Chapter 18: How Handle Tragedy?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 18: How Handle Tragedy?

My dear Ted:

There must be something in telepathy. All this last week I have had you on my mind, hoping that everything was going well with you and tempted to write or phone you to find out, and now your letter comes, telling me of the tragedy that has befallen your home -- the sudden and utterly unexpected death of your mother. I never felt closer to you than now. Reading your letter I have relived that day when, a student in the theological seminary, I received a letter from my father saying that my mother was very ill with pneumonia, that I was not to worry but that he thought I ought to know. I didn’t wait. I took the next train home, but my mother had died before I arrived. So, to use Ezekiel’s figure, I have sat where you sit, and my warm sympathy goes out to you and to your father.

You say that you have waited a week before writing me, so that the first emotional shock might subside and you might gain some perspective around your experience. I am deeply impressed by what you write me now, the twofold gist of which seems to be that for the first time in your life the question of immortality has become of burning importance to you and, second, that the actual experience of personal tragedy seems to add a quite new dimension to life. You have had your normal difficulties, you write, the ordinary perplexities and troubles, but now for the first time a poignant grief has struck home to your heart, and you can see that what you do with it is of vital significance. You are certainly right about that. Nowhere more than in dealing with personal tragedy are Aldous Huxley’s words true: "Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him."

What a strange paradox our life is! We dread tragedy, we deplore and abhor it, and yet there is nothing on earth which we admire more than a character that handles it triumphantly. One scene I wish I could have witnessed -- the convocation at the University of Glasgow when Helen Keller was given an honorary doctorate. There she stood, one of the most pitiably handicapped and yet one of the most radiant and useful personalities of her generation, while the award was given, the national anthem was sung, and her companion spelled into her hand the story of what was going on. Later, through the lips of her companion she made a brief response, thanking them for "a deed of generosity from the masters of knowledge and light to those who live under the covert of denial." These were her closing words: "Darkness and silence need not bar the progress of the immortal spirit." Then, says the Scottish reporter, "there was thunderous applause, which only she could not hear." It is a mysterious paradox that while we deplore Helen Keller’s calamity, we admire beyond the power of words to express the spirit with which she has handled it. So one woman, hopelessly crippled in an accident, said to her family: "I’ll show you how to take trouble. How you take it is the only thing about it that’s important."

I often think of this with reference to the best-loved character in American history. He was a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, who ran for the legislature and was defeated. Then he tried business and failed, and spent many years paying the debts of a worthless partner. He fell passionately in love with the girl of his choice, who loved him in return, and then she died. He was elected to Congress in 1846 and served one term, but was defeated when he ran for re-election. Next, he tried to get an appointment to the United States Land Office and failed. Then, as a candidate for the United States Senate he was defeated, and in 1856 as a candidate for the vice-presidential nomination he was beaten again. And when at last he become President, he faced the Civil War which he would have given his life to prevent. But in Washington today there is a Memorial to him which I can never enter without having to force back the tears. Moreover, much as we deplore the hardships and troubles which Lincoln suffered, we know that his quality of character never could have come from ease, comfort, and pleasantness alone. He did not simply endure his tragedies; he built character out of them. You are right, Ted, trouble and grief can add a new dimension to life. No hardship, no hardihood; no fight, no fortitude; no suffering, no sympathy; no pain, no patience. We may not like that kind of world, but that is the kind of world we live in.

When was it Dante learned that he was Dante,

Endowed by God with gifts of deathless song?

Not till his lusts were slain, his comforts scanty,

Himself an exile and his haters strong.

Nothing that I can write can adequately express how warmly my heart goes out to you. The death of one’s mother is the end of an era -- especially when the mother is as lovely as yours. You are having your first experience of real tragedy and sorrow, but in my similar experience one thing that helped me most was the conviction that I could handle my sorrow in such a way that my mother would be proud of me. It may seem at first a strange thing to say, but it is important: don’t waste sorrow, it is too precious. Recall the Bible’s similes for trouble. It is a "refiner’s fire" -- it can separate the gold in us from the alloy. It is "tribulation," that is "threshing" -- it can separate the grain in us from the chaff. It is "chastening" -- it can discipline, correct, purify. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not singing a hymn of praise to trouble. We all alike dread it, but it is inevitably here to be dealt with one way or another. An old adage says, "The same fire that melts the butter hardens the egg." Some people end in defeat and collapse or, as Mark Twain described them, scoffing "at the pitiful world, and the useless universe, and the violent, contemptible human race," and deriding "the whole paltry scheme." Others -- thank God! --can say with Paul, "We triumph even in our troubles."

