going to Mass together, we can converse about Jesus without worrying over Monday morning’s blogging.

Andrew And Matt Ask Anything: Christian Wiman, Ctd

by Matthew Sitman

Going into our conversation with Christian Wiman, Andrew and I wanted to make sure we gave him the chance to read a few of his poems. Not only is Wiman a brilliant poet, but he’s an exceptionally gifted reader of poetry – he brings an intensity to the task that I always find striking. You can tell this is a man for whom poetry really matters, who sees in an arrangement of words the possibility of revelation. Hearing Wiman read his work transforms how you read it yourself. Or it should. I can’t crack open his books without his Texas-tinged voice crowding out my own.

Both of the poems below are from Every Riven Thing, a volume Wiman published in 2010 that grapples with his cancer diagnosis and renewed Christian faith. The first, “2047 Grace Street,” is one of my personal favorites, and the poem with which I began my essay:


The second poem is “From a Window,” which captures a flash of insight that occurred while looking at a tree:


Dish subscribers can listen to the full podcast here and read my essay on Wiman here. If you still need to subscribe, here’s the link.

Why Be A Christian When You Can Just Be Nice?

by Matthew Sitman


That seems to be the gist of Rod Dreher’s latest response to me in our ongoing exchange about Christianity’s place in the modern world. If you go on and on above love, as I tend to do, what makes such goodwill and charity different from mere “secular idealism”? Rod even breaks out an oft-quoted line from H. Richard Niebuhr, implying that how I discuss Christianity comes perilously close to the following: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” What he means is that there’s nothing particularly Christian about just being nice to each other or having a “social conscience,” so if that’s all you’re claiming for your faith, then there’s really no need to hang onto all the metaphysical claptrap and depressing talk of sin. Christianity becomes indistinguishable from vague notions of making the world a better place, which is to say it ceases to really be Christianity. If that’s what Rod thinks I’m arguing for, or even where my arguments lead, then I definitely need to clarify what I mean.

The more I’ve considered Rod’s arguments, the more I think he’s trying to pin down what makes Christianity distinctive. Consider this passage from his recent post:

If the younger generations look to the churches — liberal and conservative both — and see nothing much different from what they see elsewhere, they will rightly wonder, “Why bother?” Wouldn’t you? If being a Christian means nothing more than being a respectable conformist — conforming to a suburban conservative culture, to a liberal urban culture, or anything else — then why be a Christian at all? To comfort ourselves psychologically? Is that all there is?

I appreciate that Rod, unlike many conservative Christians, is an equal-opportunity critic of our culture. He’s against same-sex marriage, but he’ll also call out the excesses of capitalism and our idolatry of wealth. On many occasions I nod along when reading him, actually. Yet I still find myself approaching Christianity – thinking about its distinctiveness – differently than Rod.

I’ve written this before, but it’s worth reiterating: Christianity is not fundamentally about morality. It is not, finally, just a system of ethics. If Jesus were merely another guru telling us how to live better and more moral lives, with perhaps this or that original flourish, I’m not sure how compelling I’d find his message. Instead, I understand Christianity as a faith for those who can’t help but sin, one that assumes our inability to be moral. And this isn’t because we all fail to uphold certain ideals on occasion, but because we are sinners, meaning that even our supposed good works are tinged with self-interest or self-regard. Nothing pure issues forth from human hands, nothing escapes from the fallibility and brokenness in which we are inevitably implicated. Jesus didn’t just talk about our deeds, but our motives. He told us to pray in closets and not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, such is our capacity for arrogance and self-congratulations. He didn’t just talk about adultery, but lust, and asked those of us who have never murdered someone if we’ve ever been filled with anger. I wish more churches would preach about sin this way – not as some kind of list of what not to do, but rather as the impossibility of being truly good.

What I find distinctive about Christianity is that, in the face of all this, it offers the promise of forgiveness. It holds out mercy and grace as a response, in Francis Spufford’s blunt phrase, to “the human propensity to fuck things up.” And this forgiveness comes not as a reward for getting our acts together, but despite the fact we never quite do. Christianity says you are loved unconditionally, loved before you deserve it – which you never really will, anyway. To be a Christian means most of all to perceive, however falteringly, that God forgives and loves you in the midst of your brokenness, and to then live in light of that love. As St. John put it, “We love, because He first loved us.” The order really does matter.

When Rod asks what a person might see in churches that makes them different from the surrounding culture, I hope it is what I’ve just described: people profoundly humbled by their sins who, because of the love shown to them, offer compassion and mercy to all who suffer and struggle. This does not mean churches simply should say, “I’m okay, you’re okay.” It means churches should be places where you can be honest that you are not okay, places we stumble into when we are at our worst – and yet still find we are embraced. If that’s not all there is to the Christian life, it certainly is where it starts.

This still leaves open questions about how Christians should view certain dilemmas posed by modern life, how historic Christian teachings should be brought to bear on new situations. So Rod still might find the above too vague – but, in a way, that gets to the heart of our disagreement. My claim from the start has been that Christianity assumes our moral efforts never are sufficient, meaning I can’t bring myself to say what makes Christianity different simply by pointing to the morals it might teach. Which makes me want to ask Rod why he thinks certain moral positions are what should set Christianity apart from the mainstream culture, what outsiders should see as making Christians different. If you are against same-sex marriage and critical of large swaths of modern life – well, so are many Muslims. Presumably Rod would find a fair amount of agreement between himself and many Orthodox Jews on a number of these issues. I’d even wager that some cranky, bow-tie wearing agnostic feels just as alienated from modern capitalism as Rod does. If you don’t need to be a Christian, or even religious, to make the same moral critiques of our culture as Rod, then I can’t help but wonder if I’m not the only one needing to explain why he bothers with Christianity.

