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Last Things

By David Mills | January-February 2021
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Senior Editor US of the Catholic Herald. He writes for several Catholic and other publications, and he edits Hour of Our Death (hourofourdeath.org).

There are heroes in the world. A friend and his wife have a severely handicapped daughter and love her at an extraordinary cost to themselves. They would say it’s not a sacrifice at all, but from the outside one can only admire them, and hope in one’s own challenges to do a tenth as well as they do.

It’s easy to admire such people. Admiration feels good. But heroes need help even though they’re heroes. God requires of us not just admiration but what help we can give. And that’s where many of us fail. I would not give myself a good grade in helping suffering people I admire.

We have been warned about this. St. James pointed us to the brother and sister without clothing and food and no way to get it. What good is it, he says, if we tell them, “Go in peace, warm yourselves and take your fill”?

We can make fun of the lefty “slacktivists” and “hashtag warriors” who promote their causes from their laptops yet do nothing practical. But feel really good about themselves. They’re comical and annoying. The prophet Nathan might say to us, “Thou art the man.”

“I think writing can only be taught by much reading of really good authors or by much hearing of very good spoken English,” a scholar wrote to me. She feared for “the next generation of writers who grew up texting.” People say this a lot, and I think they’re right, but only to a limited extent.

The reader still needs something in him really to notice what he’s reading and internalize it in his own mind and work. I’ve edited many very well-read academics, culturally conservative, allergic to PoMo and other academic jargon, who still wrote astonishingly bad prose. In some cases, I would sit at my desk in wonder at the ugliness of their sentences.

Some of them would thank me for my editing, tell me how much they learned from me, and then their next submission would be just as bad. Most of the others managed at best competency, but that only made them people who write, not writers.

If a man’s going to write anything, he’ll be better off reading good writers than bad ones, but how much better off he’ll be will vary, and vary a lot. It’s a lot like saying the baseball player will be better off watching the Majors than Little League. True, but watching Major League players hit won’t help you hit a slider unless you know what to look for.

I tripped stepping over the dog gate leaving the kitchen, having to drop my big mug of coffee, which hit the floor with a bang, and hop on one foot to keep myself upright till I crashed into the dining room table. You would have been impressed by my balletic reactions.

Taking the post-tripping bodily injury inventory and finding myself intact, I waited for my wife to come in to see if I was all right. Looking around the corner, I could see her through the door into another room continuing to fold towels. Being forced to go to her, I asked her why she hadn’t come to check on me.

“I’m a mother,” she said. “When you’re a mother, you know how to assess the situation. I listened to the sounds and knew you were okay.” She looked at me, then added, “I would have come eventually.”

“I could have been hurt,” I said. “I knew you were okay,” she said. “I could have been dead,” I said, because in the silence after the bang and the crash, who could know I wasn’t lying on the floor, departing this life? “I knew you were okay,” she said. “Someday you’ll be wrong,” I said.

From time to time, Christians have complained to me that Jews are suspicious of Christians, or clannish, or unfriendly, or tribal, or keep their distance. These people are not always, though are sometimes, otherwise anti-Semitic. They know the story of the Holocaust, at least, if not the rest of the long history of Christian societies’ brutally oppressing the Jews.

Yet they can’t see that were this history their people’s history, and in many cases their family’s history, with many or most of their ancestors murdered, they would be suspicious, clannish, unfriendly, tribal, and keep their distance. Not simply because they feel the effects of the trauma, which will last generations, but out of prudence. These people did it to us once, they think, quite reasonably, and they might well do it again.

I remind Christians of this and some see the point, but others respond with some version of “That was then, this is now.” Or they get defensive, saying some version of “Well, I didn’t do that.” Some let out their inner anti-Semite by blaming the Jews or ascribing their reticence to be pals to a characteristic Jewish defect.

I used to wind up gabbling as my mind shut down in the face of such disregard and indifference. Eventually, I started telling them to read stories about the Jewish experience of the Holocaust and make the conscious imaginative effort to put themselves in the place of the people in the stories. As they would want others to put themselves in their place.

It’s simply the Golden Rule applied to other people’s stories. Insert yourselves into other people’s stories as you would have them insert themselves into yours.