Undoubtedly a major factor in Paul’s ability to triumph in his troubles was his faith in life’s abiding meaning and purposefulness, reaching beyond death into life eternal. You say in your letter that you have never been especially interested in immortality so far as your own continued existence after death was concerned, but that now what happens after death looms large in your thought because of your love for your mother. Ted, that puts you in the great tradition. As one of Hugh Walpole’s characters says, "There is a sniff of immortality about our love for one another." Many people seem to think that we believers in immortality are victims of self-importance, and that we want to live on because we egotistically cannot endure facing our own extinction. They do not know the great tradition of faith in immortality. One never understands that until one sees that love, not egotism, has been the major fountainhead of all high faith in life eternal. I can say, as well as you, that I never have discerned in myself any clamorous desire to go on beyond death, as though I thought the universe demanded my individual continuance. But when love, that great discoverer of values, comes, I cannot be so nonchalant. I may say that I do not mind what happens to me, but when a well-loved soul, nobly worth the loving, dies, I may not say, "I do not mind what happens to you." At that point one’s whole philosophy of life’s meaning is involved. Faith in immortality at its best has sprung from the love of admirable persons, and the recognition that nothing in this universe is so marvelous and so priceless. So George H. Palmer, when he was professor of philosophy at Harvard, put it: "The most consummately beautiful thing in the universe is the rightly fashioned life of a good person." Unless creation is senseless and purposeless it cannot snuff out like a guttering candle the fairest thing it has created.

Read Plato’s Phaedo -- the grandest pre-Christian argument for immortality. Let L. P. Jacks point out the gist of it: "All through that wonderful dialogue Plato keeps us thinking, not about ourselves and what is going to happen to us, but about Socrates and what is going to happen to that wise and admirable man. And gradually he works up to the point that, when Socrates takes the hemlock and passes away before our eyes, the thought that he is done for, that so great and beautiful a light is gone out forever, becomes incredible." That is the great tradition of faith in life eternal. So in Christianity Easter morning represents no egoistic self-importance on the part of the first disciples -- far from it! It represents devoted love for a soul so revered that they were sure death ought not, must not, could not, did not have dominion over him.

As I read your letter I recalled a noble Christian woman, her early years rich in service, her last years courageous in endurance. As her body was carried to the grave, her husband summed up in a single sentence his conviction about the deathless value of such a person: "God must not let anything happen to her." That, I take it, is what you are feeling about your mother.

In my own thinking another consideration has also been very important. Some people seem to think it noble to declare that life after death does not concern them, that what matters is to live usefully so that they leave the world a better place for those who come after them. But that position forgets a crucial fact: This planet is not permanent. Once it was uninhabitable and sometime it will be uninhabitable again. If, therefore, death is the final end of personality, that is not just an individual matter. That means that all our forefathers are extinct, that we will all be extinct, that all our children’s children born on earth will be extinct, and that at last everything will be as though nothing had ever been at all. That means that nothing will last except the endless, meaningless, futile process of not lasting. Without immortality it is not simply true of individuals that, as another put it, life is "a blind, brief flicker between two oblivions"; in the long run that is also true of the whole human race. I cannot believe it. And if that same futile process is afoot on other planets also, that only makes it worse. As Canon Streeter exclaimed, "What shall we say of the Power behind the universe, if it treats the individuality of heroic souls like oyster shells at a banquet, whisked from the table to make room for the next course?" A good question! -- especially in view of the fact that some day on this planet there will be no next course.

This means that I have faith in the reasonableness and purposefulness of creation and its Creator. Everything worth while in life, one way or another, depends on confidence in the trustworthiness of creation. We could not carry on agriculture without faith in the reliability of the recurring seasons. All science is built on faith in the dependability of universal laws. In the background of every significant human activity is the discovery of something in the cosmos that we can rely on, depend on, have faith in, and the more we know about the universe the more we find factors here that answer our trust so that we can act on the basis of their dependability. How can we stop short of carrying such faith up into the spiritual world? Can we not trust the Creator to fulfill the promises and possibilities he has put within our souls?

Let me illustrate what I am trying to say. The developing eye of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a marvelous thing. No light has ever fallen there in the unbroken darkness, but the eye is developing. No scenes are there for it to look upon, but the eye is in preparation for a world invisible and as yet unvisited. Moreover, we can trust nature. That developing eye is a dependable prophecy. There is a world where light reigns and beauty waits. In a dependable universe the developing eye itself is prediction of a reality that waits for the eye to come. So is man’s spiritual life predictive. It presages more than earthly life can fulfill, and it will find more. Paul said it when, quoting Isaiah, he described the world prepared for God’s loyal servants as "What no eye has ever seen, what no ear has ever heard, and what never entered the mind of man." Ted, I am convinced of that. Man’s intellectual and spiritual life on earth is not a circle, rounded and complete, but a parabola that runs out into infinity. To suppose that any conceivable God creates such personality only to destroy it, and in the end on an uninhabitable planet is content with the destruction of all personalities, is to me incredible,

Of course there are endless problems, questions, difficulties, concerning immortality where the mystery is too deep for our plummets. You say that when you try to imagine your mother without the familiar body with which you long have identified her, she "disappears into invisibility and becomes unreal." I cannot help you picture what life after death is like, for I do not know. Nobody does. That is God’s responsibility, not ours. But perhaps it may help a little to call your attention to the fact that you yourself are invisible now. You are a self-conscious personality, with powers of mind, volition, emotion, but no one ever saw consciousness, or a self, or an idea, a purpose, a love. You are absolutely invisible -- I can see your body but not you. You never saw a thought, a hope, a desire, a devotion, an affection, or anything else that makes you the intellectual, purposive, emotional being that you are. Never say, I am a body and have a soul. The fact is the opposite of that: you are a soul and have a body. They say that if all the liquids were eliminated from our physique, and all the atoms collapsed into solid matter, a human body would be no larger than a pinhead. You are not that. They say that if all the chemicals in a human body were sold at market prices, they would bring no more than ninety-eight cents. Such is the body of any great scientist, artist, philanthropist. Such was the body of Jesus. But he himself was not that. Don’t let your mother "disappear into invisibility." Your mother always was invisible; never in all your life did you see her -- her self, her thoughts, loves, loyalties. Out of the unseen we came, in the unseen we live, to the unseen we go.