(Image: Christ cleansing a leper by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864, via Wikimedia Commons)

Andrew And Matt Ask Anything: Christian Wiman

by Matthew Sitman


I’m fairly certain the first time I encountered Christian Wiman’s work was in October 2012, when I stumbled on an essay of his in The American Scholar titled “Mortify Our Wolves.” I know this because, searching our archives, that was the first time we featured Wiman’s writing on the Dish after I started working here, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. When his book My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer was published the following spring, it was clear no one was writing about faith quite like he was. With our plans to launch Deep Dish starting to take shape, Andrew and I knew we had to sit down with Wiman and record a podcast.

Just over a year ago, we did just that in Andrew’s apartment when Wiman was in New York City for a poetry reading. As a participant in that conversation, I’m not unbiased, but I found Andrew’s and Christian’s exchanges powerful and fascinating. Both men are survivors, have lived longer than they thought they might – and so religion and mortality, along with what the afterlife might be like, figure heavily into the podcast. We also discuss poetry and faith, the problem of suffering, our childhood religious experiences, and more. Philip Larkin’s poems are quoted every few minutes, it seems. You also can hear Andrew sing in Latin. It was a privilege to have spent an afternoon talking with Andrew and Christian, and it’s a real pleasure to now share that conversation with all of you. As a preview, here is the part in which the two of them share their personal experiences encountering death, and how those experiences influenced their faith:

Dish subscribers can listen to the full podcast here. If you still need to subscribe, here’s the link.

Introducing “Finding The Words For Faith”

by Matthew Sitman

It’s an honor – and rather daunting – to see my essay on Christian Wiman, “Finding The Words For Faith,” published on Deep Dish today. Wiman’s poetry and prose have occupied much of my thinking over the past year, and this is my attempt at explaining why I find him such a singular, bracing writer. Indeed, as I assert in my essay, I believe he’s the most important Christian writer in America today.

finding-the-words-for-faithThat’s a big claim to make for a poet and essayist who, while certainly having devoted followers, probably can’t be described as famous. As an admirer of his work, and as someone who has pressed his books into the hands of many of my friends, I’m not the best judge of this. I trust that those immersed in Wiman’s work will appreciate my arguments about how to understand him, and I hope that those hearing about him for the first time will be intrigued by his approach to Christianity. Whether or not Wiman is new to you, however, I can say that when reviews of his latest and most important book, My Bright Abyss, began to emerge, I was disappointed. While many were admiring, I thought most skimmed the surface of Wiman’s thought, or focused too much on the cancer diagnosis that threatened his life. It’s impossible to ignore that a rare, incurable cancer nearly killed him, yet his grappling with faith far exceeds that biographical detail. Christian Wiman offers a creative, powerful account of the Christian faith, but I’m not convinced his work has generated the kind of debate it should have.

What I’ve tried to do in my essay, then, is give Wiman’s writing the sustained attention I believe it deserves. We’re living through a time in which Christianity no longer retains its persuasive force, when religious faith can seem anachronistic, obtuse, or irrelevant. My conviction is that Christian Wiman suggests a better way forward, advancing a credible, compelling way of re-imagining the meaning of faith that can connect with all of us doubting, anxious inhabitants of modern America. The essay available to you now is a result of that belief, and an explication of what he has to teach us.

It’s worth noting, too, that Andrew and I sat down with Christian for a conversation about all these matters, which will be released as a podcast tomorrow. You can have access both to my essay and the podcast by subscribing here.

Reading Your Way Through Life: One More Round Of Responses

by Matthew Sitman

Readers continue to tell us about the books, stories, and poems, that have meant the most to them in their lives, and a number of you have asked us to keep the thread going. So here’s another round, beginning with this reader’s appreciation of a classic novel by Alan Paton:

I appreciate Cry, the Beloved Country as I suspect only a Christian – maybe even only a quasi- CryBelovedCountrypostmillennial Calvinist – can. There is much that could and should be said about it as social commentary and criticism and the like, and this does somewhat to make it sweet to me. The lyricism of much of the language is also a cup to be savored and delighted in. There is, I suppose, much else that could be lodged against it as objectionable because of the empowerment it denies to the blacks of South Africa in themselves, but this is not a view I think of often and I think it would have been dishonest for Paton to have attempted it. But what I chiefly remember is the day I finished it, sitting on our apartment balcony on a sunny Sunday afternoon, weeping at the beauty of its content and the boundless hope of its eschatology: all is not saved (though much is), but all is safe, because all is in the hand of God. Injustice may be at hand, and much evil may remain to run its course, but faith will help us to persevere in their despite. Pain is real, suffering is real, and there is no pretending they are not. But God is real, His knowledge and guidance of all the intricacies and the final end of all things is real, and there is likewise no pretending they are not.