A friend said such Christians baffle her. Most of the particular examples don’t baffle me, because they tend to be people trained in othering and not trained in sympathy. Their styles of Christianity favor binary distinctions simply applied, like believer and unbeliever, Catholic and Protestant, traditional and progressive, Christian and Jew. Which usually means us and them. And that usually means better and worse, or simply good and bad.

They may be generously minded people, but they haven’t been pushed to think generously about people on the other side of the binary. Jews aren’t Christians, and that’s that. They haven’t, and in many cases won’t, learn about Jewish history and try to understand its effects. And, of course, some really are at least minor anti-Semites, like those who say they have nothing against Jews but think them “funny” or “odd” and not to be trusted.

As I say, I urge them to read the stories. Like this one from the website of the Jewish magazine Tablet, which appeared a couple months ago. Shira Nayman had come to Australia from South Africa. Her parents had not gone through the Holocaust, as had her best friend Danielle’s parents. They became best friends on their first day at a Jewish high school in 1974.

The next year they went to Israel on a youth tour, and of course visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. “It hit me,” Nayman wrote. “The emaciated faces in the photographs of liberated concentration camp victims were the faces of my friends’ parents; the skeletal bodies in huge piles, arms askew, open dead eyes and grimaces of suffering, were the murdered bodies of their grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins; for some, the small child corpses were their own siblings — their parents’ first families — thrown up against electrical wire fences for sport.” A friend’s mother had recognized herself in a photograph, “a gaunt teenager in prison rags whose dark eyes held the awful knowledge she spent the rest of her life trying to strangle.”

At the Museum of Jewish Heritage at the lower end of Manhattan a few years ago, I listened to an interview with a survivor of the death camps. Thirty years after he’d been rescued, living in a nice apartment in Manhattan, speaking happily, dressed in a blazer and a turtle-neck sweater in the style of the time, he offered a picture of success and contentment.

As he talked, he quickly, within a minute or so, began to break down. He tried to regain control but couldn’t and started sobbing. His wasn’t the sob of a man in great pain but of a man in unhealable pain.

Those experiences form you, and form your children, and your children’s children, and their children and grandchildren, for many generations.

There’s a certain face people make when they want to blame someone but know they can’t quite justly do so, as when they’ve been upset by someone for whom you’re partly but not entirely responsible. It’s about halfway between the pinched face of annoyance and the bald glare of blame.

My wife met this face the other morning when she picked up our eldest’s dog at the vet after a test. (We have Rupert while our daughter works abroad.) It’s a face you recognize when you have Rupert. He has issues.

“So, he did okay?” my wife asked the vet tech when she brought him to the door, the way you do when you know the answer is certainly “No” but hope maybe this time it won’t be.

“He escaped from his cage,” said the vet tech. “Twice.” A short pause, her expression not changing, she said, “No dog’s ever done that.” My wife didn’t think to ask if no dog has ever escaped or ever escaped twice. We’d like to think Rupert is unique.

I admit I enjoyed the picture of this 80-pound block of muscle and need barreling through the vet’s looking for a door, with nurses and vet techs in pursuit. Our daughter adopted him from the Yonkers pound as a one-year-old that had been found wandering, starving, in Tibbets Brook Park. He does not like being caged or left alone. He is big enough, smart enough, and determined enough to change his circumstances.

This explains why, though the nurse had said when I dropped him off that we should plan to pick him up in the middle of the afternoon, about 90 minutes after I’d left him, a very cheerful young woman called to say he was ALL DONE! and you can come get him NOW! in an “Isn’t that great?” voice. Her voice gave no hint of the turmoil.

“I’m sorry,” my wife said. The vet tech did not respond.

A neighbor asked the philosopher Rachel Lu why she had so many books. “A bookshelf full of much-loved volumes was a tremendous source of both pleasure and, sometimes, solace,” Rachel explained. “In a good mood, they are stimulating and entertaining,” she said. “In a bleak mood, few things are as cheering as scanning the spines, picking up this or that one for a moment, and finally settling on the thing that most fits my present need. It is, yes, very much like having a lot of friends on speed-dial, ready to chat at whatever moment I need them.”

