That paraphrase of Walker Percy (from his essay, “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise”) was suggested to me by my friend Caroline Langston Jarboe. I was wondering out loud why I would give anything to have back a very difficult, but purpose-filled, time of my life in exchange for the quotidian restlessness of the exile that followed it.
Percy’s point, which I found so insightful, was that while in the midst of an onslaught that takes all of our wits and energy to survive, we are freed from the unrest, aimlessness, and fretful questioning that plagues us during most of our existence. A typical day can be careworn and sometimes unendurable because we are unsure of our direction.
We doubt whether we have done things right—indeed, whether we have done anything right. We wonder whether that thing was wasted and whether this one is worth the time. It can be an open question whether we really know anyone at all, let alone ourselves. Tomorrow, we fear, will seem much like today, which was very like yesterday, and we are stuck to the tar baby of our confusion.
But when a “hurricane” comes, we know exactly what we are supposed to do. We have a clear mission and a set course. Every hour is accounted for and every second has its own meaning. We are trying to “save the farm,” or “get Daddy through the operation,” or “keep the business out of receivership.” Others, our fellow “sandbag-fillers” and “ply-board-over-the windows-nailers,” pitch in to help, and a feeling of comradery and neighborliness can flourish. We few—hanging on together—clinging to the roof as the waves lap at the eaves. We happy, happy few.
Percy also noted how real people could be when something like a bad accident happens—how they become themselves for a moment—kind and generous and self-forgetting. Once such a thing passes, they crawl back within the alienating chambers of their own dim isolation.
It may be that some of our longing for the purpose-filled turmoil comes from the fact that in such moments, we not only have a clear focus, but we are also hopeful that we can accomplish it. Sometimes we do; we survive the calamity, and afterward what we miss is the meaning that we enjoyed in that feverish era and the ebullience we felt when hope for victory was all about us.
Other times, we are disappointed; we cannot save the farm; we cannot get Daddy through the operation; the foreclosed business must be sold on the courthouse steps. Our hopes are dashed, and we return to the ennui of quiet desperation.Not surprisingly, Percy’s observation is at diametric odds with what the modern view holds. For contemporary orthodoxy would say that such times are our least free; in turmoil, we are constrained by circumstances, as our options and opportunities are foreclosed to us.
We cannot “actualize” our infinite ways of being when we are battening down the hatches. A “free” person, from today’s standpoint, is one who can take up any course of action at any time, unfettered by duty or obligation or “negativity” (which seems to mean anything that challenges the idea that there are no obstacles or consequences to a choice).
But that is the ironic bondage in which the modern view finds itself—an acute misunderstanding of what freedom truly is. Freedom is not license to do all, as we cannot temporally or constitutionally do all (we do not have the time or the gifts to do everything we want); instead, freedom is liberation from confusion, from deception.
Freedom is knowing who the right people are, what the wrong thing is, when the wrong time is, and where the wrong place is. Freedom is when the fog clears and the path is known. Confusion is being met with indecipherable paths and indecision about which should be taken.
The “telos,” or “purpose,” for which things exist—their final cause, or that “for the sake of which” they have come to be—is central to our happiness, as Aristotle would have it, and as Percy would agree. It is the inner chaos that kills us on those lonely Wednesday afternoons, when we are searching for a purpose that we have no idea we have been seeking. To find it is to be free.
Another great Percy quote: “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.”
What we need—and don’t even know that we need—and fear even when we are told we need—is an atmosphere-clearing tempest blowing at one-hundred fifty miles per hour, a crushing tide thirty-five feet high. We need something to pull us out of our childish solipsism, our obsession with our daily temperatures and quixotic levels of contentment—infants who both want their rattles and throw them away when given.
We need something that catches our souls with the force of an unmistakable threat, startles us with a crack of lightning that shatters the yellow-green sky.
“Here I am,” says the purpose we were made for, calling through the maelstrom. “Here I am. Come to me.”
A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.
Above painting is by Joseph Mallord William Turner, via WikiMedia Commons, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.