Another shares a story about how reading can reveal who we are:

Permit a little spin on the theme, “Reading Your Way Through Life.” I’m a clinical social worker, and in therapy sessions with clients (I work in a public mental health agency, so most of them are poor and poorly educated), I routinely ask, “What have you read lately?” I ask that of any client, regardless of age. Most clients will report they’ve read something – for teens, maybe a textbook that they struggled through; for kids, maybe only a comic book. Adults may have read a romance novel, or a magazine in a doctor’s office. Whatever they report reading, I ask, “What in it appealed to you?” The answer may be profound, or may seem cursory; but the point is, it’s the client’s answer, because it’s the client’s life – and I glean something that may help him. Perhaps the client identifies an interest that’s worth exploring, or a hope she wants fulfilled; a child reading a Harry Potter book – her eyes light up describing a character she likes. Some therapists engage in bibliotherapy, inviting clients to read books (novels, not only self-help) that have a therapeutic theme (many of the book your readers have described fit this). For me, whatever the client is reading invites me to learn something about them – and, if I do my job well, if we talk about it, they might learn something about themselves, too, that can help them in their present struggle.

This reader shares a favorite poem:

“Among School Children,” W.B. Yeats

This has been a favorite poem of mine for many years and I had the privilege of talking about it for many years. I love the richness of Yeats’s fine mind listening to itself, the interiority, the intertwining of memory and learning reaching towards understanding.

The first stanza ends:

“the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.”

The second begins, “I dream of a Ledaean body,”

My favorite stanza break ever. As he stands smiling before the children, he falls into his deepest self as longing for his lost love breaks over him. His heart feels the gulf between his public image and his private inwardness. And at the end of the last stanza, – a riddle that is an answer: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

I taught this poem for many years. One day I looked around the classroom and realized I was a “sixty year old smiling man.” Now, I’ve outlived Yeats, that great poet of old age.

Another poetry selection:

Stanley Kunitz, “The Testing Tree”

A story before the poem. I went to see him read at Harvard, it was a tour for his newest book on turning 90. After the reading, those of us who wanted to buy his book stood in line to purchase it and have him sign it. I stood there in line chatting for quite a while with the guy in front of me as we were the last two in line. As we approached the table, there were nine books left, and this guy in front of me grabbed all nine! I asked him if I couldn’t have just one, and he refused. Mr. Kunitz and those surrounding him were in disbelief, as was I . After signing all those nine copies for this jerk, Mr. Kunitz started to rise from his chair, but I was clutching probably his most famous poetry book, a book which had become an anthem for me. I asked if he wouldn’t mind signing it, and he obliged. He knew who the real fan was.

The last nine lines are the real anthem – so important to me still. And how perfect the number nine!

“The Testing-Tree”


On my way home from school
up tribal Providence Hill
past the Academy ballpark
where I could never hope to play
I scuffed in the drainage ditch
among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
rolled out of glacial time
into my pitcher’s hand;
then sprinted lickety-
split on my magic Keds
from a crouching start,
scarcely touching the ground
with my flying skin
as I poured it on
for the prize of the mastery
over that stretch of road,
with no one no where to deny
when I flung myself down
that on the given course
I was the world’s fastest human.


Around the bend
that tried to loop me home
dawdling came natural
across a nettled field
riddled with rabbit-life
where the bees sank sugar-wells
in the trunks of the maples
and a stringy old lilac
more than two stories tall
blazing with mildew
remembered a door in the
long teeth of the woods.
All of it happened slow:
brushing the stickseed off,
wading through jewelweed
strangled by angel’s hair,
spotting the print of the deer
and the red fox’s scats.
Once I owned the key
to an umbrageous trail
thickened with mosses
where flickering presences
gave me right of passage
as I followed in the steps
of straight-backed Massassoit
soundlessly heel-and-toe
practicing my Indian walk.


Past the abandoned quarry
where the pale sun bobbed
in the sump of the granite,
past copperhead ledge,
where the ferns gave foothold,
I walked, deliberate,
on to the clearing,
with the stones in my pocket
changing to oracles
and my coiled ear tuned
to the slightest leaf-stir.
I had kept my appointment.
There I stood in the shadow,
at fifty measured paces,
of the inexhaustible oak,
tyrant and target,
Jehovah of acorns,
watchtower of the thunders,
that locked King Philip’s War
in its annulated core
under the cut of my name.
Father wherever you are
I have only three throws
bless my good right arm.
In the haze of afternoon,
while the air flowed saffron,
I played my game for keeps–
for love, for poetry,
and for eternal life–
after the trials of summer.


In the recurring dream
my mother stands
in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
she is wearing an owl’s face
and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
I pass through the cardboard doorway
askew in the field
and peer down a well
where an albino walrus huffs.
He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
staining the water yellow,
why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
That single Model A
sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
where the tanks maneuver,
revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
Where is my testing-tree?
Give me back my stones!

This reader appreciates a poet we featured recently:

Thanks for this thread. Reading about why specific books matter to different readers is incredibly interesting. My contribution to the thread is a poet you recently featured: Ron Padgett. What always makes me return to his work is the way he makes the most mundane aspects of life seem so interesting and beautiful. His poems are filled with found objects, overlooked phrases, forgotten expression that he turns sideways and upside-down and juxtaposes to almost anything else. I don’t want to say that he breathes new life into them so much as that he finds the life that was always there but we got tired of seeing. Padgett is a master of defamiliarization with a great sense of cornball humor. The other thing that impresses me is the way many of his poems unfold the way the mind unfolds and you watch it stumble upon a great discovery or insight that was never looked for, but there it is. His aesthetic and influences are very French, but his outlook and language is fully American. Here is a prose poem of his (my apologies if it is one of the ones you published earlier; but even if they are, Padgett is always worth returning to):

Prose Poem

The morning coffee. I’m not sure why I drink it. Maybe it’s the ritual of the cup, the spoon, the hot water, the milk, and the little heap of brown grit, the way they come together to form a nail I can hang the day on. It’s something to do between being asleep and being awake. Surely there’s something better to do, though, than to drink a cup of instant coffee. Such as meditate? About what? About having a cup of coffee. A cup of coffee whose first drink is too hot and whose last drink is too cool, but whose many in-between drinks are, like Baby Bear’s porridge, just right. Papa Bear looks disgruntled. He removes his spectacles and swivels his eyes onto the cup that sits before Baby Bear, and then, after a discrete cough, reaches over and picks it up. Baby Bear doesn’t understand this disruption of the morning routine. Paper Bear brings the cup close to his face and peers at it intently. The cup shatters in his paw, explodes actually, sending fragments and brown liquid all over the room. In a way, it’s good that Mama Bear isn’t there. Better that she rest in her grave beyond the garden, unaware of what has happened to the world.