The neighbor marveled that Rachel didn’t finish the books and said she had to finish a book once she started it. “For her a book is a kind of one-off experience, like a meal. You open it, read each page, and then you’re done. And you go live happily ever after. For me, books are part of life more broadly. Especially if you like the book, you never really want to be done with it.”

And then, as Rachel remarked, we remember the books we read as children. When she read such books to her boys, she remembered not only how much she had enjoyed them but some of what she had thought and felt then.

Another friend, the science writer John Farrell, added that “often, in some period of spiritual need, I remember a thing that I read, or that was read to me, in childhood. Perhaps that I haven’t thought of in decades, but it turns out to be extremely relevant. It’s like the architecture of your mind was built before you were able to appreciate what was happening. You really owe it to your kids to give them those resources.”

For those interested in this kind of thing, it will be fascinating to see how the narrative of Christianity and the Trump presidency develops. Some people claim that Christians only supported him reluctantly — as a way of hedging the Christian bet perhaps? A Facebook friend claimed in 2016: “I don’t think I’ve met a single serious Christian in the past month of traveling who liked the idea of President Trump. Many were voting for him reluctantly. Most were horrified at the need.”

One doesn’t want to accuse the man of lying, but in that election a lot of Christians voted for Trump gladly. A lot who may once have been reluctant became supporters, and by election day, ardent supporters.

Four years later, the numbers of both groups had grown, with many or most people who had been reluctant becoming ardent. Few people can manage to support what they think the lesser of two evils without making that evil a good. Politics pushes people to give themselves to a cause or person, and people only comfortably give themselves to a good — or what they can convince themselves is a good.

That’s true in normal times. When the political world gets so polarized, with Trump himself exploiting the political value of polarization — that is, of anger and resentment — and making people choose between supporting and opposing him, and enemies doing the same thing, even more balanced people move. They adjust the narrative to account for that.

About the friends I mentioned above: Rachel Lu, a convert from Mormonism, has appeared on EWTN’s Journey Home show and is a contributor to America magazine. John Farrell is the author, most recently, of The Clock and the Camshaft: And Other Medieval Inventions We Still Can’t Live Without.

And the two I will mention below: Leticia Ochoa Adams (leticiaoadams.com) is a fellow Chapter House columnist for the Catholic Herald. Jeannie Ewing (jeannieewing.com), a regular contributor at Catholic Exchange, has written For Those Who Grieve (Our Sunday Visitor) and other books.

Readers interested in knowing about our Jewish brethren should follow the Tikvah Fund and Mosaic, Tablet, and Forward (politically conservative, mixed, and liberal, respectively). The Tikvah Fund’s “Sacred Time” series of lectures on Jewish holy days, given by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, is very helpful to Christians, and often very moving. You can find it on YouTube. Start with episode six, on Hanukkah as “The Triumph of Monotheism.”

I am now the senior editor US of the Catholic Herald, as well as continuing as a columnist for the Chapter House section of its website. It is a part-time gig, and I’m mostly responsible for getting articles from American writers and helping out with the site and the magazine as needed.

The editor would want me to tell you to subscribe. By doing so, you’ll get to read the website, most of which is behind a paywall, as well as the magazine. The website is catholicherald.co.uk.

As I write, I remember a lunch my wife and I enjoyed in the fall of 2019 with two writer friends, Leticia Ochoa Adams and Jeannie Ewing, after Notre Dame’s ethics conference. We met at a pub near Leticia’s hotel, and Jeannie drove up from somewhere in the wilds of Indiana. She brought her oldest daughter, who was very sweet and well behaved. We had a lovely time.

What feels long gone during this pandemic is the personal connections. The conference papers were usually very good, but much of its pleasure was all the people you meet there, including old friends you don’t see otherwise, browsing the book tables and having spontaneous conversations in line to get coffee, crowding into small rooms for the breakout sessions, worshiping together in the pews at Mass, and getting together in a pub with friends you’d never before met in person. In other words, to be with real people in a way that isn’t mediated by masks and distance and worry about getting sick or making others sick.

You adjust to the new world, as you have to. But every now and then something reminds you poignantly of what we’ve lost, and won’t get back soon, like the memory of a lovely lunch with friends.

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