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On Grace


By Robert Coles | October 1984

I remember a conversation with Erik Erikson back in the late 1960s. He was himself remembering a conversation with some psychoanalytic colleagues. The subject was Gandhi, his method of taking on the British, his way of living a life. Erikson had spent years trying to understand the Mahatma (the result was Gandhi’s Truth), and in so doing had come to realize how difficult it is to “ex­plain” psychologically the astonishing moral vital­ity of such a person.

As he tried to do just that, tell a few psychoanalysts what qualities of mind made for a particular leader, he found himself using the word “grace” again and again. Eventually he was challenged. What did he mean by that word “grace”? How would he define it? What explains its appearance in one or another person? “I told them,” Erickson told me, “that I didn’t know how to answer their questions — that if you are in the presence of grace, you sure know it, and you sure feel grate­ful.”

His listeners, he knew, were not satisfied. Nor is it fair to accuse that handful of psychiatric spe­cialists of being especially obtuse, wrongheaded, or narrowly reductionist. These days so many of us look to the social sciences for a definitive truth — and any assertion about this life that doesn’t pass their muster (doesn’t fit into some sociologist’s or psychiatrist’s scheme of things) is rather quickly viewed with skepticism if not suspicion, or indeed, outright contempt. Words such as “grace” are a relic (aren’t they?) of another (pre-scientific) age, when men and women didn’t understand the way the mind works, the way society comes to bear on the individual.

I struggle with such a mentality all the time — draw upon its valuable side with gratitude, but stumble badly, all too often, because I fail to rea­lize certain limits to a given way of seeing the world. Erikson knew that at a certain point Gandhi was much more than a collection of drives, impuls­es, reflexes finding their expression in a day-to-day life. For all his problems, for all his obvious limita­tions as a husband and a father, Gandhi had an im­portant moral vision, and was willing to labor day and night for its realization. How to explain the emergence of such a vision, the energy put into the struggle for India’s freedom? How to explain the transformation of a relatively privileged dandy into a man who was at pains to live a modest and simple life — in hopes, surely, of persuading other well-educated and well-off Indians to follow suit?

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