Another reader notes a much-loved essay discovered through the Dish:

If you’re still taking posts about this, I thought I’d recommend the incredible essay, “Some Thoughts on Mercy,” by Ross Gay, which appeared in the July 2013 issue of The Sun. Gay’s meditations on bee keeping and race make this a must-read for anyone interested in how personal essay can tackle the big issues.

For the past year, I’ve taught this essay to my incoming first-year students in my sections of a Introduction to College Writing course. I’ll teach it again this year with an even firmer belief in its resonance and relevance in the wake of Ferguson. Gay says at the end of the essay, when describing a panic attack when facing the bees of his new hive:

“…the possibility of the hive turning on me was all I could feel. I saw myself pouring gasoline on this hive that I loved and torching it. And I saw a billowing, and I felt such relief at their being no more. I saw cinders of the box and the sooty concrete blocks it sat on and the charred patch of grass beneath smoldering and the few bees not inside lost and circling in wider and wider loops. I saw myself standing with the pack of matches in my hand and the red fuel canister at my feet.”

These words came back to me as I watched news footage of the protests and looting after Michael Brown’s murder, all the smoke and fire and rage of those weeks. What it must feel like for the citizens to be penned in by he fear and suspicion of others, the at-once terrifying and preposterous notion that just being a young black man is akin to being armed with a deadly weapon. The rage with which you might want to greet the world and the rage with which it would greet you back, no matter how you’d acted, no matter how restrained because it is acceptable for law enforcement in your community look at you and “see murder.”

In Gay’s essay, the bees feel some agitation but manage to rely most on what’s before them–Gay’ actual actions, not his fear– and they do not attack him. He says with relief and awe that they “knew inside me was a truth other than murder.”

Ross pleads in the essay when describing the racial profiling he’s endured: “Look how this has made me.” I want my students to see this, too. That we make each other through our interactions. I want them to make a better world for each other, and to have for themselves the role model of Gay and especially his bees.

It seems pitifully small, to ask that we look at each other and not see murder and considering the magnitude of the problem (how it encodes our voting laws, housing policies, legislation, even how preschool teachers discipline black students), nowhere near enough, but as Gay points out, this is the first step to actually seeing each other, the first step towards mercy, and. “When we have mercy, deep and abiding change might happen. The corrupt imagination might become visible. Inequalities might become visible. Violence might become visible. Terror might become visible. And the things we’ve been doing to each other, despite the fact that we don’t want to do such things to each other, might become visible.”

I’m indebted to The Dish for finding this essay. You linked to it last summer. Since then, I’ve read it at least six times and will read it many more in the year ahead to prepare for teaching but also to marvel at Gay’s gifts as a writer, the sense of kindness that emanates from his words even as he illustrates the maddening mental work required to see himself as good in a world that repeatedly wants to write him off as bad.

Another reader mentions a treasured passage from a novel:

From The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara:

“…but still, I continued on, looking for the bathroom; passing doors, and swatches of wall, and a mail chute; then walking still further; yet I couldn’t seem to find it, the bathroom; I wasn’t even in a place where a bathroom seemed likely to be; so I decided to turn down another hallway, which led to a quiet area ­thinking that I would have better luck in that direction; and so I wandered into a darker stretch of the building, and I continued searching doors for the appropriate emblem; but I only came across signs offering Dubbing, and Post-Produc­tion; and then, without forewarning, I saw Chomsky, standing in a shadowy recess in the wall; he was just standing there, facing away from the corridor, in towards a dense stack of cardboard boxes; they were empties that were waiting to be thrown out, I believe; but Chomsky was just tucked in there among them, alone in the dark recess, holding his glasses in his left hand; and with his posture somewhat bent-so I touched his sleeve, and he turned around rapidly, and said Oh; and then he emerged from the recess, while putting his glasses back on; and then he quickly gathered himself together, he became himself again; Here, he then said, while looking down the hallway; Here: I think what you may be looking for is over here; though when I heard the wavery tone in his voice a part of me dissolved; in silence I let him walk me on; and point out the door; very graciously; then he turned away when I went in; and then, when I was finished, there were no more paper towels by the sinks, so I couldn’t dry my hands…”

Another appreciates all the poems this thread has featured:

Just loving the gifts of moving poetry. I laid in bed for an hour this morning remembering passages, one after the other. So many… the floodgates are open!

Beloved literature is a thread that runs way back through my family. My father could recite long passages from hundreds of favorites til the end of his life.

He gave each of his five grandsons, my boys, a copy of 101 Famous Poems when they could barely read. The connection lives on..

When my youngest was homeschooling we memorized what appealed to us, from Lakota speeches to Tennyson; he’s studying neurobiology in grad school now – and has a love for and way with words.

I’m sending one more favorite.

