Greta Thunberg as an echo of Simone Weil

Greta Thunberg as an echo of Simone Weil September 26, 2019

I can’t get the image out of my mind. Ever since her impassioned speech at the United Nations, her tears and rebukes to world leaders, Greta Thunberg has stayed in my mind. In just a year’s time she has gone from an ordinary child to a global icon. A teenager who looks like a child in her unprovocative clothing and slightly untidy braids, she strikes a cutting image – whether protesting outside the Swedish Parliament, sailing across the Atlantic on a carbon-neutral yacht, or firmly addressing the UN.

It’s amazing how, just by standing up and delivering a message, Thunberg has made so many adults uncomfortable. She has been dismissed for her youth, for skipping school in order to protest, for convincing her mother to give up an international opera career. She has been mocked for her appearance and for her Asperger’s Syndrome. As so often happens, when bad news comes, many feel compelled to kill the messenger.

Much commentary has been made about why Thunberg makes certain adults so uncomfortable. No one likes being told that the way they are living is in any way wrong or being urged to give up pleasures they love, like eating meat or traveling in airplanes, for the sake of a higher cause. I am reminded of Larissa MacFarquhar’s 2016 book Strangers Drowningwhich profiles people whom she describes as “extreme do-gooders,” adopting twenty children or choosing to give half of their earned income to charity. What makes us so uncomfortable is when such people present themselves not as exceptional altruists, but normal people acting in a way that all of us ought to strive for. “Don’t call me a saint,” Dorothy Day famously asserted. For her, living in community and caring for those in need was something that anyone can and should do.

But when I look at photographs of Thunberg’s face, I am reminded of another woman who is perhaps even more iconic than Dorothy Day. A woman who, growing up in an upper-middle class secular Jewish home, was searching for something more than the life of comfortable luxury initially offered to her. A woman who, as a six-year-old child, gave up sugar in solidarity with the soldiers entrenched on the Western Front during World War I. A woman who, for a time, turned away from her life as a mathematician and philosopher to go and work in an auto plant.

There is something a little ridiculous about the fierce morality of Simone Weil – an earnestness so intense that it threatens to spill over into comedy. The image of a think, bespectacled woman working in a factory is indeed a little silly, as is the image of that same woman heading over to Spain to fight in that country’s Civil War on the Republican side (the soldier’s life was not for her – in the end her very worried parents came to bring her home).

But there is nothing comic about her essay on Homer’s Iliad in the context of World War II, nor her discussions of affliction, nor her often quoted statement that attention is the rarest, purest form of generosity. And ultimately, there is her premature death at the age of thirty-four, brought on by a refusal to comply with doctors’ orders and eat any more than her designated ration. It is heartbreaking to consider how much more she might have done, how much more she would have contributed had she followed medical advice. But, refusing to believe her life more important than anyone else’s, she remained firm in her principles. It is in part for this reason that the impact of her message – her deep, abiding commitment to justice – lasts.

Many have speculated that the highly intelligent Weil – who wore loose-fitting clothes, did not like to be touched, and never sought out romantic relationships – would today be diagnosed with some form of autism. But, freed from the attachments that bind most of us, Weil was able to reach beyond self-preoccupation and truly see others for who they were. Today, Thunberg calls Asperger’s Syndrome her “superpower” – a clarity of vision that most of us, so caught up in our own desires and constant preoccupation with our immediate social environment – fail to embody.

I often wonder what it would have felt like to meet Weil. Her friends said that no one paid as close attention to them as she did. Hers was not a warm and fuzzy kind of love. Hers was the kind of love that will speak unpleasant truths with only the listener’s best interests at heart.

Thunberg has a similar effect. As Robinson Meyer has written in The Atlantic, much of her power comes from her youth. There is a purity to her; as a child, she has not made the decisions that are responsible for harming this earth, but she is living with the consequences of older generations’ choices. And she is calling upon us – individually and collectively – to change.

This is what Jesus did two thousand years ago – a message that cost him his earthly life but founded a movement that persists to this day. His focus was on hypocrisy, on urging people to follow the principles they already had; his “new commandment” was really nothing more than a restatement of the old. But those in power saw him as a threat; refusing to give up his principles, he was eventually killed by the state.

Last century, largely inspired by Jesus’ message, Simone Weil made a similar call for change, with economic inequality and workers’ rights as her main focus. While global economic prosperity has clearly risen since the end of World War II, it has not led to greater equality; the gaps between the world’s richest and poorest have grown. Moreover, the world’s increased prosperity has come at a price. Today, as the Amazon burns, as caribou populations have been cut by half and billions of North American birds have disappeared, as islands and coastal cities become ever more vulnerable to extreme weather events, another voice has come to afflict the comfortable. Will we listen this time?

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