This fact does at least one thing for me: it shifts the mystery from our survival after death to our arrival in the first place. Take any character you most admire, and is not his arrival so great a marvel that you feel his survival is inevitable, if creation is not utterly senseless, aimless, meaningless? I knew a man once in the full tide of an important medical career, on whom disease fell and who was eighteen months adying. Here is what one friend said about him, and remember that this is one scientific man of medicine talking about another:

Those who were fortunate in seeing him during those eighteen months when he and death sat face to face -- who dreaded their first visits and came out gladly inspired with a new faith in the nobility and courage to which rare men can attain -- these know that the ugliness and cruelty of death were defeated. Death had no triumph, and he died as he had lived, with the simple faith of a trustful child, and the superb gallantry of a great soul.

Well, which do you think is the more marvelous, the arrival of such a soul, invisible even when embodied, or his survival, victorious over death?

In the thinking of many people the greatest obstacle to faith in immortality is the way in which they emphasize the dependence of the mind on the body. The brain, the nervous system, the glands, were here first, they say, and only as these physical structures developed did intellect, volition, character, emerge. So, they argue, when the body decays these spiritual emergents, which came from the body and are dependent on it, must disappear. But this argument forgets one of the most significant and recurrent facts in nature: that endless things start by being dependent, like an unhatched eaglet in an egg, only to achieve independence. That process seems to me clearly to be going on in the relationship of mind and body. To be sure, there are obvious areas where the mind is dependent on the body, but there are wide areas where the body is dependent on the mind, where, for example, medical science recognizes that ills of the body can be caused and cured by the mind.

The idea that the spiritual personality is altogether and inescapably dependent on the activity of physical cells seems to me to break down in one psychological area after another, such as memory, hypnotism, telepathy, extrasensory perception, etc., but most of all when we are dealing with great creative souls. Can the genius of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Einstein, be explained as due simply to a superior quality of physical brain cells? Did your mother love you simply with a nervous system? No! Mind, the self, personality, is real; it emerges from any physical dependence into a world of its own; it is essentially unlike anything physical, and what Bertrand Russell says about man seems to me incredible: "his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms." So, that is the explanation of Christ’s character and of all the intellectual and spiritual grandeur and beauty we have known -- only the outcome of accidental collocations of matter! The Athanasian Creed is easier to believe than that.

Don’t take this as a preacher’s special pleading. Dr. J. A. Hadfield, one of the most distinguished psychologists of my generation, in an essay on The Mind and the Brain argues on a scientific basis "that in the course of evolution the mind shows an ever-increasing tendency to free itself from physical control and, breaking loose from its bonds, to assert its independence and live a life undetermined except by the laws of its own nature."

Imagine two unborn babes in a mother’s womb, conversing about the prospect that lies ahead of them. Says one: "Leaving this womb can mean nothing but death. We are absolutely dependent on this matrix which sustains and feeds us." Says the other: "But nature has been developing us for nine months. Nature is not utterly irrational. She is preparing us for something." Answers the unbelieving babe: "Describe, if you can, the kind of world you think we are going to be born into. What is it like?" That, of course, would completely stump the believing babe. "I can’t describe it," he replies. "I have no idea what it is like. But I am sure that nature never would do what she has been doing all these months with no meaning or purpose in the process." To which the unbelieving babe answers with scorn: "That is blind faith." But the believing babe was right. Dependence, issuing in independence, is one of the most familiar events in nature.

I sometimes wonder what the space age is going to do to some people’s faith in life eternal. For that faith means that God cares for us, one by one, and imagination finds that difficult to picture. We are so small and the universe is so immense. You mention this difficulty in your letter, and I can sympathetically understand it. But knowledge at its best is not extensive only, but intensive, not telescopic alone but microscopic also. Once a bassoon player came to Toscanini just before a rehearsal and in despair reported that his instrument had suffered an accident, so that it could not play E flat. Toscanini bowed his face in his hands for a few moments, and then lifted it again. "That’s all right," he said. "The note, E-flat, does not appear in your music today." Real knowledge is thus detailed, particular, intensive, not extensive only. So Jesus conceived God’s knowledge of, and care for, us: "It is not the will of your Father in heaven that a single one of these little ones should be lost." Despite all the problems, I believe in that kind of God and, as I close this letter, feeling for you a sympathy which I cannot adequately express, I commend to you Emerson’s confident affirmation:

What is excellent,

As God lives, is permanent;

Hearts are dust, hearts’ loves remain;

Heart’s love will meet again.

Affectionately yours,