“Reverse Living”

Life is tough,
It takes a lot of your time,
All your weekends,
And what do you get at the end of it?
Death, a great reward.
I think that the life cycle is all backwards.
You should die first, get it out of the way.
Then you live twenty years in an old age home.
You’re kicked out when you’re too young.
You get a gold watch, you go to work.
You work forty hears until you’re
Young enough to enjoy your retirement.
You go to college,
And you party until you’re ready for high school.
You become a little kid, you play,
You have no responsibilities,
You become a little boy or girl,
You go back into the womb,
You spend your last nine months floating.
And you finish off as a gleam in someone’s eye.

This is from Jack Kornfield’s excellent book, After the Ecstasy the Laundry.

And one last poem:

“The Cowpath” by Samuel Walter Foss! It always makes me understand ‘where we are at’ in any situation. And it also makes me lighthearted about it. Think about it: you can apply this to the Gaza mess, the Iraq mess, the Ferguson mess, the mess in my house, the mess in my marriage – a one size fits all explanation:

One day thru the primeval wood
A calf walked home, as good calves should,
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled,
And I infer, the calf is dead;
But still behind he left his trail,
And thereon hangs my mortal tale.
The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way,
And then a wise bell-weather sheep
Sliding into a rut now deep,
Pursued that trail over hill and glade
Thru those old woods a path was made.
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged and turned and bent about,
and uttered words of righteous wrath
Because “twas such a crooked path”
But still they follow-do not laugh-
The first migrations of that calf.
The forest became a lane
That bent and turned and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road
where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The village road became a street,
And this, before the men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.
And soon a central street was this
In a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Followed the wanderings of this calf.
Each day a hundred thousand strong
Followed this zigzag calf along;
And over his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one poor calf, three centuries dead.
For just such reverence is lent
To well established precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach.
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf paths of the mind;
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.

Read the entire thread here.

Reading Your Way Through Life: Still More Readers Respond

by Matthew Sitman

Reading all the reader responses to my question about the books, poems, and stories that have meant the most to you has been such a rewarding experience. My reading list certainly has grown even more unmanageable. What I’ve appreciated the most, in addition to the gratitude for books on display, are the anecdotes that have accompanied many of your suggestions. Not only can a story or poem be a consolation, but they remain connected to what we were going through when we read them – and perhaps even shaped how we perceived and understood what was happening. Thank you all for sharing. Here’s more of your responses, with this reader reminding us of a recent classic:

I nominate David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement address. Though a commencement speech, I encountered it as essay. I’ve been rather amazed at how it has stuck with me. “This is water. This is water,” has become a personal mantra, a constant reminder to practice mindfulness.


I’m late to the thread (as usual!), but I’ll throw on the pile anyway – Theses on the Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin. Its theme, and the famous passage that reflects it, is undoubtedly dark, but in a way I have always found liberating rather than depressing:

Coll IMJ,  photo (c) IMJA Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

At a time when I was always looking for an answer, a solution, a neat narrative to tie everything together – I read this book and realized that I could (obviously) be wrong, that there are no answers, no fix, no solution to magically make things whole, to return to whatever came before. Understanding that that’s not possible helped me, in its own way, face forward.

By the way, I didn’t actually see Angelus Novus until years later, in Jerusalem. To say it wasn’t what I was expecting would be putting it mildly.

Another reader writes:

Matthew Sitman wrote that he read when feeling lonely. When C. S. Lewis was asked why he read, he replied, “I read to know that I am not alone.”

My favorites are poems, especially by Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats. One of which is this one by Yeats, written when he was a young man:

“When You Are Old”

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Another praises this poem:

I heard David Whyte recite “Lost,” by David Wagoner, 12 years ago, and it has been my favorite ever since. It’s about how the elders of the tribe instructed children to act if they ever got lost in the woods. It’s really a lesson on what to do whenever you feel lost.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

Here’s another poetry selection:

I guess I am a shallow sort, but I love this little ditty by Walker Gibson:

“Advice To Travelers”

A burro once, sent by express,
His shipping ticket on his bridle,
Ate up his name and his address,
And in some warehouse, standing idle,
He waited till he like to died.
The moral hardly needs the showing:
Don’t keep things locked up deep inside –
Say who you are and where you’re going.

Another describes Luc Sante’s phenomenal short story “The Unknown Soldier” as “a source of strange comfort.” An excerpt:

I stood yelling as he stabbed me again and again. I shot up the bag as soon as I got home, but thought it smelled funny when I cooked it. I was asleep in the park when these kids came by. I crawled out the window and felt sick looking down, so I just threw myself out and looked up as I fell. I thought I could get warm by burning some newspaper in a soup pot. I went to pieces very slowly and was happy when it finally stopped. I thought the train was going way too fast, but I kept on reading. I let this guy pick me up at the party, and sometime later we went off in his car. I felt real sick, but the nurse thought I was kidding. I jumped over to the other fire escape, but my foot slipped. I thought I had time to cross the street. I thought the floor would support my weight. I thought nobody could touch me. I never knew what hit me.

They put me in a bag. They nailed me up in a box. They walked me down Mulberry Street followed by altar boys and four priests under a canopy and everybody in the neighborhood singing the “Libera Me Domine.” They collected me in pieces all through the park. They laid me in state under the rotunda for three days. They engraved my name on the pediment. They drew my collar up to my chin to hide the hole in my neck. They laughed about me over baked meats and rye whiskey. They didn’t know who I was when they fished me out and still don’t know six months later. They held my body for ransom and collected, but by that time they had burned it. They never found me. They threw me in the cement mixer. They heaped all of us into a trench and stuck a monument on top. They cut me up at the medical school. They weighed down my ankles and tossed me in the drink. They named a dormitory after me. They gave speeches claiming I was some kind of tin saint. They hauled me away in the ashman’s cart. They put me on a boat and took me to an island. They tried to keep my mother from throwing herself in after me. They bought me my first suit and dressed me up in it. They marched to City Hall holding candles and shouting my name. They forgot all about me and took down my picture.

So give my eyes to the eye bank, give my blood to the blood bank. Make my hair into switches, put my teeth into rattles, sell my heart to the junkman. Give my spleen to the mayor. Hook my lungs to an engine. Stretch my guts down the avenue. Stick my head on a pike, plug my spine to the third rail, throw my liver and lights to the winner. Grind my nails up with sage and camphor and sell it under the counter. Set my hands in the window as a reminder. Take my name from me and make it a verb. Think of me when you run out of money. Remember me when you fall on the sidewalk. Mention me when they ask you what happened. I am everywhere under your feet.


I am a bit surprised no one has yet submitted Li Bai (also Li Po) and Du Fu (also Tu Fu), two of the most famous of the Chinese T’ang Dynasty poets. Perhaps I find their work consoling as their poems of distant friends and exile speak to my own state of mind (living far away from friends and family and the familiar for work).

Much like the poets and novelists of the 20th century, they wrote in a time of violent political and social chaos (the An Lushan Rebellion in the mid-eighth century) that divided friends, devastated the country, and drove writers and poets into exile. Their best work meditates on friendship, exile, poetry, the pleasures of drink, loss, and the mutability of things, while cultivating a deep reverence for nature as a source of beauty, even order, in a chaotic and unpredictable world. It’s not surprising that their poems, in translation, were deeply admired by many of the 20th century’s greatest poets, from H.D. to Pound to Rexroth to Carruth.

Two from Li Bai:

“Taking Leave of a Friend”

Here at the city wall
green mountains to the north
white water winding east
we part

one tumbleweed
ten thousand miles to go

high clouds
wandering thoughts

old friendship

you wave, moving off
your horse

(trans. David Young)

“Seeing That White-Haired Old Man Legend Describes in Country Grasses”

After wine, I go out into the fields,
wander open country – singing

asking myself how green grass
could be a white-haired old man

But looking into a bright mirror,
I see him in my failing hair too.

Blossom scent seems to scold me.
I let grief go, and face east winds.

(trans. David Hinton)

And two from his friend, Du Fu:

“For Li Po”

The cloud floats off
the way the sun went
the traveler doesn’t come back

three nights in a row
I dreamed of you, old friend
so real I could have touched you!

you left in a hurry
I’ll bet
you’re having a bad journey

storms come up fast
on those rivers and lakes
don’t fall out of your boat!

leaving, framed in the doorway
you scratched your snowy head
I knew you didn’t want to go

fatten in the capital
while a poet goes cold and hungry

if there is justice in heaven
what sent you out
to banishment?

ages to come
will warm themselves
at your verses

but it’s
a cold, silent world
you left behind

(trans. David Young)

“Watching Fireflies”

Fireflies from the Enchanted Mountains
come through the screen this autumn night
and settle on my shirt

my lute and my books grow cold
outside, above the eaves
they are hard to tell from the stars

they sail over the well
each reflecting a mate

in the garden they pass chrysanthemums
flares of color agains the dark

white-haired and sad
I try to read their code
wanting a prediction:
will I be here next year
to watch them?

(trans. David Young)

I’ve been really enjoying the thread and all the readers’ submissions and the reminder of the consolations of literature. There are so many other authors I would submit if I had them ready to hand: Ovid, Montaigne, Bulgakov, Anne Carson, and on and on…

Another readers writes:

I’d like to add “Barter” by Sara Teasdale to the thread.  I have known it since high school (more than 50 years ago) and the last stanza especially has stayed with me.


Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children’s faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.


This is from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (#7) – a high-school graduation present from my mother which I’ve had the pleasure of sharing with those fumbling in the darkness:

And you should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is some thing in you that wants to move out of it. This very wish, if you use it calmly and prudently and like a tool, will help you spread out your solitude over a great distance. Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything, in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.

It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough.”

And one more:

I don’t really have anything long-winded or insightful to say about this excerpt from Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. The book is incredible, but it’s a heavy read that I’ve only read it twice. The passage below, however, I read several times a year. In particular, I tend to read it when a good friend of mine “bumps” it, which is usually when he senses that I’m becoming too cynical about life or the world. I always read it slowly at first, the fever-fast in the second voice (you’ll see). And then I stop just before the last line… and, somehow, afterward it feels like I just went to church. And I try to do something, however small, about all the gun violence in Chicago.

My recent adventures have made me quite the philosopher, especially at night, when I hear naught but the stream grinding boulders into pebbles through an unhurried eternity. My thoughts flow thus. Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes.

What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.

What precipitates acts? Belief.

Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history’s Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the ‘natural’ (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this: – one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the entropy written within our nature?

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Tortuous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.

A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living. Upon my return to San Francisco, I shall pledge myself to the Abolitionist cause, because I owe my life to a self-freed slave & because I must begin somewhere.

I hear my father-in-law’s response. ‘Oho, fine, Whiggish sentiments, Adam. But don’t tell me about justice! Ride to Tennessee on an ass & convince the red-necks that they are merely white-washed negroes & their negroes are black-washed Whites! Sail to the Old World, tell ’em their imperial slaves’ rights are as inalienable as the Queen of Belgium’s! Oh, you’ll grow hoarse, poor & grey in caucuses! You’ll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified! Naive, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

Find the entire thread here.

Reading Your Way Through Life: Still More Responses

by Matthew Sitman

Readers continue to tell us about the writing that’s meant the most to them along life’s way. One nodded along with my description of Marilynne Robinson’s prose:

I had to smile at your explanation of why you reread Gilead, “just to immerse myselfGilead in the rhythms of its prose.” That is exactly why I regularly reach for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I often feel embarrassed that sometimes I don’t take much meaning from the words themselves; but there’s a certain zen to be found just in their tempo and cadence, and that’s what brings me back each time. I’ve always likened it to riding a wave. As I start in on a particular Tale, for a page or two it’s like swimming out to the crest of that wave. And then if I’m lucky, if I’m able to really let myself be pulled in, I can get up on that wave and ride it for awhile. Its exhilarating on a spiritual level to allow my mind to go on that journey, free of distraction. Also, it’s marvelous that the words a man wrote so many centuries ago can take me there.

Another reader finds a beautiful passage amidst the rather dry confines of academic philosophy:

This isn’t a passage from a novel, or a poem, but almost reads like one. The last lines of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. I read the book many years ago, but the passage has acquired new meaning for meA Theory Of Justice after I became very involved in climate activism. I don’t know why I find it so touching and calming, or why I know it by heart and occasionally find myself reciting it.

“The perspective of eternity is not a perspective from a certain place beyond the world, nor the point of view of a transcendent being; rather it is a certain form of thought and feeling that rational persons can adopt within the world. And having done so, they can, whatever their generation, bring together into one scheme all individual perspectives and arrive together at regulative principles that can be affirmed by everyone as he lives by them, each from his own standpoint. Purity of heart, if one could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view.”

This reader points to a memorable poem from Milton:

One poem that stayed with me 11 years after finishing high school is John Milton’s Sonnet 23: Methought I Saw, written after his wife’s death during childbirth, and all the more poignant as he had been blind when they married. The passage:

Mine, as whom wash’d from spot of child-bed taint
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d,
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.

Another reader finds these religious poems remain a consolation:

I would like to offer Naked Song by Lalla (translated by Coleman Barks). Lalla was a 14th century kashmiri mystic poet. These poems are beautifully written, and express an element of the divine that can be found in Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism or Islam, or any other religion. They were an incredible solace to me when I was young and struggling with my identity and faith.


I traveled a long way seeking God,
but when I finally gave up and turned back,
there He was, within me!

O Lalli!
Now why do you wander
like a beggar?
Make some effort,
and He will grant you
a vision of Himself
in the form of bliss
in your heart.


Dying and giving birth go on
inside the one consciousness,
but most people misunderstand

the pure play of creative energy,
how inside that, those
are one event.


To learn the scriptures is easy,
to live them, hard.
The search for the Real
is no simple matter.

Deep in my looking,
the last words vanished.
Joyous and silent,
the waking that met me there.

Another reader writes:

Little, Big by John Crowley.  A multi-generational epic of magic realism, rendered in prose that feels both totally immediate and totally timeless.  It’s not super well known, but it is still in print, and a great work of American fiction.

Another reader can’t get enough of this ode to wearing shorts:

I feel like I could give you so many selections, but I’ll limit it to just one poem. It is easily my favorite poem, and sometimes I feel like it was written just for me. It’s called “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever,” by Les Murray. He takes such a relaxed, casual garment, and turns it into the sublime.

To go home and wear shorts forever
in the enormous paddocks, in that warm climate,
adding a sweater when winter soaks the grass,

to camp out along the river bends
for good, wearing shorts, with a pocketknife,
a fishing line and matches,

or there where the hills are all down, below the plain,
to sit around in shorts at evening
on the plank verandah –

I can’t select just one part…

shorts and their plain like
are an angelic nudity,
spirituality with pockets!
A double updraft as you drop from branch to pool!

Ideal for getting served last
in shops of the temperate zone
they are also ideal for going home, into space,
into time, to farm the mind’s Sabine acres
for product and subsistence.

Now that everyone who yearned to wear long pants
has essentially achieved them,
long pants, which have themselves been underwear
repeatedly, and underground more than once,
it is time perhaps to cherish the culture of shorts

I re-read it regularly, and it gets better every time I read it. You can read the full poem at the Australian Poetry Library here.

Another poetry-loving reader writes:

This love poem by e.e. cummings (1894-1962) never fails to haunt – one knows this is what he lived:Somewhere I Have Never Travelled

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

And one more poem:

When I was 17, this poem by Carl Sandburg helped me through a difficult time (leaving behind my best friends and my first love); it also inaugurated my love for poetry. Its effect for me has something to do with the way it begins so gently and ends on a note of defiance:

Yellow dust on a bumble
bee’s wing,
Grey lights in a woman’s
asking eyes,
Red ruins in the changing
sunset embers:
I take you and pile high
the memories.
Death will break her claws
on some I keep.

You can read the entire thread, including previous reader selections, here.

Where Have You Gone, Reinhold Niebuhr?

by Matthew Sitman

Oh how I remember those heady days when everyone was writing about and discussing Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian famous for books like The Nature and Destiny of Man and The Irony of American History, the preacher who taught us how to think about the Cold War. As a graduate student immersed in Niebuhr’s work around this time – the “Niebuhr moment” probably peaked in 2007 or 2008, but his specter loomed over many of the arguments about the invasion and occupation of Iraq – I had the rare pleasure of feeling like my labors in the stacks really connected to contemporary debates. For once, a preoccupation with theology was cool. In his 2007 Atlantic essay, “A Man for All Reasons,” Paul Eli aptly summarized the Niebuhr-love that seemed to be everywhere:

[T]he Niebuhr revival has been perplexing, even bizarre, as people with profoundly divergent views of the war have all claimed Niebuhr as their precursor: bellicose neoconservatives, chastened “liberal hawks,” and the stalwarts of the antiwar left. Inevitably, politicians have taken note, and by now a well-turned Niebuhr reference is the speechwriter’s equivalent of a photo op with Bono. In recent months alone, John McCain (in a book) celebrated Niebuhr as a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war; New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (at the Chautauqua Institution) invoked Niebuhr as a model of the humility lacking in the White House; and Barack Obama (leaving the Senate floor) called Niebuhr “one of [his] favorite philosophers” for his account of “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world.”

Seven years after Elie could compare him to Bono, we seem to be hearing much less about Reinhold Niebuhr, a fact that I was reminded of while reading Dale Coulter’s short essay this week marking sixty years since the publication of Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Coulter lays out the book’s basics, but there’s no real attempt to connect Niebuhr to present days concerns. That’s not a criticism, but it was telling, given all the previous attempts, noted above, to make Niebuhr a sage for our times. And even more, this was the first time in quite awhile I had read anything at all about Niebuhr aimed at a general audience.

I have a theory about why the Niebuhr moment has passed – and why it matters.

Part of Niebuhr’s post-9/11 popularity, I would argue, was the compelling way he connected Christian theology to modern political problems. He could use original sin to diagnose American democracy, or discuss the coming of a world community as embodying Christ’s love. He wrote about war and peace while drawing on figures ranging from St. Augustine to Abraham Lincoln. Niebuhr was no mere pundit; his writing had a depth and seriousness notable in his own day and even more rare in ours. And when we found ourselves struggling to understand how to make our way in a newly terrifying world, we turned to Niebuhr as both a model and a resource.

But as Elie points out, there were elements of Niebuhr’s thought that seemed to support, or could be wrenched into supporting, nearly every imaginable position regarding the war on terror and, especially, regime change in Iraq. Which is another way of saying we found in Niebuhr what we wanted to find, all while enjoying the heft he gave our own ideas. The way we read him confirmed our preexisting inclinations more than it provoked us to think deeply and creatively – his work should have been, but wasn’t, a mirror in which we were forced to take a long hard look at ourselves and confront our fallibility and pride, to question our assumptions and cherished certainties.

The more I’ve considered Niebuhr’s work the more I’m convinced that’s what he calls us to, and what we resist. Once we had rummaged through his work for polemical purposes, we left him behind, refusing to grapple with the most enduring elements of his thought. Niebuhr saw the self-interest lurking behind every argument, understood self-deception to be perennial, grasped that nothing in this world was pure. He should have been used not to endorse this or that particular position, but turned to as a prophetic figure who calls all of us acknowledge what, in a different time, we’d have called our sinfulness. As he wrote in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness:

Democracy therefore requires something more than a religious devotion to moral ideals. It requires religious humility. Every absolute devotion to relative political ends (and all political ends are relative) is a threat to communal peace. But religious humility is no simple moral or political achievement. It springs only from the depth of a religion which confronts the individual with a more ultimate majesty and purity than all human majesties and values, and persuades him to confess: “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God.”

Niebuhr asked us to see ourselves as the flawed beings we are not to encourage pessimism, but to brace us for the hard work of engaging political life aware that there are never simple or easy answers. We are called to pursue justice, but there always will be a tragic element to that pursuit. Our “moral ideals” are never unmixed with the narrowness of our own perspective. This is less of a political program than a political sensibility, one perhaps best summarized in these oft-quoted words from The Irony of American History:

There are no simple congruities in life or history. The cult of happiness erroneously assumes them. It is possible to soften the incongruities of life endlessly by the scientific conquest of nature’s caprices, and the social and political triumph over historic injustice. But all such strategies cannot finally overcome the fragmentary character of human existence. The final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it…

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Niebuhr doesn’t leave us with mere doom and gloom – he is not merely a realist or cynic. He holds out the hope that realizing the ways we all, inevitably, are caught up in a sinful world might prove the precondition for learning to love each other. Humility and repentance can lead to forgiveness. This approach to the problems we face has very few takers in American life. Which is another way of saying that, like all great prophets, he has no honor in his own country.

(Thumbnail image: Reinhold Niebuhr by Ernest Hamlin Baker. Photo by Nostri Imago)

A Short Story For Saturday

by Matthew Sitman

Since starting our Saturday short story feature, readers occasionally have written to us suggesting we use this or that story. Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (pdf) is one of them, and when it arrived through our “Reading Your Way Through Life” thread this week, I thought it was time for a reader-contributed story to make an appearance in this space. Here’s how it begins:

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The rigging of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved. Some were decorous: old people in long stiff robes of mauve and grey, grave master workmen, quiet, merry women carrying their babies and chatting as they walked. In other streets the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows’ crossing flights, over the music and the singing. All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green’ Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race. The horses wore no gear at all but a halter without bit. Their manes were braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green. They flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another; they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own. Far off to the north and west the mountains stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay. The air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky. There was just enough wind to make the banners that marked the racecourse snap and flutter now and then. In the silence of the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding through the city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air that from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells.

Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?

Read the rest here (pdf). The story also can be found in Le Guin’s collection of stories, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. Previous SSFSs here.